The Group B supercar was full of promise, but events overtook it and the entire class was canned before it fulfilled its potential
By Keith Howard
After its long period of success rallying the Escort, Ford was slow to absorb the significance of four-wheel drive and Group B. So when it belatedly decided, in the wake of axing the promising but wrong-era 1700T, that it would have to embrace Group B after all, it was playing catch-up.
The car it built – the RS200 – might have atoned for its late arrival had it been able to progress to the 600bhp-plus Evo version before a series of fatal rally accidents forced motorsport’s governing body FISA to ban Group B at the end of 1986. Overtaken by events, it instead became a tantalising motorsport ‘what if?’
By recruiting Tony Southgate – who talks about designing the RS200 below – Ford succeeded, albeit a little reluctantly, in melding traditional rally car elements with strong motifs from circuit racing. It was just the recipe needed to carry the fight to Peugeot and Lancia.
“I wasn’t a rally man, it had been all Group C and Formula 1 for me,” says Southgate. “I got involved because I had a year’s contract with Ford and had spent about six months of it designing the C100 Mk3 Le Mans car, which never raced. It was a good car but Ford cancelled the project overnight – a political decision. A few weeks later [Ford competition boss] Stuart Turner asked me whether I’d fancy designing a Group B rally car. He was asking several others to submit designs as well and whoever won would collaborate with the rally department at Boreham to build the car. They wanted it in two weeks and they would pay me £5000. I said OK.
“My design was influenced by my circuit racing past. It used a monocoque aluminium structure with the engine and gearbox in the middle to get something close to 50:50 weight distribution. Boreham’s proposal was basically a Sierra with tubular subframes – what you’d expect. They gave me the job and told me to create a compromise design acceptable to [rally engineer] John Wheeler and to Boreham.”
“It was a struggle in some ways because Ford has its own way of doing things. They literally had a design bible – an impressive book about six inches thick – which showed you how to design any part of a car the Ford way. It had parts costs in it, too, mostly in pence and to three or four decimal places! I wasn’t obliged to use the design guide but they wanted me to use as many Ford parts as possible to save on cost. I used 118 parts from the Sierra – doors, with about six inches chopped off, windscreen, and lots of smaller components.
“My original design didn’t allow the car to be worked on that easily in the field. If you smashed the suspension, for instance, you’d be out because there were no steel subframes. Wishbones were attached to engine castings. Boreham didn’t like that and put me into a rally car as a passenger to demonstrate the punishment they take. After three laps of an off-road track at Chobham I was shot. Quite an eye-opener.
“Boreham thought my aluminium honeycomb structure was way out. They didn’t believe that it would be anywhere near strong enough. So I made sill boxes in honeycomb and spot-welded steel and squashed them both in a press. The honeycomb structure was about 20 times stronger, as I knew it would be. They were worried about repairs in the field but I said they wouldn’t be repairing the monocoque unless the car was already a write-off. They accepted that.”
“From the outset, John wanted the gearbox at the front for good access and weight distribution. The problem with that was you had to have two driveshafts, one to the gearbox and another back to the rear wheels. It was early days for carbon driveshafts so I was worried about weight and the potential for vibration. But that’s what Boreham wanted.
“They also stipulated that the gearbox had to be replaceable in nine minutes. The transmission, including propshafts, had to be dropped beneath the car to achieve this, but I wasn’t keen on an open transmission tunnel for structural reasons. So I designed a quickly removable panel to hold it all together. Whether they used it I don’t know, but the fixing points were there.”
“The design had to accommodate tarmac use as well as on gravel, so I incorporated two sets of inner suspension pick-ups, so that the ride height could be raised two inches for off-road use. The suspension had eight inches total wheel travel front and rear, and twin dampers on each corner, which seemed a good idea for better reliability, increased capacity and improved cooling.
“I didn’t like all the tubular structure for the suspension mountings because it was heavy. But the rally engineers insisted because it was cheap and easy to repair. It was all in mild steel so it could be bashed and welded in the field. They also wanted the car to use one bolt size – 12mm, which is enormous. So nearly all the bolts were that size, to make it easy for the mechanics. But it didn’t do a lot for the weight.
“I went off to Jaguar once the design work was complete. But of all the cars I’ve done, the RS200 was one of the most interesting.”