When Homologation Ruled The Roads

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Dawn Raid

Homologation is the process of certifying or approving a product to indicate that it meets regulatory standards and specifications.

For a period though, homologation was a byword for some of the most incredible machines to ever grace our roads.

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There’s an Evo VI. And another. I think that white one’s an RS? Better go for a closer look. Yep, manual windows, no parcel shelf behind the rear seats. RS. Oh, it’s got 6-pot AP Racing caliper, big discs, and semi-slicks too. Good.

More 4G63 rumble reaches my ears as another Lancer trundles past. It’s an Evo III this time, red (rare for a III, some distant part of my brain recalls), and it sounds a bit like Tommi Mäkinen’s Group A car.

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This is nice. I’m starting to get jittery, but that nice, excited sort of jittery that causes a smile to spontaneously spread across your face.

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It’s 7:00am on a dry, crisp Saturday morning at a fuel station somewhere between Cork and Kenmare, Ireland. A fuel station that 10 minutes ago was deserted – aside from a van or two delivering bread and other supplies – but now plays host to nearly 20 homologation specials.

The sky is just beginning to lighten as people brim their tanks, chomp on sausage rolls, puff on cigarettes and sip coffee, all the while attempting to take in the scene around them, just like I am.

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A red Tommi Mäkinen Edition Evo VI sits quietly beside a Quattro. Three E30 M3s (one of which is an über rare Sport Evolution model) idle impatiently. One has its bonnet open and the moonlight and floodlights glint off the carbon fibre DTM-style air box. It’s also got yellow-tinted headlights, and a sticker on the rear window that reads ‘MOTUL, Partenaire Competition De BMW France’. I could spend the morning just looking at this one car alone, but it’s time to go.

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Many people in the country aren’t yet out of bed, but most of us have been up since 5:00am, some even before. There are still more cars wending their way down the country to our main meeting point, located 30 minutes from here. I’ve been awake since 3:30am, unable to sleep with sheer excitement.

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Our mission? To catch the sunrise on one of Ireland’s best roads with as many homologation hero cars as we can muster. Already, it looks like we’ve hit the jackpot. What started as a conversation between Cian and I and some exploratory messages to people we knew has led to something we’ve called ‘Rallye Omologato’, and to do these fantastic cars justice Cian, Ross, Ruaidhri and I are capturing it for Speedhunters.

The Joy of Driving

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What follows is one of the best drives of my life.

I’m lucky enough to have been entrusted with Cian’s pristine Peugeot 106 Rallye for the day, one of the coolest homologation specials ever made. Its singular purpose was to rally, and creature comforts like electric windows, central locking and even power steering were deemed superfluous to that cause. What it does have is a screaming little 1.3-litre engine that makes what feels like 95 of its claimed 100hp arrive in the last 1,000rpm of its rev range, a close-ratio gearbox to keep it on the boil, and such low mass that you genuinely don’t need to brake for anything but the sharpest of turns. Oh, and deer. Better make sure to brake for the deer.

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The road from Kenmare to the foot of Tim Healy Pass starts out by running alongside Kenmare Bay, before cutting inland and climbing, then dropping back down on the run to Lauragh, where we’ll meet the rest of the group before scaling the pass itself.

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A gaggle of Subarus and their headlights that I could see in my mirrors leaving Kenmare become fainter and fainter, and without any giant effort the little 106 is out on its own. It’s so small and agile that you can carve out a line even while sticking firmly to your own side of the road, the uncorrupted steering telling you exactly what the front tyres are doing while a little throttle lift gets the rear axle moving slightly and tucks the nose in even further when needed. I don’t want this drive to end, but in what feels like mere minutes I’ve come across the remainder of the group.

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More Imprezas and Celicas catch my eye as I park up. The blue Impreza STI that had been immediately behind the 106 parks up a short time later, the driver and passenger questioning my sanity as they recount failing to see the Peugeot’s brake lights once and struggling to keep up in their vastly more powerful AWD weapon. What a cracking little car this Rallye is.

Homologation

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At this point, it’s probably worth speaking a little bit about homologation. Defined as ‘the type approval process through which a vehicle, a race track, or a standardised part is required to go for certification to race in a given league or series’, in relation to competition cars it meant that a certain amount of closely-related road cars had to be built to qualify or ‘homologate’ them for racing and/or rallying. With the FIA’s various alphabetical Group regulations (Group A, Group B, Group C, Group N and the stillborn Group S) taking over from Groups 1 to 7 in the early 1980s, and Group B’s wild and short-lived reign coming to an abrupt end in 1986, Group A became the premier category in world and domestic-level rallying.

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It’s cars that were built to qualify their competition cousins for those regulations that are most in abundance on this particular morning, though there are a couple of delightful outliers (Alpine A110, a brace of Quattros, an Evo VIII and ‘hawkeye’ STI) also in attendance, along with some tasty modern road cars driven by friends who are down to watch and help out.

Group A initially mandated 5,000 road-going cars be built with 500 ‘Evolution’ models allowed, though this was later reduced to 2,500. Expensive this may have been, but for manufacturers who wanted to win it was expense worth every penny.

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Group A gave us the Escort Cosworth, Lancer Evolution, Impreza WRX STI and Celica GT-Four, but before any of those, Group A gave us the E30 M3, a touring car that also happened to be quite a fantastic tarmac rally car.

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Reaching the top of the Healy Pass with the sun rising over the hills in the distance, I step out of the ticking and pinging Peugeot and barely have time to catch my breath before I hear the unmistakable induction sound of the carbon fibre air box-equipped M3. There isn’t a puff of wind, the temperature is more than agreeable, and the road below glints in the light, twisting this way and that between rocks and streams. The surface is perfect, though some loose gravel sits on the outside of the tighter corners, ready to catch and punish any misdemeanour.

I can’t believe how good this E30 sounds, and wonder if it’s possible for carbon fibre air boxes to be made mandatory for owners to fit. Thankfully, Ross was on hand to capture the noise, as well as create a stunning video of the day.

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Shortly after that two Evos arrive, followed by what could pass for a pretty decent entry list on any 1990s rally you care to mention. I lose count of the Imprezas, three of them looking especially works-y on wheels remarkably similar to what Colin McRae would have used on L555 BAT back in the day. There are Celicas including the delightfully retro-futuristic ST165, a brace of Delta Integrales, and a Clio Williams that instantly reminds me of Jean Ragnotti doing amazing things with little more than a handbrake and a strong pair of driveshafts.

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Snappers Cian and Ruaidhri and videoman Ross have taken up position further down the road, and it’s time to get things moving in order to make the most of the glorious morning light and traffic-free road. Lining up cars in queues of eight, we let them off one at a time with gaps between to ensure everyone gets a nice run over the Healy hairpins. The cars turn at the bottom and make their way back up before the next group are released, and the smiles on the occupants’ faces say it all.

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It’s a surreal morning. As cars make their way up and down to be captured in video and stills, people mill around admiring each other’s machines, talking about this and that and reminiscing about the old days when these road racers were ten-a-penny. Coupled with the smell of fuel lingering in the cold morning air, I don’t think there’s anywhere else I’d rather be in the world at this moment.

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Watching an early Impreza WRX STI Type RA take on the road, its non-standard anti-lag and Group A-style exhaust making an awesome racket, it’s hard not to think about times past when Group A rally cars devoured this road in the hands of heroes like Fisher, McHale, Meagher and many more.

This piece of road is one of the all-time classic tests in Irish rallying, and has been used as a stage on the Circuit of Ireland and Rally of the Lakes on countless occasions. As rally cars evolved and got quicker and quicker, the road and its challenges have stayed the same. Its stunning mix of scenery, sight lines, surface and history means I cannot think of anywhere better in Ireland to celebrate the era of the homologation car.

A Change Of Time

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As time has moved on for the heroic drivers mentioned in the previous paragraph, some tragically no longer with us, so time has moved for this type of car. Once Group A gave way to the World Rally Car rules in the World Rally Championship from 1997 onwards, the requirement was no longer there for manufacturers to build these kinds of competition-geared specials in order to compete. Subaru and Mitsubishi soldiered on for many years after, though they would be the exceptions.

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We probably didn’t appreciate it at the time, but for a rally fan to be able to drive something pretty close in character to the beasts driven by their idols on the world’s rally stages was incredibly special. As one attendee commented, ‘If you’re into football or rugby or whatever, you can easily go out and buy a jersey or kick a ball. A homologation car is a bit more expensive to obtain, but you really get a sense of what the Group A cars might have been like to drive.’

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In Ireland, the Celtic Tiger boom economy meant floods of special Japanese imports in the 2000s. Cars were flying in through the ports and car-mad young people with cash to burn were snapping them up and chopping and changing on the regular. Some recall going through over 10 Evos, for example. These days, prices on homologation specials are sky-high, and to find a decent specimen takes a fair bit of work. That’s what is even more impressive about today; the standard of the vehicles on show is incredible, but there are no shed or trailer queens here. Everything is driven properly, the way they were designed and built to be.

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We don’t have an example of every homologation car made (amazingly in a country full of Cosworths of Sierra, Sapphire and Escort variety, not one was present), but that’s something to aim towards for the next time.

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With the filming and photography almost wrapped up, we head to a local quarry that the owner has kindly agreed to let us use to stage the cars for a final group shot. Yet again, it’s hard to know where to look. Seeing any one of these cars would raise a petrolhead’s pulse, but to have this many together is almost a sensory overload. A final run back over the Healy Pass and a long, relaxed lunch by the quay at Kilmakilloge (yet another famous rally-related location) allows people to unwind and try to take stock of the day. To a man, everyone is on a high. Other people eating and drinking aren’t sure what to make of this raucous bunch of cars, but more than a few go for a wander around the car park and ask interested questions of the owners.

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We’ve been in our own little rally dreamland for the last few hours, so coming back into the real world begins to make us realise how incredible that morning really was.

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Driving back home in convoy with a small selection of the attendees, the last few kilometres coming up in the mighty 106, my thoughts turn to my childhood and seeing Group A cars on the rally stages and their road-going counterparts passing my front door sometimes that same day or week. I remember it so vividly, and it had a profound effect on my passion for cars and motorsport, as I’m sure it also did for countless others. Today’s youngsters won’t get that, and that’s really quite sad. Sure, Toyota is building the GR Yaris which is in the same mould as the cars we’ve gathered today, but one manufacturer doing that out on its own isn’t nearly enough. The era of the homologation special will never be repeated, and for that reason we should celebrate them for what they signify – one of the highest watermarks in automotive history.

Maurice Malone
Twitter: MaloneMaurice
Instagram: mauricemalone27

Photos by:

Cian Donnellan
Instagram: Ciandon
Facebook: CianDonPhotography

Ross Delaney
Instagram: Ross Delaney Media

Ruaidhri Nash
Facebook: Ruaidhri Nash Photography

Cutting Room Floor

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