Insane drivers the world over have enjoyed rally racing in one form or other since the invention of the automobile more than 100 years ago. From the outset, victory has been determined not just by speed and handling, but by reliability, durability, and the sheer determination of drivers who can push their cars and their minds to the very limits.
Rally reached its peak form in the late 1980s, when Group B rules led to cars that performed so viciously, even the world's best drivers couldn't tame the power at their fingertips. The combination of all-wheel-drive with massively tuned forced induction engines and spectator lined courses proved too devastating for the rally world, and following a series of high profile crashes which resulted not only in the deaths of rally drivers but also many spectators, the rules which governed the sport clearly needed changing.
Rally evolved into Group A and then WRC rules, each designed to keep the cars a step tamer, with the intention that reliability and driver ability would determine wins rather than sheer power output. Nonetheless, thanks to the publicity of images of race cars drifting through snow and gravel alongside cliffs and canyons, manufacturers the world round pushed their automotive technology to the brink, and sometimes beyond.
Read on to learn the history of 15 of the world's wildest rally cars, each of which helped to shape the development of racing and thanks to strict homologation requirements, even the street legal vehicles around us today:
15 Ford Escort RS Cosworth
Following the end of Group B competition, which came about partially because of a fatal crash involving the Escort RS Cosworth's predecessor, the Group B RS200, Ford needed to re-envision their goals in rally racing.
Utilizing a similar Cosworth-designed engine, Ford set out in the early 90s to create a race winner that stayed within the rules.
Easily recognizable thanks to its rear wing which created 19kg of downforce, the Escort RS Cosworth employed a Garrett T3/T04B Hybrid turbocharger paired to an air to water intercooler, with power sent from the mid-mounted 2 liter engine to all four wheels in a 34/66 front to rear ratio. Despite significant turbo lag at low RPM's, the car managed to net eight WRC wins spanning from 1993 to 1997. For the streets, Ford produced 2,500 homologation specials of the Escort RS Cosworth boasting 227 hp and 229 lb-ft of torque in the 2,800 pound car.
14 Ford Focus RS WRC
Ford replaced the Escort RS Cosworth with the new for 1999 Ford Focus RS WRC. After debuting in Monte Carlo, the Focus RS notched its first victory at the Safari Rally Kenya. The car is a ground up redesign, based on the publicly accessible Focus but featuring all wheel drive and a turbocharger for increased power.
Unlike the Escort RS Cosworth, the Focus RS kept its engine ahead of the passenger compartment.
New features on the 1999 Focus RS included a sequential transmission and electronic differential control units, game changers when new that even up to 2010 allowed the car in its continually evolving form to eventually rack up 44 world rally wins and earn Ford two manufacturers world titles in 2006 and 2007. Road going Focus RS's employed a larger 2.5 liter engine in a lower spec than the racing version.
13 SEAT Córdoba WRC
The SEAT Cordoba WRC goes down in history having never managed to win a rally in its three year span of races from 1998 to 2000. Still, thanks to its up to 500 hp output (from an engine shared by the VW Golf!), the car did seem to somehow always stick around the top of the standings in its few appearances. This could likely be due to a revolving stable of drivers and minimal manufacturer support, though the car's design itself is highly suspect, as well.
The SEAT Cordoba WRC's powerful engine was mounted above and ahead of the front axle, with its transmission mounted transversely beside it. This led to a high center of gravity, combined with a weight distribution that heavily favored the front axle and led to copious understeer, forcing the car's drivers to slow down or risk flipping. No wonder the car pictured above seems about to tip over.
12 Skoda Octavia WRC
Czech manufacturer Skoda threw its hat into the rally game with the introduction of the Octavia WRC in 1999. Despite employing legendary drivers like Stig Blomqvist and Didier Auriol, the team never managed to peak higher than a third place finish during the span of years from 1999 to 2003, when the Octavia was replaced by the Fabia WRC.
Nevertheless, the Octavia WRC certainly looks the part of a rally champion, especially pictured above in lifted and snorkelled form. After trying out a front-wheel-drive version with even less success, the Octavia WRC was born with what had become standard all wheel drive. In 1999, the car competed in fully half of the worldwide rally races during the year, a testament to the car's reliability, but in the end won nothing better than a fourth place finish.
11 Subaru Legacy RS Turbo
Subaru is obviously best known for its Impreza, WRX, and STI cars, but before the release of those world-beaters, the Japanese all-wheel-drive pioneer raced its larger sedan, the Legacy RS Turbo, which debuted with the turbocharged flat-four EJ engine that would eventually become a staple of the brand.
Subaru raced the car from 1990 to 1993, when it was replaced by the smaller and nimbler Impreza 555.
Despite its bulkier form, the Legacy RS Turbo managed to perform quite well, and its two second place finishes among a series of close races are what led Subaru to fully commit to building a car from the ground up to compete in world rallying. The Legacy managed a first place finish at Rally New Zealand in its final year, which led to its retirement.
10 Subaru Impreza 555
Subaru unveiled their purpose-built Impreza 555 in the middle of the WRC 1993 season for Rally Finland, when one of the two cars managed a second place finish after the other crashed in the first stage. The Impreza platform has evolved extensively over the course of the last 24 years, but the distinctive paint job of the Impreza 555 makes the car instantly recognizable the world over.
In the final year of the 90s, Subaru released the WRC99 version of the Impreza to moderate racing success.
However, the WRC99 model set a historical precedent that would revolutionize rally racing, as it was the first rally car to feature paddle shifters rather than a traditional or sequential shifting transmission. Paddle shifters would become ubiquitous until their outlaw in 2011.
9 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo Tommi Mäkinen Edition GSR
Mitsubishi's answer to rival Subaru's success led them to modify what had been a Group A car, essentially de-tuning it to meet the lower spec WRC standards of the 90s. The resulting Lancer Evolution won four consecutive driver's titles, under the skilled piloting of driver Tommi Mäkinen in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999.
To celebrate the Lancer's victories, Mitsu released a Tommi Mäkinen edition to the general public in 1999. The car featured rally-inspired details like optional decals, Recaro seats, a titanium turbo, a Momo steering wheel, white Enkei wheels, and a tighter steering ratio. Technically a sixth generation Lancer, the car's upgraded internals included a limited slip differential alongside larger intercooler and oil coolers which allowed the engine to produce up to 330 hp in the highest spec models.
8 Lancia Delta HF Integrale Evo
Following the end of Group B rallying, and its ill-fated successor Group S, Lancia was forced to end the use of its 034 model, which is to date the final rear-wheel-drive car to ever have won a WRC race. Lancia had been developing an Experimental Composite Vehicle for when Group S rules took over, but scrapped the project in favor of utilizing a four wheel drive version of their street legal Delta model.
By the early 90s, the Integrale in its multiple variations had racked up six straight manufacturers championships.
The peak form of the Delta HF Integrale, the Evoluzione II, competed in 1993 in the 2 liter class, and its turbocharged 16 valve engine was good for what seems like a low 212 hp but a solid 232 lb-ft of low end grunt. Lancia also produced street legal homologation specials of the Integrale Evo II in nearly-rally form.
7 Toyota Celica GT-Four ST205
Part of what led to Lancia retiring the Integrale from competition was the increased pressure felt from Japanese race teams, mostly in the form of the Toyota Celica GT-Four ST205.
The ST205 used an anti-lag system on its turbo, allowing boost to remain high even during deceleration and gear shifts.
The ST205's legend stems mainly from a notorious illegal turbo restrictor, which was considered perhaps the greatest cheat in the history of automotive racing. The illegal device resulted in Toyota's ban from competition for one year, and all its wins being stripped from both the manufacturer and its drivers. So though the official record lists few wins by the ST205, in reality its dominance changed the face of rally racing in the 90s. Under homologation rules, Toyota produced street legal versions, but most of them remained in Japan.
6 Toyota Corolla WRC
Toyota returned to rally racing after their ban with the Corolla WRC, which immediately found success in its debut year, 1997. The hatchback model based on the street legal Corolla E110 actually utilized the same four wheel drive system as their illegal Celica GT-Four ST205, paired to a 3S-GTE engine that could theoretically handle up to 21 PSI of boost, though it now lacked the turbo restrictor cheat.
By 1999, the Corolla WRC had won Toyota the manufacturers championship the company desired as a form of redemption for the sins of the ST205, the car having finished first in Monte Carlo, Catalunya, New Zealand, and China. With rally success now on the books, Toyota turned its focus to Formula One, where it debuted a new racing team in 2002.
5 Mitsubishi Carisma GT Evolution IV
The Mitsubishi Carisma is the European version of the brand's successful Lancer model. For the European market, late 90s models of the Carisma were detuned from rally racing potential, featuring only 128 hp. However, where the Lancer Evo was not sold, the Carisma GT took its place in street legal form.
The Carisma represented a team up with Volvo, charging a chassis and factory with the Swedish company's S40 sedan. The Carisma GT is often forgotten in rally racing history, though its lackluster development and lack of popularity are what led Mitsubishi to focus more intently on the Lancer, which would develop into one of the most successful rally racers of the 2000s. Still, the Carisma remained popular with non-manufacturer tuners, who could churn up to 800 horsepower out of the 1.8 liter engine, an insane level of power in a 2,600 pound car.
4 Peugeot 405 Turbo-16 Grand Raid
The awesome safari stance and livery of the Peugeot 405 Turbo-16 Grand Raid belies its relative lack of success in all but a few races. Peugeot had begun developing a redesign of its 205 model beginning back in 1986, focussing specifically on a car that would win the Paris to Dakar rally and the Pikes Peak hill climb.
By 1990, Peugeot had gotten what it wanted, as the 405 Grand Raid was crowned the Dakar winner.
For the long African rally, Peugeot actually detuned the engine to help it cope with the lower grade African fuel available. Still boasting 400 horsepower, however, the car combined power with endurance, a long wheelbase, a tubular chassis, and a nearly 115 gallon gas tank to earn its victory.
3 Peugeot 206 WRC
Peugeot replaced with 205 and 405 models with its 206 WRC model for the 1999 season. Though the car narrowly missed winning a manufacturers title that year, losing to Tommi Mäkinen and his Mitsubishi Lancer, the 206 would go on to win three straight manufacturers titles beginning the next year, as well as a drivers title. Despite the safari rally success of the 205 and 405 models, Peugeot had failed to win either title since the dissolution of Group B racing.
The little hatchback 206 featured a 16 valve 2 liter turbo-four engine and all wheel drive, in a package with a lower center of gravity than its predecessors.
After a series of wins, however, the 206 began showing its age quickly, and by 2003 the impressive performance of Subaru and Ford forced Peugeot to begin developing a successor.
2 SEAT Ibiza 1.8 16v
The SEAT Ibiza 1.8 16v is a tiny car that nonetheless managed to achieve a level of historical significance. SEAT had not rallied for 18 years when they decided to enter a modified version of their minicar into the front wheel drive, two liter category for the 1995 competition season. The Ibiza immediately found success at the Acropolis Rally and, the following season, a redesigned Ibiza Kit car won the 1996 Rally Cup title, the first time a car had ever won in its debut season.
SEAT followed the historical season with more victories in the two liter, front-wheel-drive class during 1997 and 1998, and this success led the brand to allocate additional funding and compete in all-wheel-drive rally racing with its Cordoba WRC model. After a series of disappointing finishes, however, SEAT fully pulled out of rally racing after the 2000 season.
1 Peugeot 306 Maxi
The Pininfarina-designed Peugeot 306 was built from 1993 to 2002, and raced in the front wheel drive class against SEAT's Ibiza Kit car from 1995 to 1999. Where SEAT found victory and titles during those years of competition, Peugeot often found second or third place. The little hatch represented Peugeot's decision to focus additionally on cars that raced well on tarmac, as opposed to gravel and ice courses, where the 405 Grand Raid had performed so well. Despite minimal success in rally form, the car proved reliable and successful in touring, with a streak of Danish and Asian Touring Series wins beginning in 1999. The all-tarmac touring races were the beginning of the end for two wheel drive rally racing, which proved much less exciting than the higher performance, all wheel drive competition which had developed throughout the 1990s.