Monday, 25 February 2013

Given The Works

How fast were the classic rally cars of forty or fifty years ago?

They certainly seemed pretty quick to little me as I watched them flash past, but then I had nothing to compare them with apart from my dad's Lada.

Contemporary rally guides list brake horsepower and sometimes power to weight ratios, but these only give comparative figures and you can't rely on manufacturers figures anyway.

What I really wanted to know was how they compared to the cars I knew, or at least knew about.

Could Bodie and Doyle see off an Opel Kadett GTE in their Capri? Could James Bond outdrag a Sunbeam Lotus in his Aston Martin? And could my favourate rally car of all, the Lancia Stratos, compare at all with the world's fastest road going Ferrari?

Fortunately for us the magazine Autocar tested these cars and between 1965 and 1982 they rigged up their fifth wheels and recorded in minute detail the performance of these rallying beasts.

These figures from these tests come with some fairly major caveats though.

Firstly Autocar usually got the cars after a major rally, so the vehicles could well be a little tired.

Secondly taking off from a standing start is not natural for a competition car with a close ratio gearbox. First gear tends to be quite high, as a car club colleague found out when he tried production car trials in his rallying Skoda, and unless you get some wheelspin the engine is usually off cam once the clutch starts to bite.

A better test would be 30-70 or similar, but as 0-60mph appears to be the universal benchmark of performance, so these are the figures we'll use.

Here they are.

1967 BMC Mini Cooper 1275S - 9.7 sec
1969 Lancia Fulvia 1-6 HF Coupe - 9.6 sec
1967 Ford Lotus Cortina Mk 2 - 9.4 sec
1970 Datsun 240Z - 9.0 sec
1971 Alpine Renault 1600S - 8.8 sec
1965 Austin Healey 3000 - 8.2 sec
1978 Opel Kadett GTE - 8.0 sec
1968 Ford Escort Twin Cam - 7.9 sec
1971 Ford Escort RS1600 - 7.0 sec
1980 Saab 99 Turbo - 6.4 sec
1976 Ford Escort RS1800 - 5.9 sec
1978 Fiat 131 Abarth - 5.8 sec
1979 Triumph TR7 V8 - 5.2 sec
1981 Vauxhall Chevette 2300HSR - 5.1 sec
1980 Talbot Sunbeam Lotus - 5.0 sec
1981 Opel Ascona 400 - 5.0 sec
1982 Audi Quattro - 4.9 sec
1978 Lancia Stratos - 4.9 sec

The first question that leaps out from these figures is, how did the Mini Cooper and the Alpine Renault ever win anything? Mainly due to good handling and better teamwork rather than grunt, as you can see. 

In many ways these figures don't tell us anything we couldn't have guessed from the rallies themselves, namely that rally cars got a damn sight faster as the seventies progressed and that the Startos and Quattro were PDQ.

You also see what an amazing machine the Austin Healey 3000 was. It was rallying's first homologation special, and despite limited suspension travel which meant bumps were usually absorbed by the sump guard and the drivers bottom, it could probably have still been a winner in the early seventies if its various special tweaks hadn't been outlawed by rule changes.

The Opel Kadett was tested in Group 1 form. Although hardly a standard road car, it's notable that it still beat the top flight sixties machines.

It's interesting to compare these cars though with the top road going cars Autocar tested at this time.

The 3 litre Capri, which was the car every Old Spice wearing seventies man wanted, managed 0-60 in 8.6 secs, which is well behind the top Group 4 cars. To get equivalent performance we need to look at the supercars that Autocar tested.

In 1977 they clocked the Aston Martin Vantage doing 0-60 in 5.4 secs and the next year they gave the Ferrari 512BB a spin and it managed 0-60 in 6.2 secs, which makes it slower than all the rear wheel drive Group 4 cars.

Seeing as how the Ferrari has a nearly five litre engine, you may wonder where Enzo was going wrong when his top car can be ragged off at the lights by a Ford Escort.

Admittedly, being a road car you could make it faster by stripping out the cladding, stereo, jacuzzi and whatever else they fit to Ferraris and Aston Martins (probably a drinks cabinet), but to make it a rally car you'd have to add a roll cage, fire extinguishers and lots of under body protection so you'd probably be back to where you started from.

Equally you can tune the engines, but then you can do the same for the rally cars. By narrowing the power band up to 20bhp more could probably be wrung out of those engines, but that would make them virtually undriveable on a special stage.

You get the answer when you look at the top speeds. The Escort is geared out to 120mph, which is actually pretty fast for a rally car. This "lets the trees whip past quite quick enough for me" said Roger Clark. The Ferrari meanwhile was peddled at 163mph by the Autocar team and the Aston Martin was estimated to be good for 170.

In other words there was nothing wrong with the either machine, they're just  designed for something different. The rally car is just optimised to race to 100mph whilst remaining as small and light as possible.

However as any drag racer will tell you, the real test of a car is not 0-60, but how fast it can do the quarter mile.

Now these figures too come with a caveat. With the low gearing used on rally stages many of these cars were getting to their maximum revs in top gear and in the case of the Lotus Cortina it had actually red lined. The TR7 V8 was also being tested without a fifth gear, which probably didn't help.

Anyway, here are the quarter mile figures.

1967 Ford Lotus Cortina Mk 2 - 17.1 sec
1971 Alpine Renault 1600S - 17.1 sec
1967 BMC Mini Cooper 1275S - 16.8 sec
1969 Lancia Fulvia 1-6 HF Coupe - 16.7 sec
1978 Opel Kadett GTE - 16.3 sec
1970 Datsun 240Z - 16.0 sec
1968 Ford Escort Twin Cam - 15.9 sec
1965 Austin Healey 3000 - 15.6 sec
1980 Saab 99 Turbo - 14.8 sec
1971 Ford Escort RS1600 - 14.7 sec
1978 Fiat 131 Abarth -14.6 sec
1976 Ford Escort RS1800 - 14.5 sec
1980 Talbot Sunbeam Lotus - 14.0 sec
1981 Opel Ascona 400 - 13.9 sec
1979 Triumph TR7 V8 - 13.7 sec
1981 Vauxhall Chevette 2300HSR - 13.7 sec
1982 Audi Quattro - 13.7 sec
1978 Lancia Stratos - 13.5 sec

The main gainer here is the Triumph TR7 V8 which, once it's tires had stopped scrabbling for grip, was reeling in the opposition and I suspect if they'd run a race over 500m would have come home the winner. But also look how fast the big Healey is, nipping at the tail of the late seventies cars.

It's also interesting to see the Ford Escort and the Fiat 131 so close together. They were on the stages too, but that was generally assumed to be because the Fiat had better handling but the Escort the better engine. The Autocar team pretty much agree on this too, but the stop watch doesn't appear to show much difference at all.

However the supercars were also catching up by now, with the Ferrari also recording a 13.7 sec quarter mile and the Aston Martin bettering that with a straight 13, beating even the Stratos.

But as in rallying the co-driver very rarely gets to say "straight 400" this doesn't really matter. On real roads, rally cars are still the ultimate.


  1. Hello, Martin
    Thank you, interesting article!
    Could i ask you for the permission to translate it to russian and publish in my blog in LJ?
    Best regards

    1. Go ahead.

      Are there many Russian rally fans?

    2. Thank you.
      Not so much comparing with football supportes.