What was Rallying's Golden Age?

I know what most of you are going to say, but i'm not sure that it's so clear cut...

This is a contentious issue and one that seems quite topical, given the endless references we keep hearing about the new generation of WRC cars and how they are "bringing back" the Group B glory. They're not really anything like Group B cars in reality, but I suppose it's quite a romantic and dramatic comparison if you want to try and get people interested in what you're doing.

I suspect that the vast majority of people who read this will jump up and down, singing the praises of Group B. It's a period that certainly makes a good case for itself. The cars were wild and the drivers were heroes in the truest sense of the word – in sporting terms at least. They wrestled almost undriveable beasts across thousands of kilometres, battling weather, fatigue and a much greater power to grip ratio than common sense should ever have allowed. However, there have been some other really great eras and I think some of them actually surpass the madness of the mid-1980s.

Many people think rallying peaked with this...

Many people think rallying peaked with this...

I think this question actually really depends on your age. Those of a certain vintage would claim that the Group B fans have it all wrong and that the greatest era of rallying was actually the late 1970s; where men were men and rally cars were rear-wheel drive. This era is where many of the Group B heroes actually made their names; with the likes of Hannu Mikkola, Ari Vatenen and Stig Blomqvist battling it out in Escort RS1800s, Fiat 131s and Lancia Stratos's.

...or this...

...or this...

I, however, am one of those strange people that believes rallying really hit its stride later than that, later even than the killer Group B cars; in the 1990s, when Bjork was cool and Oasis and Blur were arguing about, well, whatever it was that Oasis and Blue argued about. The Group A era was a good one, with heavily modified showroom cars from a variety of manufacturers slugging it out. The drivers were stars, with Sainz, Kankkunen and Makinen just some of the poster boys. It was a great time for British drivers too, as McRae and Burns battled to prove who was the best of Blighty. The Group A cars may not have looked as wild as their Group B forbears, but let's not forget that they quickly smashed the Group B stage records and spawned a whole generation of rally-inspired road rockets - ones that people could actually afford, rather than the exclusive Group B super cars.

...or maybe even this....

...or maybe even this....

There was another sub-story going on within the rally ranks at this time too, one that has been largely forgotten; Formula 2. This is the one that really presses my buttons, as I think it represents a really unique period. It was born out of the Group A regulations for two-wheel drive cars, but allowed manufacturers to add wider body work and more go-faster engine parts. The idea was to get more manufacturers involved, as these cars were supposed to be cheaper than the front-running 4WD machines.

...but I think these represent another time where rallying got really interesting.

...but I think these represent another time where rallying got really interesting.

The F2 period created some really stunning rally cars and was a proving ground for some of the hottest drivers of the era. Gwyndaf Evans, Mark Higgins, Philippe Bugalski and Jean Ragnotti remain big heroes of mine. While many people go all misty-eyed over the Lancia 037; flying the 2WD flag against the 4WD monsters, it wasn't the last 2WD car to win a WRC round. That crown belongs to the Citroën Xsara F2 Kit Car, which won consecutive WRC events in Catalunya and Corsica in 1999; its low weight allowing it to humble the very best 4WD cars on tarmac.

While they were pretty good on the loose, it was tarmac where the kit cars really came into their own. Their weight advantage over the 4WD cars, coupled with wide bodies, sequential gearboxes and screaming 2.0 engines made them potent machines in the right hands. The Xsara was the cream of the crop, claiming 300bhp from the 10,000rpm(!) motor under the bonnet. It wasn't the only hero though; the Renault Megane Maxi and Peugeot 306 Maxi are probably the most famous kit cars of them all, but the Citroën ZX, Vauxhall Astra, Skoda Octavia, VW Golf, Renault Clio, Seat Ibiza and Ford Escort all got the kit car treatment. Their pace on tarmac was eventually their downfall, as the big boys didn't like it. An inlet restrictor and weight penalty eventually saw them consigned to the history books.

In this world of downsizing and turbocharging, the normally aspirated rally car has almost disappeared from the WRC, while the 2WD categories are now so heavily regulated that they can't get anywhere near the 4WD cars. I know that most of you won't agree with me and perhaps it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that F2 was the best period of rallying, but I think the sight and sound of a kit car being driven with full commitment takes some beating. I think the point I'm trying to make is, while people often go all dizzy about Group B, there really have been many genuinely thrilling rally cars created before and since those dangerous days, so we shouldn't get too hung-up on it. Oh and don't forget, Sébastien Loeb has recently chosen to start doing some rallies again. And what did the supremely talented Frenchman choose to drive? Yep, a 306 Maxi. A cynic could argue that his Peugeot commitments meant his choice was limited, but he still could have picked the super-successful 206 WRC instead of the screaming 306. That in itself says a lot to me about just how awesome the F2 cars really were. Oh, and he has been winning in it already...

Anyway, whether you agree with me or not, turn up the volume, sit back and enjoy the sound of pure normally aspirated monsters, the likes of which we'll never see again...

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Comments (8)

  • Great post 👍Nice work

      4 years ago
  • I think its safe to say personally anything pre-2010's era.

      4 years ago
  • Great read Jon, I think you're right in saying a lot of it is down to how old you are; I was brought up in the nineties and for me Group A with the likes of Makkinen, McRae, Sainz and the like is definitely my favourite. It was a time when active suspension was becoming a game changer, that coupled with some serious 4WD wizardry is really what got me into motorsport.

      4 years ago
    • Thanks Mike. Yes it was definitely a great period. The technology was moving rapidly, but the cars were still spectacular to watch, as the grip/power balance was just as it should be. Too much grip these days, so not enough spectacle!

        4 years ago
    • My thoughts exactly, one poignant memory being Richard Burns getting some serious four wheel slide round the Col de turini!

        4 years ago
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