Affable Ambassador - 1983 Opel Corsa A Sprint Group B Prototype
In 1982, international motorsport governing body Federation Internationale de l'Automobile orchestrated a paradigm shift in the noble world of rallying. Up until the early 1970's, the discipline had been one for wealthy gentlemen taking their large expensive sportscars on lengthy adventures on open public roads.
Back then, the sport placed a heavy emphasis on endurance and reliability over outright speed, a philosophy that would later be applied to the category we now know as Rally Raid. Though the longer, trans-continental rallies remained popular, especially with the rise of events like the London-Sydney Marathon and the Mexico 1000, in 1960 an entirely different form or rallying appeared.
At the Rally of Great Britain, organizer Jack Kelmsley instigated the creation of the first ever "Special Stage", Monument Hill in Scotland. The Special Stage was a dedicated closed section of road where drivers were encouraged and for the first time actually able to go flat out for its entire distance.
From this point on, the concept would spread across the European continent, having a far reaching effect on the structure of the rallies, the demands placed on the drivers, and the types of cars that were suitable for this type of racing.
Soon enough the big sportscars were replaced by compact, light and nimble cars virtually identical to those on the showrooms of major manufacturers, like the BMC Mini and Ford Escort and Lancia Fulvia.
The new condensed format of special stage rallies proved to be far more marketable to a much bigger audience, resulting in an influx of manufacturer interest. The will to win and secure the ultimate bragging rights became an obsession, resulting in ever more specialized machinery.
Ford brought in Cosworth, Fiat contracted Abarth, and Renault all but hijacked Alpine to create the quickest rally weapons. However, they were all outdone by Lancia, who made the first dedicated rally special with the extreme, space-age Stratos in 1974.
The amazing success of the Stratos in the new World Rally Championship, where it displaced the Alpine A110, unleashed a massive feeding frenzy. Even though the car had nothing to do with a normal road car, Lancia was able to get type approval and produced the 400 road going models needed for homologation in FIA Group 4.
Upgraded designs from Fiat and Ford remained competitive throughout the decade, especially after the Stratos was retired, but true purpose-built rally cars were undeniably the future. As such, Renault fired back with the 5 Turbo in 1980, employing the same homologation trick Lancia had used. Completely out of the blue, Audi also entered a Group 4 car with the exotic all wheel drive, turbocharged five cylinder quattro.
The arrival of the quattro marked the first time the FIA had allowed all wheel drive since 1972, when a comically large Jeep Wagoneer driven by a chunky police sergeant embarrassed a few established teams in the Press-on-Regardless Rally in the forests of Michigan.
Besides reintroducing a long-banned drive system, the quattro also laid the foundation for the culmination of the escalation taking place in Group 4. After one season running to the old regulations, the Audi ushered in one of the greatest eras in modern rallying: Group B.
At around the same time, German people's car champions Opel released something a bit more mundane. Like many manufacturers of the time, the company was shifting towards front wheel drive platforms.
As a replacement for the unusual rear wheel drive Kadett City hatchback, the firm presented the Corsa in September of 1982. The little tyke was a key element of Opel's strategy for the 1980s, along with its Vauxhall sister, which was named Nova due to Corsa's resemblance to the word "coarser". With this in mind, Opel did its best to promote the car in order to make it a success.
When push came to shove, Opel's execs trusted in an age-old adage: Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday. As the Corsa was aimed at youthful customers, displaying the car's strengths in motorsport was seen as the ultimate publicity tool.
With this in mind, Opel set about preparing the Corsa for the lowest ranks of Group B rallying. As with many racing classes at the time, Group B was divided by engine displacement, which corresponded to the maximum allowable weight and width of the tires.
Instead of turning the Corsa into a hugely powerful, fire-breathing all wheel drive monster, Opel decided to aim for the lowest rung of the Group B ladder. With help from pseudo-factory tuning company Irmscher, Opel modified the Corsa into a technological showcase for the sub 1300cc class.
The 1.3L, 70 horsepower 13S engine was taken as a base for the little racer's powerplant. Fitted with twin double barrel Weber carburetors and treated an uprated camshaft, valve train, crankshaft, forged pistons and a full racing exhaust system, the little 8-valve motor eventually pushed out an amazing 126 horsepower. Thanks to a crash diet bringing weight down to less than 800 kg (1763 lbs), the standard 0-100 kph (0-62 mph) sprint could be over in just 8.2 seconds.
On the inside, the interior was completely stripped of anything not strictly necessary for competition use, while adding bright red Recaro racing seats. Additionally, the dashboard was fitted with plug and play digital/analogue combination gauges, designed to be removed and reconfigured at the driver's whim. An 80 liter fuel cell took up residence behind the rear seats, with the top of the cell contoured to hold two helmets during road sections between stages.
On the outside, the little Opel was festooned with Irmscher's standard rallying recipe. Triangular intakes first seen on the Ascona and Manta 400 were cut out in the bonnet, and the standard car's Audi quattro-inspired fender flares were taken to their logical extreme.
The front fenders culminated in large ventilation slots, and were joined to the rear pair by swollen sideskirts. At the back, a wraparound spoiler was fitted to the hatch, and the taillights were adorned with extremely 80s strakes connecting to two further vents at the back of the rear fenders. Below that, the rear bumper was designed to simulate a rear diffuser to underline the Corsa's sporting aspirations.
The narrow plastic front bumper on the other hand was replaced with a big airdam incorporating a large intake working in tandem with the triangular bonnet cut-outs to keep the frantic little engine well-fed and nicely cooled. Both square and large round fog lights were added to the front fascia, ensuring clear vision in virtually all conditions.
A full aluminium roll cage protected the driver and his co-pilot from harm in the event of a crash, and a 30 mm lowered suspension kit with gas struts supplied by Bilstein ensured that crash would be a bit further away. Kitted out with snazzy white steel wheels and painted in Opel's trademark motorsport with yellow/grey/black stripes, the little Corsa looked like it meant serious business.
Opel presented the competition concept version of the Corsa at the Frankfurt Motor Show under the name Sprint, exactly a year after the normal model's launch. The diminutive rally star certainly turned a lot of heads, and Opel representatives assured interested onlookers the company was considering building a limited 200 example production run to homologate the car for Group B rallying if there was enough interest from private teams.
Though the car was even tested for once, mainly for a photoshoot, nothing ever came of the Corsa Sprint in terms of motorsport. Interest from the racing community failed to materialize to the extent Opel needed to make the project viable, making the car purely a PR-exercise.
On the upside, style-oriented Corsa owners could still order a version of the Sprint bodykit for their car from Irmscher, which had taken it into production in 1985. At the same time, Opel produced the 93 horsepower Corsa Sport for the lower ranks of Group A, the more strictly production-based companion to Group B. By ordering combining the two kits, the wealthy Corsa enthusiast could come awfully close to the original Corsa Sprint.
The Group A version garnered a lot more attention from the rallying community than its more exotic older sister.
Though the Sprint never turned a wheel in anger on the world stage, it had served its purpose. All it really had to do was catch the public's eye, fuel their imagination and imbue a vague sense of sportiness and masculinity to the lowly 1.0L economy models.
Even though it was never picked up for actual racing, it fulfilled its primary purpose with a vengeance, since the Corsa and its Nova sister both became a resounding sales success. As Opel's first truly small car, the Corsa helped drag the company into the front wheel drive age, and remains an essential part of the range today.