10 Of The Best: Rallying’s Finest

Rallying, to me at least, has always been the ultimate form of motorsport. The excitement, the spectacle and the adventure are all wrapped up in one. The challenge is to take on the road and come away victorious, not maybe always with a fastest time, but often with something more tangible.

Rallying allows the elite of the sport to chase titles and success on the same roads that the everyday clubman can chase personal best time improvements, a bit more speed carried through a sequence of corners or even the exhilarating rush of finishing a stage.

Rally Top 10 Pic Cian Donnellan SH (4)

Rallying brings people to parts of the world that other sports simply cannot. The adventure of waking up to a different vista every event visited is intoxicating as a hardened spectator or even a casual fan, but there is another element that makes rallying special, and that’s the cars.

Rally Top 10 Pic Cian Donnellan SH (3)

We have featured an incredible variety of rallying’s finest machinery here on Speedhunters over the past 11 years, but the following is a very personal selection of my Top 10.

The Classics

10: The Original World Champ: An Alpine A110 In Japan


The Alpine A110 is spectacular. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, this diminutive French racer left the Dieppe factory in the late 1960s and went on to become a dominant force in world rallying for a few years. 1973 marked the first year of what is now the World Rally Championship (WRC), and the manufacturers’ crown went to the A110, now with Renault support.


Physically tiny in the flesh, measuring just under 44 inches in height, the rear-wheel drive coupe sent about 130bhp to the rear wheels from a rear-mounted motor fitted with a pair of Weber carburetors to assure one of the sweetest engine notes of all time.

9: The Mk1 That Took On The World


While across Europe a slew of exotic rally machinery began to emerge in the early 1970s (think: the Alpine, the Fiat 124 Abarth, the Lancia Fulvia and later the Stratos), the boffins in Boreham at the UK base of Ford Motorsport, were hard at work developing the car that would define the period, and ultimately become a seminal vehicle in the history of rallying itself. Yes, I’m talking about the Mk1 Ford Escort.

When Bryn had an opportunity to visit the Ford Heritage Fleet in Essex – definitely one of my automotive bucket list locations – he managed to shoot possibly the ultimate rally Mk1: the London-Mexico World Cup Rally-winning car of Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm. Contested over a gruelling 16,000 miles and across two continents, the Escort Twin Cam’s victory signified not only the birth of a rallying giant, but the Mexico name too, which went on to grace a number of fast road-going Escorts.


As for Hannu, the quiet Finn, he went on to become a key member of Ford’s late ’70s works dream team behind the wheel of the Mk2 Escort, and ultimately became the first world champion of the Group B era in 1983, claiming four victories that year with the Audi Quattro A2.

The Underdogs

Did somebody say Group B? It would be very rude of me to not add a few mid-’80s gravel-spraying monsters to this list, right? Well yes, of course it’s always right and proper to celebrate that time in the sport, but I tend to look back more fondly on the underdogs of that era. Perhaps the cars and teams that had great ambitions, but just didn’t hit the mark as well as the infinitely-recognisable Peugeots, Audis, Lancias, Ford or MG Metro.

Now, rather sadly, my favourite Group B car of all – the Citroën BX 4 TC – has never graced these pages, although I am more than willing to come and drool if you do own one. In that car’s absence, here are a pair of somewhat forgotten heroes, both incredibly worthy of some attention.

8: What A Wankel


The first is a Mazda RX-7 from New Zealand. Wow, who would have thought?!

Driven by Rod Millen, (think all-round hero, founder of the Leadfoot Festival, mid-’90s king of Pikes Peak and father of Rhys Millen) Ingvar Carlsson (who famously brought the fragile wankel-powered machine home to third on the 1985 Acropolis Rally in Greece) and others, the Group B RX-7’s screaming 13B naturally aspirated rotary became a major talking point in a sea of big turbos, bigger power, and some of the biggest aero to ever grace the damp forests of Mid Wales or the ice-covered Alpine passes above Monaco.

With no actual financial backing from Mazda for the project, this was a short-lived foray into the sport, but a worthwhile effort if for the noise alone. Only 20 cars were ever made, and thankfully Brad managed to spend a day in the presence of one in 2012, along with Rhys Millen himself.

7: The Nearly Man Of Toyota


Elsewhere in New Zealand, Richard brought us Ross Clarke’s amazing replica of the other Japanese Group B challenger. This is a car that perhaps failed to meet the big expectations set for it at the time, but ultimately lay the foundations for what would become one of the largest rally forces ever seen in the 1990s: Toyota Team Europe (TTE).

Born from the vision of Ove Anderson in the 1970s, the Cologne-based outfit became the works Toyota programme from an early stage. While world title success would follow in the Group A era, the Toyota Celica Twin Cam Turbo was the testbed for what could have been greatness even earlier.


Unfortunately, the pace on the stages never quite lived up to the billing, although 1985 did see the almost forgotten hero claim two victories on the toughest events on the calendar at the time, the Cote d’Ivoire and the legendary Safari.


The rugged Toyota reliability on the African stages would become a hallmark of the TTE era, but alas, all the heydays of the Celicas and Corollas in the 1990s is overshadowed by a massive ‘what if?’. Watching the way the sport was heading, and well aware that the rear-wheel drive Celica was somewhat obsolete, a fearsome project was underway in the depths of the Cologne base. The Toyota MR2 222D became a stillborn relic of a time that never happened, a 750hp rocket ship destined for Group S, the follow on evolution of Group B that was canned following a spate of tragic accidents in 1986.

6: An Evolution Too Far?


All this talk of underdogs, poor performance, and ultimately rally cars that could be described as being a bit of a disappointment starting to become a theme? Well, let’s turn this right around with the incredibly successful Mitsubishi Lancer Evo WRC05…

Right, that’s not gone well has it, but that’s the beauty of Speedhunters.

While the Lancer was well outgunned in period, the thought of a relic of that era of the World Rally Championship being found completely untouched is spectacular, and Paddy did a brilliant job showcasing the mind-bending – to me at least – idea of a complete works team’s setup now in private hands.


WRC in the late 1990s was dominated by Tommi Mäkinen and the Lancer Evo, so much so that they grabbed four successive WRC titles from 1996 to 1999, and remained strong contenders for quite a while in an aging Group A car against much more modern ‘World Rally’ spec cars introduced in 1997.

By 2001, the FIA had put the squeeze on Ralliart, and decreed that the Evo VI.5 was to go, thus to be replaced by the Lancer WRC. Over the first 10 rounds of the ’01 season, Mäkinen managed to get 40 points on the board, but once the WRC car debuted in San Remo, he only scored one further point in the final four rounds. The title was won with 44 points. By the end of the year, Tommi was gone and the Lancer Evo was in need of serious work.

Over the next four years, the Ralliart Mitsubishi never managed to scale the height of its heyday, as a succession of drivers rotated through the team in what was turning out to be a succession of unsuccessful World Car evolutions. 2004 saw a complete overhaul and the WRC04, which later evolved to the WRC05.


The car Paddy featured was previously driven by passionate Italian and handbrake turn aficionado Gigi Galli, and still sports the damage and marks of a car that had just completed three days bouncing around a Japanese forest. Ironically, the final event of the 2005 season would see Harri Rovanperä bring a WRC05 Lancer home in second on Rally Australia, the car’s best result on its final outing.

Want to feel really old, though? Although 2005 feels like barely a blink of an eye ago, Harri’s son Kalle is now one of the brightest young talents in the WRC and drives a factory Toyota Gazoo Yaris WRC.

Modern Day Heroes

5: Weapons-Grade World Rally Cars


The world of Kalle is very different from the world of his father Harri, and the modern day ‘2017-spec’ WRC machine is at a level not really seen since the height of the Group B year in the mid-’80s. Huge aero and big power returned, and with it one of the strongest and most talented rosters of driving talent that the sport has ever seen. I knew I had to be there in Monte Carlo in January ’17 to see these incredible machines on their first outing, even if it meant sleeping in a Renault Clio for three days. I was not disappointed.

While it’s one thing studying and doing features on historic cars, now is the time – well, when we’re eventually allowed to get back to watching events – to appreciate the spectacle of today. Trust me, the WRC is wild, exciting, and guaranteed to put a smile on your face.


On these pages, we’ve had Matthew bring some spectacular behind-the-scenes sights and sunshine from Australia’s Coffs Harbour, Ross endure the neverending rain that is a typical weekend in a Welsh Forest, and I complained about the cold a lot over a week chasing Rallye Monte Carlo around the French Alps.

But – and this is utterly daft sounding from someone who devotes so much time and effort capturing images of rally cars – the pure essence of how damn incredible the modern ’17-spec cars are is captured perfectly in a single 10-second clip.

4: Yaris Hilton On A Pump-Up Diet


While the latest breed of World Rally Car is an incredible piece of engineering, it’s also a very pricey bit of kit. Estimates of a €650k price tag (US$730,000 or GB£580,000) have meant that very few cars have passed into private ownership. All around the world, various budget-friendly solutions have emerged to help continue the possibilities for younger talent to rise the sport. Be it the FIA’s R5 category, or in this case, the Australia Pacific-specific R4 Class, it’s a very positive step in the right direction.


In 2017, Matthew had an opportunity to get under the skin of the latest member of the legendary Bates family stable, the Toyota Yaris AP4.


The basic premise of the regulations is that while similar to the R5 in terms of having 4WD and a turbocharged 1.6L engine, AP4 cars are free in many other areas, especially when it comes to choosing a base. Anything in production with four seats is open to becoming a fire-breathing special stage weapon, and self-builds amongst private preparation companies – or in-house in the case of the Bates family – cuts down on the massive costs associated with bringing an R5 to Australia.

Not only did Matt manage to get some cracking shots in the workshop, but he was out in the wet and wild a few days later to witness a full-speed shakedown for the car, proof once more that rally cars are most definitely not show queens.

Best Of The Breed

3: An E30 Unlike Anything Else


Irish Modified Rallying is something we sometimes take for granted on our little Island. Take a classic shape, shower it with a breathtaking array of technology, way beyond what was remotely possible in period, and then let loose down a muddy, often wet, stretch of tarmac. Class 14 is where the big dogs do battle over here, and while often dominated by Millington-powered Fords, it’s refreshing when something completely different comes along.

I can attest to the fact – having experienced it on multiple occasions – that the roar from this BMW as it breaks a chilly morning air is spine-tingling. The noisemaker is an incredibly unique Volvo-based Motor Design Sweden unit, sending huge power to the rear wheels through a sequential box.

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On a crisp morning amongst the Irish mountains, Paddy nailed this feature of what is without doubt one of the finest Modified cars that has ever tackled our legendary stages.

2: I Really Like The Blue Car


Ask someone what they think of when you say ‘rallying’? For me, it’s always been simple: blue Impreza. That is the picture-perfect definition of where my mind wanders to, almost instinctively. This was the poster car of my era, even if I was barely six years old as McRae, Liatti, Kankkunen and Burns flung these two-door weapons around the world’s stages.

The images, grainy as they understandably are, will always be of sitting in the living room, utterly consumed by every scrap of TV coverage. The blue car never won – that’s what Tommi in the red car did – but I didn’t care. I was a Subaru fan, and I had the hat too.

Twenty one years on, to look at a late- 90s Impreza WRC is still spellbinding. This was a halcyon period of two-doors, massive arches, signature vents and massive spoiler.

It all seemed so other-worldly at the time, but seems almost tame in modern times. The beautifully sculpted nose is swamped by the super aggressive front bumper, but it resonated. Your next door neighbour could have something nearly identical sitting on his driveway if they wanted, and there was always a handful of fruity boxers making sweet noises around the locality.


While I could gush about how beautiful that era of Impreza was for way too long, my inner rally geek is starting to twitch just looking back at Louis Yio’s pictures. Although not the actual car, the Rally GB 1999 livery is iconic, as it remembers the late Richard Burns and his success that year – the sixth of his 11 WRC event victories.


I perhaps never appreciated the talent of the Englishman, who became world champion in 2001, in period, mainly because I was six, and of course there was a certain Colin McRae. But looking back, Richard was the thinking man’s rally star. He knew how to control an event, manage situations, and ground out point scores in a way uncommon at the time, but normalised in the Loeb and Ogier eras that followed.

 1: Pinnacle Of The Species


And here we are, my top pick. To be fair, this was an easy choice, as this feature left such a lasting impact on me that I still have it linked on my favourites tab, and pictures from this set have been my desktop wallpaper for what feels like an eternity. A Ford Escort Mk2 RS1800 has held strong in my dream garage, no matter the mood – this car is special.


While the Mk1 Escort featured above set the tone for what was a new era of the sport, but the Mk2 redefined rallying in a way that still reverberates today. No other vehicle has come to define any form of motorsport quite like it, and even now, more than 45 years since the first Escort rolled off the production line, we still see entry lists peppered with the timeless Ford. Amongst all the Escorts that left forecourts over the years though, none are possibly as revered as the mythical RS1800.


Powered by a screaming BDA able to pull well over 9,000rom, these cars were built solely to dominate the World Rally Championship. In 1979 they did just that, claiming a manufacturers title for Ford, and a drivers crown for Björn Waldegård. A whole generation of the sport’s finest talent cut their teeth behind the wheel of an RS1800, in a similar way a lot of the current top-tier drivers have returned to the Escort platform as an escape from the modern 4WD turbo world.

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So that’s it, a rundown of my 10 favourite rally features from the Speedhunters archive. Take a bit of time, savour all the articles linked above, and go for a root around the back catalogue, as there is a huge amount of good stuff to be found.

Cian Donnellan
Instagram: Ciandon
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I've worked at TTE for quite a few years, but at the F1 side of things. Left since 2009. Still fun to see the air restrictor used in the 1995 championship winning Toyota Celica (ST205) that got banned though. I cant take credit for designing that though, as I wasn't with the team back then. It's the one time Colin Mcrae won the drivers championship because Toyota got banned. It's also the first overall win for Subaru that year, because of the ban of Toyota.


Rallying is my favorite motorsport along with Formula D
The jumps, the drifts, the sound, the terrain, it's something you never get bored of!


There's just something about cars going side ways making it so majestic


The Mk2 has been the backbone of things for so long and has enabled a generation to participate in the sport for not much money (those days are long gone). It's great you can now get a brand spanking new turn-key Mk2 escort in 2020 but wow, they cost a fair bit!

I wonder if there is a modern-day equilvelent to the Mk2 that lets people get on board for some sort of a reasonably affordable price (I know!)

MX-5?, E46? - what's the go-to budget rally car?


There is nothing cheap when it comes to modern motorsport. Even if your car is cheap the safety equipment is expensive. But there are a few affordable options like Peugeot 106 or the Saxo. BMWs are nowhere near to cheap as there might be plenty of parts available but the the cheap ones don't help you go fast and those that do help you go fast ain't cheap.


Lada 2105 or 2107 is the choice of the budget minded. BMW E36 is common one here(Finland) too. Most of the "cheaper" rallycars tend to be FWD, like Hondas, Opels, Fords and so on.


My guess would be a e36 328i, relatively cheap, more then enough parts and know how avalible and just a good platform. That or a 2004 subaru impreza wrx. No explanation needed there


So Audi completely dominated WRC when they wanted to, but doesn't even get mentioned in this list? What a complete joke.

Cian Donnellan

.....and Lancia....and Citroen....and VW. They all dominated, yes, but have never featured on these pages, and for every period of domination, there was a full field of other more 'interesting' cars that tried, in their own way, to topple the dominating force! I prefer to celebrate these. Now....who has an Octavia or Cordoba WRC for me to feature??


No original Mini? Not even mentioned?


Working the 100 Acre Wood Rally in college and seeing Rod Millens RX-7 tearing it up inspired me to get my first car, a 1980 RX-7 when I graduated school in 83. I worked the rally a couple of times and it was always a blast. Plus I was the school photographer at the time. I still have some 400 speed black and whites from back then and I still have that first car as well.

Nice collection of photos, really brings back the memories for sure.


Whooooooooooa! Wait a minute How can you have a list of rally car classics and NOT include the King of Kings The Audi Quattro! Especially in Group B. That era of rally car revolutionized all wheel drive in sport.


Google "xpander AP4"...its the first MPV rally car


I think a lot of people might have missed the bit where it says the 10 best rallying cars which we've featured. Still, all the more reason to hunt down a few of the big names missing from the list.


This article is the reason why you should speedhunt more rallies and less stanced cars. Your top 10 includes :
2 of the worst rally cars ever made (Toyota and Mazda) and not even an original Toyota. A replica.
A car that became famous in tracks (E30)
The worst ever Mitsubishi EVO.
And your number 1 is a Mk2 that is not even a proper rally car. And to make things worse you've got people in the UK where you can find a rallying Mk2 in every corner.

Cian Donnellan

Hey John,
Ever think that being successful is a bit boring? Mabye its just me, but I always find the story of the 'nearly' rather than the success a lot more intereating, the crazy engineering approaches that were more experimental rather than being a quantum leap.

And, you want more rally? Make sure to dip back into the archives, there is plenty to see!


Don't get me wrong. All of these cars are great cars. Even the replica. But when you want to write about rallying at least write about actual cars that are raced. Of course I admire the Japanese Alpine. But there quite a lot of Alpines wearing their scars with pride and not hiding in a heated garage.
It's ironic you know because some really successful rally cars had a lot of crazy engineering.

P.S I know that money makes the world go round and you need content popular to huge markets. As I also know that there is very little interest in most of these markets for rallying. But when you do want to write an article about the finest at least cover a few Italians and a quattro. Or a proper rally car.


I found it quite refreshing for a change to read an article that didn't include the usual suspects.