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 |   |  1986 Ford RS200 Evolution Test Drive: Arguably the Most-Interesting Performance Ford Ever
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1986 Ford RS200 Evolution Test Drive: Arguably the Most-Interesting Performance Ford Ever

Why we’d love to own Ford’s semi-forgotten, 600-hp, AWD, mid-engine Group B monster.

Christian Seabaugh
Feb 17, 2021
Photographer: William Walker

From the Editors at SS: It may be from the '80s, and never offered in America, and look a little goofy with its ride height hiked up the way it is, but all of that belies the sports car athlete that is the midengined, turbo four-banger, AWD RS200. Made so Ford could go rally racing (like so many other great cars throughout history), writer Christian Seabaugh from our sister site MotorTrend recently had the chance to whip around a 600hp RS200 Evo that is up for auction and files this raw, hang-on-for-dear-life account.

The Ford GT40 and two Ford GT models aren't the only mid-engine supercars the Blue Oval has produced. Ford of Europe built the RS200, often forgotten on this side of the pond, in the United Kingdom for just two short years. It is an exceedingly rare legend in its own right, and I recently had the chance to drive one.

What Is the 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution?

While the formula for the GT40 and its successors has remained fairly constant—mid-mounted engine in a V-configuration (V-8 for the GT40, supercharged V-8 for the first GT, and twin-turbo V-6 for the most recent GT), rear drive, and a focus on road-racing—the RS200 broke from the mold. Ford of Europe crafted the car to compete in Group B rallying against the likes of the Audi Quattro, Lancia 037 and Delta, and Peugeot 205 Turbo 16. Much like the GT40 and later the GT at Le Mans, the RS200 aimed to be the pinnacle of the minimally regulated rally series.

Its lightweight Ghia-styled fiberglass clamshells covered a unique platform designed by ex-Formula 1 engineers, and a mid-mounted turbocharged I-4 was built jointly with Ford partner Cosworth. Early versions displaced 1.8 liters and made around 250 horsepower. Later cars like the 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution I'm about to strap into (courtesy of Stratas Auctions, where it's for sale), had a 2.1-liter version making about 600 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. All that power was routed via a complex system of propeller shafts and driveshafts to a front-mounted five-speed manual transmission, and then out to all four wheels via a transfer case with two modes: rear-wheel drive for tarmac, and all-wheel drive for gravel. In other words, it's pretty much a reverse, manual Nissan GT-R.

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Why Group B Mattered for Roadgoing Hypercars

The basic premise of Group B rules was that each car had to seat two occupants side-by-side in an enclosed cabin, and each manufacturer had to homologate (sell) 200 units for the model to be considered a production car. If you wanted to make a modification or "Evolution," a further 25 production cars with the modifications were required. This led to an era where automakers were locked in an arms race of adding horsepower, dropping weight, and coming up with novel engineering solutions in an effort to win rallies.

Without Group B, we wouldn't have hypercars as we know it; the now-legendary Porsche 959 was initially designed to compete in the series. Of course, it never got the chance as Group B ended in 1986 after driver deaths and disasters, including a crash where an RS200 plowed into a crowd of spectators lining a road in Portugal.

Driving the 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution

The 1986 Ford RS200's reputation precedes it. Sure, it's not much to look at—some fiberglass clamshells, doors from a Ford Sierra, and dorky headlights—but from everything I'd heard, it was a nightmare to drive on the street, with a finicky clutch, quirky gearbox, heavy steering, and peaky engine. And it didn't help to then hear how Stratas put an early halt to the previous RS200 test drive by a journalist, due to excessive stalling and over-revving.

I almost didn't want to drive it. Not only was there the possibility the car would somehow disappoint—the saying "never meet your heroes" is accurate sometimes—but there was also the chance I could let the car down.

Nevertheless, I squeezed into the charmingly low-rent interior (one that ought to make Merkur XR4Ti owners feel right at home) and plopped into the high-back bucket seat. The 2.1-liter turbo-four fired right up, making a tremendous racket before settling into a low, mean burble accented by the whirring and whining of the gears and shafts crisscrossing the underbody.

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The Ford RS200 is an undeniably tricky car to get moving. Designed for racing, the clutch is heavy, with its bite point about a third of an inch long and just toward the top of the Jeep-like pedal travel.

The first three or four stalls weren't encouraging. The next six or seven weren't either.

Eventually, I got it. A quick blip of the throttle helps the dog-ring manual shifter slide into first. Feather the clutch slowly and breathe on the throttle and, if done properly, you're off. Once moving above single-digit speeds and before the turbo boost hits around 4,000 rpm, the RS200 is a surprisingly easy car to drive. The engine, even when running off-boost, is responsive, and the gearbox has short, precise throws that are an absolute treat to ram home into gear. Still, you need to be sure to execute your heel-toe downshifts perfectly, or else you'll hear the indignant sound of gear-on-gear action.

Mat the gas and hang on as the tach swings north past 4,000 rpm and the massive turbo has a chance to spool up, and the 1986 Ford RS200 is an absolute laugh riot. Like a fighter jet hitting the afterburner, or the Millennium Falcon jumping into hyperspace, the sense of speed increases exponentially as the car squats down on its haunches. The engine and drivetrain vibrations hit you in the chest, and the world outside your window turns into a blur of lights and slow car-shaped objects. Accelerating hard in the RS200 Evo is like nothing else I've experienced in an internal combustion-powered car. A Porsche 911 Turbo S comes close, but it lacks the gritty, raw, mechanical resonance of the little Ford.

The RS200 Evo's power delivery isn't necessarily surprisingly, as its 600 horses need to move just more than 2,600 pounds or so, giving it a weight-to-power ratio of 4.3 pounds per horsepower. What does come as a surprise is how well it rides. Most '80s-era mid-engine supercars, like the Lamborghini Countach or Ferrari Testarossa, are pretty stiffly sprung. But the RS200 shows its rally roots with both its phenomenally quick non-boosted steering and its exceptional ride quality. Railroad tracks, drainage ditches, and expansion joints all dissipate without punishing the driver or upsetting the car—exactly what you'd want on a rally stage.

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How Much Does a 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution Cost Today?

Handing the Ford RS200 Evo's keys back to Stratas wasn't easy. During the RS200's short 1984-86 production run, Ford made just 200 examples, plus another 24 RS200 Evolutions, the latter of which were intended to compete in the canceled 1987 Group B season. As such, they're expensive today; Stratas expects this particular car to sell for about $500,000.

Honestly, it seems like a bargain. Despite the RS200's (perhaps deserved) reputation as a pain in the ass to operate, it's the rare vintage supercar that's well-sorted, enjoyable to drive, and capable of hanging with (and embarrassing) modern performance cars. Ford's GTs are deserved legends in their own right, but they're definitely not alone.

When Rally Cars Attack the Streets:

Varis Widebody Mitsubishi Evo V
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By Christian Seabaugh
9 Articles

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