TBT: The Ford Car That Briefly Dominated Rally Racing in the 1980s

Jun 27, 2024

While rally racing has long been part of Ford’s motorsports strategy, the company was absent from the discipline for several years in the early 1980s as it plotted its return. What resulted was the RS200, a car once billed as “one of the most sophisticated competition and road cars of all time.”

Ford’s use of the RS name, which stands for “Rallye Sport,” dates back to 1970 with the Escort RS1600. The company has used the badge on numerous vehicles since, but the RS200 was the first not to bear the nameplate of one of Ford’s best-selling coupes, like Escort and Capri. The mid-engined two-seater was powered by a 1.8-liter turbocharged power plant capable of producing 450 horsepower. A unique transmission allowed drivers to switch between two- and four-wheel drive for better handling on rally courses, which could consist of surfaces such as dirt, gravel, snow, and ice. 

The body of the RS200 was designed by the Ghia team in Italy, while the mechanical engineering was provided by Ford’s motorsports team. The chassis design was performed by a Formula One specialist, while the body and chassis were constructed of honeycombed aluminum with carbon and aramid fibers for the body panels. A 1986 RS200 brochure called it “essentially a space-age combination of advanced materials and composite construction techniques.” A large, aerodynamic spoiler located on the car’s roof served additionally as the intercooler for the engine’s turbocharger system. 

Famed Grand Prix driver Jackie Stewart played a significant role in developing the road-going version of the RS200, while rally drivers were involved in the extensive testing of the production model.

Goodbye Group B

Ford produced just 200 of the specialty cars, a combination of road and rally versions in left- and right-hand drive, all in Diamond White, beginning in 1986. By the fall of 1985, more than half of the planned production units had been spoken for and, by 1988, fewer than a quarter of them were available. The car made its rally racing debut in 1985, taking a victory in its premiere and 19 wins and three national championships in its first season, though rule changes in 1987 – Group B cars had become too powerful and fast, according to a Ford press release from 1989 – forced Ford to withdraw the RS200 from competition. 

Many of the cars were snatched up by collectors in the U.S. and Europe, while others were used as daily drivers. At least one model, No. 200, was retained by Ford. Some of the former rally cars later saw success in rallycross using a new 2.1-liter engine capable of producing 600 horsepower. 

The car came with a unique ownership experience. In addition to owning one of the greatest rally cars of all time, buyers would automatically be enrolled in Ford’s High-Performance Club, which allowed individuals and teams who planned to compete with their cars to participate in a special introductory program with the company’s “works” rally team.

Rallying back into production

The RS moniker has been revived at different times over the past decades, having been applied to Sierra, Focus, and Fiesta. For those who missed their chance to buy the RS200 in the 1980s, it has recently come back to production as a modern interpretation of the original through a new licensing deal between Ford and U.K.-based Boreham Motorworks.

While the RS200’s run proved to be a short one, its recent revival shows that Ford had the right idea when it conceived the lightweight rally racer more than 40 years ago.