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Single-owner collection of Group B greats heads to auction in California

Published in blog.hemmings.com

All six Group B cars, and the Group 4 Lancia Stratos in the foreground, head to auction at no reserve this August. Photos by Pawel Litwinski, courtesy Bonhams.

Thirty years after the demise of the World Rally Championship’s (WRC) Group B, the cars that once competed under its regulations remain the stuff of legend. Surviving examples don’t trade hands all that often, making a collection of six Group B homologation specials (and a 1975 Lancia Stratos, the car that helped prompt the development of the category) noteworthy, particularly when all will be offered at no reserve. The seven lots, all the property of a single collector, will cross the block in Carmel, California, on August 18, part of Bonhams Quail Lodge sale.

To understand the significance of Group B, it’s necessary to go back to the birth of the WRC, in 1973. Under the guidance of the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI), competition cars were divided into four categories (and later, five), with Group 4 initially being the fastest. To compete in this class, manufacturers had to build a minimum quantity of 500 examples per year, a quantity later reduced to 400 examples in 24 months. Even this number was too large for automakers to concentrate on purpose-built race cars, meaning that rally cars of the late 1970s were mostly built from production automobiles.

1983 Lancia-Abarth 037 Stradale

1983 Lancia-Abarth 037 Stradale. The Lancia 037 captured the WRC manufacturer’s championship in 1983.

1983 Lancia-Abarth 037 Stradale 1983 Lancia-Abarth 037 Stradale 1983 Lancia-Abarth 037 Stradale 1983 Lancia-Abarth 037 Stradale

Italian brand Lancia was the exception to this rule, and its futuristic Stratos was designed primarily as a racing car, and only incidentally as a street car (in Stradale versions). Known for its twitchy and unforgiving handling, the product of ample power, mid-engine design and a short wheelbase, the Stratos was blindingly fast in the hands of a talented driver, and captured the WRC championship in successive years from 1974-’76.

1985 Lancia Delta S4 Stradale

1985 Lancia Delta S4 Stradale, the first twincharged (supercharged and turbocharged) Group B car.

1985 Lancia Delta S4 Stradale 1985 Lancia Delta S4 Stradale 1985 Lancia Delta S4 Stradale 1985 Lancia Delta S4 Stradale

In 1979, under the leadership of Jean-Marie Balestre, CSI became the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA). Working with the auto manufacturers’ group Bureau Permanent International des Constructeurs d’Automobiles (BPICA), FISA drafted new rules governing the sport of rallying. All-wheel drive was now allowed, and cars would fall into one of three categories: Group N, representing production cars; Group A, representing modified production cars; and Group B, representing purpose-built “sports cars.” Manufacturers liked the new rules, since homologation regulations required just 200 examples be built over the car’s entire production run.

1985 Audi Sport Quattro S1

1985 Audi Sport Quattro S, which featured a body crafted from Kevlar and carbon fiber.

1985 Audi Sport Quattro S1 1985 Audi Sport Quattro S1 1985 Audi Sport Quattro S1 1985 Audi Sport Quattro S1

As with the Can-Am series, Group B rules were notoriously lenient. No regulations were placed on design or construction, but cars had to seat two drivers side by side and could not be open-roof. Engine displacement determined the minimum weight and maximum tire size, and both normally aspirated and forced-induction engines were permitted (though the latter incurred a displacement adjustment factor of 1.4).

1985 Puegeot 205 Turbo 16

1985 Peugeot 205 Turbo 16, the model that carried Timo Salonen to a WRC driver’s championship in 1985.

1985 Puegeot 205 Turbo 16 1985 Puegeot 205 Turbo 16 1985 Puegeot 205 Turbo 16 1985 Puegeot 205 Turbo 16

Group B competition began during the 1982 season, and its popularity soared. Fans embraced both the new cars and thrill of a changing sport, to the point of obsession. On special stage routes, it was common for spectators to line both sides of the road, forming a flesh and blood Armco barrier (and in some cases, a very narrow one) through which drivers were forced to navigate. Worse, fans would pelt cars with snowballs or rocks, and some went so far as to booby-trap stages to prompt accidents (which would require drivers to seek fan “help” to resume the stage). Complaints from competitors fell on deaf ears, and, miraculously, the carnage through the 1984 season was minimal.

Things changed in 1985. At the Tour de Corse rally, the fifth event of the season, driver Attilio Bettega was killed in the crash of his Lancia 037, but co-driver Maurizio Perissinot escaped uninjured. Three events later, at the Rally Argentina, rally legend Ari Vatanen crashed his Peugeot 205 Turbo 16, resulting in near-fatal injuries that would essentially end his WRC career. Even the drivers began to complain that the cars had become too fast, citing tunnel vision and the inability to understand and process pace notes read by co-drivers.

1986 Ford RS 200

1986 Ford RS200, one of 200 examples built to meet homologation requirements.

1986 Ford RS 200 1986 Ford RS 200 1986 Ford RS 200 1986 Ford RS 200

For 1986, a reduction in allowable wing size was the sole concession to slowing the Group B cars. At Portugal, the third stop of the 1986 season, Ford RS200 driver Joaquim Santos lost control of his car after reportedly dodging a spectator, and the resulting crash killed three fans and injured 30 more. The factory team drivers had had enough, and all withdrew from the event in protest.

1986 Ford RS200 Evolution

1986 Ford RS200 Evolution, the higher-performance variant of the RS200. A total of 24 examples were built.

1986 Ford RS200 Evolution 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution

It was the death of Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto at the Tour de Corse that finally served as the tipping point for Group B. In what may have otherwise been a minor accident, the aluminum fuel tank, located beneath the driver’s seat in their Lancia 037 Evo, ruptured in the crash, likely as a result of the team leaving off the car’s skid plate to save weight. The cabin of the Lancia filled with fuel, which immediately ignited from a spark or from a hot engine component. Neither driver had a chance to escape the burning wreckage, and just hours later, Balestre held a press conference announcing a freeze on Group B development. Beginning with the 1987 season, Group B cars were banned from the WRC, though many would go to success in other forms of motorsport.

Group B homologation cars to be offered in California include a 1983 Lancia Rally 037 Stradale (street version), showing just 5,805 miles on the odometer and representing the last rear-wheel-drive model to win the World Rally Championship; a 1985 Peugeot 205 Turbo 16, showing just 692 miles and still equipped with its original tires; a 1985 Audi Sport Quattro S1, purchased new by the consignor; a 1985 Lancia Delta S4 Stradale, also purchased new by the consignor and showing just 5,500 miles; a 1986 Ford RS200; and a 1986 Ford RS200 Evolution, one of just 24 examples constructed and a part of the consignor’s collection since 1989.

1975 Lancia Stratos HF Stradale

1975 Lancia Stratos HF Stradale, the purpose-built Group 4 racing car also sold in dealer showrooms.

1975 Lancia Stratos HF Stradale 1975 Lancia Stratos HF Stradale 1975 Lancia Stratos HF Stradale 1975 Lancia Stratos HF Stradale

In addition to the cars built for homologation during the Group B era, the sale will also include a 1975 Lancia Stratos HF Stradale, said to be highly original and showing just 7,835 miles on the odometer. It, too, has been with the current owner for the past 28 years.

For complete details on the Quail Lodge sale, visit Bonhams.com.