Featured: The '80s and '90s Made Up The Golden Age Of Touring Car Racing

The ’80s and ’90s Made Up The Golden Age Of Touring Car Racing

By Alex Sobran
November 1, 2017

Photography by Jochen Paesen

When it comes to relatable racing, touring cars used to be it. Before the tube-frames and spiky low-slung silhouettes and tiny steering wheels became the norm in the modern DTM and its kin, a grid of racers taken from any of the premier touring car series would look a lot like the contents of your standard supermarket parking lot, plus a few hundred stickers and minus a few inches of ground clearance. The cars being sold on Monday looked like those racing on Sunday, albeit painted one solid color.

The equation breaks down under movement though, because once in action any semblances of practical commuter-car civility are quickly and unceremoniously cast off with the first bloom of undercarriage sparks or clash of boxy bodywork. “Rubbing’s racing” is an axiom in this form of motorsport to the point where you’d imagine it was officially printed in the rulebook, and while that’s still apt to a degree today, there’s a distinct difference between the cars from the current crop and the the ones that best embody those traits that the stereotypes were built on: three-box designs decked out with wings and canards and splitters and baffles galore, but still immediately recognizable; striking liveries full of color and contrast and geometry, and beer decals; feisty wrung-to-their-limits inline-fours sending unimpeded noise and fire through high-flow exhausts; wheels, typically BBS, tucked up tight to the fenders; and hilarious vestigial stowaways from the production versions of these cars, like upholstered door cards deformed under the pressure of thick roll cages, little pieces that remind you where these cars came from.

There have been so many conceptions of the loose term “touring car” over the years, and so many different championships often separated by the thinnest regulatory divisions, that any assertions of a golden era are bound to cover a big group. If there is a definable period that we can look to as the bastion of touring car competition, it’s the late-‘80s to mid-‘90s. The racing was characterized by barely-pliant suspensions tossing the cars off curbs and one another with maximum drama, and regulations kept things from getting overly exotic. That’s not to say manufacturers during this era didn’t throw all they could at the development of their teams and cars, but it kept the costs low enough that grids were often plump with factory and privateer entries.

It’s a big book of history, and with multiple and sometimes overlapping championships with near-identical rules it’s the kind of story that’s hard to tell comprehensively and quickly falls into abbreviations and other arcana. That doesn’t mean we can’t pick out a few of our favorite parts of it though, and a few months back, the Oldtimer Grand Prix at the Nürburgring provided a standout cast to choose from. We covered the full event when it happened, but today we’re taking a retrospective look at a few of our favorite touring cars from the decades of the modern classic. They represent the final chapter in the heyday of the sport’s popularity, and even off of full throttle they still bring a hectic energy with them that makes it difficult to think of these cars as “vintage.”

Take for example this 1996 Alfa Romeo 155 V6 Ti. It is by every standard an antiquated racing car now, but you wouldn’t say that to its many-chinned face. And especially not after you’ve had a chance to hear its infamous naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter, which presents a strong case for the best-sounding V6 ever sent down a racetrack. Verging on losing its identity underneath all the extra cladding and look-mom-I-drew-a-race-car bodywork, the 155 was one of the very last to remain in the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft) in the mid-‘90s, and along with Opel and Mercedes-Benz, Alfa pulled out after ’96, effectively ending the series until it would be revived and reformatted in the 21st century. After regulatory changes swapped Group A for FIA Class 1 Touring Cars at the end of the E30 era and encouraged ever-greater R&D spending while siphoning more revenues away from teams and into organizer and media pockets, it didn’t make much sense for the factories to field teams anymore. Just before the end though, the Alfa 155s and their German rivals formed a formidable pack of space-frame cars that have left us with some highly entertaining YouTube compilations—if sparks and airborne square-shaped Alfas are your thing.

The Alfas may be the favorite for many, and the 155 is the winningest car in DTM, but it was the Mercedes C-Class that would be victorious in the final season in 1996 (though the DTM didn’t technically exist that year, having been absorbed in 1996 into the ITCC). Also, when the DTM returned in 2000, it was the CLK (shown here in black Warsteiner garb) that would be the first champion of the new breed of even more radical touring cars in Germany.

What is there to be said about the rivalry between Mercedes’ 190E and BMW’s first M3? It’s impossible to picture one without the other, and the duels these two factory teams fought from ’87 to ’92 are arguably the most famous in touring car history at large.

It’s probably not all that accurate to call the lane-wide turbocharged Audi 200 Quattro Trans Am a touring car considering the series it competed in (and dominated to the point where the Audi was all but outright banned), but there is a small case to be made for it’s mundanity despite its turbofans and 500-horsepower snail-fed five: the domestic American competition in in the 1988 Trans Am season was a grid of wholly custom chassis, while the Audi was based on the production 200’s monocoque and used a production-based inline-five that was down on power compared to the Americans, and it still kicked all their asses.

The Ford Sierra RS 500 Cosworth lives unfairly in the shadows of the BMWs and Mercs it ran against, but the results speak for themselves if the car ever needs defending from ignoramuses: in 1988 it won the touring car championship in Germany, Australia and Japan; in 1989 it won the Australian and Japanese again; and in 1990 it added the British championship to its list. It won plenty of other series and races, but one of the more notable of those is its victory at the 1989 Spa 24 Hours; along with the multiple championships, this feat is a testament to its endurance capabilities over the course of a single race as well as the length of a season. The car shown here is believed to be that same car that won the day-long race some 28 years ago.

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6 years ago

Current BTCC, less so DTM, still produce some great racing, the best wheel to wheel action anywhere in my view. No doubt though the 80s and 90s had some of the most memorable cars and the most diverse set of makes and models in history.

Let’s not forget that in that same era, there were many legitimate touring championships going, the STCC (Swedish Touring Car Championship) and more popular than that, the JTCC (Japan Touring Cars) which had some very memorable cars, think Skyline GT-Rs, R31, R32, R33, the iconic blue Calsonic livery cars for instance. These are all poster worthy/drool worthy cars which can’t be said for the line of current cars in the BTCC or JTCC or DTM. Sure today’s cars are modern, almost spaceshuttles on wheels which has a different appeal for different people but maybe my rosetinted glasses are more rosier than I thought.

Paul Ipolito
Paul Ipolito
6 years ago

Nice. Looking forward to a piece on the Cadillac series when you get the chance.

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