The heady days of Group B rallying (and racing) will always have a special place in the hearts of most motorsports fans. Introduced by the FIA in 1982, the Group B rules offered a vast amount of technical freedom for manufacturers. Although the OEMs had to produce road-legal versions, they were required to build just 200 to sell to the public in order to homologate their creations. Most of their vehicles (but not all) were based—however loosely—on road cars already in production.
What we got was a series of wild and wonderful machines, with massive wings, blistered wheel arches and body kits, all-wheel drive, and lashings and lashings of horsepower and torque. Perhaps too much of the latter, in fact: although Group B was a huge hit with the public, the cars were maybe too fast for the rally stages on which they competed. A string of fatal accidents eventually proved too much for the FIA, which banned Group B cars halfway through 1986.
But for those few short years, plenty of car makers queued up to have a go. Porsche’s 959 was built for Group B, as was the Ferrari 288 GTO. And Audi had a lot of success with its Audi Sport Quattro S1. The nice people at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville don’t have any of those three, but they do have some other Group B cars, both road-going and racing versions. What’s more, they were kind enough to let me have a good poke around them during my recent visit, and I even got behind the wheel of a couple. Let me tell you, doing so gave me a newfound respect for the brave men and women who drove them in anger.
Not your granny’s Metro
The MG (née Austin) Metro may be relatively unknown to American readers, but the supermini was a ubiquitous sight on British roads in the 1980s. Built to replace the Mini, it was a front-wheel drive hatchback that first arrived in 1980. What better car to turn into a flame-spitting rally car?
Developed by Williams Grand Prix Engineering and called the Metro 6R4, it ditched the transverse-mounted four-cylinder engine from under the hood. The rear seats went too, replaced instead with a naturally aspirated 3.0L V6 that could trace its roots back to the all-conquering DFV grand prix engine. While the road-going versions had to make do with 250hp (186kW), the race versions were much more potent, with about 410hp (306kW) on tap.
The 6R4 also got a cosmetic makeover, sprouting gigantic wings and body extensions that channeled the air to keep the car at least somewhat on the ground. Sadly, the 6R4 arrived quite late, only achieving homologation toward the end of 1985. Although one finished third in its maiden Group B rally, 1986 proved a more difficult year, with no 6R4s finishing the events in which they were entered. (However, many went on to find homes in the sport of rallycross.)
Driving the 6R4—even for just a few minutes on the museum’s grounds—was an experience. That V6 is just inches behind your head, separated by a Perspex screen. Even with mufflers, it’s loud, and, coupled with the heady aroma of hydrocarbons and the other smells you find in old race cars, it’s a treat for the senses. The driving position is antediluvian, dating from a time when “ergonomics” was considered a typo. The steering wheel is closer to the horizontal than the vertical, and it adjusts for neither rake nor reach—it is what it is, and you make do.
Things aren’t any better for your feet. As you’ll note from the interior shot, the throttle pedal is a huge old thing, with the brake and clutch squeezed in beside. In fact, there’s so little room that the first time I went for the brake, I also managed to hit the gas—not ideal in someone else’s car!
But the bad control layouts are all forgiven within a few feet of setting off. Despite its age, this is one seriously quick car, capable of hitting 60mph from a standstill in under three seconds. Just the thing to embarrass owners of McLaren 650Ss and Tesla P100Ds…
A Gallic alternative
The Lane’s other Group B cars are slightly tamer road-going homologation models, including a pair of Renault 5 Turbo 2s and a Citroen BX 4TC. Unfortunately, the latter of those hasn’t run in a while. But one of the Renaults was in fine form.
Like the Metro, the Renault 5 was a highly successful supermini, one that even sold on these shores under the rather odd Le Car name. It was an older design than the Metro, first appearing in 1972. And, also like the Metro, the racing version saw the front engine get ditched in favor of something more potent behind the driver.
First built in 1980, the Renault 5 Turbo was actually built for Group 4, which was replaced by Group B. The 5 Turbo featured a 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder engine mounted behind the front seats, good for 158hp (118kW). But that was developed for Group B use in the Renault 5 Maxi Turbo, which had 345hp (257kW), all of which went to the rear wheels.
Technically, the car we saw—called the Renault 5 Turbo 2—was a follow-up model built mainly for road use. But it’s none the worse for that. The Lane’s car was built in 1985, and it features a 160hp version of the turbocharged engine. While not breathtakingly fast like the 6R4, it’s still a quick car, weighing just 2,138lbs (970kg). Massive rear-wheel arch extensions and a profusion of vents and scoops distinguish it from the cheap and cheerful Renault 5s that filled France’s roads, giving the Turbo a huge amount of road presence.
From behind the wheel, things are much calmer than the race-spec Metro. The engine bay is covered in carpet, and it’s a quieter experience, although you still get those wonderful old-car smells. But like the Metro, you also have to suffer with rubbish ergonomics, particularly the angle of the steering wheel. That said, the Turbo 2 is a much easier car to drive around, and Renault sold more than 3,000 road cars between 1980 and 1986.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin