Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Five most unusual cars to enter the RAC rally

It's nearly that time of the year again.

No, not Rally Wales GB, which came and went a couple of weeks ago with very little excitement, but the far more interesting Roger Albert Clark Rally. The year the usual swarm of Escorts are joined by Steve Perez's incomparable Stratos, several continental Porsches and dark horse of the event the Fiat 131 Abarth of Julian Reynolds.

Over the years though the original RAC rally, which evolved into the Rally Wales GB and got itself stuck in the Principality in the process, saw some fairly unusual machinery take part. The word 'exotic' is well used to describe the cameos appearances by the little mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo, the Ford RS200, and the Lancia 037 Rally.

The word weird is probably best used to describe these machines though, the more unusual machines to venture forth into the British forests in November.

5. Panther Lima

At first glance the Lima, made by Blackpool based cottage industry Panther Westwinds, doesn't look a bad choice for a rally car. There's a tasty 2.3 lump taken from a Vauxhall Magnum, a compact two seater body and robust Vauxhall suspension. Admittedly sitting over the back wheels won't make it very comfortable in Kielder and the front wings don't allow for much suspension travel, but those are not the real problems.

You can basically rely on three things on the RAC Rally; the weather will be cold, wet and miserable. You want a car with performance, handling and reliability, but above all you want a roof. The Lima is ragtop. So hats off to intrepid crew Noel and Patrick Francis who completed the 1978 event in one.

4. Audi 80

It's difficult to believe now, but back in the 1970s Audis were cars for people who found Volvos too exciting. So we all wondered what was going on when a Works team of Group 4 homologated Audi 80s appeared on the 1979 RAC. Oversized and underpowered, they understeered their way through the stages handicapped by a weight distribution slightly less balanced than a hammer, and were hopelessly off the pace.

Well, less than a year later we found out what was going on when they unveiled the Quattro. Then in 1981 they brought the beast to the UK whereupon the Stuttgart based team used the experience they'd gained with the 80, and the Quattros awesome grip and power, to win every UK forest event they entered. After that Audi had a slightly different image.

3. VW Beetle

Beetles were decent enough rally cars in the sixties, and Porsche engined variants were regular staples of the continental rallycross scene in the seventies and eighties. However it's fair to say that by 1992 it was not the most competitive car around.

But if you can't make an impact with your cars speed or acceleration, you can always do it with the paint job. Dad Francis worked for Prodrive and was regular on the Historic rally scene in his Porsche. When he asked young Richard what colour he would like his car painted, he pointed to his Reebok trainers.

Richard finished the rally and didn't come last. He beat an MG Maestro, an Astra GTE, a Nova GSi and something else, which I will tell you about later.

2. Wartburg 353

Teams from the far side of the Iron Curtain used to be regulars on the RAC. The Skodas were genuinely good, and took home more than a score of class wins. The Ladas were fun, and once the official team stopped the Lada Challenge provided tail out action when the rest of the field were front wheel drive.

However there's not much you can say in favour of the poor old Wartburg. Front wheel drive, far too large for its 1150ccs and a two stroke, it was desperately sad to see the drivers pedaling the car hopelessly through the stage. The one virtue it had was that it was pretty robust - the engine apparently only had seven moving parts. They did actually move faster than you'd expect and one did once come second on a WRC event, although admittedly there were only three finishers.

If nothing else though the Wartburg team dispelled the myth of invincible German technology. For that we must be grateful.

1. Trabant 601S

The end of communism meant the end of the factory teams from Eastern Europe, but the odd privateer did make it over here. Two such intrepid adventurers were Michael Kahlfub and Gunter Friedemann who brought their Trabant over in 1992.

It was a long time waiting in the rain for the little car with its cardboard bodywork and 595cc two stroke engine, but I wasn't the only fan making the effort. Asked how he found the stages Kahlfub said they were smoother than East German autobahns.

He finished the rally and wasn't last either, coming just behind Richard Tuthill's Beetle and ahead of three hot hatches. I wonder if those drivers ever liven that down?