The rally racing world is still going strong today. With how long the point-to-point motorsport has been going on, there’s a long list of great competitors. We’ve selected a few of the best rally cars from the past.
Many car shoppers care about a car’s performance. They want to know how fast can it go? How’s the handling? What about taking it off-road? One of the ways manufacturers show off the performance of their cars is rally racing. Dirt roads, tight turns, and high speeds create one of the most grueling and thrilling forms of racing. Rally car is one of the most esteemed stages in the vehicle racing world and nearly every manufacturer competes in one form or another.
Rally has a long history of iconic designs and renowned championship runs. Below, we’ve gathered some of our favorites from rally’s past.
Starting off the list is one of the most well-known liveries in racing, the Subaru World Rally Team 2000 Impreza WRX STI. Though Subaru World Rally Team has been racing since 1989, the iconic highlighter-yellow stripes and stars on a blue body wasn’t conceived until about the 1999 racing season. This new eye-catching design adorned new Subaru Impreza WRX STI bodied WRC performance cars and helped usher in the new addition of Subaru Rally USA.
The Subaru World Rally Team would take home the WRC (World Rally Championship) Drivers’ Championship 2 times, adding even more credibility to an already extensive resume. The Subaru Rally USA would go on to win 13 more championships in both Rally and Rallycross events. In 2008, the Subaru World Rally Team disbanded due to poor results and economic downturn. This left the newly accomplished Subaru Rally USA as the lone Subaru racing team, led by skilled drivers Travis Pastrana and David Higgins at the wheel. The USA team still uses the ever-improving Subaru Impreza WRX STI for events to this day.
Next up, the infamous Castrol Toyota Celica GT-Four. You may have seen this turbocharged AWD rally car before, possibly even connecting its colors to the famous Lego racing collection. Toyota Team Europe’s car earned the name “The King of Africa” thanks to its dirt track accomplishments. But this team’s record wins were tarnished in a cheating scandal.
Following the scandal, Group A rally restrictions added mandatory restrictor plates to vehicles and the cars were thoroughly inspected by WRC officials between every race. The Toyota team took to the rules in stride, passing every inspection and going on to win 3 WRC Championships from 1992 to 1994. In 1995, the Toyota Celica GT-Four went on a winning streak looking towards their 4th championship, that is until the Spanish Rally.
There, an over analyzing official noticed a hairline space between the restrictor plate and the intake. Subsequent investigation showed that the Toyota had a legal restrictor plate meeting WRC standard. However, hidden washers within the build created a small gap all the way around the restrictor plate and into the intake. The ½ cm gap may have seemed inconsequential at first glance, but testing proved it provided 50 extra horsepower to the team’s car. Toyota Team Europe was banned from competition for 12 months and tossed out of that year’s championship. This left legendary Colin McRae to make a championship run with the aforementioned Subaru World Rally Team.
Following Toyota’s downfall in WRC, one would assume Subaru as next top contender. But in 1995, it turned out the time had come for another Japanese company to make its mark in rally car. Tommi Mäkinen would go on a four-year championship streak in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo tuned and upgraded by Ralliart (a Mitsubishi Motorsport division). The red and white championship Lancer took the rally world by storm, proving itself against direct competitor Subaru for years.
After numerous of podiums over the years with Mitsubishi, Mäkinen would leave the team in 2002 and retire in 2003. Mitsubishi’s motorsports restructured soon after, eventually leaving of the WRC series altogether. While the Mitsubishi Lancer is still known for its rally prowess, Mitsubishi itself has not been in rally competition since 2003. The Lancer’s production ended following the Evo X in 2016.
Prior to the championship runs of Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Subaru, Lancia ruled the rally landscape. Lancia’s roots in rally racing predate that of the WRC as an established organization. The Fulvia and Stratos both carried plenty of victories through rally history, but the Martini Racing Lancia Delta is the most widely recognized and highly honored.
The AWD Lancia Delta Group A began its campaign on WRC in 1987. From 1987 to 1992, the Martini Racing Lancia Delta recorded 46 WRC 1st place finishes overall and secured a historic 6-year championship streak. Their championship record wouldn’t be beaten until 2004 by Sebastion Leob. Unfortunately, the WRC Lancia team dissolved in 1993 and Martini restricted their racing sponsorship program from WRC events to just the smaller Italian Rally Championship, a premature ending to an important an era in racing.
Lancia would have had trouble keeping its record had Audi still been racing. In the early 80’s, Audi was obsessed with rally car performance and development. The company created a rally team dubbed Audi Sport and handed the team multiple iterations of the Audi Quattro, including the famous Audi Sport Quattro S1. The turbocharged AWD rally vehicle is known as a driving force behind the implementation of dual-clutch transmissions, which allowed the car to shift without having to lift off the throttle, making it accelerate extremely fast.
The Audi Sport Quattro accomplished 4 podiums winning 23 events from 1981 to 1986. Most impressive of these was the wins by female driver Michele Mouton. In 1982, Michele came in 2nd overall making her one of the only female rally drivers in history to ever podium a WRC championship. She also took the Audi Quattro to the famous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 1985 where she not only won but set a new world record for the event. Audi would sadly end its rally stint in 1986 due to a series of accidents at WRC events.
Ford is well known in the world of rally thanks in part to Ford of Britain’s love of racing. Ford’s rally success truly began with the Ford Escort RS driven by Roger Clark. Roger Clark is well known for ending the British losing streak at the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) rally by winning the UK event in 1972. Roger Clark raced a Ford Escort again in the 1976 RAC rally. He went on to win the event, marking the first ever win in the WRC by a British driver.
Roger Clark’s resume with Ford boasts 40 victories, mostly in thanks to the Ford Escort. He would continue to race the Ford Escort for years outside of the WRC. Roger Clark’s legacy continues with the Robert Albert Clark Rally, which follows classic rally stages in Wales and only allows models prior to 1982, including the Ford Escort RS. The Escort was eventually discontinued in Ford Sponsored rally teams until its reintroduction with the 1992 Ford Escort RS Cosworth. While North America wouldn’t get to see any of the rally improved Escorts, it would eventually make its way to the States as an economy car.
Everyone knows the Mini. The compact, Britain-developed car helped lead the automotive industry toward more economical designs. But many aren’t aware that the Mini also has a bit of racing heritage. In the early days of motorsports, winning a racing event with a country’s car was akin to placing gold in the Olympics for that same country. The British Motor Company had worked with Sir Alec Issigonis to create an affordable car that was both compact and provided accommodating space. The Mini fit the bill, hitting the market in 1959 with a sideways engine and front-wheel drive.
To prove the Mini’s capability, it was entered into the 1961 Monte Carlo Rally… where it would encounter and accident and not finish. However, famous Formula One driver John Cooper caught wind of the Mini and helped improve its performance. You may recognize the Cooper name now being synonymous with the Mini brand. Mini would again enter the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964 with an all British team including Belfast’s own Paddy Hopkirk behind the wheel of the new Mini Cooper S. Racing against the likes of Mercedes and Saab, Paddy and the Mini were the underdogs but would go on to win the rally overall. Winning the Monte Carlo Rally made Paddy Hopkirk and the Mini household names. The Mini team were the last all British race team to win the event.