From 1982 through 1986, the World Rally Championship reached unseen heights as one of the most exciting, technologically ambitious, and outright dangerous series in the entire of history of motorsports. This golden age of rallying was ushered in by two things: the development of four-wheel-drive drivetrains and the introduction of a new and nearly entirely unregulated class of race cars termed “Group B.”

Prior to 1982, the World Rally Championship was contested by cars under “Group 4” regulations, which placed limitations on minimum weight, maximum engine size, and minimum mass production quantity. Group 4 cars were quick as they included models such as the Lancia Stratos, the Fiat 131, and the first edition of the Audi Quattro. But regulated by Group 4 limitations, these rally versions were not far removed from stock models. So when the new Group B regulations removed almost all of these limitations and allowed for the use of high-tech materials and unlimited turbo boost on engines, it completely transformed the rally circuit.

Group B Lancia Stratos - Adsum
The Group 4 classified Lancia Stratos, one of the most iconic cars of the sport.

Within a couple years, the major auto manufacturers were designing high-performance cars specifically for rally races. Because the minimum mass production quantity for cars to qualify for Group B was only 200 cars produced per year, manufacturers were willing to essentially design the best possible rally car from scratch, then make 200 loosely developed stock versions of that car to sell at a loss. The list of new cars produced specifically for Group B rally racing featured the Lancia 037 (later replaced by the Lancia S4), the Opel Manta 400, the Peugeot 205, an updated Audio Quattro, the Ford RS200, the Citroen BX 4TC, Rover Metro R64, and a Toyota entry based on the Celica.

Group B Lancia S4 - Adsum
Lancia Martini, Delta S4.

When looking back at these Group B cars, most have the boxy 1980s body styles not typically associated with high performance race cars in the modern era of wind tunnels and contoured fiberglass and carbon fiber. However, the amount of technology being applied to Group B cars to add every ounce of power to the engines while removing every ounce of weight from the body meant that by the last season of Group B in 1986, these cars were accelerating from 0-60mph in less than three seconds, which is about the same as modern Formula 1 cars, and Group B cars were doing it on gravel.

However, ultimately it just proved far too dangerous to race such powerful machines on the mix of tarmac, gravel, dirt, and snow through the remote landscapes of the professional rally circuit.

Group B Rally Timo Salonen - Adsum
“Monte Carlo is the place for the biggest accident.” - Timo Salonen in 1985.

In 1985, Finnish driver Ari Vatanen was racing at a rally in Argentina when his Peugot 205 went somersaulting off the road 120mph, nearly killing him. That same season, Italian driver Attilio Bettega lost control of his Lancia Delta S4 during a rally on the island of Corsica, went off the road into a tree and was killed immediately. The following year, star Finnish driver Henri Toivonen was also driving a Lancia Delta S4 in Corsica when he missed a turn and plunged down a ravine. His gas tank burst into flames and because it happened on such a remote part of the course, by the time that anyone arrived to help, the car, along with Toivonen and his co-driver, had been all but incinerated.

These high-profile deaths forced the international motorsports governing body to end Group B racing after the 1986 season. Over 30 years later, the level of technology and creativity by the manufacturers, and the sheer caliber of skill needed by the drivers to race these cars has made Group B an enduringly popular and iconic era.