It’s quite rare for a form of motor racing to have a single, inarguable Golden Era, a period when the category, series or championship was considered to be at the peak of its powers, with plenty of manufacturer money, close competition and dozens of different winners. It isn’t something you could say of Formula One, and even the WRC would be debatable, but it most definitely applies to touring car racing, or at least the British Touring Car Championship. The era in question was of course the Super Touring period, spanning much of the ’90s and giving rise to some of the BTCC’s most iconic moments.
Other eras had their moments of course, but while we’re never going to deny the appeal of the Lotus Cortinas of the ’60s, the hairy-chested Capris of the ’70s or the ‘rip-snorting’ RS500s of the ’80s, the Super Touring period really did have it all. With that in mind, here are 5 of our favourite mid ’90s tin-tops.
1 – Vauxhall Cavalier
It was never the most dramatic looking of touring cars and far from the most exotic, yet the Vauxhall Cavalier proved to be a stalwart of the Super Touring era. It debuted in 1990, the first year the of 2-Litre Class and would continue in works hands for another five seasons, an absolute age for a top-tier competition car. It will forever be associated with John Cleland, the Scot using the unprepossessing saloon to notch up an impressive tally of wins, eventually culminating in the overall drivers’ title in 1995, the final year of the Cavalier’s works career.
This is all very impressive but it’s actually the Cavalier’s C20XE ‘Redtop’ engine that most appeals, and not just because it’s an engine we’ve used in a multitude of Retropower builds. As many are aware, from 1992 the works Cavaliers ran Swindon Racing reverse head XEs, the inlet and exhausts swapped around in order to give enhanced performance and cooling. Actually achieving this took a phenomenal amount of work, and included re-routing oil ways, changing the angle of the cam throat and completely uprated valve trains. Indeed, the valves themselves grew in diameter by 2mm, stems shrank from 7mm to 5mm, and double valve springs and solid lifters also fitted. The cams were equally exotic and had an incredibly aggressive profile, with a lift of 13.5mm and a piston-to-valve clearance of approximately 1.5mm.
Not that the blocks escaped the Swindon treatment, the bore and stroke being changed to 82 x 88mm (the standard XE being 88 x 88mm), with forged con rods, pistons and highly strung cranks. It took a full week of work to complete a Swindon XE, and most would only last a race or two before either failing or being replaced, a fact which points to just how much money was flowing through the series at the time. The result? A full 310bhp and the ability to rev to 9000rpm. Oh, and the aforementioned title of course.
2 – Ford Mondeo
The Mondeo was another fairly prosaic ‘90s ‘repmobile’ given a new lease of life via the much vaunted Super Touring BTCC regs, and also evidence of just how far car makers were willing to go in order to win. The Mondeo would eventually go onto become the longest lived of all Super Tourers, slogging away between 1993 and 2000 and, much like its Cavalier rival, only emerging victorious in its final season.
Like the Cavalier, the Mondeo was also something of an engineering tour de force, in this case its 2.0 V6 engine. The rules stated that all Super Tourers be powered by 2.0 16v engines so Ford, ever committed to the formula, opted to downsize its V6, the top-spec power plant available for the Mondeo road car. Not only did it drop down from 2.5L in capacity, the engine was also mounted substantially lower down and canted over within the shell, so far that one of the driveshafts actually passed through the ‘V’ of the engine.
The Mondeo might have been a veritable pensioner by the time it was able to take outright BTCC honours, but these cars, resplendent in ‘Rapid Fit’ blue and yellow, were by some margin the most technologically impressive Super Tourers of all. Built by Prodrive and with Ford’s chequebook prised wide open, each of the three Mondeos built for the 2000 season costing a cool £1million apiece, a massive sum 18 years ago.
3 – Audi A4 Quattro
The 1990s were a decade of rapid expansion for Audi, much of the previous decade having been spent bolstering its profile via motorsport, and by extension, Quattro all-wheel drive. It was therefore only natural that the Ingolstadt concern would seek to utilise its revolutionary Quattro concept wherever possible, including the British Touring Car Championship. So it was that the A4, complete with four-wheel drive and sophisticated six-speed transmission debuted in 1996, and, much to the displeasure of series stalwarts like Ford, Vauxhall and Peugeot, pretty much walked off with the title. TOCA, alarmed at the pace advantage shown by the silver cars, imposed a hefty weight penalty by the seventh round of the championship, but though it pegged Audi dominance it couldn’t stop the silverware going to Germany.
The A4 had double the traction of its rivals and would therefore lead away from the lights like the proverbial scalded cat, double the grip paid dividends in the corners, while Quattro proved to be a near insurmountable advantage when the heavens opened, something not exactly unknown in a domestic British race series. (Side note, Audi also entered similarly spec’d A4s in the Belgian, Spanish, South African and Australian touring car championships that year, and the result was the same, domination.) Further, punitive weight penalties were added for subsequent seasons, ensuring that the Quattro would never again take tin-top racing’s biggest prize.
4 – Renault Laguna
Another of the BTCC’s ‘heavy hitters,’ and another example of a car maker willing to dig deep to win what was in essence a domestic championship, even if it was an especially competitive, high profile one. The Lagunas first appeared in 1994 and grew to become a competitive package as the season progressed, but it was with the switch to Williams F1 management for the following year that the cars really became a dominant package. It’s worth recalling that Williams were in something of a purple patch at the time and would go onto design championship winning F1 cars in both 1996 and 1997, so they really did know what they were doing.
A massive budget and the efforts of Sodemo, Renault Sport’s trusted engine builder, resulted in one of the most complete power-plants on the grid, while Williams F1 expertise ensured that the chassis was also among the class of the field and that the whole operation ran like clockwork. Cleland and the Cavalier proved tough to beat in ’95 (though Renault pipped Vauxhall to the manufactures’ title), and everyone had to play second fiddle to Frank Biela and the Quattro steamroller in ’96, but ’97 belonged to Alain Menu and Renault, and by some margin – next placed man, Biela, was a full 128 points further back.
5 – Alfa Romeo 155
No discussion of the Glory Days of the British Touring Car Championship would be complete without mentioning one of the most effective tin-tops of the era, and also the car which pushed the rules to breaking point, then some more for luck – the Alfa 155. Alfa Romeo debuted their 155 to much fanfare at the beginning of the 1994 season, and while it would be wrong to suggest that more seasoned rivals had written them off as ‘also rans,’ it was undeniably true that most thought experience would ultimately tell in the championship reckoning.
It didn’t take long for those assumptions to be unceremoniously shredded, the 155s of Gabriele Tarquini and Giampiero Simoni clearly able to carry far more speed through the sweeping bends of the UK’s roster of circuits, and it was all down to their trick (for the time) aerodynamic appendages. These would soon sprout from the cars of all of Alfa Romeo’s rivals but for the beginning of the ’94 season, the 155 stood alone.
Alfa was able to compete with such aerodynamic devices through studious adherence to the letter, if not the spirit, of the BTCC rule book. The recently released 155 Silverstone, a homologation special of which 2500 were built, was sold with both a front splitter and rear spoiler, though both were fixed. The owner could adjust them however, they merely had to to break out the specially designed kit of shims and tools supplied in the boot of each car.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the gulf between the 155 and their own models, rival teams soon began to question why Alfa Romeo had been allowed to tread this route, even if it wasn’t technically illegal. Rumours persist that Ford threatened to supply 2500 Mondeos to a national chain car rental firm, each car supplied with a sheet of aluminium and tin snips, in effect a DIY flat floor kit.
Things came to a head at Oulton Park when TOCA, bending to the will of the other teams, demanded the 155s race with their spoilers in the ‘lowered’ configuration. Alfa Romeo protested and promptly boycotted the race, effectively picking up their toys and heading for home. A compromise was reached by the following round, one which saw the Alfas compete with their spoilers’ down’ but the front splitter in the extended position, but the damage was done. Alfa Romeo and Tarquini waltzed off with both titles, and all Super Tourers would sport similar aero packages from 1995 onwards.