Group B legends: no holds barred

| 23 Oct 2017

The Group B era produced unforgettable road cars. Simon Charlesworth straps himself into contenders from Peugeot, Austin Rover, Ford and Audi

Mention its name and there is a twinkle in the eyes, followed by a smile. Speaking to 
Alex Karidis, owner of the featured Peugeot 205 T16 and Ford RS200, it is clear that Group B left an impression: “I lived through that era and went to a rally or two. People don’t understand now but, at the time, these cars were rock stars – they were bigger than F1. It was stupendous, such a buzz.

“I remember sitting at the traffic lights in my little Honda, when a works RS200 pulled up next to me with a T16. When they shot off, it was ‘Wow!’ It was in between stages on the Acropolis Rally and they were putting on a bit of a show. 
It was incredible to see them on the road.”

The regulations (see page 101) were few, free and easy. Engines migrated from front to rear-mid locations. There wasn’t a limit on power or boost or fuel. Advanced lightweight composite materials were encouraged, and upgraded ‘Evo’ models were also permitted annually.

The resultant spectacle was awe-inspiring. Mighty power. Mind-numbing acceleration. Huge speed. Heroic crews. Spine-tingling soundtracks. Wide-bodied machines dancing on the edge of control – and all coinciding with improved television coverage. Little wonder the fans went crazy. In places, crowds swarmed stages, playing chicken, getting plastered in dust and trying to touch the cars.

Some entries paid lip-service to their road cousins by loosely following their silhouettes, others didn’t bother. The cars built for homologation and sold to the public – almost as an afterthought – frequently lost money and were far from the polished product that their price-tags suggested. That, however, was more than 30 years ago and today, thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts, these machines live up to the white-knuckled promise those owners bought into.

The lasting legacy of the ur quattro is such that it flouts the rules of written English – a proper noun devoid of capital – without comeback. Sitting in the short-wheelbase Sport, you are reminded of this when you glimpse the reflected ‘quattro’ legend in the mirror. Yet while this car set the four-legged cat among the two-legged Group 4 pigeons, newer machines were starting to outperform it.

Lancia’s 037 may have been only rear-wheel drive and somewhat inconsistent, but with the pairing of Walter Röhrl and Markku Alén it beat Audi to the manufacturers’ title (making it the last two-wheel-drive machine to do so) in 1983. Halfway through the 1984 season, competition got even tougher with Peugeot Talbot Sport introducing the four-wheel-drive 205 Turbo 16.

The Audi Sport quattro, in S1 form, was the least successful car here because it was a Group 4 machine with a Group B tickle. The Sport, however, does make a strong road case for itself as a two-seater GT with sizeable turbocharged welly. The rear seats are implausible, a victim of the wheelbase shortening – 12.6in was removed for less weight (better distributed), plus greater manoeuvrability and rigidity. Other differences include a bodyshell featuring composites, shorter Audi 80 front doors, a more upright windscreen, 1in-wider alloy wheels under bigger flared arches and a 306bhp engine running 
an exhaust manifold that was designed for the works cars’ initial 444bhp output.

Peter Birtwhistle’s restyled front end is all about optimised air-flow, and it accentuates the thuggish functionalism of the Sport. Yet where I’m sitting – on Recaros in a two-tone leather-bound interior on the left-hand side – the atmosphere is different. In here, furnished with a unique dashboard, aesthetically far more modern than anything on longer quattros, you cannot see the Sport’s brutal rally attire.

Audi UK is about to rebuild the transmission, so kid gloves are donned when working the clutch, gearbox and throttle. The redline starts at 7250rpm and there’s a 3bar boost gauge located between the 8000rpm-plus rev counter and the 300kph speedo. At first, everything is well mannered and very quattro. The steering is direct but masked by a slight mushy over-assistance, as if it were one of those old 10p arcade driving games. Thanks to its immense traction and short wheelbase, it turns in far more keenly than memories of quattros past – this Audi is huge fun, garnished with daily-use practicality.

Good though the Sport’s dynamics are, it’s the twin-cam ‘five’ that steals the glory. There’s a gentle warble at low revs, but as the tacho needle approaches and passes 4000rpm – cue a spasm from the boost gauge’s needle – the off-beat gargle rises in intensity and volume. Lag is history and everything blurs but the view ahead.

Yes, it rolls and pitches through tighter corners, but you do have to remind yourself of the Sport’s vintage. We’re also getting rather rapid, so we leave our test track before Stig Blomqvist delusions overcome talent and transfer from the car that could be described as Group B’s genesis to one of the category’s latecomers. 
It also wouldn’t have happened were it not for the quattro, because Ford’s director of European Motorsport, Stuart Turner, might not have cancelled the much-delayed Escort RS1700T.

In 1983, Turner held discussions about 
the future direction of the company’s rally programme. The result, the RS200, would use lessons learnt during the RS1700T’s troubled development. Specified by Ford Motorsport’s chief engineer, John Wheeler, and designed to appear ageless while still looking like a Ford, the RS200’s composite body was built by Reliant, having been styled by Ghia with UK direction and incorporating some Sierra components.

The stressed aluminium-honeycomb chassis was designed by Tony Southgate and Wheeler. Unusually, the mid-engined RS200 featured a front-mounted transaxle and a drivetrain so complicated – including three limited-slip differentials – that it would have befuddled Brunel. Three front/rear torque settings were possible via a lever in the cabin operating the viscous coupling on the front of the FF Developments five-speed gearbox.

Speed of repair was essential, so both front and rear body sections were hinged for good access, and suspension spec (eg, from tarmac to gravel) could be changed quickly between stages.

It is believed that only 140 of the 225 RS200s were sold to the public, and it’s an odd mix of friendly Ford and single-minded rally jobsworth. Getting in, you might hit your head on the integral rollcage, but once seated there is plenty of room and Essex-ness in the detailing. The offset pedals are close together and the short-tempered clutch is either in or out. The manual steering is meaty and direct, and demands greater muscle through bends, while the five-speed gearchange is light and slick in its travels. The RS200 rides well and is very stable, with handling traits similar to a Sierra Cosworth; it is a touch roly-poly with a hint of understeer thanks to soft dampers and road tyres.

But everything is subservient to that turbocharged ‘four’. It is uncouth. It is coarse. At higher revs it feels slightly red-faced. Above 4000rpm the dump-valve sneezes and flutters when the clutch is depressed, interrupting the turbo’s manic swooshing. At 480bhp, the power of our featured example is rather more than the standard 240bhp, and getting closer to outputs enjoyed by the works’ 2137cc Evo II, allowing you to gorge on acceleration that is as mesmerising as it is moreish. You leave the RS200 feeling stunned, and not just because you’ve clobbered your bonce on the rollcage again. You’re speculating on what might have been following more time and development.

Despite having a longer chassis and using only the doors from its front-wheel-drive sister, the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 Série 200 hides its Group B-ness well. Peugeot Talbot Sport’s (PTS) M24-Rally project was born under Des O’Dell, Jean Todt and Bernard Perron, and came to 
fruition in Coventry at Talbot’s HQ in 1981 before moving to France. The car that would become the T16 made use of Chrysler Europe’s rally experience to promote Peugeot’s new make-or-break 205 hatchback. Mid-engined 
and four-wheel drive, its layout was inspired by the cancelled Lotus-powered Group B Talbot Horizon and designed to optimise weight distribution, traction and responsiveness.

Two hundred road cars were built, all in metallic dark grey and powered by a transverse XUT8 engine built on a diesel block, giving 197bhp and transmitting drive via a Citroën SM five-speed gearbox. ‘Our’ T16, though, is even more special. It’s been updated with the PTS Clubman kit (actually comprising four individual kits) that was developed by Jean-Pierre Nicolas and Angelo Marinello to raise the Série 200 to within 50bhp, 72lb ft and 309lb of works Evo 1 specification. The downside was that it added a whopping £39,500 to the £28,500 price-tag. The kits (only 25 were produced) also ensured brakes, steering and suspension could cope with its 300bhp ‘four’ without it spitting you off in a plume of tyre smoke and profanity.

Naturellement, you sit on the left and the 
dashboard, a modified early production 205 unit, is packed with instruments. It stylishly bridges the gap between the RS200 geezer and the leather-clad sophisticate of the Sport quattro. After a brief high-pitched Peugeot whinny from the starter, the exhaust is deliciously loud. The note romances your ears as the turbo swooshes and the wastegate snorts and sniffs. Pedals are positioned for dancing feet and the gearbox has six short ratios. To drive, it is 
glorious – enjoyable, tractable and beguiling.

It does feel more diminutive, though, and the narrow-gate, short-travel gearchange demands concentration. The front end feels nervy and twitchy – possibly due to too much spring poundage and not enough weight – but the T16 seems far lighter and more responsive than the RS200. Steering feel, speed and chassis turn-in are beautifully judged. The rear is faithful yet adjustable on the throttle. It rides well and, thanks to its shorter gearing and upgraded engine management, doesn’t feel noticeably slower than the RS200, despite the Ford’s power advantage. Even the weighting of the control surfaces is beyond reproach.

Cast an eye over Mark Donaldson’s MG Metro 6R4 Clubman 300 and clearly there is a difference between PTS’s Group B approach and that of Austin Rover Group Motorsport. 
If the Série 200 hides its motorsport genes well, the Clubman 300 does the exact opposite.

The Very High Performance Derivative (VHPD) of the Metro was overseen by John Davenport and designed, with input from Patrick Head at Williams Grand Prix Engineering, to fill the gap left by the retired Triumph TR7 V8. At first, thoughts involved fitting a Rover V8 under a rear-drive Metro’s bonnet, before a more sensible mid-engined alternative was suggested by Head – the six-cylinder rally four-wheel drive (6R4).

Early prototypes were powered by three-quarters of a Rover V8 until the quad-cam V64V was ready. Unusually for Group B, the 6R4 was naturally aspirated because, when the project started in 1981, it was felt that forced induction added complexity and unreliability. In standard Clubman tune, the V64V was capable of 250bhp; in International specification it could realise up to 410bhp (unfortunately, as turbocharging gained reliability and power, the MG was left behind). Two hundred 6R4s were built between August and October 1985, with the car being homologated by FISA from November. As with the RS200, the 6R4 just ran out of time following a long gestation and early troubleshooting.

Homologation Clubmans were sold as kits to the public for around £40,000 (price negotiable) and required some DIY assembly. The problem was, Austin-Rover had a lot of unsold 6R4s when the axe fell on Group B. The company negotiated a stay of execution on national rallies, provided cars were limited to 300bhp. Enter the Clubman 300, a 6R4 that was advertised at just £16,000 – again with room for haggling – that unsurprisingly sold out within 10 months.

If the 300’s lack of trim and Belga livery doesn’t get the blood excited, then donning headphones certainly gets cells fizzing. The engine is started. It whoops into life. Gran turismo refinement isn’t in its brief.

Everything is physical about the 6R4; it feels more like sparring than driving. If changing gear in the T16 is a flex of the wrist, here it’s a jab from the shoulder. The hefty steering’s responses are electric and those wide front tyres scrabble over imperfections. The 6R4 darts this way and that, until it is calmed at bigger speeds by the aero. Unlike the others, the pedal needs a kick in the guts to really get the brakes working.

The sharp-edged howl from the V6 is intoxicating. Power delivery is wonderfully linear. 
It’s hard to stick to the imposed 7000rpm limit because the engine revs so freely, provides 
such an aural thrill and your concentration is dealing with multiple demands.

“Take the headset off!” says Donaldson over the intercom. The howl is now far more intense – almost uncomfortable, in fact. It feels as if it’s 
in your skull, gnawing away at your brain from the inside. You can’t hear your thoughts but you can feel yourself grinning like a loon.

After a few laps, we swap positions and I get into the passenger seat. It is a mad flurry of noise, speed and g-force as Donaldson demonstrates how ductile the 6R4’s chassis is. Filled with schoolboy-like glee, I’m reminded of being face-to-face with a new 6R4 at an NEC Motor Show of yesteryear, wondering if it could ever be as impressive as it was imposing. Now I know.

It’s not often you get to tick four cars off your bucket list in one day, but which is best? Like a glutton at Willy Wonka’s warehouse, I don’t know where to start. The T16 is the most complete car – great handling and epic performance plus good usability – yet I was bewitched by the 6R4, even if only a masochist would contemplate using it on the road. 

Thanks to Alex Karidis; David Ingram at Audi UK; Simon Rudge Motorsport; Mark Donaldson:

WORDS: Simon Charlesworth
PHOTOS: Tony Baker/LAT Photographic


Audi Sport quattro

Sold/number built 1983-’84/214

Construction steel monocoque with steel 
and composite panels

Engine all-alloy, double-overhead-camshaft, 2133cc inline ‘five’, with KKK turbocharger, Bosch electronic fuel injection

Max power 306bhp @ 6700rpm

Max torque 258lb ft @ 3700rpm

Transmission five-speed manual, 
driving all four wheels

Suspension MacPherson struts, gas dampers, anti-roll bar rear longitudinal radius arms

Steering power-assisted rack and pinion

Brakes four-pot calipers, ventilated discs, with anti-lock system

Length 13ft 8in (4160mm)

Width 6ft 1in (1860mm)

Height 4ft 5in (1344mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 3in (2204mm)

Weight 2800lb (1270kg)

0-60mph 4.8 secs

Top speed 155mph Mpg 15.3

Price new £56,000 Price now £400,000


Ford RS200

Sold/number built 1985-’86/225

Construction aluminium honeycomb platform chassis, carbon/glass/aramid-fibre composite body with steel rollcage

Engine all-alloy, double-overhead-camshaft, 16-valve 1803cc ‘four’, Garrett turbocharger, Bosch electronic fuel injection

Max power 240bhp @ 8000rpm

Max torque 207lb ft @ 5500rpm

Transmission five-speed manual, 
driving all four wheels

Suspension twin coil springs, double wishbones, anti-roll bar

Steering rack and pinion

Brakes four-pot calipers, ventilated discs

Length 13ft 11/2in (4000mm)

Width 5ft 9in (1760mm)

Height 4ft 4in (1321mm)

Wheelbase 8ft 31/2in (2530mm)

Weight 2600lb (1180kg)

0-60mph 4.7 secs

Top speed 142mph Mpg n/a

Price new £50,000 Price now £200,000


Peugeot 205 T16 Série 200

Sold/number built 1983-’84/200

Construction steel monocoque and front subframe, tubular rear spaceframe, steel doors and composite panels

Engine all-alloy, double-overhead-camshaft, 16-valve 1775cc ‘four’, KKK turbocharger, Bosch electronic fuel injection

Max power 197bhp @ 6750rpm

Max torque 188lb ft @ 4000rpm

Transmission five-speed manual, 
driving all four wheels

Suspension coil springs, double wishbones, anti-roll bar

Steering rack and pinion

Brakes two-pot calipers with ventilated discs

Length 12ft 6in (3820mm)

Width 5ft 7in (1700mm)

Height 4ft 5in (1354mm)

Wheelbase 12ft 4in (2540mm)

Weight 2525lb (1145kg)

0-60mph 6 secs

Top speed 114mph Mpg n/a

Price new £28,500 Price now £200,000


MG Metro 6R4 Clubman 300

Sold/number built 1985-’86/200

Construction steel chassis and subframes, GRP, steel and alloy shell with integral steel rollcage and doors

Engine all-alloy, quad-cam, 24-valve 2991cc V6, Lucas-Micos electronic fuel injection

Max power c300bhp @ c7000rpm

Max torque c250lb ft @ 6000rpm

Transmission five-speed manual, 
driving all four wheels

Suspension MacPherson struts, 
adjustable anti-roll bar f/r

Steering rack and pinion

Brakes four-pot calipers with ventilated discs

Length 12ft (3657mm)

Width 6ft 2in (1880mm)

Height 4ft 11in (1500mm)

Wheelbase 7ft 10in (2391mm)

Weight 2200lb (1000kg)

0-60mph 3.2 secs (250bhp Clubman)

Top speed c110-120mph

Mpg n/a

Price new £16,000 Price now £150,000