The Engineer Behind Ford’s RS200 Rally Car Gave It The Future The Factory Never Could
Photography by Robb Pritchard
The Model T and the Mustang, the GT40 and the Escort… Ford has made more than a few game-changing cars over the last century, and the RS200 is absolutely included on that list. It was only unleashed into the WRC on the 1986 Swedish Rally—late on the scene compared to its rivals—but its technological superiority was expected to come to the fore and shine during the next season in 1987… It wasn’t to be though, as both Group B and its proposed successor Group S were dropped by the governing body in favor of the production-car-based Group A, and so after just three World Championship rallies, the works RS200 project came to an abrupt end. As Ford moved to work on the Group A Sierra that would be its flagship car for the rest of the ’80s and into the early ‘90s, what could have been the 2nd generation of the promising RS200 remained just designs on sheets of paper.
The writing was already on the wall for Group B in the spring of 1986, and it was obvious that in its current form it couldn’t continue, but manufacturers were keen on a safety-modified version of the proposed Group S concept as it would allow the freedom of technological development the Group B monsters were famed for, but with power restricted by the use of engines from the 5,000 minimum unit production Group A category. Ford was among those that began brainstorming and evaluating such a mutt for competition. It might sound a little counterintuitive to suggest putting a road car engine in the back of a supercar, but Ford had the capable YB destined for the Sierra Cosworth RS500, which certainly wasn’t a lethargic lump.
Many teams pressed for this safety-improved Group S (apart from Lancia) and we would have seen some very innovative cars in action that instead were doomed to exist only in the depths of motorsport mythology and imagination. The retro revival is now in full swing though, and a few years ago both the Toyota 222D as well as Audi’s un-named Group S concept were shown off, and are now regulars at big classic events—so too is this car, the “RS200 Group S Evolution.”
The man who made the designs for the second-generation RS200 was John Wheeler, the same man who brought the original car to life in 1983… and for him the Group S car was always the great unfinished project, and one that he increasingly wanted to bring to life as he approached retirement. With the procurement of a damaged donor chassis and help from many of the original partner companies, he put his designs into reality. The project was sitting on its wheels by 1990, but took many years of free time and free cash to complete. All worth it of course, as the finished machine is a sight to behold, and a rare glimpse into the could-have-been.
From the outside, it’s not that all that much different from the frog-eyed Fords that lit up the WRC stages in 1986. Those familiar with those Group B RS200s will notice that the roof scoop and “ears” are gone from the Group S car, as the intercooler that used to be mounted there—not doing too much to benefit the car’s center of gravity— is now mounted low down at the rear of the engine with air-ducting below the screen from a very shallow opening in the roof. The result is a much lower roofline, making it a bit sleeker than its predecessor. This means the clean airflow over the body can pass down to a slimmer aerofoil-shaped rear wing. “If this had been done as an official Ford project, we’d have taken it to a wind tunnel and refined it more, but it’s clearly a more efficient design overall,” John says. Of course, it is under the iconic body shell that most of the really exotic work has been done.
The original structure and framework was based on then-current Group C race technology, and the car’s tubular framework was bolted together in sections. On some of the rougher rallies though such as the Acropolis, the bolted-joints could work themselves loose, and an emergency solution at one service point on the Acropolis was to simply weld some of the joints solid. John’s Group S version has that designed away that weakness in the form of a fully welded upper framework integrated with the roll-cage structure with just the front and rear sub-frames removable. This is similar in concept to many of today’s Dakar cars, which are basically prototypes but with production engines, so are essentially Group S cars themselves in that sense. The simplified design also saves almost 150kg, which is a huge amount percentage-wise for a machine that weighs 1180kg, and it is one of the reasons John had such high hopes for it back in the ‘80s.
Arguably the most innovative concept on the factory RS200 is the front-mounted transaxle gearbox with a double propshaft design that gives the car an incredible 49/51 front-to-rear weight distribution. John delights in explaining the thought process here: “If you think about it, when you throw the car at high speed into a corner you’re controlling the balance with the steering so that the moment of inertia is centered on the front end. A classic mid-engined race car design with low polar moment of inertia and 65% of the weight on the rear axle actually has a very high moment of inertia, and a pendulum-effect about the steered front axle. This disadvantage of too much rear mass also makes itself evident in the vertical plane, leading to several well-documented end-over-end accidents over high speed bumps. That’s why we conceived the vehicle layout with 80kg of 4WD gearbox and transmission in the front of the car and 110kg of engine in the back.”
The original RS200 had a five-speed dog ‘box, but John always wanted a motorcycle-style six or seven-speed sequential gearbox. “No one had had anything like that back then, but I knew it could be done… but the resistance came from the drivers who thought it would be impossible to get down from 6th to 3rd. But I kept talking with Mike Quaife for years about what we could do for an RS200, and he finally agreed to commit to the project. And I love it. It transforms the driving of the car to have the rapid shifting and the spread of six gears.”
A mid-mounted engine is more complicated to keep cool, and so Group B cars often had a plethora of intakes, positive pressure scoops, and plenty of auxiliary oil coolers. These were a big weak point in terms of safety, as it wouldn’t take much of an accident to pull a pipe off of one and start a fire, so to address that issue John developed a sophisticated but still old-school cooling system for his Group S RS200. The most efficient setup is to use a large radiator at the front and get as much cooling from that possible.
John, again: “Water is pumped in the conventional fashion from the engine’s water pump through the block and head and piped to the front-mounted radiator, which in this case is the large Acropolis rally unit. At the front there is a small bypass circuit serving the interior heater. The port from the back of the cylinder head, which normally serves the heater circuit, is split into two subsidiary circuits, one of which passes through the Modine oil cooler, and the other through the water-jacket intercooler, before joining back into the return pipe from the radiator. Therefore the charge air from the turbo compressor passes through the water-cooler, which running between 80 and 90 degrees celsius is sufficient to get the 180-degree turbocharged air down to 120. That then goes through an air-to-air cooler and the ambient air at 25 or 30 degrees is enough to get the charge-air down to 45, which is what you need for optimum performance.”
For someone like me—who is not too mechanically-minded, or at least not to the degree above—it sounds very complicated, but John assures me that the system is as simple as possible, both for servicing and safety considerations. “The original car had a fuel tank in closed compartments in the structure behind each seat, but mine has one 65-liter safety tank in the right side compartment, and all of the pumps’ filters are sealed and protected in the left-side compartment. The only thing protruding is the filler cap.”
Anyone can tell this is a special car from looking at it, but it’s at big classic rally events where people know the story behind it that it gets the full amount of respect it deserves. It’s with a smile that John says, “It’s very rewarding to see how much attention the car gets, especially after so much work goes into it. You can’t drive an unprepared car, you need to go through everything at least once a year. There was a slight odor of petrol every now and again, and occasionally the gearbox went through two gears at once on the downshift, so over the winter I wanted to strip it down to have a look at that. And the engine bay; no matter how much you look after it it still gets full of mud, so I dismantled and rebuilt all the rear end and did the same with everything in the water system as well.”
But that’s enough talking about it; time for a test drive. This was shot during the Eifel Rallye Festival (where no less than seven RS200s were taking part, with no less than Stig Blomqvist and Kalle Grundel behind the wheel of the actual cars they did the ’86 RAC Rally in. At a small airfield a couple of miles away everyone was going up in convoy for the RS200 group photo shoot, so we decided to go a few minutes ahead and have some time alone.
The first thing I noticed upon opening the Sierra-shaped door was an overwhelming sense of sadness about how many families of Smurfs had to die for their furry blue skins to cover the dashboard. The second involved me remarking that I didn’t think the full five-point harness was necessary for just a quick ride up the road. “Yes, it is,” John told me quietly.
The engine vibration comes right through the car and it ends in your teeth. At a certain RPM it turns into an incredible drone, but as we inch along giving way to oncoming traffic in the town center, it’s obvious how easy it is to drive this car. Soon we pulled over at the foot of a long hill to let some cars go past: “We’ll give it a bit of a blast for a systems check,” he said as he turned the big red knob in the centre console from “1” up to “3.” “Are you are about to scare me?” I asked. “Probably,” he smiled. It was a big gap out to the cars that had gone in front, and even with plenty of experience in fast cars and a working knowledge of the laws of physics, it was still a great surprise to me how quickly we caught up.
A brief check at the airfield office to make sure that nothing was planning on landing on top of us and we had the runway all to ourselves. The runway crests about half the way along, and with a 0-60 in the region of three seconds, it’s not very long at all before we were in the dead zone: the speed at which if you hit something solid your chances of survival won’t be that great.
When we got over the crest with the speedo in the triple digits, the end of the runway looked awfully close and the hedgerow at the end of the field had some fairly substantial bushes in it, but John waited until the point a scream was about to burst free, then hit the brakes so hard that my headphones slipped off and with them my glasses. As I fumbled to find them there was a violent motion and in a moment of utter confusion I saw that we’d just spun 180° and were heading up the hill again. This time though John used the plane landing marks as chicanes to demonstrate the handling. The lateral g-forces were far too much for me to bother trying to brace myself with my legs, so I just let my hips crush into the sides of the bucket seats instead. The mechanical grip was downright amazing, and it actually feels like a bit of a cognitive dissonance to think that this is essentially a 30-year-old car.
Back into the service park in the center of Daun, Germany—which was crowded with spectators, their attention flitting every which way—John had to concentrate on not stalling or jerking forward too quickly, hoping that the members of the crowd would step aside once they’d taken their photos. It’s very much against human nature to drive through people like that, even though they are tempting the Darwinian principle by standing there. “Could you imagine doing this at full speed listening to the pace notes because you can’t see the road through the forest of legs?” I couldn’t. And despite the tragedy in Portugal in ’86 that helped end Group B for good, even just trundling along at walking pace it seems incredible that more spectators weren’t hurt in the period.
At the moment, John’s amazing RS200 is a one-off but with continued and growing interest in nostalgic performance cars, he thinks there’s scope for another production run. I think 200 of these would get snapped up straight away.