We've driven the modern-day equivalents of cars that topped rallying’s world championship 45 years ago

It was January 1973. Sideburns were big, shirts were tight, cigarettes were sexy and motorsport was ballsier than a team-sports convention in a soft play area.

Sure, the UK was still suffering from the extreme trauma of having Little Jimmy Osmond’s Long Haired Lover from Liverpool at number one for almost a month, but we had things to look forward to. David Bowie would release Life on Mars as a single, Jackie Stewart would win his third Formula 1 championship and rallying’s pinnacle series would become known as the WRC for the first time.

The inaugural FIA World Rally Championship was the making of Alpine-Renault and its strikingly beautiful A110. Of the top 10 cars in the first WRC rally – set in Monte Carlo, naturally – six were Alpine-Renault A110s.

The only other protagonists that punctuated Alpine’s domination over that year included the BMW 2002 Tii, Saab 96 V4 and Datsun 240Z, but there were only two other cars that could really worry the Alpine: the Fiat 124 Abarth Rallye and Ford Escort RS1600.

Our Verdict

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Day 1: Great Orme 

It’s the Ford I’m dwelling on most as I stand looking down the snaking coastal wall of Marine Drive on the Great Orme peninsul which will host one stage of this year’s Rally GB.

The DNA in the modern, road- going successors to those three 1973 WRC cars is easily traceable to that fabled era of motorsport, but none has undergone the dramatic morphosis that the Ford Focus, née Escort, has had. It sits here in limited Heritage Edition – huge, orange and brutalist next to the slimline silhouettes of the Alpine A110 and Abarth 124 GT.

Put a 1973 Escort next to the 2018 Focus RS and Marvel Comics would be impressed at the transformation. It was, in fact, the Escort RS1600 that proved untouchable even to Alpine in the British WRC round in 1973. And having experienced the way today’s Focus RS Heritage Edition charges down Marine Drive as if the next corner has personally offended it, I’d put money on it being the fastest of our three rally-derived stooges today too – certainly over most real-world terrain – despite the Alpine’s identical 0-62mph time of 4.5sec.

Although we’ve grouped our three modern rally-bred heroes together for their shared history, it’s their future that’s pertinent, and that of today’s WRC and – more specifically – the Wales Rally GB.

There’s an increasing sense of showmanship to the WRC that suits our vehicular show-offs. For the first time in the rally’s history, it will run on closed public roads right into the centre of Llandudno, a cheerful, bunting and candyfloss kind of place that’ll form a uniquely British contrast to the fire and brimstone spectacle of a WRC car in proper use.

The Focus RS feels like a fire and brimstone kind of car if you want it to, especially with the Mountune tweaks and Quaife limited-slip diff of the Heritage Edition. In fact, the Focus is the only car here that really does drive like a rally car as we know it, with its super-aggressive yet mobile four-wheel-drive handling.

The Alpine feels much, much closer to its historic roots. Perhaps a few decades of dormancy will do that to a brand. I’d already done more than four hours and 250 miles of gritty-eyed dawn-watching in the Alpine, but notably  it had left me only wanting to spend even more time with it, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better place to do so The Great Orme peninsular is so stunning that it actually looks like a James Bond car chase backdrop, with its long-sighted, wall-lined road ribboning off into an ocean horizon.

But for all the road’s magnificence, the Alpine humbles it. There’s an instantaneous lightness of touch here that I haven’t experienced in any modern car other than a Lotus. The A110 seems to levitate down the road with barely any conscious thought or effort, yet you feel totally keyed into it. Absorbed. As if you’ve plugged in a shared cerebral ECU.

By contrast, the Abarth is quite old-school. Or perhaps straightforward is a more appropriate word, I ponder, as I chuck it through the downhill curves of Great Orme, back along the Brighton-esque seafront and past the roundabout where the WRC cars will no doubt be flaming and sideways.

After all, the Alpine is mid-engined (unlike its rear-engined ancestor), with an all-aluminium construction, built in the most modern fashion, with the most modern materials in order to save every last ounce from its frame. The Focus, while about to be tucked into the history archives, has a fancy four-wheel-drive system and even fancier electronics that give it a chameleon-like ability to change its face for any occasion. It’s modern by any standard.

The 124 GT, however, is a simple monocoque chassis, 168bhp 1.4-litre turbocharged engine up front, two seats set rearward, and a manual, fabric roof beneath the removable carbonfibre hard-top. That roof is what makes this a 124 GT rather than a Spider and is really the only very modern thing about it materially.

Yet the simplicity is what makes the Abarth so appealing. Who the hell doesn’t want a small, zingy, affordable rear-wheel-drive convertible? I certainly do.

There’s a real bullishness to the Abarth that’s as evident in the muddle of Llandudno’s busy roads as it was on Great Orme. It’s the devil on your shoulder, always urging you to blip the throttle and make more noise (not hard, given the rudely brilliant, standard Record Monza exhaust). There’s nothing of the Mazda MX-5’s gentle Sunday stroll sort of fun in the 124 GT, and everything of Abarth’s trademark flamboyant naughtiness.

All of which makes you think that the Abarth would be perfect for our next stop-off: basically a horse-based Nascar circuit.

Tir Prince Raceway:

Tir Prince Raceway is the opening stage for the 11th round of the 2018 WRC – the Wales Rally GB. It’s an opportunity for rally fans to go and watch WRC cars and their star drivers doing big jumps and even bigger drifts, with fireworks and fairground rides thrown in. It’s Rally GB’s version of the Olympics opening ceremony, only with more bumper cars and fewer tedious national anthems.

Even without all the fanfare of the rally, driving these cars on this loose-surfaced oval – usually reserved for the endearingly mad equine sport of harness racing – is about the most ludicrously entertaining evening ‘at work’ I’m ever likely to have.

Somehow, the Alpine maintains its sense of other-worldly poise, feeling perfectly balanced even when traction is at a premium. You will feel how little this car weighs before you’ve left your driveway, frankly, and here again the shortage of massis evident in the graceful way it moves about and responds to your inputs in low-traction conditions. The steering is just right, the throttle response is precise, the dual-clutch automatic gearbox responds snappily... It just feels so right, the A110. Whether you’re in a Starbucks drive-thru or on a dust bowl, it is an absolute joy.

By contrast, the Abarth’s power delivery is a bit spikier than the others and that makes it feel a touch snappy on this easy-drift surface in a way that it doesn’t on normal road surfaces. Meanwhile, the Focus is as burly and unflappable as ever. Stick it in Drift mode, throw it at the end of the bowl in second gear and keep the throttle pinned. It just muscles through, making you feel like an absolute hero despite the gorilla finesse involved.

We leave the floodlights of Tir Prince dusty, abundantly happy and desperate for a curry.

 

Day 2: The B4501

Following the Focus RS down the B4501, the Alpine’s sloping nose underlining the Ford’s high-vis backside as we head down a road that joins the Brenig and Alwen stages of this year’s Rally GB, is not something I’m likely to forget.

The Alpine feels faster than you might imagine, given its fairly modest power output of 249bhp. Perhaps it’s best to illustrate how quick it really is, on any sort of worthwhile road, by saying that it will keep upwith a properly driven Focus RS Mountune. As we all know, the Focus RS has the sort of giant-slaying performance that would make David and his sling look weedy, but the Alpine delivers such uncanny, textural feedback as I harry the Focus along that I have total confidence in using all of the performance from its ravenous 1.8-litre turbocharged four-pot.

Meanwhile, the plucky Abarth also feels utterly at home razzing down Welsh B-roads with its comical yet addictive exhaust note thrapping off the moors. Although there are plenty of niggles – a footrest that’s too upright, a tiny cabin that will make anyone over 6ft feel origamied, questionable refinement even with the hard-top in place, and an even more questionable price – you just can’t help but love it. It might be the slowest and coarsest of our three cars – although arguably the Focus’s tightly sprung ride is just as wearisome as the Abarth’s relentless background drone – but its performance is absolutely perfect for a typical British B-road. Enough, but not too much. I defy you to not enjoy life while you’re driving it.

Slate mountain:

So to our finale. Another new fixture on the Dayinsure Wales Rally GB, to give it its full sponsorship title. And what a fixture.

There’s something achingly romantic and emotive about rallying that’s often missing in the celebrity focus of modern F1. Looking at the scenery and cars before us as I stand at the highest point of some 2000 acres of Welsh hillside, above a quarry and atop a mine, Slate Mountain makes it even more blindingly obvious than ever that the landscape is actually the heart of this sport.

Before I get so misty-eyed as to lose focus altogether, the point here is that Slate Mountain is now a brand-new, two-mile WRC special stage.

You can stand right on top of it and look down on tight hairpins and winding tracks that spear through a carpet of black slate scree.

I’d love to say that I blitzed the stage, taking on the perilously steep turns, executed some dramatic Scandinavian flicks and did my Ari Vatanen Climb Dance (if you haven’t seen it, do so immediately) impression. Sadly, of course, these cars aren’t actually rally cars. They’re on road tyres, don’t have a huge amount of ground clearance and must go back to the manufacturers in one piece and without needing a respray. Reality bites.

From just a moderate blat around this spectacularly fast and twisty course, on top of all our other time with them, it’s clear that rallying has bred three genuinely excellent, characterful and yet disparate cars.

The Abarth 124 GT manages to be simple and aggressive yet oddly whimsical. It does, in fact, have a rally version in the FIA’s R-GT class, but driving it to all these spectacular places doesn’t bring to mind a rally car so much as the old British roadsters and coupés. The Lotus Elan, the MG B. That whole culture of lovable sports roadsters that you could relish life with. The Focus, meanwhile, still feels like a huge milestone in the performance hatchback landscape. Brutal yet playful, rampant yet usable. Sure, it departed entirely from the mechanical recipe of its Escort ancestor, but in doing so it’s channelling a 21st-century WRC car in a way that the other two simply aren’t. And the Alpine. Oh, the Alpine. Is it worth so much more than the others? Hell, yes. The Ford and the Abarth are exceptional but this journey in the Alpine, along motorway, coast, town, dust bowl, B-road epic and mountain rally stage, has only proven how bone-deep remarkable this car is.

The fact that on the right road it drives like a stripped-out club racer is all the more remarkable given that it’s closer to a Porsche 718 Cayman in finish, refinement and usability. I would only change the tiny,shallow cupholder, and I’d drop the seat a fraction. That’s it.  

Stupid cupholder or not, something about the A110 feels cosmically aligned. I can’t shake the feeling that a series of extremely unlikely events – the right people, the right ideas, the right engineering, the right money, the right market, the right brand – came together to create it. My fear is that the planets might not align again any time soon. Here’s hoping that I’m wrong, and here’s to rallying. To all the heroes – human, vehicular and geographic – that it has given us, and will continue to give us. Not least, the Alpine A110.

Meanwhile, back in 1973…

Alpine-Renault had already made a name for itself in the 1970 and 1971 International Championship for Manufacturers (the forerunner to the WRC) but it was the 1973 WRC where it really dominated, with Jean-Claude Andruet, Ove Andersson and Jean- Pierre Nicolas taking the podium places, all in A110s, at the opening round in Monte Carlo.

The rally was structured so that the cars started in a variety of cities with the objective of reaching Monaco before proceeding to special stages set in the mountains of Monte Carlo and southern France. Only the Ford Escort of Hannu Mikkola, which posted fourth place, managed to split up what would otherwise have been a top five made up entirely of A110s. A Fiat Abarth 124 Rallye took seventh. We grouped these modern cars together because their ancestors took the podium places in the overall championship of the 1973 WRC – first, second and third for Alpine, Fiat and Ford respectively. Had we thrown in some of the other modern ancestors derived from cars that showed a good turn in the 1973 WRC, we could have been looking at a Porsche 911, a BMW M2, a Nissan 370Z – even a Toyota Auris, a Peugeot 508 and a DS 5. How about that for variety?

Read more

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Comments
10

6 October 2018

Fantastic article Vicki - loved the review - top notch car journalism.  Thanks for bringing the cars together and for some great prose around your opinions.

6 October 2018

I want one so badly. Amazing how much smaller it is than the focus.

6 October 2018

It's actually piqued my interest in rallying.  Well done.

6 October 2018

WRC is twenty times more exciting more real more related to what we drive and how we drive than anything else in motor sports. Lucky you got a taster there Viki, now go and ask them for a rally prepared one and drive each on a five km mud gravel stage and I guarantee your bitten for life, have more adrenaline pumping through your petro viens than you ever dreamed of. Trust me and I am not being crude, its better than sex !!!

what's life without imagination

6 October 2018

 Fifth gear compared the current Alpine with the original 1961 Car which only had 89bhp and weighed 300kg less!, and guess what?, they liked the old Car better!

Peter Cavellini.

6 October 2018

Oh.

6 October 2018

Terrific article. The Alpine is so desirable, what a car.

6 October 2018
This article is very well written a perfect combination of knowledge, passion and style - a joy to read.

I grew up watching Group A and Group B on VCRs and I consider myslef to be very fortunate to be in a position own a Lancia Delta Evo 2.

It's great to see cars like the Alpine, Ford and Fiat. I just wish that the WRC rally cars we see now were closer in substance and form to their road going equivalents. The WRC would in my opinion, be more popular if this was the case.

Weberex

6 October 2018

total feel good, well informed and excellent, all 3 would make a great garage

11 October 2018

Their website is so much better than this website. They would put this article to shame!!! 

From The Car Expert

Tyron Cox

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