People love competitions. Some of us train ourselves for years to participate in matches and in tournaments, ideally each one more important than the previous. The majority of us settle for watching competitions, but that cannot be considered relaxing at all: both sides are equally intense and consuming, albeit in different ways.
When we talk about cars, performance-oriented ones are the overall favorites primarily for being the closest we can get to competition models. The industry helps us by giving them flashy colors, special seats, better powertrain, and an upgraded dynamic behavior, and by offering that in degrees of tuning in order to match every budget.
Now, what if I said that some race cars have actually been sold to the public? No, I am not saying you can run to the nearest Mercedes-Benz dealer and get a copy of Lewis Hamilton’s F1 car, mostly because he will keep driving them for some time; I am talking about the other way around. Let’s take a look at what are homologation specials.
What is a homologation special?
Entities such as the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) designed some racing categories for urban cars; the intention was to race with modified versions of urban cars. To ensure companies would not use entirely upgraded cars, homologation rules were created: they could only compete if a number of units went to the streets.
FIA used to demand a minimum of 5,000 units to be marketed, but dropped it to 2,500 in 1991. In practice, automakers would develop a new car or improve an existing one with as many capabilities as those strict requirements allowed. That decision ended bringing impressive performance standards to cars which used to be quite mundane.
Now, it is necessary to understand this label’s scope. The Dodge Charger, for example, had its famous Daytona version produced only for racing, so it does not properly qualify. On the other hand, the MG Metro 6R4 and the Renault 5 Turbo may have been heavily modified, but were made available for street use just the way they were.
What modifications did they have?
As you can imagine, performance-oriented ones above all. The Ford Sierra RS 500 Cosworth, for example, had a tuned 2.0-liter engine good for 224 hp. The Audi Sport Quattro S1 went further and included a carbon-kevlar body shell and the 80’s windshield because the steeper rake could reduce light reflection coming from the dashboard.
The most common type, however, was of heavily altered versions. Besides the European hatchbacks mentioned, we can mention the Opel Manta 400 and its more aerodynamic body, the Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution with a more robust suspension and flared wheel arches, and the Fiat 131 Abarth with many rally-oriented modifications.
Last, but not least, some cars went the opposite way: they were designed from the beginning to compete, then adapted to road use. You can notice that this is the case of Ford RS200 and Lancia 037 Stradale (rally cars), and of Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR and Porsche 911 GT1 (24 Hours of Le Mans), by simply taking a look at them.
What implications were there?
First of all, the simple possibility of buying homologation specials was already thrilling; they were literally race cars you could drive in the city. Most of them came at huge price premiums compared to the regular ones, but they sold out quickly anyway especially because people just knew they would become high-valued collectibles soon.
Secondly, such integration between race and city cars allowed automakers to improve the latter; those cars were great opportunities to research and to test new technologies in practice. Some solutions became part of the regular line, while others turned out to be too impractical and/or expensive for urban use and ended up scrapped.
Thirdly, some of those cars did reach mass production and became city icons themselves: the Renault 5 Turbo had two “editions” and spawned the Clio V6 successor; Nissan created the R390 GT1 supercar, Porsche went on with its GT tradition; and the very first BMW M3 and Subaru Impreza STI were born as typical homologation specials.