Received wisdom says that sensible people should only buy second-hand cars advertised as “never raced or rallied”. But being sensible is decidedly not what is driving the current market for rough-and-ready rally cars. These are vehicles that have provided thrills aplenty while sliding and drifting around gravel tracks, through forests, up snow-covered passes and along mud-soaked country roads. Many have taken a beating; others have endured major crashes. And yet they frequently fetch prices well into six figures.
A little more than a year ago, classic competition car specialist Duncan Hamilton ROFGO acquired the Subaru Impreza in which the late Richard Burns, a legendary Scottish rally star, won the 2000 Rally GB. Offered in off-the-finish-line condition, it was snapped up for £400,000. The Hampshire dealer later sold the Ford Focus in which the late Colin McRae won the Acropolis and Cyprus rounds of the 2001 World Rally Championship for £325,000 (to celebrity chef James Martin) and is now asking £500,000 for the Impreza in which McRae won the 1995 championship.
Demand is red-hot, says managing director Adrian Hamilton. “Many buyers use them as toys – they are brilliant for driving in that way, because they are road-legal, very robust and far less fussy than a conventional track-racing car. And considering how much they cost to build, even the ones with the very best provenance still represent remarkable value for money.”
But the definition of a rally car extends beyond the fire-breathing machines of the Burns/McRae era. Especially popular are the Mk1 and Mk2 Ford Escorts that dominated the sport in the 1970s, raced by stars such as Roger Clark and Timo Mäkinen. At Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival auction last September, an ex-Mäkinen Mk2 RS2000 fetched £48,300.
For the chairman of a Hampshire-based aerospace company, it was a 1972 Datsun 240Z that took his fancy a decade ago. “It arrived fully prepared, with all the essential upgrades such as tougher springs, twin fuel pumps and lockwired nuts and bolts,” he says. “I enjoyed watching rallying as a youngster but I’d never competed – so my wife and I jumped in at the deep end and entered the Casablanca Challenge. The car proved totally reliable and we’ve used it for many rallies since.”
Classic rally cars are eligible for numerous events, points out Tony Barron, general secretary of the Historic Rally Car Register. “For me, it’s all about recreating the excitement of the golden age of rallying, from the 1950s to the ’90s. There are several ways to take part, from non-competitive scenic tours to competitive sprints and hill climbs.” And 1950s and ’60s vehicles still make the race grade, including the Triumph TR3A – an example of which commanded €184,000 at RM Sotheby’s in Paris in 2018 – and one Austin Healey 3000 that fetched £230,000 at Bonhams last year.
Numerous engineering firms now focus on making cars ready for the various events. Rally Preparation Services of Witney, Oxfordshire, has established a reputation as the go-to garage for owners who want to use their cars for the gruelling ultra-long-distance rallies organised by the Endurance Rally Association, including the Monte Carlo Challenge, the London to Athens, and the Peking to Paris. Another specialist, Jason Lepley Motorsport, of Nottinghamshire, has more than 30 years’ experience in buying, selling, sourcing and preparing rally cars. Currently, it is offering a late 1980s Peugeot 205 GTi Group A; a Ford Escort RS1800 with exceptional race provenance; and what it describes as “possibly the most iconic Mk2 Escort rally car of all time”, a 1981 model (all POA) once raced by Clark and Finnish world champion Ari Vatanen.
For many enthusiasts, the ultimate dream is to own one of the wild Group B cars – such as the Audi Quattro, Ford RS200 and Renault 5 Maxi Turbo – that competed between 1982 and 1986, when the class was abolished. Group Bs come to market relatively rarely, but last August US auction house Gooding & Company sold a private collection of three barely used examples, comprising a 1984 Peugeot 205 T16, a 1986 MG Metro 6R4 and a 1986 Citroen BX 4TC; it realised $364,000.
Even that selection pales into insignificance when compared with the rally-car line-up of John Campion, founder of APR Energy. His host of desirable Lancias includes Group B Delta S4 and 037 models, which he maintains in on-the-button condition and drives regularly. “My passion for these cars goes back to the passion of the individuals who originally drove them,” he said in a short film made for classic-car website Petrolicious. “Group B drivers were the best in the world.” This is one genre of classic car where the term “one careful driver” need not apply.