The MR2-Based Toyota 222D Was The Group S Weapon That Never Was
Photography by Robb Pritchard
A version of this story has previously appeared in Banzai Magazine
From the summer of 1975—when Hannu Mikkola took his underpowered Corolla Levin to victory in the Finnish forests—until Luis Moya put his helmet through the rear window of his Corolla WRC 300 meters away from the 1999 world championship, Toyota has had a huge presence in the WRC. The Twin-cam Turbos, dubbed “the Queens of the Desert” after dominating the Safari for years, brought the first major wins, and the Kankkunen and Sainz era of the Castrol-liveried Celicas and Corollas ended on the high of another manufacturer’s crown being taken home to Toyota. Had history been a bit different though, had Henri Toivonen gone on to become a multiple world champion instead of the tragedy in Corsica, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a break between the desert queens and the GT-4, and perhaps Toyota Team Europe would have turned up for the 1988 Monte Carlo Rally with the 222D.
The Eifel Rally Festival in the little town of Daun, Germany is an absolute dream for historic rally car fans, and a few years back in 2016, to mark the 30th anniversary of their banning, 64 monstrous Group B cars were brought together for the biggest gathering of the fabled supercars since their mid-‘80s heyday. But even more special than the 205 T16s, S2s, S4s, RS200s and 6R4s were the stillborn mythical beasts made for the anticipated but never implemented Group S category that was slated to replace Group B. Audi was there with its insane un-named thing, Ford had the Sierra Cosworth-powered RS200, and adding to the nostalgia extravaganza there were two very rarely seen Toyota 222Ds.
The tether in the trailer had come loose, but even with a cracked headlight cover and some black tape covering up the scuffs on the wings, the 222D is a stunning car in person. It looks like an MR2 on steroids, although with a lightweight space frame chassis and a massively powerful mid-mounted engine the only thing it shares with the road car is the shape of the body panels. Group B was ditched in the summer of ’86, so with another 18 months of development the 222D would have undoubtedly been a match for its rivals, especially with drivers of the calibre of Kankkunen and Waldegård working on it.
As an abandoned project though, all the problems that would have been ironed out over time are still very much inherent in the cars that remain. “They are awful!” proud yet honest curator John Day smiles. “It is absolutely not drivable. It just does what it wants to do. It understeers, oversteers and has an enormous turbo lag—about three seconds when on full power.”
Even if the handling issues could have eventually been solved, John thinks there is a more fundamental reason the car only got to the stage it was left at. “In the 1980s, the technology for making good rally cars just wasn’t available. All Group B had was power and downforce. The 222D has very short suspension travel so if it comes into a fast, bumpy corner it can’t cope and just jumps out towards the outside. Also, there was no turbo management, so although the 503E engine makes 600bhp, there is no control of it.” A quick YouTube search for the Walter Röhrl in-car footage where he is literally dancing on the pedals is a good example of why a three second delay isn’t too helpful in rallying. It wasn’t just Toyota that had problems with this though, as in the mid-‘80s turbo technology was still in its infancy in many ways. Lancia even went as far as adding a supercharger to their S4 to help eliminate the lag.
The other major issue with the development of the 222D was that no one really knew exactly what the new rules were going to be when Group S became the new game. With no official regulations or even basic guidelines published for some time, it was only unconfirmed secondhand news and rumors coming to the teams from people close to FISA, and as such there were very different cars being made in anticipation.
For instance, Opel went the easy way with the turbocharged Astra-based 4S that was an evolution of the GTE, while Lancia went all out with the Triflux-engined ECV. With a mid-mounted transverse engine and the gearbox mated to it, the 222D was most similar in configuration to the Peugeot 205 T16. The 2140cc 503E engine (subsequently used in the Toyota Le Mans racers of the late-‘80s) is rated as 600bhp, and as the car only weighed 750kg it had an incredible power to weight ratio. The same basic engine architecture used in the IMSA 88C cars ran happily at 900bhp!
The real difference between TTE and the other teams though was the fact that they developed two different cars in tandem, both a 4×4 and a rear-wheel drive variant for use on tarmac rallies. Although they were no strangers to 4×4 systems, (the Land Cruiser had been the market-leading 4×4 for nearly 25 years) for their first competition-based four-wheel drive car the system was developed by Xtrac, a company that at the time was known for making bespoke transmissions for top-flight rallycross cars. The rear-wheel drive car had a simpler configuration, so it had a longitudinally mounted engine with the gearbox hanging out of the back, the giant turbo pipes looped around the sides. With the rear body work lifted out of the way, it looks absolutely incredible, more of a Group C Le Mans car than something intended for the stages of the WRC, especially with the foot-wide tires flanking it. Unfortunately this car is a long way from running though, as the parts it needs simply don’t exist any more.
Massive power, not so wonderful handling characteristics, and poor spectator control; even in the hands of the world’s best drivers these cars were a perfect recipe for disaster, and from the point of view of both driver and spectator safety, Group A was the only real way to solve both issues with a single solution, and so the 222D project came to an abrupt end as Group S never materialized.
All the cars Toyota built were registered as Japanese, and as the law there stated, if you kept a car built on an R&D budget you had to pay the tax on it. Company bosses had no intention of paying large amounts of money for useless cars of course, so each of the 11 222Ds made were ordered to be scrapped. Five of the seven 4×4 cars, and three of the four rear-wheel drive versions were duly destroyed, but some of those involved in the project had the foresight to know that there would be a time in the future when interest in such unique cars would be such it would be worth saving them for prosperity, which is how an example of both the transverse and longitudinal cars were hidden away and their existence kept a well-guarded secret. Someone in Japan did the same thing with another transverse car, so today there are a grand total of three 222Ds in existence. Although chassis No. 1 is the only running example.
When interest in such unique cars began again a few years ago, this car was quietly brought out of its decades-old resting place before John set about getting it running again. But with a car full of prototype parts, fault rectification was a bit of an issue, so instead of trying to fix the original engine he got one out of an old Group C car, which is apparently easier than it sounds. It didn’t fit properly right away though, so the original went back in, but testing that motor around the company grounds he managed to blow two turbos. “There are certain bits missing… such as the pop-off valve. There’s a wastegate but no valve, so when you go off-boost there’s such a hugely long pipe that pressure builds up and it goes bang. It’s a very big bang, especially as it is right behind your head! We didn’t have any others. It took me a long time to find the old parts but now there are no more. The ones fitted are the last. So we’re not going to blow this one up.”
“All the electronics are thirty years old too, so when you don’t run it after it’s been standing in the museum for so long, they have a habit of going wrong. I took it to Goodwood a couple of years ago and was on the start line for the first run when the mechanical fuel pump decided to go bonkers and pumped petrol through the engine into the oil tank until there was a puddle under the car. The engine was running at the time. That would have been a big bang. The fuses and relays are always going. There are no more. If any more go I will have to replace them with something else.”
So, hobbled with inherent unreliability issues, the 222D will always be a “what if” car, and because history went with the production-based Group A instead of the more radical Group S, we’ll never know just how good it could have been. If you look at the TCT and the GT-4 that came at the end of 1988, it doesn’t take much to imagine that with Kankkunen and Waldegård at the helm it would have been a legendary racer rather than just a mythological one.