The first time I talked with Ford Motorsport chief engineer John Wheeler, it was just before the 1981 RAC Rally, late that year in England. Wheeler had been arguing with his cohorts about the future of Ford’s rally program. One side said Ford should at least appear to rally what it sold and continue with development of the Escort RS 1700T, which packed a front engine and rear drive into a look-alike of Ford’s subcompact. Wheeler and allies favored 4-wheel drive as the way to go in the future.
The last time John Wheeler and I talked, it was just a matter of months ago. We were strapping ourselves into a full rally version of the new Ford RS200. The faction favoring 4-wheel drive had won the what-car-shall-we-rally debate early in 1983. Stuart Turner, who had just been appointed to headFord’s competition program in Europe, scrapped the 1700T, wrote off the costs and set up a competition of sorts to decide who would create the next Ford rally car. Turner had been given a clean sheet of paper for the project, with no need to use any existing Ford equipment. Four design teams had a shot at the project, three outside groups plus John Wheeler and company at Ford’s test grounds in Boreham, England. That was early in 1983, and by midyear, Wheeler’s proposal triumphed. Well-known Formula 1 designer Tony Southgate began creating the chassis, and Ferguson was commissioned to develop the 4wd drivetrain, while Wheeler and his group set out to meld all this into a winning rally car. In March 1984 Ford management saw the first RS200, liked it and approved the building of five more, which led to a blessing for all 200 to be made. Now Ford would sell what it rallied.
This story originally appeared in the 1986 Exotic Cars:4 issue of Road & Track.
This would not be Ford’s first shot at a mid-engine rally car, having started, then aborted the GT70 project in the early Seventies. At about the same time, the company was also involved with a 4-wheel-drive Capri built for rallycross in England. A historic tie, but a tenuous one.
My recent discussion with Wheeler stopped when the engine of our Ford was fired up. The noise level made talking impossible. Besides, the engineer was quickly concentrating on sliding the RS200 through the rally section at Boreham. We went sailing over dips, sliding up a little curb-high ramp and back down the other side, leaping over jumps—and theRS200 just soaked ’em up. The car was in such an odd left-right-left-left-right-right course over the unmarked land that we appeared to be flying around the unpaved course in a sort of high-speed twitch. And yet it was obvious Wheeler knew exactly where he was going as he slid the RS200 over another small ditch. It was also obvious that he enjoyed his work.
That work has created the mid-engine, 4-wheel-drive, turbocharged RS200, the number 200 reflecting how many of them must be made to meet FISA’s Group B regulations. There’s a fundamental difference, however, in the way Ford approached this project versus most of its competitors’ methods. Lancia, Peugeot, British Leyland and to an extent, Audi, built their 200 homologation cars as a sort of necessary evil to get them approved for Group B. I’ve seen the Italian, French and British cars, and all of them have a true competition car feel and look to them. The high rollcage you have to climb over to reach the seats of the Peugeot, the sliding side windows of the Delta S4, and the ugly exterior of the Metro 6R4 are just three examples. One gets the impression the companies would be surprised if they sold all 200 cars! The homologation models are advertising and publicity machines as well, so they are made to look very much like the company’s more popular production cars. The public sees a Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 at full slide in a rally and presumably relates it to the 205 economy car. Ford has a different approach to the subject.
Reportedly, Ford Chairman Don Petersen approved the RS200 as a real, road-going exotic car that would stand on its own merits. Turner already had permission to use whatever body style he needed, and it was natural that he and Ford should turn to Ghia, the Italian, Ford-owned design studio. In fact, the RS200 had its first public showing in Ghia’s hometown at the 1984 Turin auto show. The design is the work of the firm’s Filippo Sapino, and one nice feature is the way in which all the necessary air vents and scoops have been integrated into the shape so they don't dominate the car’s form as they do on several other Group B cars. Ford also felt a unique exterior design and a finished interior would make it easier for a potential buyer to justify the RS200’s $75,000 price tag than would a bloated Fiesta or a winged Escort. Wind-tunnel work on the car has shaved the coefficient of drag to about 0.40.
Ford hasn't forgotten the history and success of its LeMans-winning GT40 in creating the RS200 in the image of the mid-engine road-racing car. The 200 people who buy the car will be invited to be part of a special reception for new owners that includes driving instruction. Ford has even created an RS200 owner’s club. In each car’s manual are registration forms so future owners of the car can also join the club. Every RS200 will come with a complete set of shop manuals, as it is a rather unusual model even for the largest dealers. There’s even a warranty, 12-month/unlimited mileage.
Don’t let this sort of attention fool you, however, because the RS200 is a serious rally car meant to take the world rally championship. That’s where John Wheeler and company come into the picture.
Tony Southgate provided them with a chassis structure based on a steel platform to which is bonded aluminum honeycomb. The front and rear bulkheads are also of aluminum honeycomb. There’s a full roll cage, of course, but it’s integrated into the cockpit and you don't have to climb over it to get into the seats. The cockpit roof is made of Kevlar-reinforced fiberglass, and the material is used for a center tunnel. Tucked in low behind the cockpit is a 23.8-gal.fuel tank. Steel substructures are attached front and rear for the drivetrain and suspensions. These steel pieces are easily unbent or detached for quick replacement, which is a must, given the on-the-road, off-the-road nature of European rallies. A rally car also needs quick serviceability, and the gearbox or clutch of the Ford can be replaced in 15 minutes by a trained rally service crew. The car’s front and rear fiberglass body sections tilt out of the way for servicing.
Suspension for the RS200 was designed on the rally principle that maximum wheel travel—200 mm in the Ford’s case—and strength get first priority. Front and rear suspension incorporate unequal-length upper and lower A-arms, with dual combination coil spring/tube shocks and anti-roll bars at each end. Braking is the work of four large vented disc brakes. Pirelli 225/50VR-16 tires are used on Speedline 16x8J wheels. Though the relative weight of the wheels and tires is quite low, it’s enough on the rally car to make it worth Ford’s while to provide front or rear mounting for the spare so it can be used to trim the balance of the car.
There's no power assist needed for the rack-and-pinion steering with its 2.9 turns lock to lock. Using the rally gear, however, brings the turns down to 2.1, so the competition drivers get hydraulic assist. The buyer will have the choice of left- or right-hand drive, and the steering and dashboard were designed to make it an easy flip-flop in production.
One part of the 1700T design remains: the engine. Ford chose to stay with its trusty Cosworth BDA, which traces its history to engines first built in 1970. In this latest form, the 16-valve 4-cylinder is called the BDT (Belt-Driven camshafts, Turbocharged) and has an aluminum head and block, the latter’s cylinders treated with Nicasil. Displacement is 1803cc, which when multiplied by the standard 1.4:1 formula in the rally regulations gives the engine a “non-turbo displacement” of 2524 cc. This moves the RS200 into the 3000-cc class, but the car is already at 1180 kg, well over the 890-kg limit for under 2500-cc cars.
The turbo on the BDT for rally use is a Garrett AiResearchT03/4 with an intercooler across the back of the roof. Boost is 0.75 bar for the street version and 1.5 with the rally engine. Road-going RS200s, with Ford EEC IV-controlled ignition and Bosch fuel injection, produce 250 bhp at 6750 rpm and 215 Ib-ft o f torque at 4500. Raliyists can expect the full Group B version to produce more than 400 bhp. though Ford doesn't want the competition to know exactly how much.
Sit in the driver's seat of an RS200. and you’ll find two levers, one for shifting the 5-speed manual gearbox and a second stubby one with three positions that controls where the torque goes in the drivetrain. In the middle slot, the 4-wheel drive splits the power 37 percent front/63 percent rear. Move the short handle forward and it locks the car’s center differential, giving a 50/50 split. Pull the lever to the rear and the cargoes from 4wd to rear-wheel drive. The latter so changes the car’s driving characteristics that in the road cars, the owner will have to remove a pin to be able to use that position.
There’s more. The torque-split ratios can be quickly changed to suit rally conditions, so the driver has all sorts of possibilities. Why so many choices? Part of the original planning for the RS200 involved talking with many top-line rally drivers to find out what they’d like in an ideal rally car. Wheeler included the rear-drive-only mode in case a driver wanted independent braking and steering on, for instance, a downhill, snow-covered road on the Monte Carlo Rally. Remember too, that when Ford conducted the research, the two quick cars were the Audi Quattro and the mid-engine, rear-drive Lancia Rallye, which was a winner in tarmac road events.
Not unexpectedly, this 4-wheel-drive system was designed by Ferguson. (There’s an irony in this, because Harry Ferguson Research, which developed the self-locking differentials, was established by Ferguson with a reputed £3million he won from Henry Ford in a lawsuit over tractors.) The engine is placed longitudinally behind the cockpit and ahead of the rear wheels. The Cosworth is canted 23 degrees to the right and faces back-to-front. turning through the clutch and a reduction gear to a short driveshaft that goes forward to the 5-speed gearbox with its Hewland innards. That reduction gear can be quickly changed to alter the overall gearing of the Ford. Forward of the transmission is the center differential that splits the power to the front or rear wheels. A dog-clutch arrangement allows the engaging or disengaging of power to the front wheels. At each set of wheels is another self-locking differential.
All this is hidden, o f course, by the rounded, stubby bodywork, all of which will be finished in Diamond White. It's a very compact design, inside and out, and there’s no unneeded overhang. This same efficiency carries over in the car's interior. While the other homologation specials look like spiffed-up competition cars inside, the RS200 has the appearance of a more normal production automobile. The molded seats, with their high sides and shoulder wings, certainly look the part. It's easy to see how the symmetrical dash can be built for either right- or left-hand drive. Naturally, instrumentation is complete, while the competition nature of the car is underlined at the bottom of the center console by the row of large toggle switches. You’ll find neither cigarette lighter nor radio, though there’s space for the latter. You will find a few production Ford parts such as the heater controls, just as Ford has used the Sierra (Merkur) steering column and rack, windshield and part of the doors. The area in the nose normally used for the spare tire can be changed to a fiberglass removable baggage compartment, for which there’s optional soft luggage.
Incidentally, all this is not being put together in any Ford factory. Tickford did the production engineering and Reliant is handling the assembly, with some Ford men involved. And there are three different types of RS200s. Of the 200 needed to qualify for homologation, most will be normal (!) production cars. It is possible, however, to buy a version setup for club rallying. This option means a rally suspension with different shocks and springs plus firmer engine mounts, because noise and vibration isolation won’t be critical in competition. (There’s another half-step up with an engine that produces 300-plus bhp for England’s many national rallies.) Beyond the 200 are the 20 evolution models, which are the pure rally cars Ford will use for competition.
I had the chance to drive both street and club rally versions of the RS200 at Boreham. It was a dark, wet, gray Saturday with other test vehicles on the track, so it wasn’t a day to get overly enthusiastic. The lasting impression was the way you could feel the front drive. In a Quattro, you’re very aware of the front weight bias, while the RS200 has a much more balanced feel. Coming out of one particularly tight corner, you can sense the back end trying to work its way to the outside, while the drive at the front wheels is pulling its end out to stay ahead of the back. This is a very nice sensation, making it easy to understand the enormous spin a test driver reportedly suffered in the early development stages of the car when he inadvertently switched from 4wd to 2wd between corners. Ford’s numbers put 0-60 mph in the street version at less than 5 seconds, with a top speed of 142 mph. I don’t know about you. but that’s certainly enough for me.
Who knows, perhaps the next time I talk with John Wheeler it may be to congratulate him on the RS200’s first rally victory.