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GROUP S FORD RS200: THE CAR THAT NEVER WAS

Posted by Matt Bell on 20th May 2021

When Group B rallying was cancelled, plans were drafted for a new Group S category. Sadly, those plans never materialised but Ford’s chief rally engineer, John Wheeler, was determined to make the Group S Ford RS200 a reality – so built one of his own. Here it is…

Feature from Fast Ford. Words and photos: Robb Pritchard

After spending two-and-a-half years developing the ill-fated rear-wheel-drive Mk3 Escort-based RS1700T, Ford was a little late to the Group B party with the sublime Ford RS200 in the mid 1980s.

Debuted on the 1986 Swedish Rally (where Stig Blomqvist recorded a third-place finish in what would be the RS200’s best result in world rallying), it was considered technologically superior to many of its rivals. But the short development phase meant – at world championship level, at least – the Ford RS200 only got to shine against the well-established opposition from Peugeot, Lancia and Audi on the Swedish, Acropolis and RAC rallies. At national level it fared somewhat better by winning the British and several European championships. But relegated to history in the same year of its launch, the whole project is filed under the heading ‘What could have been’.

Looking back, it seems obvious that the high-risk nature of Group B was unsustainable but cancelling the entire prototype class in favour of the production-based Group A left every manufacturer – with the notable exception of Lancia – without a competitive model.

What had been anticipated for 1987 or 1988, albeit only theoretically, was the introduction of a class of cars that would have kept the prototype looks, technology and innovation but would have been powered by production-based engines: the fabled Group S.

With just ten cars needed for homologation rather than the previous 200, it was an attractive idea for many manufacturers. With several cars in development at the time (such as the Toyota 222D, Lancia ECV and a mid-engined Audi), the sudden change of regulations left lots of projects stillborn. The Group S Ford RS200 was one of them…

Group S Ford RS200: Becoming a reality

Engineers, though, have an innate desire to see their creations brought to reality. And John Wheeler, Ford’s chief rally engineer in charge of the original RS200 project, was no different. He knew that with a few modifications – tweaks that never got a chance to be developed on the original programme in the 1980s – he could build a new car that proved the RS200’s potential.

A labour of love in his spare time, John started work making the mythical Group S Ford RS200 a reality way back in 1987, and had the rolling chassis on its wheels in 1990.

“The original RS200 had a lot of innovations that would have made it an incredible car on the stages, and it always seemed quite a shame to just shelve all of that,” John says. “So I persuaded Ford Motorsport director Stuart Turner to let me pursue the build of the RS200 Evolution Group S design on my own, with the idea that if it proved feasible a further ten or 20 cars could be built for alternative forms of motorsport. He supported me and helped me buy redundant material from the rally programme.”

The donor vehicle was a crash-damaged chassis that had suffered rear-end injury in a rallycross event. It was ideal, as it came at a healthy discount and he wanted to heavily revise the front and rear structures.

The original RS200 had front- and rear-beam structures complemented by bolt-on tubular upper framework. This was a legacy of Group C race-car design, and apart from not being very weight-efficient in the rally application, showed structural deficiencies in severe off-road events. It was a good idea on paper, but on the harsh stages of the Acropolis the joints came so loose that the team ended up welding them together.

John’s new version has the rear upper framework integral with the roll cage structure and the complete lower subframe removable as a unit. As well as providing increased structural integrity it saves a significant amount of weight. With modern composite materials in the bodywork – a blend of FRP, Kevlar and carbon fibre – the Group S version is a significant 150kg lighter.

Cossie Power

At the heart is a 2.0-litre YB block, found in the Sierra Cosworth, which dominated touring car championships for many years, as well as being Ford’s first Group A-era rally car. Easily capable of producing upwards of 500bhp depending on turbo spec and boost level, it’s currently set at a very healthy 485bhp, which is enough for John to have fun on the demonstration events he takes the car to. A BorgWarner EFR 6258 turbo with variable boost settings has replaced the original Garrett unit.

The innovative transmission system, with a front-mounted transaxle that provides the dream front-to-rear weight distribution of 49/51 remains, as does the double shock per corner set-up. The rear suspension, together with the new structure, is significantly redesigned, with the upper wishbones and close-coupled twin dampers now interchangeable with the front units.

But another significant improvement is the six-speed sequential gearbox developed specifically for the car by Mike Quaife.

“Back in the day the drivers liked the five-speed dog ‘box as they believed with a sequential it would be impossible to get down from sixth to third. I knew it could be done, though… and I love it. Having the rapid shifting and the spread of six gears transforms the car.”

As is evident from anyone who remembers, or watches YouTube videos of the era, safety wasn’t exactly the paramount concern of the Group B era. Speed and poor spectator control were part of the problem, but so were the cooling arrangements for mid-mounted engines. With oil coolers installed all over the place to catch air drawn in by the plethora of vents and scoops it necessitated lots of vulnerable piping, and spraying a hot turbo with oil was a recipe for immediate and devastating disaster.

Cool Runnings

To remedy this, John came up with an inventive cooling design – although he assures us it’s an old-school solution. “On the front-mounted radiator there’s a small bypass circuit serving the interior heater. The port from the back of the cylinder head, which normally serves the heater circuit, is split into two subsidiary circuits, one of which passes through the Modine oil cooler, and the other through the water-jacket intercooler, before joining back into the return pipe from the radiator.

“Therefore, the charged air from the turbo compressor passes through the water cooler, which is running at between 80°C and 90°C and is sufficient to get the 180°C turbocharged air down to 120°C. The turbocharged air  then goes through an air-to-air cooler and, with the ambient air at around 25-to-30°C, it is enough to reduce the charge-air to 45°C, which is what you need for optimum performance.”

The engine bay rearrangement meant the intercooler could be mounted lower down in a much better centre of gravity position, with ambient air channelled from a venturi duct on the roof. The sleeker lines then allowed proper airflow over the roof, so an aerofoil-shaped rear wing could be used instead of the previous solid one.

“If this had been done as an official Ford project, we’d have taken it to a wind tunnel and refined it more, but it’s clearly a more efficient design overall,” John confesses.

But unless you have a bank account as unlimited as the Group B regulations, building a prototype supercar is not such an easy task. And also having a full-time job with Ford’s continuing rally effort, as well as a stint at Aston Martin, large reserves of cash and spare time were rather limited throughout the ‘90s.

Wanting to do it right meant, for many years, the project proceeded slowly but involved a lot of input from the same people who were part of the original car: ACS undertook all fabrication work; John went to Gordon Spooner Engineering for the vehicle build; FF Developments took charge of the transmission and driveline; mountune looked after the power unit; for the bodywork Steve Gignor in Bourne; the late Mick Jones and Baz Cannon (in his Rally World preparation company in Essex) helped put it together and get it stage-ready.

Group S Ford RS200: Keeping Active

Group B monsters are stunning machines to look at – especially true unicorn examples like John’s Group S version – but watching them being blasted around forest tracks at full chat is what really blows the mind. Several non-competitive show events for these monsters take place around Europe, one of the best being the Eifel Rally held in the rolling hills around the little town of Daun in western Germany. And being in the passenger seat adds a whole new element to the thrill…

The first thing on opening the Sierra-shaped door is an overwhelming sense of sadness about how many families of Smurfs had to die for their blue furry skins to cover the dashboard.

The second is that I don’t think I need the full five-point harness just for a ride up the road… Or do I?

“Yes, you do,” John says quietly. John wanted to see if the slight smell of petrol was a leak somewhere in the system… and the test was to put his right foot on the floor and leave it there to see if there was any misfire or if that smell of fuel got any stronger! Old-school solutions for old-school technology.

An airfield with a long strip of wide tarmac seemed a safe enough place for the systems check but with a 0-to-60 of around three seconds, I wasn’t prepared for the visceral brutality of an RS200 in full attack mode and, all of a sudden, the runway didn’t seem that long.

At just about the moment I was going to point out the rapidly approaching bushes at the end of the tarmac John stomped on the brakes and the deceleration was hard enough to pull out my earphones and yank my glasses off. In the sudden ear-splitting noise and jarring G-forces he somehow managed to do a U-turn and, with arms significantly heavier than the pull of the earth, I didn’t put my glasses back on for fear of impaling my eyeballs.

So when John decided to use the landing markings as chicanes, the jolting changes of direction turned into a confusing blur, which to the best of my cognitive abilities felt much like an accident – severe enough to conjure up thoughts about what I hadn’t yet achieved in life.

“How was that?” John asked before I realised we’d come to a stop. “All right,” I mumbled. It’s important to keep a veneer of professionalism in situations like this. I had no idea where my earphones had gone. Trying to conceal how much I was shaking, what struck me most was that such trauma was caused in a car that is essentially 35 years old.

To imagine the ultra-talented drivers who could manhandle the car like that over the testing stages of the WRC, with thick crowds lining the route, almost beggars belief.

And just as impressive, of course, are the engineers who conceived, designed and built these fire-spitting beasts to make them into the monsters that attracted such crowds and posters that adorned bedroom walls. Mine included. Hats off to John Wheeler and all involved with the mighty Group S Ford RS200 project.

As John’s unique Group S Ford RS200 proves today, Ford’s Group B rally monster of the mid-’80s definitely had the potential to be a winner if fate hadn’t conspired against it.

But while there’ll only ever be one John Wheeler-built Group S version, John admits that with the unprecedented interest in modern retro performance cars, he thinks that there is still potential for a limited production run.

And he’s not the only one. RS Retro, a UK company (based in Essex, of course!), is now offering new-build, fully road-legal RS200s, available with a wide range of engine and transmission options. So, have we really seen the last of the mighty Ford RS200…?

Who is John Wheeler?

At Ford: 1980 to 2000s
Career highlights: Team leader on RS1700T project, designed the concept for the RS200 project, chief engineer on rally improvements for Sierra Cosworth, heavily involved in design, development and production of the Escort Cosworth
Inspired: RS200, Escort Cosworth, Focus RS, Focus RS Mk2

London-born John Wheeler was always interested in automotive engineering, and came to Ford almost by chance in 1980, after spending years with Porsche. He was a rising star in the chassis area at Porsche (this including work on racing sports cars) when in 1980 he answered an Autosport advert for a job at Boreham.

Once there, he led the team that designed the stillborn Escort RS1700T and lobbied in vain for a four-wheel-drive version to be developed. Later his concept for the RS200 evolved into the 200-off supercar, after which he became chief engineer on the rally improvement of Sierra RS Cosworth cars and made remarkable detail improvements to the rear-drive rally cars. It was in this time that he also made great strides in improving the Sierra XR4x4 as a competent loose-surface/winter car for rallying.

From 1988 he was one of the prime movers behind the concept, evolution and progress towards production of the new ACE (Escort RS Cosworth) project.

In the mid-1990s, a spell as Aston Martin’s chief engineer (the V12-engined DB7 was developed in his time there) then led to his return to Ford’s technical headquarters at Dunton and in Germany, where he spent years in the 2000s running the Focus RS and Focus RS Mk2 design and development projects.

Now retired and living in Germany, he still enjoys getting behind the wheel of a few fast Fords, including his one-off Group S-spec RS200 in rallying events throughout the summer.

Tech Spec: Group S Ford RS200

Engine:

2.0-litre Cosworth YBB built by mountune, mountune-spec cams, ported head, BorgWarner EFR 6258 turbo reverse-mounted (exhaust towards front of engine) on custom exhaust manifold, custom exhaust system, modified sump to suit mounting angle of engine, modified YB inlet manifold, injection rail and plenum, Aeromotive adjustable fuel pressure regulator, custom cooling package with air-to-water chargecooler, additional custom air-to-air intercooler with roof-mounted carbon venturi air feed, custom oil cooling/breathing system

Power:

485bhp (estimate)

Transmission:

Quaife six-speed sequential gearbox, four-wheel drive with RS200 Ferguson viscous coupling centre diff, front mounted transaxle and rear diff

Suspension:

Revised Group S-spec front and rear tubular subframes, double-wishbone layout with twin dampers and springs per corner, bladed anti-roll bars, fully rose-jointed and fully adjustable throughout

Brakes:

AP four-piston callipers, 330x32mm ventilated discs all round

Wheels & Tyres:

Speedline 8.75x18in with various assortment of tyres depending on event

Exterior:  

Lightweight FRP/carbon fibre/Kevlar RS200 composite body panels, twin fuel tanks (one per side), RS200 rally livery

Interior:

RS200 dash and switchgear, Sparco seats

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