If a car could ever be too much, it would be the Ford RS200. Remember those parties in high school, where’s things are already out of hand then the self-appointed life of the party accidentally crashes through the kitchen window? Party over, right? If you want to get a picture of European rallying in the 1980s, replace party with Group B racing and life of said party with the RS200 and you begin to get the idea. In one of the craziest eras of racing history, it was the most insane car in one of the most dangerous racing groups ever sanctioned by the FIA. Its performance over its single season not only led to the disbanding of Group B, but without a means to compete, the RS200 nearly became lost to history before being rediscovered by a new generation.
Ford Europe’s Escort rally cars dominated the sport from the late ’60s on, but in 1979, the FIA (the governing body of international auto racing) legalized four-wheel drive in rally cars, changing the sport forever. For 1980, Audi introduced its groundbreaking Quattro all-wheel drive system, shattering the belief that four-wheel drive systems were too heavy and complex to give any advantage in rallying. By 1982, Group B had formed and became the Wild West of auto racing. There were no restrictions on weight, power, build materials, or exclusive technologies, and while most homologation rules dictated that at least 500 cars needed to be built to compete, Group B only requested 200. For some automakers, it was an incredibly low buy-in for a high-profile means to develop and showcase new technology. For Ford, however, it meant getting left in the dust.
While Audi was revolutionizing rallying, Ford set to work on transforming its new Mark III Escort into a world-class racer for the ’80s. Dubbed the Escort RS 1700T, its lightweight body, rear-wheel drive layout, and 300-horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged would’ve been incredible in the 1970s, but the sport was moving too fast for Ford. All-wheel drive was transforming the sport, and power was skyrocketing every season. After two years of problematic development, the RS1700T was shelved, and Ford went back to the drawing board.
In 1983, While Lancia and Toyota both entered the Group B fray, Ford was at work on a purpose-built rally car. Working from Ford’s Boreham, England racing headquarters, it tapped Formula 1 designer Tony Southgate to design an all-new chassis. The car was to retain the RS 1700T’s 1.8-liter engine, but now it would be mid-mounted, like its competitors the Lancia 037 and Renault R5 Turbo, as well as have four-wheel drive like the Audi Quattro. But unlike many of its competitors, it could perform both on- and off-road. On top of the engine delivering power to all four wheels, its double-wishbone suspension setup came from F1 engineer John Wheeler, and the car was tuned with help from racing legend Jackie Stewart.
The RS200 was unveiled at the Turin Motor Show in November 1984 and instantly set itself apart from its rivals. Styled by Ghia, the Ford-owned Italian design house, its sleek fiberglass body not only stood out against the field of flare-fendered hatchbacks on the rally circuit, but made it unlike anything Ford had ever built on either side of the Atlantic. While much of the car was purpose-built, what wasn’t was cribbed from the Ford Europe parts bin like the windshield and taillights from the Sierra, and much of the interior from the Escort.
By 1986, when Ford was ready to go racing, Lancia had replaced the 037 with the Delta S4, a turbocharged and supercharged beast that developed anywhere between 480 and 560 horsepower. Audi’s Quattro had evolved into the Sport Quattro S1 E2, which sent over 500 horsepower to all four wheels. MG’s Metro 6R4 put out over 400 horsepower in racing spec, as did the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 E2. While the road-going version of the RS200 was advertised at 250 horsepower, Group B was turning into a power arms race. For the ’86 season, Ford tuned its factory racing to put out over 500 horsepower, and ended up becoming one of the highest-profile racers in the series — for all the wrong reasons.
Ford’s first race was the WRC Rally of Sweden in February; the RS200 plowed through the snow and ice to finish third — an impressive start for an unproven car. Group B was no stranger to violent crashes and catastrophic mechanical failures, but the added speed and power of the ’86 season was proving to be a step too far for its drivers. At the next race, the Rally de Portugal, driver Joaquim Santos lost control of his RS200 cresting a hill, plowing into 31 spectators and killing three. This put Group B under heightened scrutiny by the FIA, and things would only get worse from there.
In early May at the Tour de Corse, Finnish driver Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto lost control of their Delta S4, which crashed into woods, ignited, and killed both of them. Attillio Bettega was killed in his aged Lancia 037 during the next race. The final straw came during the ADAC Hessen-Rallye in Germany on May 29, when Swiss driver Merc Surer lost control and crashed his RS200 on live television. The car disintegrated in a massive fireball, and his co-driver Michel Wider was killed instantly. After that, the FIA was left with no choice but to cancel the 1987 Group B season immediately.
The news couldn’t have come at a worse time for Ford. It had barely sold any of the 200 road-going RS200s to non-racing customers, and was counting on high-profile visibility in Group B to help move the 50,000-euro (over $150,000 today) all-wheel drive subcompact supercars. Without any real racing presence, it wasn’t easy to find a customer willing to choose a Ford with an interior from an Escort over a Porsche 911 or Ferrari 308. What’s more, Ford had big plans for 1987 — namely the introduction of the RS200 Evolution. With the engine enlarged to 2.1 liters, bigger brakes, and revised suspension, the Evolution could put out up to 815 horsepower, and scramble from zero to 60 in around two seconds.
Ford converted 24 RS200s to Evo spec, and raced them into the early ’90s at hill climbs and rallycross events, but without the Group B spotlight the RS200 disappeared in a cloud of infamy with “brand new” models from 1986 languishing on British Ford lots until 1994. But as the new millennium dawned, the RS200’s luck began to change. Group B began to be revered for its fearless drivers, and envelope-pushing technology, and the cars became legends, especially the RS200. Today, collectors who grew up with the RS200 Matchbox car revere it as one of the greatest Fords of all time. This past December, RM Sotheby’s offered a low-mileage 1986 model (the white car seen here) at its Driven by Disruption auction. It failed to meet its $475,000 estimate, but within a few years, that may seem like a bargain.
Had manufacturers given more thought to their drivers’ safety, Group B likely would’ve continued to innovate well through the end of the 1980s. On top of the RS200 Evolution, Porsche was preparing to compete its 959 supercar during the ’87 season. Today we can only wonder what a head-to-head all-terrain race between those two cars would’ve looked like. We’re just glad that 30 years after its demise, the RS200 is finally ranked up there with the Shelby Cobra Super Snake, Porsche 917, and Ferrari F40 as one of the wildest performance cars of all time.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.