Graham Robson’s eye-witness account of how this Group B great came about. Renowned author Graham Robson worked as a consultant to Ford in the RS200 days. This is his eye-witness account of its development. Photography Zach James Todd, courtesy of Canepa.
Ford RS200 the inside story
The unique inside line on a Group B great by eyewitness Graham Robson
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the heady days that surrounded the birth of Ford’s RS200. I wasn’t responsible for the design, nor the concept, but I was very much involved in the ‘Why don’t we…?’ discussions from the beginning.
Late one Friday evening in January 1983, in deepest Dorset, I was lazing in front of a roaring fire, with a snoring bulldog alongside me on the sofa and a glass of Scotch whisky to hand, when the phone rang. It was well after 10pm and I was not expecting anyone to contact me, so I was amazed, puzzled and – soon – enthralled by the story Stuart Turner, Ford’s director of public affairs, began to unfold.
Since 1975 Stuart had not been directly involved in running Ford’s motorsport programmes but, through his boss, friend, and (in some ways) his mentor Walter Hayes, he had never lost touch with what was happening. His opening remarks made everything that followed extremely clear: ‘This conversation is not taking place.’
‘Given a chance, petrolhead Bob Lutz would have driven the car out into Oxford Street for its first trial’
The call lasted for more than an hour, a long and detailed run-down of what had been, should have been and might yet have been happening in Ford’s immediate motorsport future. It inspired me so much that the following morning I wrote a detailed resumé for him, and I’ve kept a carbon copy to this day.
His message was simple, and brutal: ‘Our motorsport policy is in trouble. Walter [Hayes – Ford’s PR supremo] wants me back in place of Karl [Ludvigsen]. We’ve got to kill off the Escort RS1700T. We need a new Group B car. I’m calling several people for their views. Can we talk? What do you think?’
An hour later he had milked me dry of ideas, and I was happy to know that my thoughts lined up with those of more technically minded experts. By midnight he had signed off, expecting my written thoughts delivered to his home (not to the office) within three days.
I wrote down those thoughts under 12 headings – like everyone else, as I learned later, I mentioned four-wheel-drive, a target of more than 400bhp, the need to build 200 cars offsite, and the need for a star engineer to do the concept layout. And a week later, the phone rang again…
‘I think we all agree about the general layout. I’m calling the machine B200 for obvious reasons, but I can’t get my bosses to understand how special it has to be. Walter [Hayes] understands, but not the others. Do you have any pictures of the Lancia Stratos?’
I did: not only images but an Autocar cutaway drawing.
‘Perfect, let me have them tomorrow, please.’ And thus began the story of this very special car.
25 February 1983 It had been quiet for about six weeks. Then, suddenly, Ford of Europe announced that Karl Ludvigsen was to move on and that Turner was to take over as director of European motorsport. At Ford this move reverberated like an earthquake, for Turner wanted to get things moving fast. Almost immediately I was asked to work up a ‘club activities’ package (one-make Championships, quiz series, forums, special visits to RS dealerships, Find-a-Rally-Driver competition, all that stuff) – but I heard no more about the ‘B200’.
14 March 1983 Both the RS1700T and the C100 Group C project were abruptly cancelled. As Motorsport’s manager, Peter Ashcroft, later told me: ‘The board meeting was in the morning, Stuart’s “stop order” followed by phone, before lunchtime, and work stopped that very day.’
Media reaction to the cancellations was vitriolic. ‘What on earth is going on?’ they wanted to know. I knew, of course, but I was not about to say.
27 March 1983 I dined with Turner and he told me what was already brewing. Further down his ‘Ladder of Opportunity’ – the document he had prepared as a policy mantra – work had already started on a turbocharged Escort XR3 and on a much more powerful Sierra XR4i. His product planning guru, Mike Moreton, would manage those programmes without interference for some time.
Setting his targets high, and agreeing that a mid-engined four-wheel-drive Group B car was essential, he had asked Brabham’s Gordon Murray if he would lay out the new car, and had seen both Keith Duckworth (to talk about four-wheel-drive technology) and Brian Hart (about engines). The delay – and there was a delay – was because Murray said he could not spare all the time needed. And in any case, Bernie Ecclestone, his boss at Brabham, was against the idea.
Murray and Moreton were convinced that such a car, of which 200 would have to be built to gain homologation, could not be constructed in-house. Lotus, Tickford, Aston Martin, TVR and Reliant were all being considered as contractors. All had been approached, and all were interested. Reliant was keenest of all and could produce body shells.
28 April 1983 The search for a star designer was proving frustrating. Although, in Turner’s words, Gordon Murray was keen (‘The genius has taken the hook…’), he could not tackle the job without leaving Brabham and going freelance. Ecclestone didn’t like that, and forcibly said so.
The only way to benefit was if Turner and Brian Hart could spend an evening tapping Murray’s brains. And so they did. ‘We listened enthralled as he set out his ideas on how a special sports car should be engineered. It was a memorable evening, and a masterclass in design,’ Stuart later wrote.
Mid-May 1983 Turner decided on a ‘design competition’ among respected freelancers, to choose a concept. Phone call after phone call mentioned names as diverse as Patrick Head (Williams), Tony Southgate, Mike Loasby, Giampaolo Dallara, Derek Gardner, John Barnard and Nigel Stroud.
Three of them – Loasby, Southgate and Stroud – were invited to provide a ‘paper project’, based around Ford-Cosworth BDT turbocharged engines (200 of which were already in stock from the aborted RS1700T programme. Turner’s design brief said: ‘Key objective: to produce an outright International rally winner. Nothing must be allowed to compromise this.’
And: ‘NOT a lie-down racing driving position. Windscreen angle is critical in rallying. No body styling is required – this will be done by Ghia.’
Late May 1983 News arrived that John Wheeler, the ex-F1 designer who was based at Ford Motorsport’s Boreham HQ and had engineered the RS1700T, was offended at not having been invited to tender for a new design. He insisted on being involved, and became the fourth to submit a scheme.
10 July 1983 While carrying out a commentary job at a classic car show at Knebworth, I was visited by Turner, who, in cloak-and-dagger style, slipped a package into my briefcase, winked, and backed off without saying a word. Inside were the four design proposals, for my information, which I still have. All were very well presented, but all differed in several basic ways.
Within days Turner and Mike Moreton had studied them, and preferred Southgate’s and Wheeler’s designs to the other two schemes, decided to amalgamate their best features, and forged ahead. Southgate’s concept had been technically elegant but rather race-car orientated, while Wheeler’s was a more practical car for ‘side-of-the road’ servicing on events. Southgate’s design, in other words, was beautifully detailed, while Wheeler’s was more ‘quick and dirty’ where maintenance was concerned.
The object was to build the first car at once, with 200 to follow by the end of 1984, and to aim for homologation on 1 January 1985.
August 1983 Boreham went into a state of lockdown, with no casual visitors – certainly not me – allowed through the doors while preparation work started for building the first B200. At one stage, pieces of Sierra bodywork (cut-down doors, front roof and screen) were mocked up on the floor, with king mechanic Mick Jones acting as the ‘mannequin’. At the same time, the other mechanics were kept busy working on turbocharged Escorts and the forerunners of what would become the Sierra RS Cosworth.
Meanwhile, Ghia (Ford’s styling house subsidiary in Turin) started work shaping the body. Turner’s three-page brief noted that he wanted ‘an ageless design… an exciting (but unaggressive) design with a “Ford family flavour”. A “Porsche Sierra”, perhaps…’
Mid-September 1983 On his way back from the Italian GP (at Monza), Turner called in at Ghia, collected a package of styling sketches and showed them off at a meeting held at Boreham, which concluded that more work was needed.
‘The big argument,’ Turner later commented, ‘was over the working environment for the drivers. We wanted an upright screen so that there would be no distracting reflections when flashing through forests. Ghia wanted a more raked and sporting one. Eventually we won.’
20 September 1983 Bob Lutz (by that time running Ford’s worldwide automotive operations from Detroit) chaired a meeting in London, where approval was finally given to spending $293,000 on the first prototype: one car – no more, just one car – could be produced. Now the rush really intensified.
Along with expert help from ART (the Woolaston, Glos, firm in which John Thompson and Tony Southgate were involved), who built the first chassis tub, it was hoped to get the prototype running by January 1984. Even though Turner had been reluctant in 1983, FF Developments (‘Ferguson’ as they were still known by almost everyone) got the job of designing the four-wheel-drive system; JQF of Easton Neston, near Towcester (their premises were in Lord Hesketh’s mansion), looked after the re-engineering and slight enlarging of RS1700T engines from 1786cc to 1803cc; while a specialist in South Wales, Ken Atwell (maker of the GTD40 kit car), was hired to make the original body moulds.
By this time the official model name – RS200 – had been chosen, and would appear on every Ghia sketch thereafter.
It could not be done overnight, but time was now definitely the enemy.
January 1984 Turner held his annual preseason motorsport press conference in London, where he stonewalled all media questions about new models. Immediately afterwards, in a private briefing, I learned that the first ART chassis/tub had been completed, the rest of the running gear was making steady progress, and Ghia had satisfied Ford with its final styling suggestions. A clay mock-up was being completed in Turin and would shortly be transported to Ken Atwell in South Wales. Unhappily, the timetable was already slipping, and there was now no chance of getting the car on sale by the end of 1984.
12 March 1984 This was The Big Day – for everyone from Hayes downwards, and especially for Turner. At long last Ford’s top brass would see the completed car (beautifully finished and liveried for the occasion, though it was yet to turn a wheel) for the first time. And the cloak-and-dagger aspect was maintained to the very end.
Instead of showing off the car at Boreham, or even in the styling studios at the company’s design/development HQ at Dunton, an upstairs showroom at Ford’s personal export garage in Balderton Street, off London’s Oxford Street, was chosen. Stuart Turner, John Wheeler and Mike Moreton were all there to make the presentation – Turner making the marketing pitch, Moreton the manufacturing survey, and Wheeler the whys-and-wherefores of the technical layout – and all were anxious to get speedy approval.
Their visitors, led by Bob Lutz and joined by Alex (later Lord) Trotman, were impressed – and so they should have been, for it had taken only 5½ months to progress from project approval to having a car to show. What followed seemed surprisingly straightforward.
The request to build five more preproduction prototypes, followed by a further $600,000 to be spent on testing, development and certification work, came first, followed by instructions to Mike Moreton to finalise a production contract with an outside concern. Given a chance, the renowned petrolhead Bob Lutz would have driven the car out into Oxford Street for its first trial, but that was premature, even by his elevated standards.
Even so, after the directors, and then Prince Michael of Kent, had taken a look at the new machine, I was briefly allowed into the upper sanctum in Balderton Street. So there it was… and that was what the original phone call of January1983 had been all about.
Now, though, Ford’s job was to follow up by turning the pretty prototype into 200 production cars. Not only did they have to refine the design, but they had to find a location at which to build the 200 cars – and that would take them until the end of 1985. Time truly was running out.
Thanks To Canepa Classic and Collector Cars, canepa.com.
1986 Ford RS200 (road spec)
Engine 1803cc mid-mounted DOHC four-cylinder, 16 valves, Garrett turbocharger, Ford/Bosch fuel injection
Max Power 246bhp @ 6500-7000rpm
Max Torque 215lb ft @ 4000-5000rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, four-wheel drive, three viscous-coupling LSDs, adjustable torque split
Steering Rack and pinion, unassisted
Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers
Brakes Discs, four-piston calipers, no servo
Top speed 150mph
‘We need a new Group B car. I’m calling several people for their views. Can we talk? What do you think?’
Clockwise from above Fiesta vents and switchgear outshone by red torque-split lever in cockpit; 420bhp Ford-Cosworth turbo four; rear clamshell lifts to reveal the RS200’s engine and transmission.
LIVING WITH AN RS200
Graham Robson ran one as a daily driver in the ’80s While between 20 and 30 RS200s were used in motorsport, the rest mainly went into the heated garages of collectors. Back in the mid-1980s, only two individuals ran them as ‘daily drivers’: one was Bob Howe, the man tasked with selling every car, and the other was yours truly. Back then I was running the Ford-controlled Owners’ Club, and writing much service material about the cars.
Both of us changed our cars frequently but what Ford really needed was for us to provide the ‘endurance’ mileage experience on cars that might otherwise be unfamiliar even to the manufacturers. It followed that we were probably the only individuals who got used to being swept under the entrance barriers at Boreham: ‘We know that there are only two of you running RS200s every day, so we let you in…’ Even the gate guardian, a bossy fellow known as ‘Cosworth’, got used to us. Howe also carried out demonstrations to every customer who visited him to assess a car, and completed over 100,000 miles. Over four years I had the use of four cars and covered 85,000 miles, which included pursuing the Pirelli Classic Marathon to and from Cortina in Italy.
One got used to treating an RS200 gently first thing in the morning, until the engine oil pressures came down to operating levels (or you’d suffer a burst pipe – that happened to both of us), and to resisting all attempts by Capri 2.8i or Sierra RS Cosworth owners to get involved in open road races – which they would always abandon after trying to emulate the RS200 on corners or roundabouts.
Once we got used to the abysmal performance of the heater, zero rear visibility for the driver, and the abrupt clutch operation that required a Master’s degree in subtlety, life could be, and usually was, blissful. It helped if we kept away from traffic jams (for a BDT engine could be tempted to boil over), but there were compensations. I might be ugly, but when I was driving my RS200 every pretty girl seemed to smile.
The FIA demanded 200 cars for Group B homologation – and Ford was no less creative than others in achieving that Words Graham Robson
200: the magic number
Car makers have always had to build a certain number of new cars, and prove it to the FIA, before they could be used in motorsport. It’s called ‘homologation’ and the cheats looking for loopholes have been active for many years. You want examples? Well, Vauxhall with two Chevette HSs when they claimed to have made 400, Lancia with 190 of the Stratos when they claimed 500, Austin-Healey’s 3000, which started using aluminium cylinder heads before selling a single one, Ferrari with just 39 250 GTOs when they should have had 100, BMC with just two Mini-Cooper 970Ss when they claimed 1000…
So the FIA tightened things up in the 1980s and started to demand proof – real cars, all to be lined up, all to be counted – before allowing them in. From 1982, Group B homologation demanded 200 cars to be built. Lancia (with the Rally 037), Peugeot (with the 205 T16), and Audi (with the short-wheelbase Quattro) all followed the rules, while Lancia (with the Delta S4) and Austin-Rover (with the Metro 6R4) were sure to follow.
In 1985, therefore, Ford set out to build 200 RS200s, looking for speedy homologation, but it just made it – only just, mind you – by the end of January 1986. That’s what the much-publicised group shots from the Shenstone factory are all about. Some of the last cars were thrown together and looked suspiciously incomplete; not long after the FIA inspection team flew home, no fewer than 46 of them were hastily stripped out, and the parts put on the shelf at Boreham as spares-on-the-hoof.
Ford, however, had done the honourable thing, originally making six prototypes and 194 ‘production’ cars, before Bob Howe became a one-man sales department at Boreham and started finding customers. It took until mid- 1989 to shift the last, after which the ‘replica’ and ‘cloning’ industry got under way.
Above Care to count ’em? The RS200 ‘production line’ at Reliant’s factory in Shenstone, Staffordshire – chosen because of the company’s expertise with plastic bodies.
Following the fireworks
The RS200’s Group B rallying career was all too brief – though it led to domination elsewhere Words Graham Robson.
Now you saw it, now you didn’t… although the FIA’s abrupt ban on Group B rallying meant that the 420bhp RS200 competed only for a year, for Ford fanatics it was a glorious period. Malcolm Wilson drove to victory on its first outing – the Lindisfarne rally, September 1985 – while in 1986 there were 19 outright wins in six countries, almost all at European championship level.
Because of the ban after the death of Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto in the 1986 Tour de Corse, the factory’s World Championship campaign had barely got started, yet cars driven by Stig Blomqvist and Kalle Grundel set fastest stage times on all four of them, and recorded third overall (in Sweden) and fifth (in the Lombard-RAC). It was bad luck (broken wheel studs) that prevented outright victory in the Acropolis, where they led for a time, and where their pace on Greece’s rough stages disturbed the arrogance of Peugeot and Lancia rivals.
In a few short months the RS200 proved that it could win anywhere and everywhere – from icy Scandinavia to the heat and dust of Spain, and from the twisty tarmac of Holland and Belgium to the gravel-surfaced stages of Great Britain. Here at home, and in his very first year in a competitive Group B car, Mark Lovell won the British Rally Championship outright – and this was only the beginning for what seemed to be a remarkable car. The four-wheel-drive system not only proved that it was effective, but that it could excel on all types of surface.
In the meantime, Mark Rennison bought one of the first non-‘works’ cars, had it prepared for loose-surface sprint events, and immediately began to dominate the British rallycross scene. Once ex-works rally cars became available, there was a rush of customers from all over Europe to emulate him, and to use such machines, and the RS200 would set every winning standard for several seasons to come.
For 1987, and until the FIA stepped in, Boreham’s chief engineer John Wheeler had been planning an ‘Evolution’ type (of which 20 would have to built), which would not only have been 100kg lighter but would have used the brand-new 2.1-litre Hartpower BDT-E version of the famous Ford 16-valve engine. On its first full-power run in 1986, the BDT-E had pulled more than 500bhp, while 600bhp was seriously forecast for the near future. Later, rallycross entrants proved that even this was a conservative estimate.