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Birth of an icon: 1984: Ford RS200

Ian Eveleigh
9 Apr 2009

The euphoria from an outright win for the RS200 on its competition debut was soured by tragedy at its next event in Portugal

The Escort had been a familiar sight on rally stages throughout the 1970s, and it would end the decade on a high, claiming the World Rally Championship manufacturers’ title in ’79. Yet just before this result was officially confirmed, Ford announced that it would not be entering a works team in the 1980 WRC season.

Although disappointing news for Ford fans, the thinking behind this decision was simple: the mk2 Escort was coming to the end of its life, and the competition in Group 4 would soon get much stronger with the arrival of cars such as Renault’s 5 Turbo and Audi’s Quattro. Ford knew it needed to take time out to create a car fit to take on these new rivals.

The all-new mk3 Escort was chosen as the starting point for a new rally car, to be called the Escort RS1700T, but big changes were needed. It had to be converted from front- to rear-wheel drive, and that in turn meant its engine – a Cosworth-developed 200bhp-plus turbocharged 1778cc four-cylinder, from which the car took its name – needed to be mounted longitudinally, not transversely as the engines in the road car. The work proved complicated, and the programme, which included a requirement to build 200 road-going versions of the car to satisfy the new Group B homologation rules, suffered delays. Meanwhile, Audi’s Quattro was demonstrating the benefits of four-wheel drive. The RS1700T was already behind the times.

Shortly after being appointed director of motorsport at Ford in 1983, Stuart Turner canned the Escort-based project. He knew something better was needed and outlined his vision for a car purpose-built for the task, only using parts from existing models here and there to help keep costs down.

The results were seen in prototype form at the Turin show in November 1984. Styled at the Ghia Design Studio by Filippo Sapino (with current Jaguar design director Ian Callum also involved), the RS200 bore little resemblance to any existing Ford beyond its Sierra windscreen and rear lights. It was different under its Kevlar skin too – former Lotus F1 designer Tony Southgate had created an all-new chassis for the car, an aluminium monocoque to which tubular-steel spaceframes were bolted, allowing them to be easily replaced if damaged.

The car’s mid-mounted engine was a development of the RS1700T’s but 1803cc in capacity and giving 250bhp in basic road-going spec, 420bhp on the works rally cars. All four wheels were driven through a complex drivetrain set-up – the transmission was located at the front to aid weight distribution, but this required some of the power already sent forward from the engine to be sent backward again to the rear wheels via a second propshaft.

The RS200 made its competition debut at the Lindisfarne Rally in August 1985, where future Ford team boss Malcolm Wilson drove it to an outright win. However, for the car to compete in the WRC the following year there was the small matter of homologation to be taken care of. While Ford’s competition department in Boreham built the works cars, the rest, with glassfibre rather than Kevlar bodies, would be assembled at the Reliant factory in Shenstone, Staffordshire. Two hundred cars were hurriedly put together in time for the FISA inspection in January 1986, and the following month Kalle Grundel finished third in his RS200 at the car’s WRC debut in Sweden.

However, things took a dramatic turn for the worse at the next event, Portugal, when an RS200 driven by Joaquim Santos collided with a group of spectators, killing three and injuring over 30. It was one of a series of incidents, culminating in the death of Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto in their Lancia Delta S4 in Corsica two months later, that would lead to FISA announcing that Group B cars would be banned from the end of the year. The RS200 would make only a handful of appearances during the rest of the season and would never better its podium finish in Sweden.

With the car ineligible for many events, demand for rally-spec RS200s plummeted, and without a WRC presence it would be years before Ford sold the last of its stockpile of £50,000 road-going RS200s. Yet despite this premature and ignominious end, the RS200 remains a special and fascinating car. It may never have had the chance to prove itself fully in competition, but it will always stand as one of only a handful of outlandish cars the likes of which we’ll probably never see again.

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