They are cars that conjure the everyday; cars that we imagine commuting between home and work, via the supermarket or in-laws for a bit of variation. These are cars that for the most part have been built with nothing racier in mind than occasionally venturing into the fast lane of a motorway. Yet they’re also cars that have defied their humble origins.
Whether it’s through regulations, design flair, driving talent, circumstance or usually a combination of the lot, they’ve shaken off the shackles of mass production and gone on to enjoy fearsome success in the rarefied world of competition. These are the true weekend warriors.
Sebastien Loeb is famous for his domination of the World Rally Championship. Nine times on the trot he made his rivals look flat footed. Yet his mounts for seven of those title attacks were based on Citroen’s humble compact hatchback. The Xsara and subsequently C4 were multi-million sellers, designed to rival the Volkswagen Golf for buyers’ attentions. In three-door guise, both were significantly more successful as World Rally cars. In one 20-event run over 2008 and ’09, Loeb and his C4 WRC won 16 times. Of course his car was a bit more than a supermarket special, featuring four-wheel drive and a 315bhp turbocharged 2-litre.
Volvo has made a habit of transforming apparently unsuitable road cars into track stars. There was the 850 Estate designed to make mid-90s British touring car crowds look at Volvo in another light. Sadly that car was also light on something more fundamental: race-winning speed. That wasn’t the case a decade previously with Volvo’s 240. In the hands of occasional F1 driver Gianfranco Brancatelli, the square-cornered saloon was more than a match for its Jaguar XJS and BMW 635i rivals. It won six of 1985’s 14 European Touring Car Championship races on the way to the title.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, reliability still wasn’t a given with most road cars. The Japanese, however, were in the process of changing that. And one car demonstrated their dependability over and again on arguably the toughest competition of them all. At the time, Nissans were still Datsuns. And the 160J and later the identical-bar-the-name Violet driven by Kenya’s Shekhar Mehta won the gruelling Safari Rally four times between 1979 and 1982. It sounds simple but this rally was considered the most testing on the planet; a sweaty, dusty, car-breaking hell that could cover 4,000 miles and frequently saw 90 per cent of competitors fail to finish.
As a Mini rival, the Hillman Imp simply couldn’t cut it. Revolutionary in that it was the UK’s first mass-produced, rear-engined car and the first to use an aluminium engine and head, its unorthodox design was blighted with reliability and quality problems. But that didn’t stop it on the track. That engine was easy to tune and the suspension was developed by Mike Parkes who would later race successfully for Ferrari and help engineer the Lancia Stratos. As a result the Imp was a great handling little car and Bill McGovern used it to win the British Touring Car Championship three times on the trot in 1970, 1971 and 1972.
Skoda 130 RS
For years on end, it seemed, rally fans in the 1970s and 1980s would turn their TVs on for Rally Report to hear that a Skoda had won its class at the RAC Rally. Again. For 17 years running the tiny Skoda team and its 130 RS snatched the Under-1300cc Trophy on Britain’s round of the rally championship. The rear-engined, rear-wheel drive Skoda wasn’t the last word in racy. But boy was it reliable. It came eighth overall on the hot, dusty Acropolis Rally in 1973 and 76 and it finished sixth on the 1986 San Remo Rally. The little Skoda remains a giant among rally cars.
Vauxhall Cavalier/Opel Ascona
Whether it was pounding Autobahn or motorway, the Opel Ascona and its British equivalent the Vauxhall Cavalier put in a sterling shift as 1980s and 1990s European repmobiles. And part of their undoubted appeal was down to success in competition. General Motors took to the World Rally Championship in 1981 with reigning world champ Walter Rohrl at the wheel of an Ascona. Twelve months later, the Opel became the last rear-wheel drive car to win a WRC title. A decade and beyond later and Vauxhall repeated the title-winning trick, on track in the BTCC. The Cavalier and later Vectra lifted three titles, in 1995, 2007 and 2008.