There are few phrases that get petrolheads as fired up as ‘homologation special’. Owning one of these cars marks you out as a connoisseur, someone who appreciates the finer points of motoring; it also means that every drive you take, whether it’s getting up to hijinks down the local lanes or simply popping out for a pint of milk, will be directly linked to the high-octane thrills of motorsport.
Why is this? Well, it’s just the nature of the beast. Homologation cars need to exist in order for manufacturers to meet regulations and be allowed to go racing. Each series differs in its requirements: for example, in the insane Group B era of rallying, manufacturers had to build 200 road-going examples of their entrants and sell them to the public in order to homologate them.
That’s why we can enjoy the frankly ludicrous sight of the Metro 6R4, Peugeot 205 T16 and Renault 5 Maxi Turbo driving about with number plates!
Not all homologation specials are that extreme, of course. Some of them are, to be honest, a bit crap – like the Peugeot 206 GT, which basically existed to homologate the rally car’s longer bumpers (as a road car, it looked like a slack-jawed yokel with a mighty underbite).
And the Renault Laguna Airflow – a BTCC homologation car that was effectively a bone-stock base-model Laguna with a Touring Car front splitter and rear spoiler, along with steel wheels and no-frills interior.
So here, to help you sort the motorsport wheat from the bargain-basement chaff, we’ve pulled together our top ten homologation specials of all time…
Lancia Delta S4 Stradale
Lancia have had a bit of a patchy history, it has to be said. Having to buy back new cars from your customers because they’ve immediately started rusting does tend to stain your reputation. But they’ve always been bold technological pioneers, and their successes in rallying can’t be denied.
Group B, more than any other rally series, will always be remembered as an era of absolute lunacy, a big-budget arms race that led to the development of some improbably sci-fi cars… and homologation ensured that they had to sell them to the public too!
The Delta S4 Stradale was very far removed from the production-spec Delta: a spaceframed chassis draped with fibreglass panels, it housed a mid-mounted 1.8-litre motor that was both turbo- and supercharged, tuned down to 250bhp in road spec. It had a three-differential 4WD system that made unnerving agricultural noises, but Lancia saw fit to tastefully trim the rally buckets in Alcantara and add air-con and power steering. As if that could make it civilised.
It really is a bonkers car. We had a play with one once, and the owner wouldn’t let us open the rear clamshell to look at the engine because ‘you might twist it and shatter the back window, and there aren’t any spare parts for these cars anywhere in the world’. Imagine owning something like this, it must be terrifying. But what a machine!
Vauxhall Nova Sport
For those of us of a certain age, the Vauxhall Nova is one of the most important cars ever made. The shouty GTE (and later GSi) gave us inspiration, as a generation of pioneering modders set about shoving C20LETs into them and trying to squeeze nineteens under their flimsy arches. The 1.0 and 1.2 models (with their millions of special editions – Spin, Diamond, Antibes, Splash, you name it) allowed us to insure cars that we then turned into GTE-alikes.
But the Nova Sport was the holy grail. Launched in 1985, these cars arrived in the UK from Spain as white base models fitted with the interiors, steel wheels and 1.3-litre engines from the SR. On arriving at the docks they received some colourful stickers before being shipped to dealers to be fitted with the best bits: twin 40 Weber carbs on an Irmscher inlet manifold, and a raspy Ashley exhaust.
The Nova Sport allowed Vauxhall to go rallying – Colin McRae won the 1988 Scottish Rally Championship in one, beating a lot of more powerful cars – and for the man on the street, it offered the opportunity to stroll into a dealership and buy a Nova that was already modified!
Ferrari 250 GTO
The granddaddy of them all. The don. The original. The initials in this legend’s name stood for ‘Gran Turismo Omologato’, and you can guess what that last word translates as. Ferrari produced the 250 GTO between 1962-64 to allow them to race in the Group 3 Grand Touring Car category, and it wasn’t exactly what you’d call a volume seller. In fact, only thirty-nine of them were ever built, and it’s the first car that springs to the minds of collectors and marque enthusiasts when sparkly-eyed youngsters say to them ‘Hey, what’s the most expensive car in the world?’
The GTO was designed to go toe-to-toe with such formidable racers as the Shelby Cobra, Jaguar E-Type Lightweight and Aston Martin DP214; it had an astonishing chassis and a howler of a V12, and as well as being one of the greatest racing cars of all time, it was also a total cheat. Homologation regs stipulated that a hundred cars had to be built. Thirty-nine is not a hundred, is it? Ferrari skipped around the rules by giving the cars non-sequential chassis numbers, leaving gaps in the digits to make it look like they’d built enough. When the FIA inspectors came to count them, Old Man Enzo had his men shuffle the GTOs around different locations to make it look legit. The sneaky swine.
Mercedes-Benz 190E Evo 2
Touring Cars are just cool, aren’t they? The very essence of them is that they look a bit like the commuter-spec saloons and hatchbacks that sit innocuously on your neighbours’ driveways, and yet they hide balletic chassis and improbable firepower beneath those familiar lines.
When it comes to homologating DTM racers, however, things can get a bit nuts. Take the 190E Evo 2 – doesn’t exactly look like the cloth-trim-and-hubcaps 1.8 your geography teacher used to drive, does it?
It all started in 1989 with the 2.5-16 Evolution (subsequently known as the Evo 1). This was created in response to the E30 BMW M3 Evolution, and had wider arches, a bigger spoiler, vastly uprated suspension and brakes, and ride-height that was adjustable via an internal switch. 502 were built to satisfy DTM rules, a lot of them having the optional Power Pack (racier cams, bigger throttle body, juicier fuelling). But when the Evo 2 was announced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1990, it blew people’s minds. All 502 examples immediately sold out in advance. Why? Well, just look at the thing! It had all the cool engineering of the Evo 1, along with a comprehensively wind tunnel-tested aero kit that couldn’t have made its race car DNA more obvious. Twenty-eight years later it hasn’t lost any of its visual impact. It’s stunning.
This spectacular little wedge of Bavarian cheese offered the world a number of firsts: it was the first BMW to officially wear the M badge, the first production BMW to offer a mid-engined layout, and the first BMW to be built by Lamborghini.
Alright, that last one isn’t totally true. But weirdly, it almost was… The M1 was conceived as a homologation special to allow BMW to compete in sports car racing series, and they originally contracted Lamborghini to sort out the chassis setup, knock up the prototypes, and ultimately build all the cars. It made sense – Lamborghini had experience with mid-engined supercars, they knew what they were up to. Unfortunately, however, after they’d built seven prototypes it became apparent that the Italian company’s finances were distinctly dodgy, at which point the Germans brought it all in-house.
BMW did a pretty good job though, didn’t they? The M1 had a 3.5-litre twin-cam straight-six with mechanical fuel injection, four valves per cylinder and six throttle bodies, and the nat-asp road cars made 273bhp. (Turbocharged race versions had over 850bhp!)
Just 453 examples were built, twenty of which were racers for the ProCar Championship – a one-make M1 race series that supported Formula One rounds. But whereas the racers were terrifyingly brutal, the road cars were smooth and refined and genteel. The M1 is one of the greatest homologation specials ever, because BMW actually bothered to make it work as a decent road car – they didn’t just churn it out because they had to, it maintained all the standards that their other road cars did. Oh, and it was desperately pretty.
Citroën BX 4TC
The BX 4TC is not pretty. Not by any means. But that’s just why we love it!
Fans of Group B homologation specials always hanker after the Ford RS200 or the Metro 6R4 or the 205 T16, and of course we’ve already mentioned the Delta S4, but what we really love is this ridiculous underdog.
The competition version of the 4TC wasn’t exactly the most successful rally car ever made. In fact, it was kinda rubbish – the best it managed was a sixth-place finish, and it only actually competed in three rallies before the Group B series was banned, which must have really annoyed Citroën’s accountants. But despite its ungainly looks, it really was an awesome car: that bizarrely elongated nose was thanks to the engine being mounted longitudinally (unlike in regular production BXs) as well as having a sodding great turbo that had to be stuffed in somewhere, and it was the only Group B car to have hydropneumatic suspension, which was basically the spiritual predecessor to modern air-ride systems in terms of in-cabin adjustability. See where we’re going with this?
Two-hundred road cars were built, as per the rule-book, but Citroën only managed to sell sixty-two of them – and thanks to issues with build quality and reliability, the firm bought most of them back from punters and destroyed them. So it’s not just a super-cool homologation special, but an incredibly rare one too.
Porsche 924 Carrera GT
To some people, the Porsche brand begins and ends with the classic 911. If it hasn’t got an air-cooled flat-six hanging out behind the rear axle, they’re not interested.
These people are, of course, wrong. And the one Porsche that gets them riled up more than any other is the 924 – ‘It’s got a van engine,’ they incredulously moan, spouting a half-truth that they heard in the pub. The very idea of a Porsche with a front-mounted, water-cooled, four-cylinder motor is enough to reduce them to frothy heaps of rage.
All of which makes the 924 Carrera GT particularly entertaining. This was built to allow entry into the Group 4 Sports Car Class for Le Mans in 1980: the 924 was comprehensively stripped out, and fitted with a close-ratio dogleg gearbox, Bilstein suspension, LSD, and – most importantly of all – polyurethane wide arches.
So the haters could continue hating, but then they’d have their words forcefully shoved right back down their gobs by a bootylicious 924 that could do 150mph. We’re very much in favour of this sort of thing.
Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth
When the Sierra was launched in the early 1980s, it really divided opinion. The Cortina it replaced was designed with a ruler, it was all straight lines and severe right-angles, whereas the swoopy new model instantly earned the nickname ‘jellymould’ thanks to its ostentatious curves. But when the RS version arrived, suddenly everyone was ignoring the looks and focusing on the devastating performance. (Well… not totally ignoring the looks – the whaletail spoiler was a real talking point. Still is, too!)
Ford went to Cosworth and said ‘build us an engine that’ll do 180bhp in road trim and 300bhp in race trim’. Cosworth said ‘Sure – but the road car will have to be minimum 200bhp, and you’ll need to buy 15,000 engines’. For Group A homologation purposes Ford only needed 5,000 engines, but they agreed. (Having all those YBs hanging about helps to explain why the Sapphire RS Cosworth subsequently came to exist.) And with these shiny new turbocharged twin-cam Pintos, they mixed in race-derived suspension from the American XR4ti racers and, most importantly, the extreme wind-tunnel-tested aerodynamic stuff. And the really hot ticket was the RS500.
Five-hundred Cossies were sent off to Tickford for conversion, and they each received a bigger turbo, thicker-walled engine block, bigger intercooler, a second set of injectors, an extra boot spoiler under the whaletail, and a power hike to 222bhp. The Group A RS500 was one of the most successful racing cars ever, and if you’re prepared to sell your house and your children, you can enjoy that kudos – if you can find an owner willing to sell…
Nissan Skyline R33 LM
Here’s a homologation special you won’t be able to buy, because there’s only one in existence. Unless you’re a fan of the Gran Turismo videogame franchise, of course – then you can pick one up right now…
Indeed, Gran Turismo is why the R33 LM is so widely known; it would otherwise be a pretty obscure footnote in Nissan’s racing history, but the fact that it was included in the game means that those bizarrely boxy lines will certainly be familiar to some readers.
The R33-generation Skyline GT-R was already a formidable and desirable thing, with that big-hearted RB26 motor and a chassis stuffed full of acronyms. What Nismo did for this new racer was to take the R33 road car, strip out everything superfluous until it only weighed 1,150kg, then tune the motor up to Group N spec, giving it 400bhp. That’s a spicy power-to-weight ratio right there. And because Nissan wanted to take it Le Mans, with all of the upgraded cooling and whatnot that’d be required for reliability, they gave it an enormously wide body full of radiators and things, which was also much more aerodynamic. Strangely, in order to homologate it, they only needed to build one road car – which sort of makes a mockery of the whole homologation process, but there you go.
Admittedly it’s a bit of a weird car, with its jacked-up suspension and teeny wheels, along with the fact that the road car was detuned back down to 300bhp… but even so, it’s a full-on Manga Skyline with near-enough bosozoku styling, and it’s got rarity for days. We want one. Very much.
These days, automotive aerodynamics follow a pretty clearly defined path. Engineers understand how air flows around big metal shapes as they shove their way through, and clever computer modelling means they don’t need to book an expensive wind tunnel session every time they slightly tweak a spoiler or remodel a bumper. But back in the 1960s and ’70s, the approach was rather more slapdash; it was more a case of ‘Hey, aeroplanes fly, let’s just shove on a load of bits from an aeroplane and see what happens’. Which is sort of how the Plymouth Superbird came into existence.
The car hiding underneath it is the Plymouth Road Runner, which is your typical sort of old-school muscle car: it didn’t bother being aerodynamic or lightweight, because it had a sodding great sledgehammer of an engine and that was enough. But when the manufacturer decided to take it to NASCAR, it was felt that a certain sleek slipperiness would be advantageous… so they glued on a fibreglass nosecone that made the already-massive car a ridiculous nineteen inches longer, and stuck on one of the tallest rear spoilers you’ve ever seen.
The maths behind the ridiculous spoiler has always been a closely-guarded secret. There was once a rumour circulating that it was that tall so that the boot could still be opened underneath it, but we prefer the simple logic that massive spoilers are for winners. Makes sense, right?
Thanks to its seismic emissions and NASCAR’s almost immediate ban on aero cars like this, the Superbird was only built in 1970, with 1,920 examples being sold. We just love them because they’re so completely ridiculous. Just look at it. What a mad car, it’s like a cartoon.
Words Dan Bevis