Down an Essex lane a red-and-white barrier marks the entrance to one of Ford’s smallest British plants — Boreharn, home to Ford Motorsport. Inside one of the larger buildings, amongst the stripped and twisted shells of Cosworth ex-rallycars, a row of blunt all-white machines sits expectantly, like eager puppies in a pet shop.
They, and a few dozen others which have been sent to Tickford’s coachworks in Milton Keynes, have been cheated of their expected rallying glory. True, only half of them would ever have competed, and Ford used its Ghia design studio to produce a unique shape which would work as a road car, but for the bulk to end up on the road seems a dispiriting end.
There very nearly were no road car sales at all after the shock cancellation by FISA of rallying’s “big gun” formula, Group B. Left with a redundant rallycar whose intended high profile had been burst like a balloon, 140 firm orders being immediately withdrawn, Ford management did not want to sell any of the remaining cars. Who would market them, maintain them, repair them — and come to that, who would buy them when there was no victory glamour?
Bob Howe, who had been called in to manage the RS200 project, was convinced that the cars could be sold, and that the development work his team had put into them would reflect well on the company, and eventually he persuaded the board that they might as well get back at least some of the huge outlay for the programme. Accordingly he and his team took over all aspects of sales and maintenance, plus the minor improvements which have continued to be made.
Before any cars were sold, 46 of them were completely dismantled and stored for spares, which should keep the remaining road cars running for some time. Since then around 105 have found owners, and this current move, the nearest thing to a sales-drive the RS200 will ever know, will be the end of the story. Sales will finish at the end of 1988 whether or not all 43 cars have been sold.
Intending buyers find their way to Boreham and Bob Howe by varied routes: some via Ford dealers who will then supply and service the car as normal, and some by direct contact, but Howe sits all of them down for a little slide-show outlining the genesis of the vehicle, its brief career, and how it is built. Then comes the test-drive on the Boreham circuit, an experience Howe has come to dread. Few buyers have any experience of a 4WD performance machine like this, and the circuit itself , over its years as a lorry test-track, has become slick with diesel oil. Several over-keen prospects have ended up going backwards into the corn.
Some go quietly away wiping their brow glad that they tried it before they bought it, but those who “click” with this urgent little machine, and sign the £50,000 cheque, automatically become members of the RS200 Owners Club, an exclusive body run by journalist and Ford archivist Graham Robson. This means that Ford can follow the cars’ whereabouts, and that any problems and fixes can be quickly passed to owners.
Howe claims that any full Ford service agent can look after the car with the help of the owner’s manual, a thick ring-binder full of careful detail on everything from checking the water to changing a gearbox, which is regularly expanded by the Boreham crew. Telephone advice is always available, and an RS200 expert will visit the garage if requested to oversee tricky jobs. The implication is that, though this is one of the most complex cars one could buy, it should be easier and cheaper to run than an Italian supercar.
In character, though, this stumpy, beetle-like device, wearing its intercooler up high like a cricket-cap on the back of its head, is thousands of miles away from Modena or Sant’ Agata. You can specify leather seats, but otherwise the nearest thing to luxury is that it has two ashtrays, while the only internal elegance is in the sweep of the Sierra-door handles. For the windscreen, door glass and fittings come from that mundane source, not so much for economy as to provide a visual link with the showroom — Ford’s real business is selling family cars, and winning rallies is just another form of promotion.
But there are choices: for competition (and Group B cars like this are still winning in rallycross, ice-racing and non-FISA rallies outside Europe) an extra lever appears alongside the gear-lever to select 4WD, RWD or locked centre diff. Stiffer mounts for engine and transmission, and harder springs and dampers are standard in this form, while carpets, trim and sound-deadening are removed.
Or go the other way: Recaro seats in hide, Wilton carpets, leather steering wheel and a refinished paint-job in any colour, plus a carpet-trimmed luggage-box — the Ghia version, if you like, instead of the standard L. Yet even that basic model has had a good deal of extra work put into it. While Group B was current, the raw rallycar had its own appeal, but when that prop was removed the car had to stand against more refined sports vehicles. Thus although all RS200s were built in one five-month period at Reliant’s Shenstone plant, the job Aston Martin Tickford has been contracted to do on this last batch is to tidy up, fit extra sound insulation and to bring them more into line with buyers’ expectations.
Turbo engines are usually easy to uprate, and the Garrett-blown 1.8-litre BDT 16-valve is no exception: an extra £690 buys the official Ford Motorsport kit which pushes the bhp from 250 to 300, while up to 450 bhp is available for competition. And there is an Evolution engine, squeezed through just as the axe fell, using an all-new block of 2.1 litres, a new turbo boosting at 2.2 atmospheres, and different valvegear to extract 600 bhp. During our Boreham visit one of these cars sat tucked up under a dust-sheet, but given away by an exhaust you could stick a fist into.
Some Evolution engines have appeared in rallycross, but the most interesting arena should be the American IMSA series: a US team has bought two cars to tackle the GTU class, using heavily restyled bodywork for maximum downforce.
One of the stipulations of the original design brief was that the evolving vehicle should be technically advanced, and the RS200’s basic structure is exactly that. A composite steel and aluminium honeycomb tub is bonded to the carbon/Kevlar centre body, enclosing a steel tube roll-cage, though conventional steel tube is used for the subframes which carry the front and rear suspension assemblies. This was to allow them to be straightened after rally damage, and the impact absorption and overall strength of the tub was shown when the crash-test car was rebuilt into a (non-running) show-car.
Full European Type Approval, including emissions, was always a priority, and once Ford management had agreed it liked the prototype car, built over the winter of ’83-’84, it was only a year before approval was gained.
Though we had no intention of buying one, we splashed down to Boreham on a dirty wet day to find out what customers saw there. In the yard sat a variety of RS200s, not unsold road-cars, but rallycars both works and private, looking in the main pretty scruffy. But Bob Howe’s white demonstrator gleamed — at least until we took it off for a few laps of the circuit.
We began with a few laps with Howe at the wheel, settling back into the thin, deep Kevlar competition seats and looking at the simple grey plastic dash which, like so much about this car, depends on one’s viewpoint: crude for a £50,000 road car, but stylish for a rally machine. Sierra stalks and switches nestle in biscuit-box recesses, the empty passenger side offering a modicum of stowage, but really intended for a bank of navigator-access fuses. A small shelf behind the seats takes whatever will not fit in the “boot”, a luggage locker inserted in place of a spare tyre in the nose. But punctures are not a problem: there is another 225/50 VR16 Pirelli strapped above the sideways silencer in the tail.
Simple folded planes betray the honeycomb structure of the chassis; this feels a roomy car, with good visibility ahead and sideways. Astern is a blind-spot a bus could hide in; the tiny rear cabin window looks through angled, tinted plexiglass on to the high wall which closes off the tail, slotted to allow the merest chink of daylight.
Not that we needed to look behind on the circuit. A hard buzz resonated through the cabin as the BDT engine rasped up through the gears, the featureless track unreeling beneath us like Silverstone with cornfields instead of armco. I learned little about the handling here; being new to the car, in the wet on an oily track, I concentrated on the stiff gearchange and feeding 215 lb ft of torque carefully to the four corners of the Ferguson-developed system.
To maximise suspension travel, the front and rear diffs are on the centre-line so that all four driveshafts are of equal length. The engine is offset behind the cabin, parallel to the centre-line but tilted over the rear prop-shaft to equalise side-to-side weighting. It drives forward to a five-speed gearbox in unit with the front diff, where an epicyclic centre-differential sends two-thirds of the torque to the back, though the split can be half-in-half on rally cars. All three diffs are controlled by viscous couplings to eliminate spinning wheels.
Only the occasional tail-wiggle demonstrated that I had overdone the throttle, and the stubby Ford would flick straight as quickly as I could twitch the wheel. We then turned into the infield, where Bob directed me over some concrete ramps and holes: like a Citroen CX, the Ford simply swallowed them up, its wide double-wishbones deflecting gently and the twin dampers firmly controlling each 16in alloy wheel. With such a lot of wheel movement, no single damper could cope without overheating.
Escaping onto some Essex by-ways, I was still making heavy weather of changing gear, and discovered that I could not operate the brake pedal without jamming my toe on the steering column, rather alarming when encountering tractors. So I swapped my shoes with the photographer’s trainers. The RS200 seemed transformed; immediately I could dab the throttle between gears, obtain a positive response from the heavy brakes, or bridge the two, heeling and toeing down through two or three ratios with the car squatting down in a dead straight line.
Small firm twists of the wheel sent us cleanly between kerbs and hedges, then the tach needle would leap to 6000 or more as second and third snapped into place, explosive puffs highlighting the vvastegate’s release. Despite the speeds and the broken road-edges, the RS200 is utterly stable, darting into corners more urgently than a mid-engined rear-wheel drive car, and bursting out again like a terrier after a rabbit.
It is not easy work; the wheel is weighty, the four-pot unservoed brakes solid until their hard pads warm up, and it needs intense concentration to keep the turbo on. But by the standards of other Group B specials it is astonishingly civilised, while it must have the mechanical endurance to outlast most sportsters from more glamorous names.
And it can be serviced in any High Street Ford dealer! GC