Charting The Evolution Of 1980s and ’90s WRC Cars With Three Gems From The Invelt Rally Collection
Photography by Robb Pritchard
With forty original ex-works cars from the 1970s to 2010, Jiří Jirovec has what is unofficially the largest private collection of WRC cars in the world. The huge, purpose-built warehouse is not open to the public, but I was given privileged access to wander—slack-jawed—around the cars, which include Tommi Mäkinen’s first-ever rally car, an ex-Ari Vatanen Prodrive-prepared BMW E30 M3, an ex-Sébastien Loeb Citroën C4 that he bought direct from the museum, and not one, but four, ex-McRae Ford Focuses. Not having anywhere near enough space for all of them in one story, the first challenge was picking just three to look at a little more detail. In chronological order then, first up is the Manta.
This heavily modified Manta was one of the last of the old-school Group B rally cars before the all-wheel drive paradigm shift was complete. With a 2.4-liter Cosworth-developed engine good for 270bhp, and weighing just 1000kg (~2205lbs), it was far superior to the previous Ascona and Ford Escorts which had been dominant until a couple of years earlier. But the Manta was no match for Lancia’s purpose-built space-framed supercharged 037—never mind the Audi Quattro or the Peugeot 205 T16. And so on the World Rally Championship scene, despite being flung around in the talented hands of Ari Vatanen and Henri Toivonen, the best Opel could hope for on international rallies was a spot in the Top 10.
It was in the British Rally Championship where the Manta found its competitive edge, and a famous pair of them were the staple of rallying in the mid-1980s, arguably the halcyon years of the series. SMK351Y has to be the most famous GM Dealer Sport Manta of them all though, as it was both the Andrew’s Heat for Hire and AC Delco car, swapping between the ‘84 and ‘85 seasons.
The Russel Brookes-driven, “Heat for Hire” Manta 400 represented one of the longest sponsorship deals in the history of motorsport. That car, along with the gorgeous red, white, and blue AC Delco livery of Brookes’ arch rival—good friend and teammate, Jimmy McRae (Colin’s father)—were often found at the head of the standings, even at the height of the Group B era when all-wheel drive cars regularly competed. In early 1984, Brookes won the Wyedean Stages Rally, the car’s very first outing, but while McRae won the British championship in a sister car, Brookes—in SMK351Y—took 3rd, just one point behind Hannu Mikkola. His best results were two second places, on the Scottish and Ulster Rallies.
The following year—in the livery it wears today—McRae won the grueling Circuit of Ireland and had a string of second place finishes during the season, but he and Brookes entered the season-ending Manx rally equal on points. As the powerful Quattros faltered, McRae emerged with a healthy lead, but suffered from overheating issues and then a failed shock absorber. Brookes won the event, and took the title by just three points. For the ‘85 RAC Rally, SMK351Y was back in Brookes’ capable hands.
The SMK351Y car then spent the rest of the decade in New Zealand, where it was run in some national events before being brought back to Europe in 1990. In 2014, Jiří wanted to test the waters to learn about the value of ex-works cars, and so put what he thought was a low bid on it in an auction. To his surprise and delight, prices were lower than he’d assumed, and he won. He says the highlight of his ownership so far is undoubtedly when Jimmy McRae himself drove the car in 2018—and signed the roof for good measure. “He also confirmed that this is definitely his car, as there is some modifications that he did that only he knew about,” Jiří tells me.
On the other side of the Group B development spectrum, we have the Ford RS200. Those who know this car are not fooled by its innocent, frog-like eyes and its cute little bunny ear intakes. The fact that it was the fastest accelerating production road car for an incredible 12 years is just a footnote to its raison d’etre, as it was created for the sole purpose of dominating the world of rallying during one of the sport’s most competitive eras. Unfortunately delayed by the eventually aborted Ford RS1700T project, the all-out RS200 arrived late to the scene, and with just four rallies entered, its debut season in 1986 was supposed to be the car’s development year more than anything else. The refined version was expected to excel in the WRC, but instead it was rendered completely obsolete when the Group B category was abruptly banned.
Group B allowed almost anything to be rallied, with the one major proviso that 200 road-going versions had to be produced. Eventually all of these were sold, either to those who wanted an insane road car, or for privateers to prepare for use in rallying and rallycross. The very first to leave Ford’s plant in Boreham was car 082. The lucky first owner was Jeff Churchill, a British Clubman driver and owner of the Ford-affiliated Jeff Churchill Motorsports. He bought it with a package of rally parts and with the Ford works livery scheme, but with the stripes in a distinctive red instead of the usual Ford blue. He took part in small rallies in the UK with the car, where although such things as an RS200 could compete, power had to be kept far below the 450hp the motors were capable of.
When the car was nearly twenty years old, it had a nut-and-bolt rebuild at the hands of the very well-known RS200 expert, Garry Campbell, which included some improved parts to bring it closer to full Group B specification, such as power steering, six-pot brakes, a much better radiator with twin fans, and an oil cooler. After passing through a few more owners, it eventually found a home in Jiří’s collection.
The 082 car had never been in road-going spec, yet it wasn’t quite in perfectly original Group B spec either. Jiří didn’t ask just anyone to come and check its authenticity, he got John Wheeler himself—the man who designed it—to give a thorough inspection. He pointed out a few things that were not quite right for a Group B version, and so Jiří diligently changed everything so that 082 is in totally correct spec. John also helped Jiří source an ex-works gearbox, and with the turbo wound up nicely, it’s a full Group B experience. Jiří chose to put it in the Mark Lovell and Roger Freeman livery, because their car was one of only two championship-winning RS200s (the British, in 1986). The other was Robert Droogmans’, in the 1986 Belgian Rally Championship—and Jiří already has two other of Droogmans’ old Fords, in addition to quite a few others wearing the blue oval.
The car was last seen in action during the Eifel Rally Festival in Germany in 2016, where Jiří got to test the monster on a proper rally stage. With forty years of experience in rallies, hillclimbs, and rallycross to his name, the RS200 still managed to put a massive smile on his face. He’s seen and done plenty in the rallying world, but he’s not yet jaded. For instance, he enjoys Ford’s slower, less advanced follow-up acts. Still, all of this is speaking relative to the most dangerous cars that ever competed in the WRC, and Group A entries were far from slouches.
The intense arms race of the Group B protagonists for more power and performance was witnessed firsthand by the scores of spectators crowding the rally stages, often with no regard for personal safety. In hindsight, the near-prototype cars of the Group B days came with an early expiration date. As the loss of life increased, the expected solution was a replacement class, called Group S, where out-and-out prototype cars could compete, but with much more restrictions on their overall power output. A few promising projects were started by works teams, but Group S never came to fruition.
Instead, for the 1987 season, the FISA folks suddenly announced that Group A would move up to the premier slot of the WRC categories. With 5000 road car units needed to get the competition version homologated, Ford was one of the many manufacturers caught out with an unsuitable car. The powerful RS500 Cosworth, very successful in touring car series around the world, simply had no chance against its four and all-wheel drive rivals. And the Sierra XR4x4 was hobbled with an uncompetitive naturally aspirated engine.
A few years later, the big Sapphire sedan showed some promise in the early ‘90s, especially in the hands of François Delecour, but it wasn’t until 1993 that Ford returned to the world rally stages with a true homologation special. With John Wheeler once again part of the engineering team, it had the perfect package of power, balance, and handling, and should have taken the rallying world by storm. Only it didn’t. A handful of wins on the world stage in the hands of two-time champion Miki Biasion and Delacour was all that the Cosworth RS achieved.
But it was a different story in national championships, as the Cosworths took dozens of titles— the 1994 British Rally Championship being one of them, courtesy of Malcolm Wilson in a car with a similar livery to this beautiful example. This particular car was the one in which he enjoyed his brief moment and glory at the top of the WRC time sheets, when he led the opening stages of the 1993 Swedish Rally. A deceptive crest on the third stage caught him out, though, and the damage to the suspension after the roll was too much for him to continue. It was handed down to another British driver, Robbie Head, who crashed it before it was sold abroad.
After its early competitive career, it was “lost,” and for many years its history was unknown, until relatively recently when a gentleman bought it in a sad state after it had suffered a big accident on a desert event in Qatar. It was only while repairing it that the new owner realized what he had. “He found some traces of blue paint at the back, and yellow at the front,” Jiří explains. There was only one livery like that, so the repair turned into a restoration. By the time Jiří bought it, it was already back in the striking blue and yellow Michelin Pilot livery. “The car looks as it did just before the 1993 Swedish Rally. It is perfect, and it’s one of my favorite cars in the collection,” Jiří says with a proud, fatherly smile.
With the world beginning to tentatively open up again, Jiří will be taking some of his collection to top classic events around Europe—like Goodwood and the Eifel Rally Festival. And although he lacks no talent behind the wheel of a rally car himself, Jiří enjoys being able to have famous names from yesteryear during these types of events. And rally cars aren’t his only love, so I’ll be back to check out his impressive DTM collection later this summer.