Automotive racing is a sport that has as rich a history as it does an abundance of viciously loyal fans. But no sub-sect of motor vehicle competition is perhaps as wildly entertaining, dangerous, and interesting as rally car racing.
Sure, it lacks the speed of NASCAR and the finesse of Formula 1, but it more than makes up for it in adrenaline-fueled, terrain tearing, death-defying mania – and that goes double for the sport’s hooligan fans (a group known to wander out onto the track mid-race). From humble beginnings nearly a century ago to the worldwide phenomenon it is today, rally racing has produced some of the best entertainment on four wheels. And it has also resulted in some legendary motor vehicles, which we have rounded up for you today in this collection of the 10 best rally cars of all time.
Before we get started, it’s worth noting that, while we have narrowed down the following list to just ten of the absolute best rally cars, many of these vehicles had several different iterations. Rather than getting extremely granular with every single one (as it is exceedingly difficult to pick just one), we’re highlighting the broader vehicle models that went through homologation and either performed well on the track, vastly altered the course of the sport, and/or were mechanical marvels in their own right.
While it can’t be said that the Audi Quattro was a particularly successful rally car, as it only took home first overall in both the Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ categories twice (each) in the World Rally Championship (WRC, for short), it still stands as perhaps the most influential car in the sport. The reason for this is simple: it was the very first car to hit the circuit with four-wheel-drive, effectively changing the course of rally racing forever.
In spite of its shortcomings on the podium, this car is held in high regard by rally fans and car fanatics the world round and, if you’re very very lucky, you can still find some in pretty great road-going condition on the auction block every now and again.
Fiat Abarth 131
From the time before four-wheel-drive was the way of rally racing, the Fiat 131 was a hell of a contender during the early years of the WRC – winning three times overall in the Manufacturers’ category, twice in that of the Drivers’, and placing first in 20 WRC events overall. The boxy little Italian spitfire was a hot hatch in every sense of the term and can still be found as a favored car amongst participants in vintage races around the world.
It’s worth noting, however, that (in this particular case) the only model of note really is the Abarth version, as the standard Fiat 131 was less a high-speed contender and more a middling family car. It’s not that it’s a terrible vehicle by any stretch, it’s just that the homologized motorsport edition blew the original out of the water.
As a consumer vehicle in the United States, the Ford Escort was a middle-of-the-road commuter car at best. In the rally circuits, however, this tiny two-door was a racing powerhouse. Though it only took home three WRC titles – once in the Manufacturers’ category in 1979 and twice in the Drivers’ in 1979 and again in 1981 (all courtesy of the RS1800 edition) – it also had a long streak of winning events outside of the larger championship, especially before the WRC was even established. Both the Mk I and Mk II versions saw wide success on the track and are still looked back fondly upon by fans around the world.
We like to think that the Ford Escort also paved the way for future generations of the brand’s excellent rally racing machines, such as the Focus and Fiesta (which have both taken home 2 titles, each), and we’re proud for an American brand to have made so much of a commotion in what is largely a European sport. For the record, Ford has won a total of 89 WRC events, second only to Citroen.
Lancia is the winningest manufacturer when it comes to overall titles in the history of the World Rally Championship – having taken home a total of 10 in the Manufacturers’ category and 5 in the Drivers’. And a big part of that was because the Stratos was laughably better than just about every car on the track for roughly 4 years straight.
In fact, this car was an international smash hit and has been likened to rallying’s version of a supercar, thanks in part to it being loaded with a Ferrari Dino V6 engine and its sleek appearance (which stands out in stark contrast to a lot of the boxy hatchbacks and coupes of the era). This car was so influential and widely loved, in fact, that one of the original Transformers toys from the 1980s, a character called Wheeljack, turned into a 1976 Group 5 Stratos Turbo done up in an Alitalia livery.
The Mini Cooper has a long and confusing history, from a manufacturing standpoint. It was originally a model built by the British Motor Corporation from 1961 to 1971, and then again from 1990 to 2000 with the help of John Cooper, owner/operator of the Cooper Car Company. Now, Mini is its own brand under the wider BMW umbrella and features several production models for consumer purchase. The original vehicle, however, was a frequent participant in rally races around the world, totaling up 32 wins in various races. It did not, however, ever win a WRC, as it was out of initial production by the time the Championship was organized.
But an inability to compete in the World Rally Championship is not reason to snuff this clever and influential little racer. On top of being quite quick on its wheels – noted for its ability to take tight corners where its competitors would be forced to slowly drift through – it’s also one of the most iconic cars of all time. And that is only bolstered by the fact that it was featured in both the original and the remake of the car film, The Italian Job.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution (or the Evo, for short) has a gargantuan 10 standard iterations, numbered in Roman numerals from I to X. And that’s not even taking into account the special editions or regional versions of the car. Probably the result of a combination its wide availability, success rate in the WRC, and stunning good looks, it’s also one of the most popular rally cars of all time. It also clinched the Drivers’ title four consecutive seasons from 1996 to 1999 and won its sole Manufacturers’ title in 1998.
This cars famous 2.0-liter turbocharged led it to win, alongside its overall titles, a grand total of 27 different rally events before Mitsubishi took an extended hiatus from racing in 2002. When they returned in 2004, however, they had replaced the car that had been so good to them with a rally-only vehicle called the Lancer WRC04. Still, when it comes to the combination of overall success rates and widespread recognition, the Evo is second only to perhaps the Subaru Impreza.
Peugeot 205 T16
Like Fiat’s 131 and Mitsubishi’s Lancer, the Peugeot 205 had a wide range of road-going variants that were, for lack of a better term, nothing special. The T16 rally version, however, was a different beast entirely. And, in fact, only 200 road-going versions were ever actually built to satisfy homologation standards – that bare-minimum number meaning this car was quite literally only intended for rally competition. But, it worked out for the French car manufacturer, as the car (or rather two variants of it) won 16 WRC rounds over its tenure – including 2 Manufacturers’ titles and 2 Drivers’ titles.
It’s also worth noting that this car competed during the wild days of Group B, and was – in fact – the most successful car of the final two years of the era. Though this car was probably most recognized for its absurdly large whale tail of a rear wing, it also featured a turbocharged 16-valve engine, from which it garners its T16 designation. The saddest part of this story, however, is that the car was never made readily available to American consumers, as Peugeot doesn’t sell to the States, and likely never will.
Though it was originally built with Group B competition in mind, the Porsche 959 was never a successful rallying car. In fact, the first time it competed (three 911s were re-specced into 959s and entered in the Paris-Dakar off-road rally) it completely failed to finish. That might make it seem unworthy to be on this list, but we disagree, as the 959 has one major thing going for it: for a time, it was the world’s fastest street-legal production car. As something specifically built for rally competition, that’s incredibly impressive.
The car did, however, win the Paris-Dakar rally in 1986 – though that was its sole podium. Apparently, the creation of this vehicle was more an exercise than an actual attempt at creating a Group B competitor, as the brand decided against putting it through a whole season. It seems they deemed the knowledge gained through such competition unworthy of the monetary cost toward keeping the cars in running condition. Still, the sheer madness of a rally car that could hit speeds of up to 197 mph is enough to rank it near the top.
Renault Alpine A110
The World Rally Championship had its inaugural year in 1973, the same year that the Renault Alpine A110 took home the Manufacturers’ title (there was no Drivers’ until 1977). That historic event alone is enough to put the Alpine A110 on this list. But that’s hardly the only reason this car is so wonderful. Interestingly, this car didn’t even start its life under the Renault brand name, as Alpine originally was an independent manufacturer who built the car from a hodgepodge of Renault parts.
They were so successful in creating a purpose-driven rally vehicle, however, that Renault bought the entire company and homologized the vehicle for rally competition purposes. It was also a lot like Lancia’s Stratos, in that it featured atypical style and performance, acting more like a sports car than strictly a small rally vehicle. Though it only has the one overall WRC title under its belt, this car is so beloved that Renault has just recently revived it, having revealed the new version at the 2018 Geneva Auto Show.
With one iteration or another having won a grand total of 155 individual rally titles (including 6 at the WRC between the Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ categories), a series of wildly popular road-going consumer models, and an unmistakeable silhouette, Subaru’s Impreza is probably the most recognized and celebrated rally car of all time. Especially the WRX and WRX STI editions. Ask any fan and they’ll likely swoon over the car’s signature blue and yellow livery – or bemoan its tremendous success, if they’re fond of another manufacturer.
Interestingly enough, the Impreza was introduced as a lightweight replacement for the brand’s much larger Legacy model. And, in the very first event it was ever entered into, it achieved a podium finish. Though Subaru’s racing division was young, they knew they had something special and went all-in on the Impreza chassis. And that has gone toward making this car amongst the few to be known as one of the all time greats of rallying, even amongst folks who have no grasp on the sport whatsoever.