The 1980s was arguably motorsport’s most exciting era to date.
Turbocharging technology was progressing at a rapid pace, manufacturers invested heavily in motorsport, and the likes of Formula 1 and Group B rallying were pushing power output and performance to incredible, and often dangerous levels.
In contrast to Group B’s barely existent boundaries, Group A (first introduced in 1982) operated under limits of power, weight and budget.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Autosport International 2017 at the NEC in Birmingham was a stunning collection of one of the most loved Group A racers from the time, the Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth.
Each presented in their original liveries from the ‘80s, the display was a celebration of 30 years of the legendary machine.
It seems fitting to introduce the story of the RS500 with this video of an epic battle between Andy Rouse, Tim Harvey and Lawrence Bristow from the 1989 BTCC Birmingham Superprix. This event took place on closed roads just a stone’s throw from the National Exhibition Centre in which the cars sat.
If that doesn’t have you perched on the edge of your seat, arms coated with goosebumps then please check your pulse.
Following the appointment of Stuart Turner as head of Ford Motorsport in Europe in 1983, the realisation soon dawned that Ford was no longer considered a competitive force in motorsport around the world.
The Sierra had launched the year previous, and Turner decided it to be the ideal candidate to boost Ford’s motorsport program. It had the bases covered: a three-door chassis that was rear-wheel drive with reasonable aerodynamic performance (that could, and would, be improved upon) and in desperate need of a marketing uplift to boost production car sales.
Success in Group A touring cars was the goal. The FIA’s rules stipulated that eligible Group A contenders had to be derived from road-going vehicles. A run of at least 5,000 production cars needed to be built, with a minimum of 500 homologated ‘Evolution’ versions if a model was to be deemed eligible.
Many of these homologated versions are the ones that automotive enthusiasts still covet to this day – the BMW E30 M3 Evo, Mercedes-Benz 190E Evolution, Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, to name but a few.
Ford’s long-term partnership with Northamptonshire-based engineering firm Cosworth would prove fruitful for procurement of a suitable powerplant for its Group A campaign. Cosworth had developed the naturally-aspirated YAA engine, based on Ford’s Pinto unit and so a turbocharged version evolved, designated the YBB. With 204bhp on tap and great tuning potential, it would be the foundation for Ford and Cosworth’s ongoing relationship.
Ford’s production run of over 5,500 Sierra RS Cosworths allowed the chassis to be homologated for Group A and, in 1987, Aston Martin in Tickford were given the task of converting and producing the 500 homologated versions, dubbed the Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth.
Along with a modest power increase to the tune of 224bhp thanks to a stronger Cosworth YBD block, larger Garrett T04 turbocharger, bigger intercooler and intake and fuelling improvements, the 500 road-going RS500s also received suspension alterations and subtle exterior changes to make them more stable and aerodynamic.
At the time, one of the 500 production Sierra RS500 Cosworths could be yours for just £19,950, around £52,000 in today’s money, allowing for inflation.
Alongside the E30 M3 Evo, the RS500 was one of the first Group A contenders to be designed as a race car, modified for the road, rather than the rest of the lineup at the time, which were production cars modified for the circuit. A second intake plenum and fuel rail, present but unused on the road-going RS500, allowed race teams to push the envelope when developing the competitive cars. Most of the cars that you see in these images hit the circuit with over 550bhp being sent to the rear wheels.
Race RS500s were constructed by the likes of Andy Rouse, Graham Goode, Terry Drury, CC Motorsport and Dick Johnson, each bearing an instantly-recognisable and iconic livery.
Ultimately, the RS500 went on to storm its class in Group A around the world, and is considered one of the most successful touring cars of all time. With series victories in the Australian, German, Japanese, British and New Zealand touring car championships, as well as victories at the Sandown 500, Bathurst 1000 and Spa 24 Hours.
The Group A touring car class was discontinued by the FIA in 1988, but the heroes of the era, such as the E30 M3, R32 GT-R and RS500, are still revered by car enthusiasts to this day.
Times have changed and it pains me to say it, but I can’t imagine us looking back with such fondness on any Super 2000 touring car chassis 30 years from now. At the time of the RS500 the road-going and race-bound machines felt like siblings, rather than the distant cousins of modern touring cars.
Of course I could be wrong – what do you think?