Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Iconic Cars - The first in an occasional series

Iconic racing cars? For people of my father’s generation, it might be the Lotus 49, The Ford GT40, the Maserati 250F or the Jaguar E-Type. I, on the other hand, am a child of the 1980s, the sort of person for whom the recent film Son of Rambow (if you only ever see one Rambo film, this is the one…) is a full-on nostalgia trip.

Maybe it’s inevitable that everyone looks back on their youth as a golden age. Maybe every motorsports fan is most entranced by the sport as it was when they happened first to become hooked. For me, it is the racing and rally cars of the 1980s which first come to mind when I think of truly iconic machines. I’ve chosen three such cars for what will be a short series of articles. The first of these is something of an eccentric choice. A car that was by no means especially successful, nor even particularly pretty to look at. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, Williams Grand Prix engineering’s very own Group B Rally Car – the Metro 6R4.

On the whole, Formula One teams keep to the business of building Formula One cars. For sure there have been exceptions. McLaren built their F1 Road car, of course, and a whole host of entirely ordinary production cars have had the names "Williams" or "Jordan" bolted on in the hope of shifting a few more units.

Back in the early eighties, however, the very future of the sport was looking decidedly shaky. The FISA/FOCA wars looked like they might result in the F1 series being split into two competing, weaker championships. There was every possibility that the sport wouldn't survive such a damaging split.

At around the same time, the board at Austin Rover were toying around with the idea of restoring their once highly successful competitions department. Back in the 1960s they had had a great deal of success with their lightweight Mini Cooper rally cars. Since then, there had been, to put it kindly, more mixed results with Triumph TRs, Rover SD1s and even an Austin Allegro.

In 1980, Rover's competitions department approached Williams Grand Prix Engineering with the idea of mounting a 3 litre V6 engine (essentially a Rover V8 with two cylinders lopped off) into their recently launched small hatchback, the Austin Metro, to turn it into a potential Rally contender. With the uncertainty hanging over the future of F1 at the time, Patrick Head agreed to take on the task. It may have been difficult to design a rally car at the same time as running an F1 team, but Head had the long term future of Williams as an engineering firm to think about.

A year later, the first prototype was complete. Williams had created for Rover a 220BHP rear engined Metro. Unfortunately, by the time that Rover were ready to commit to a full blown world rally program, this car was woefully inadequate for the job. The Group B era had arrived, and four wheel drive was a prerequisite for success, as well as around double the Horsepower the Metro was producing.

So the concept went back to Williams. They hard-tuned the engine so it was producing a whopping 410BHP, and added the by now obligatory four wheel drive. The car that resulted was a striking beast indeed. In order to accommodate new regulation wide tyres, the car had the most flared wheel arches ever seen on a production car. Spoilers popped out all over the place. It puts the sort of boy-racerish nonsense of Fast & Modified and the Cruise crowd to shame. Certainly, it was one of the most distinctive cars ever to grace the world of rallying.

A question remained though. Could a non-turbo charged car live with the
latest generation of Group B Rally cars? The Metro would be up against stiff competition from Lancias Delta S4, Peugeot's 205T16, Audi's Quattro Evo and Ford's new RS200. There was a chance it might. Turbo lag was a tremendous problem on the early Group B cars, rendering some of them all but undriveable. The Metro might have a much heavier engine, but, so the thinking went, it would be a lot more driveable.

The car made its world rally debut at the RAC Rally in 1985, some half a decade after its' initial conception. The late Tony Pond and Malcolm Wilson were enlisted as drivers. Malcolm Wilson was not to last long before his engine gave out, but Tony Pond was mixing it with the best of them. As the rally progressed there were only the brand new Lancia Delta S4s separating him from a debut win. Received wisdom held that the Lancias wouldn't go the distance anyway. Half the team were booked on an early flight home, and nobody expected the horribly complicated Italian cars to stand up to the rigours of the British forests in winter.

Survive they did, however, and though Tony Pond racked up eleven fastest stage times, he was unable to catch them and record a debut win for the works Metro. Nonetheless, it was a promising debut and it boded well for the works team's first full year in 1986.

Sadly, it was the best result the car would ever record on a world rally. Whether it was because a normally aspirated car, for all the advantages it had in terms of driveability over the Turbo Group B cars, simply didn't have the power, or whether it was that the team didn't have the money to do the job properly is an open question.

A year later, at the final World Rally for Group B cars, the RAC Rally of 1986, the best Metro 6R4 was only eighth. The car was ultimately, in competition terms, something of a failure. Rather than a Rallying legend, it remains something of a curio. Unkind souls might describe it as the ugliest of the Group B cars. It certainly wasn't the most competitive.

Yet the car would go on to prove a success at club level for many years. In the hands of amateur rally drivers, it remains more than the equal of other, much more recent machinery. Like many Group B cars, it also found a home as a rallycross car for many years. The engine, meanwhile, gained a couple of turbochargers and ended up in the back of Jaguar's XJ220 supercar.

A British success story it was not. In fact one might view it as an appropriate symbol of the mess that the British car industry, and Rover in particular was in. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was a truly iconic car, and an intriguing chapter in the tale of one of the most important and successful F1 teams of the last 30 years.

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Anonymous XJ220 Enthusiast said...

I just wanted to highlight the reference to the use of the Metro 6R4 engine in the Jaguar XJ220. It's a commonly held misconception that the engines were one and the same.

It was TWR's experience with the 6R4 that led to the development of the Jaguar's twin turbo V6, but there were many substantial differences between the two. Ultimately the XJ220's engine bore more similarity to that used in the XJR-11 Group C cars than the 6R4.

Yes they were derived from the 6R4, but the engines had evolved considerably by then.

1:09 AM  
Anonymous Steven Roy said...

I was amazed at the time that Rover decided to base their rally engine on the 3.5 V8. Rover had used that engine for many years in a number of cars so it was far from leading edge engine design.

In fact they did not even design the engine as it was originally designed by Buick and used by them for some time before Rover used it.

9:45 AM  

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