Currently reading: Homologation heroes: second-hand bargains inspired by motorsport
Whether it packs rally hero DNA or race track stardust, there's a racing-derived motor for you, from £1500 up
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11 mins read
30 June 2019

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ always used to be the motorsport maxim. By proving their product on the race tracks and rally stages of the world, car manufacturers hoped to lure impressed buyers into their showrooms. And, to be honest, it worked, particularly for people like you and me, who know there’s something innately satisfying about driving a car with genuine motor racing pedigree. 

These days, that’s not really the case. Most motorsport campaigns are now as much a branding and marketing exercise as a true test of mettle and metal. Look at many series and most competing cars are bespoke designs aimed at meeting very strict performance and budget regulations. Just glance at the latest breed of WRC rally car or TCR tin-top for proof. The days of Group A ‘homologation specials’ have long gone. 

Well, yes and no. Sift carefully through the classifieds and you’ll find plenty of cars that have been touched by motorsport magic in some way or other. Sometimes this results in a car that’s better to drive, sometimes it just adds a little desirable street cred, and sometimes it opens up the opportunity for you yourself to compete. Whatever you’re looking for, here are 14 of the top motorsport-infused buys.

BMW 320si

Years built: 2005-2006 Price now: £3500-7000

The greatest motorsport-infused BMW is the E30-generation M3, but with their prices now rising into six figures, these boxy slices of 1980s track-focused brilliance are becoming the preserve of speculators. However, there is another 3 Series that has bona fide competition pedigree and it can be bought for less than the price of a new city car: the E90-generation 320si

It was created to win the World Touring Car Championship and just 2600 examples were made, with 500 of them coming to the UK. Under the bonnet is a special, hand-built, over-square 2.0-litre petrol motor that features bigger valves, aluminium cylinder liners and, the crowning glory, a carbonfibre cam cover. Oh, yes. Power is a modest 171bhp, but the 320si likes to rev. (The redline is at 7500rpm.) The standard 320i M Sport on which it was based was a crisp handler, so changes run to just 18in alloy wheels and bigger brakes. 

As a used buy, the only real issue is the potential cracking of those special cylinder liners, but a number of companies offer repairs. So with prices starting at around £3500, the big question is this: can you afford not to take the plunge? 

One we found: 2006 320si with 81,000 miles, a full service history and a recent BMW main dealer replacement engine. All for £5295.

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Suzuki Swift Sport

Years built: 2006-2012 Price now: £1500-£4000

With two Junior World Rally Championship titles to its name, the first-generation Swift Sport isn’t short of pedigree. The wide-bodied rally car borrowed rather a lot from the road machine, not least its motor. With forged pistons, high-lift cams and strengthened springs, the 123bhp 1.6-litre four-pot has a properly racy character. 

All out, the car’s 0-62mph time of 8.9sec is no more than, erm, swift. Yet it’s the car’s infectious appetite for corners that really endears. It’s also as tough as old (racing) boots. 

One we found: 2007 Swift Sport, silver, 78k miles, full history, recent service, 12 months MOT, £2495.

Subaru Impreza WRX

Years built: 2008-2012 Price now: £3500-£18,500

Subaru’s world rallying star was on the wane when the GE-series Impreza hit the stages in 2008. Yet although the five-door was off the pace and hastened the firm’s exit from the WRC, the road-going WRX spawned an effective Group N machine, winning the Production World Rally Championship in 2011 and numerous national titles. 

Swapping the old saloon styling for a hatchback shell made it less popular with the brand faithful, but that means it’s something of a used bargain. In the UK, we got the standard 227bhp WRX and a host of STi Type UK versions, all powered by either the EJ255 or EJ257 2.5-litre flat four that was mated to Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive. 

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At as little as £3500, the WRX provides lots of bang for your buck, but it’s the aggressive 296bhp STi UK that delivers more thrust, excitement and that traditional Subaru grippy and rapid B-road pace – if you can ignore the lifeless steering. 

What’s more, the WRX is a robust machine, but watch for worn clutches and clonking transmissions. Crankshaft seals can leak, too. A full service history is essential and be wary of tuned examples. 

One we found: A privately advertised 2010 WRX STi Type UK with 53,000 miles, fully stamped service book and recent cambelt change for £11,500.

Mercedes-AMG GT

Years built: 2015-present Price now: £58,990-£190,000

Motorsport’s GT3 category has been a rich proving ground for sports cars, with one of the most ‘affordable’ being the Mercedes-AMG GT. The 577bhp GT R is closest in character to the race car, but even the GT and GT S models have a decent amount of competition DNA. A letterbox view ahead and nervy steering are demerits, but when a car looks and sounds this good, you quickly forgive. 

One we found: 2015 GT S with 28k miles, full Mercedes service history and an enormous list of options, including the carbon pack and sports exhaust, priced at £65,000.

Citroen DS3 Racing

Years built: 2011-2013 Price now: £6000-£10,500

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The Citroën DS3 R3 T was once the car to have if you wanted to win the British Rally Championship. Its road-going counterpart, the DS3 Racing, didn’t dominate the competition in quite the same way, but it’s fast and fun and has the kudos of being developed by the same band of engineers who produced Sébastien Loeb’s DS3 WRC. It has a 207bhp turbo 1.6, lower and stiffer springs, a wider track and Brembo brakes. The UK got just 200. 

Happily, it’s a robust little thing and should cost no more to run than a standard DS3 Sport. 

One we found: 2013 DS3 Racing with 40k miles, full history, 12-month approved used warranty, £8990.

Bowler Defender 110

Years built: 2016-present Price now: £75,000-£84,000

Bowler is well known in the cross country rallying world, where its wild, Land Rover-derived monsters are in equal parts awe-inspiring and hilarious for both those driving and spectating. Less recognised are its heavily modified Bulldog Defender recreations. With the same wide-track look, fast road suspension, big brakes and tuned 180bhp 2.2-litre diesels, these are surprisingly quick and hugely entertaining. Not cheap, but so worth it. 

One we found: 2016 Bowler Defender 110 XS with just 400 miles since its conversion and finished in black with Recaro seats for £74,995.

Nissan GT-R

Years built: 2008-present Price now: £26,000-£145,000

Unlike its famous forebears, the current GT-R wasn’t initially seen as a competition machine, but over time, its on-track achievements have arguably shadowed all the others. Whether it’s racing in Japanese Super GT or any GT3 championship you can think of, the GT-R has been a winner. 

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Look at the road car and you’ll likely wonder why. It’s an incredible piece of kit, what with its twin-turbo 3.7-litre V6, trick all-wheel drive and dual-clutch ’box, but it’s big and heavy, too. Yet the GT-R performs audacious, physics-defying acts that have you laughing out loud. 

Of course, this technical witchcraft doesn’t come cheap, and although engines are tough, early gearboxes can cause trouble. Driven hard, it’ll eat brakes and tyres, too. 

One we found: 2009 GT-R with 44k miles and full history, with much of the work undertaken by renowned specialist Litchfield. Yours for £38,000.

Renault Clio RS220 Trophy

Years built: 2015-present Price now: £11,500-£14,000

Arguably not the greatest Renault Sport Clio, but with a flappy paddle gearbox, turbocharged engine and extra aero, it’s a close road-going approximation of the single-make Cup race car. The EDC transmission is a little dim-witted, but there’s some magic in the Trophy chassis. Post-2016 facelift cars get desirable extras, such as LED headlights. 

One we found: 2015 Clio RS220 Trophy with only 11,000 miles, full history and a manufacturer-approved warranty for £11,750.

Toyota Celica GT4 ST205

Years built: 1994-1999 Price now: £3000-£12,000

The least successful of Toyota’s Group A rally Celicas (and the one with the illegal turbo), the ST205 is the most sensible used buy. With 239bhp from its 2.0-litre turbo, it’s still quick, plus it has all the mod cons. UK cars are rare, but there are many imports to choose from. Steer clear of tuned examples and check for rust and a noisy transmission. 

One we found: 1996 Celica GT-4 with 58,000 miles, freshly imported from Japan and unmodified apart from aftermarket wheels, priced at £7795.

Alfa Romeo 155

Years built: 1992-1998 Price now: £1500-£7000

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Live out your Gabriele Tarquini tin-top fantasies with one of the coolest Super Tourers of them all. Wide-body versions of the 155, introduced in 1995, were not as successful on track, but they are a real riot on the road, with engaging handling and a rasping twin-cam motor. This boxy Alfa is getting rare now, but those that are left are looked after and surprisingly affordable. 

One we found: 1996 155 1.8 TS. Miles are high at 127k, but this £4250 car is effectively a two-owner car with a binder full to bursting with history. 

Vauxhall VXR8

Years built: 2007-2017 Price now: £12,500-£38,995

You want a piece of one of the most exciting tin-top series on the planet? Then look no further than the Vauxhall VXR8. Prise off the griffin badges and what you have here is a genuine motorsport hero in the form of the Holden VE Commodore, winner of a trio of Australian V8 Supercar crowns. 

It’s a simple beast, the Vauxhall, with a big-banger 6.0-litre (6.2-litre on later cars) V8 up front, rear-wheel drive and a choice of six-speed manual or auto. It can’t match European super-saloons for sophistication, but the relative crudity means wear and tear are the biggest issues. Better still, the old-school approach makes for a hugely entertaining, if thirsty, car, with its V8 bellow, pleasing handling and ability to unlock your inner Mark Skaife. 

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One we found: 2009 VXR8 6.2 manual for £18,995 with 38k miles, full history and in menacing metallic black. Trip computer showed 15.4mpg average. Gulp!

Toyota GT86

Years built: 2012-present Price now: £7995-£40,000

Rallying, one-make racing, drifting – the GT86 has done it all. With its straightforward naturally aspirated engine, manual gearbox and rear-wheel drive layout, plus its relative lightness and affordability, the GT86 is a natural competition machine, particularly at national and clubman level. Watching a CS R3 version slither through a stage is a spectating highlight for many. 

A lot has been written about the GT86 in these pages, but it’s worth reiterating just what a hoot this coupé can be, serving up easily accessible excitement with its soap-in-the-bath grip levels and throbbing flat four. Second-gear syncros can be weak, but the main thing to look for is crash damage. Simple. 

One we found: 2013 GT86 manual with 76k miles, full service history, sat-nav and a manufacturer-approved warranty, priced at £10,495.

Mitsubishi Evo X

Years built: 2008-2016 Price now: £10,995-£40,000

Mitsubishi had left the WRC far behind by the time the Evo X arrived in 2008, but it proved an effective Group N car in numerous national championships. It’s not as viscerally exciting as its predecessors, but the X is easier to live with day to day, particularly with its six-speed SS-T dual-clutch gearbox. (A five-speed manual is also available.) Even standard 296bhp versions are shatteringly fast across the ground and all have trademark Evo acrobatic agility. 

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As for buying, a comprehensive history is vital and tuning mods should be treated with suspicion because the 4B11T 2.0-litre engine isn’t as happy being tweaked. The AYC (automatic yaw control) rear diff can also give trouble. 

One we found: 2008 Evo X FQ300 SS-T with 80k miles and full Mitsubishi service history. Yours for £11,495.

Aston Martin V12 Vantage

Years built: 2009-2013 Price now: £69,995-£200,000-plus

Now, it would be very easy to put any Porsche 911 GT3 here, a car so tightly wrapped in motorsport tradition and tech that you could almost slap some numbers on the doors and line up on the grid of any given sports car race. Yet such is the reputation of this car that prices for all examples have headed heavenward. And it’s, well, a bit obvious. 

The Aston V12 Vantage GT3 took its time to hit the track, but between its debut in 2013 and its retirement last year, it notched up four British GT titles. The road car lacks the racer’s wild wings, but underneath that vented bonnet beats the same 510bhp 5.9-litre V12. It seems naughty, that huge motor squeezed into a relatively compact shell, but in reality it’s even better than the recipe sounds. Yes, it’s quick and packs a howling, snarling soundtrack, but it’s the hugely approachable and adjustable handling that really grabs you. And there’s a manual gearbox, too. It also looks oh-so cool: elegant, but with barely contained muscle straining to burst through the sheet metal. 

Problems? Well, it’s not cheap to run, but mechanically it’s solid, provided that it has been cared for. Suspension alignment can be an issue and check the clutch. But that’s really about it. 

One we found: 2011 V12 Vantage Carbon Edition, manual, 20k miles, comprehensive history, every conceivable option, £74,995.

Homologation

In order for a car to compete, it needs to be homologated, which is a fairly straightforward process these days. For example, the current WRC regulations demand that any entry need only be based on a bodystyle of which at least 2500 examples exist. There’s no need for the engine, transmission and aero to be built in similar numbers because manufacturers can effectively use bespoke components, albeit within strictly defined technical rules. This means that the cars you see on the road rarely have anything in common with their racing counterparts. 

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GT3 racers can be closer to their taxed and tested cousins, but again there is huge scope for modification on the track cars, with just 10 competition cars needed for homologation. 

For road cars, the golden age of homologation was Group A, which ran from 1982 to the late 1990s. With a requirement that road and race versions be closely related and built in numbers of at least 5000 (later 2500), the rules treated enthusiasts to models such as the BMW E30-era M3, Ford Sierra Cosworth, Mercedes 190E 2.3, Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Renault Clio Williams and all manner of Mitsubishi Lancers and Subaru Imprezas.

What about buying an actual competition car?

Of course, to be guaranteed a genuine slice of motorsport credibility, you could just buy a competition car. For raw driving thrills, these machines are hard to beat, especially if you’re looking for a track day weapon. 

Obviously, many won’t be road registered, so you’ll need a trailer to get it to and from events, but there are those with plates and a tax disc. And if you steer clear of works-built cars with provenance and look instead to clubman specials, they can also be affordable. 

A Caterham Academy car is a case in point, with prices starting at around £10,000. We found a road-legal car for £12,500 complete with all its racing add-ons and a trailer thrown in. 

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Or maybe a rally car is the way to go. For £3500, you could have a front-running Nissan Micra F1000 that comes with a full cage, Avo suspension, plumbed-in extinguisher, lamp pod (how cool is that?), two sets of wheels and side-exit exhaust, which is claimed to “sound brilliant”. 

With either of these, you could have a hilarious weekend warrior that could go racing or rallying at very little cost.

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30 June 2019

I was privileged to own a 1987 Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 for a decade. An absolute blast to drive, with a free revving gem of a Cosworth enhanced engine. Rare everywhere, but particularly here in the US, with only about 700 imported for the second and final year. Mine was a smoke silver manual transmission car, the least common combination. Mercedes Benz Classic Center offered great support. A modern family sedan brings 100hp+ more, but none of the sensations. The exhaust note, the super quick steering, the flat cornering were all fantastic to experience. It was passed on to another enthusiast who owned a black manual car, and wanted a set.

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