Pride before the Fall: Ford RS200

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Something of a one-trick Pony that ended in absolute chaos, and would kill the Group B Rallying for good. The Ford RS200 was the American builder’s answer to a slew of incredibly fast, nimble and technologically advanced rally cars that had come to dominate the rally scene in the early 1980’s. However, despite their best efforts, the result for them was a rally car that wrought destruction wherever it went.

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Group 4 cars such as the Lancia Stratos put the WRC on the sports map, resulting in a massive following.

In order to trace this peculiar car, you need to understand what Group B rallying was. Group B was a regulation introduced by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in 1982 to outline a series of rules car manufacturers had to abide by in order to take part in the coveted World Rally Championship (WRC). The WRC had been a spectacular part of the racing scene since the early days of motoring, and the pride of both nations and companies rested on their ability to create extremely fast but also highly agile rally cars. In the past, WRC had given rise to some of the most spectacular machines ever to touch the tarmac, including the Lancia Stratos HF and the Alpine A110 Berlinette coupé.

In 1982, the FIA replaced the previous group regulation, Group 4, with Group B. Group B basically let the chains off manufacturers by removing most restrictions on technology and design, while also removing restrictions on boost; resulting in a power output on winning cars of over 250hp. Most notably, the rules reduced the number of production road cars of specific models that needed to be built down to just 200 units. In order to stop larger car makers from designing an overpowered one-off, rally rules stipulated that each builder must produce at least a certain number of road-legal equivalents.

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The Peugeot 205 T16, perhaps the greatest rally car ever built.

The first company to really exploit this massive reduction in rules and regulations were none other than the French car builder Peugeot, who burst onto the scene in 1984 with their magnificent 205 GTi. While the regular GTi set the showrooms alight, the incredibly powerful and nimble T16 (Turbo 16) ripped up every rally stage the WRC could throw at it; a 16 Valve, Mid-Engined, Four Wheel Drive, Turbocharged monster!

The T16 caught the competition napping, and soon every car builder in the WRC were struggling desperately to create something that could beat it. Lancia brought forward the Delta S4, while Audi put together a short-wheelbase version of their Quattro. Even British Leyland romped up to the challenge with a Turbocharged MG Metro. However, one car builder caught very short by the change in regulations and the arrival of the T16 was the big blue oval itself, Ford.

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The Ford design team are seen next to the Escort RS 1700T.

In 1980, the company had developed a prototype of what they thought would be the best Group 4 rally car ever, the Ford Escort RS 1700T. The car was based largely on the contemporary Ford Escort XR3, but was fitted with a 300hp 1.8L engine that could’ve been something truly special. However, teething problems, a troublesome development and a long outdated design meant that in 1983 the company was forced to drop the 1700T in favour of a scratch-built machine. This new car would take many of the developments from the 1700T, but would be given a design that was purpose built to beat the Audi Quattro and the T16.

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The original RS200 prototype, it’s streamlined Ghia styling in evidence.

The result was the RS200, which rolled onto the scene in 1984. Given a strikingly futuristic appearance by Ghia, it’s puppy-dog eyes and wind tunnel curves were just the start of what was an absolutely mad machine. The car was mid-engined for perfect 50/50 weight distribution, and was fitted with all-wheel drive transmission instead of the 1700T’s problematic rear-wheel drive. The body was made of fibreglass and moulded plastic to reduce weight, with frames being produced by Reliant; the company behind the infamous Robin three-wheeler. The chassis was designed by Formula One driver Tony Southgate, and was fitted with double-wishbone suspension for greater structural rigidity. Finishing touches for the car’s design were carried over from contemporary Ford family cars, the windscreen and taillights being those from a Ford Sierra.

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An example of a road-legal RS200, with engine output reduced to 250hp.

The pièce de résistance, however, was the 1.8L Cosworth BDT Straight-4 engine which was good for 400hp. This engine was by far the most powerful engine ever fitted to a WRC track car, giving this lightweight machine a 0-60 time of a phenomenal 3.8 seconds and a top speed of 142mph. As such, the car saw early praise from motoring critics due to its design, being dubbed the best-balanced car of the era.

However, Ford were still required to deliver a minimum of 200 road-legal production cars in order to meet the Group B rules. The company responded by creating approximately 200 road-going production models which were fitted with downgraded, 250hp engines and priced for £50,000. The downgraded engine, while still capable of delivering a top speed of 142mph, only provided a 0-60 of 5.0 seconds. Ford hoped that the incredible success of the RS200 on the rally stage would spur on sales for the road-legal version, perhaps even making it one of the most desirable small sports cars of the 1980’s; the Lotus Exige of its day.

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The RS200 is seen during its debut at the 1986 WRC Rally of Sweden.

Initially, the car saw success at the 1986 WRC Rally of Sweden; during which it took home 3rd place. However, drivers noted early on a heavy amount of Turbolag, thus dampening acceleration and making it highly uncompetitive.

This, though, would turn out to be the least of the RS200’s worries.

On only it’s second outing, during the 1986 Rallye de Portugal, an RS200 came off the track and slammed into a wall of spectators; injuring 30 and killing 3. This was later compounded the same year at the Hessen-Rallye in Germany, where Swiss F1 driver Marc Surer lost control and crashed into a tree; killing his co-driver and friend Michel Wyder instantly.

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A photograph taken moments after the RS200 crashed into a wall of spectators at the Rallye de Portugal; killing 3.

Ford scrambled to save face, and was mid way through developing an advanced version of the RS200 known as the ‘Evolution’, with a quoted power output of 550hp, when the FIA decided that unrestricted development of rally cars was far too dangerous and banned Group B rallying at the end of the 1986 season.

What was meant to be a triumph turned into a calamity, and Ford were left with 200 road-legal rally cars, plus a slew of actual rally cars, that no one wanted; especially after the Black Monday crash of October 1987 made the idea of buying an already hated £50,000 sports car known only for killing people and ruining the WRC as unappealing as it sounded.

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Ford wouldn’t return to the rally stage until 1992 with the Escort RS Cosworth.

Ford would eventually sell the road-legal versions of the RS200 for chicken feed, making an approximate £10m loss on the whole venture. It wouldn’t be until the arrival of the Ford Escort RS Cosworth in 1992 that the company would return to the limelight of European rallying.

It’s truly a shame because the Ford RS200 was a car with quite a bit of promise, but was far too purpose-built to be anything other than a rally car. The road-going versions, while not exactly Ferrari 355’s, were still nimble, mid-engined sports cars that arguably predated the compact sports roadsters we know today, such as the Lotus Elise and Exige.

However, one cannot ignore this car’s horrendous safety record on the racetrack. The RS200 was a machine far too powerful for the rally stage, so much so that not even its incredible, well-balanced design could save it. It’s place in the history of the World Rally Championship could be compared to rowdy schoolboys on the playground. The Group B rules were like a new, rough and tumble game of sports discovered by the kids. Each time they played, one boy would prove themselves better than the other and the stakes would be raised continually until one boy takes it a bit too far and ends up hurting someone.

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The RS200 demonstrated the flaws of unrestricted rally car development.

That’s the RS200 in a nutshell, it took things just a bit too far with deadly consequences.

Today, these cars are near impossible to find and have been long forgotten by the motoring world. While their fibreglass bodies mean they don’t rust, there just weren’t enough of them built to begin with to find on a regular basis. However, this doesn’t mean that the RS200 should be lost and not be found, because it does hold a significant place in motoring history. While its place is earned for all the wrong reasons, the car proved that there can be too much of a good thing, and unregulated rallying was a disaster waiting to happen.

Scores

  • Looks – 5/10 – The RS200 is a very streamlined machine, but not what you’d call beautiful
  • Comfort – 1/10 – It’s a low-slung rally car with wheels bolted directly to the chassis. Expect to become well acquainted with every bump in the road!
  • Practicality – 1/10 – The car is absolutely tiny, so there’s only room for yourself and either a second person or a bag (you can’t bring both)
  • Features – 1/10 – It was a rally car first and a road car second, so creature comforts weren’t topping Ford’s priority list when they designed it
  • Reliability – 5/10 – Like most Fords of that era, they did work most of the time but age will have likely compromised this
  • Efficiency – 2/10 – The car has an mpg rating of 16.6, which is pretty thirsty considering the size of its engine
  • Quality – 3/10 – While it’s put together fine, the interior of the road cars was carried over from Ford’s regular family motors such as the Sierra and the Escort; so expect cheap plastic upholstery and hard fabric seats
  • Speed – 7/10 – Even though you can’t drive the incredibly fast rally version, the 250hp road-legal car is still no snail; with a 0-60 time of 5 seconds and top speed of 142mph
  • Handling – 4/10 – While nimble and grippy, the RS200 demonstrated that with too much power applied it would struggle to turn corners
  • Price – 1/10 – The rarity and significance of these cars keeps prices very high, with most going for nothing short of £150,000 to £200,000
  • Value – 10/10 – If you’re the proud owner of an RS200, there’ll be at least one person out there who’ll want to buy this rare machine
  • Total – 40/110 – The car that tore the face off Group B rallying, and therefore deserves its rightful place in automotive history.

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