Origin Story of the WRX, Nissan Skyline GT-R and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Image a world where your parent's family sedan is slammed, has a buzzy high revving engine, has graphics spread across its body panels and is racing wheel to wheel with other compact cars.
This isn’t a scene from "Fast & Furious," this is FIA Group A racing.
In the 1980s the FIA created the production car based Group A. This class was designed for popular compact cars like the BMW 3-series, Volvo 240, Mitsubishi Lancer and others to compete in touring car or rally racing, primarily in Europe, Asia and Australia. Germany’s DTM, the UK’s BTCC, Japan’s JTCC and WRC, to name a few, all had a Group A class or were created to support the class.
Unlike American stock car racing, which was far from stock, Group A was a true production based class. FIA rules stated that Group A race cars were required to retain some interior panels and all exterior body panels, drivetrain and engine block.
What separated the road car from the race car was a roll cage, racing livery and the lack of interior creature comforts.
In order to be homologated, the FIA required manufacturers to produce at least 2,500 road legal versions per year of their race car, based on a model that sold at least 25,000 units per year.
So, if a manufacturer wanted to be competitive, they had to make a fast road car. They started to take their best selling models and stuffing their engine bays with bigger motors, widening fenders and adding more aggressive aero. Thus, a boom of fast, fun to drive compact cars was born.
Cars like the rear-wheel drive Nissan Skyline GXi, which came equipped with a 90hp four-cylinder motor, was transformed into the high tech, high powered, all-wheel drive R32 Skyline GT-R that we all know and love.
In fact, the R32 GT-R, which was built around Group A specs, won all 29 JTCC races it entered between 1989-1993.
FIA Evolution Models
In later years, the FIA introduced the Evolution models. The Evolution models featured even more upgrades to make them more competitive.
They had more power and more aggressive aerodynamics than the standard Group A version. Thus, more extreme models such as the BMW M3 Sport Evolution, Mercedes Benz 190E 2.5-16 Evolution III (below) and Nissan Skyline GT-R NISMO were produced and sold.
Ford got around that homologation rule by producing 500 Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth models, then quickly converting them to easier to sell Sierra base models. The following year, the FIA required auto makers to submit the names of all 500 Evolution model owners.
The Stanceworks E28 M5 was built as a tribute to the Group A car that competed for one year in 1982.
Group A Rally Racing
The demands of rally racing required more significant upgrades for Group A compared to the road car. For homologation, many front-wheel drive economy cars were turned into turbocharged, all-wheel drive monsters built to take on the varying terrain and twisty rally stages.
One example that still exists today is the Subaru Impreza WRX. Subaru took their 98hp, FWD Impreza and stuffed a 220hp, turbocharged four-cylinder, sending power to all four wheels and dominated. With a young driver named Colin McRae behind the wheel, Subaru would go on to win three consecutive WRC Championships.
These light weight, turbocharged, all-wheel drive rally cars, were faster, handled better and were safer than the deadly Group B class.
The World Rally Championship gave birth to the Lancia Delta HF Integrale, Ford Escort RS Cosworth, and Toyota Celica GT-Four to name a few. Boring economy cars were winning championships, becoming video game heroes and posters on walls.
The End of Group A
By around 1994, touring car series began to shift to less regulated classes that allowed for more extreme aero and bigger engines, and eventually Group A was phased out and replaced with the Super Touring class.
America briefly got a taste of it with the short-lived North American Touring Car Championship, which complemented the IndyCar series and was backed with factory teams from Dodge and Honda.
Without Group A we would not have the various touring car classes that compete globally. We would not have cars like the BMW M3, Nissan Skyline GT-R and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, which were specifically developed to compete in the class. Many are still produced and race around the world to this day.
Today’s production based race classes are merely a shadow of what Group A once was. The cars are still based on production cars but feature massive fender flares and aggressive aero designed by computer simulations and barely sharing the same silhouette.
The era of Group A was a time gone by when manufacturer's invested in their motorsports programs and took what they learned on the track and adapted it to the same production vehicles they were racing.
The days of Group A may be over but its legacy lives on. The class helped turn average cars into heroes, created a class of performance cars that still exist today and helped inspire modern tuner culture.