The history of rally cars

audi quattro a2, franz wittmann 1984

Although there had been exceptions like the outlandish Ford V8 specials created for the 1936 Monte Carlo Rally, rallies before World War II had tended to be for standard or near-standard production cars.

Auto manufacturers had entered cars in rallies, and in their forerunner and cousin events, from the very beginning. The 1894 Paris-Rouen race was mainly a competition between them, while the Thousand Mile Trial of 1900 had more trade than private entries. From the time that speed limits were introduced to the various nation’s roads, rallies became mostly about reliability than speed. As a result rallies and trials became a great proving ground for any standard production vehicle, with no real need to purposely build a rally competition car until the special stage was introduced in the 1950s.

Although there had been exceptions like the outlandish Ford V8 specials created for the 1936 Monte Carlo Rally, rallies before World War II had tended to be for standard or near-standard production cars. After the war, most competing cars were production saloons or sports cars, with only minor modifications to improve performance, handling, braking and suspension. This naturally kept costs down and allowed many more people to afford the sport using ordinary cars, compared to the rally specials used today.

Groups 1-4

In 1954 the FIA introduced Appendix J of the International Sporting Code, classifying touring and sports production cars for use in its competitions, including the new European Rally Championship, and cars had to be homologated in order to compete. The Groups 1–9 within Appendix J changed frequently though Group 1, Group 2, Group 3 and Group 4 generally held the forms of unmodified or modified, series production touring and grand touring cars used in rallying.

As rallying grew in popularity, car companies started to introduce special models or variants for rallying, such as the British Motor Corporation’s Mini Cooper, introduced in Group 2 in 1962, and its successor the Mini Cooper S (1963), developed by the Cooper Car Company. Shortly after, Ford of Britain first hired Lotus to create a high-performance version of their Cortina family car, then in 1968 launched the Escort Twin Cam, one of the most successful rally cars of its era. Similarly, Abarth developed high performance versions of Fiats 124 roadster and 131 saloon.

Other manufacturers were not content with modifying their ‘bread-and-butter’ cars. Renault bankrolled the small volume sports-car maker Alpine to transform their little A110 Berlinette coupé into a world-beating rally car, and hired a skilled team of drivers to pilot it. In 1974 the Lancia Stratos became the first car designed from scratch to win rallies. These makers overcame the rules of FISA (as the FIA was called at the time) by building the requisite number of these models for the road, somewhat inventing the ‘homologation special’.


In 1980, a German car maker, Audi, at that time not noted for their interest in rallying, introduced a rather large and heavy coupé version of their family saloon, installed a turbocharged 2.1 litre five-cylinder engine, and fitted it with four-wheel drive, giving birth to the Audi Quattro. International regulations had prohibited four-wheel drive in rallying, but FISA accepted that this was a genuine production car and changed the rules. The Quattro quickly became the car to beat on snow, ice or gravel; and in 1983 took Hannu Mikkola to the World Rally Championship title.

Groups N/A/B

In 1982 the FIA replaced the structure of groups in Appendix J. Rallying, with the young World Rally Championship, now allowed Group N for unmodified touring cars, Group A for modified touring cars and Group B for Grand Touring cars. The low production requirement and loose restrictions of Group B led many manufacturers to develop cars much further removed from production models, and so was created a generation of rallying supercars, of which the most radical and successful were the Peugeot 205 T16, Renault 5 Turbo and the Lancia Delta S4, with lightweight fibreglass bodies roughly the shape of the standard car tacked onto spaceframe chassis, four-wheel drive, and power outputs higher than 500 hp (370 kW). This particular era was not to last. On the 1986 Rallye de Portugal, four spectators were killed then two months later on the Tour de Corse, Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto went over the edge of a mountain road and were incinerated in the fireball that followed. FISA immediately changed the rules again: rallying after 1987 would be in Groups A and N cars, closer to the production model. One notably successful car during this period was the Group A Lancia Delta Integrale, dominating world rallying during 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992 – winning six consecutive manufacturer’s world rally championship titles, a feat unbeaten as of 2022. In the 1990s Japanese manufacturers Toyota, Subaru and Mitsubishi also dominated the world rally championships.

Rally Specific cars

Groups N/A/B were not exclusively used in rallying, A and N were also used in circuit touring car racing. Beginning with the ‘F2 kit car’ in the mid-90s, extensions to Group A and N began to emerge, these were modifications to touring production cars that made them ‘a standard rally car’. The World Rally Car formula, introduced to the WRC in 1997, became the flagship car in the manufacturer’s championship. This was followed by Super 1600 and Super 2000-Rally, standard formulas for lower classes.

Group R contained a full range of formulae for rally specific cars and was introduced beginning 2008. Cars ranged from budget/entry in the case of R1, to performance in R5. R-GT made provisions for grand touring cars in rallying for the first time since Group B had been banned. In 2019, the Group R ladder became the basis of a new Groups Rally, with hybrid Rally1 vehicles replacing the World Rally Car. This particular car could be built using a spaceframe chassis, another first since the banning of Group B.