It’s not so surprising that Group B is held up as the pinnacle of the World Rally Championship by those lucky enough to witness it first hand. I mean, really, who could fail to be excited by the very thought of a flame-belching Sport Quattro, a Delta S4s emitting the kind of noises normally associated with a pressure cooker, and the piercing shriek of a Metro 6R4s? No one, that’s who, and we’ll readily fight anyone who feels otherwise…any takers?
The Group B ‘supercars’ mentioned in the paragraph above have passed from rallying history into automotive folklore, so much so that you’d struggle to find someone unable to tell you how Audi’s now ubiquitous Quattro concept ‘cut its teeth.’ Yet they were far from alone; many car makers were drawn to rallying in the mid ’80s, lured by the open-ended rules of Group B itself and the possibilities they entailed, and one of the most important ‘also rans’ was the Toyota Celica Twin-Cam Turbo.
Toyota’s association with rallying predated Group B of course, with the Japanese concern actually proving to be something of a stalwart supporter of the sport at all levels. There had been success, too, albeit much of it borne from the innate hardiness of a succession of Celicas and Corollas. These cars were worthy and well able to take the kind of battering routinely doled out by events like the Safari, but they were hardly the last word in technical sophistication of design.
Come 1983 however, and things had begun to look markedly different. Group B and the increasing homogenisation of the WRC meant that there was no longer a place for partial rally programmes, and Toyota, with the help of its European competition arm, Toyota Team Europe, was out to take the fight to the rallying elite. In 1983, that meant Audi, Lancia and, in time, Peugeot.
Toyota’s solution to the threat posed by its European rivals was yet another Celica, albeit one with rather more firepower than any of its predecessors. Now called the TA64, or, more commonly, the Celica Twin Cam Turbo, the new Toyota did away with anything as old school as carbs and natural aspiration. Power now came from the 4T-GTE, an injected, force fed four-pot with a sizeable KKK turbo slung over the side. It made a solid 340bhp from the get go, though this would eventually climb to a claimed 400bhp. Most reckoned that was conservative and shy of the true figure by at least 35bhp.
It wasn’t all forward thinking, cutting edge stuff, however. Toyota had accepted that the days of the naturally aspirated rally car were now very much in the past, but had yet to heed the warning issued by Audi with the Quattro. The Celica therefore went into battle with only two driven wheels, the rear ones, a layout which all but guaranteed that the new car would continue the pattern set by its fore-bearers; tough enough to win in Africa yet too conservative for the shorter, faster ‘sprint’ type events in Europe.
The sad truth of the matter, and it was a truth now apparent to everyone from team manager Ove Andersson downwards, was that the lack of all-wheel drive was now an insurmountable disadvantage on gravel. It wasn’t even like the Celica was lightweight enough to take the fight to its all-wheel drive rivals on tarmac. A Lancia 037 or Ferrari 308GTB, it most certainly was not.
The Celica’s performance on European gravel tests largely reflected its conservative design. Power was never much of an issue, granted – the Twin Cam’s 4T-GT seldom made less than 400bhp, especially when not detuned for rough endurance slogs, but using it was. Put simply, even with more firepower than some of the all-wheel drive opposition there was simply no way of overcoming the deficit.
It wasn’t as if Toyota’s drivers were slouches, either. The likes of Bjorn Waldegard and a young Juha Kankkunen both did spells at Toyota in the period, and while the Swede and the Finn grew to love the Celica’s dependability and steadfast refusal to break, they were unable to drag it to the time sheets on, say, Rally Sanremo or Rally Portugal.
So with such a modest rallying CV, you might well be wondering why the Celica deserves to be considered a Retropower Hero. The answer, in a word, is Africa. Japanese car makers had long deemed the Safari Rally, and to lesser extent its Western cousin, The Ivory Coast, to be a more worthwhile undertaking than more traditional events, and it was for these rallies that Toyota’s Group B car was optimised.
You didn’t have to delve too deeply into the Celica’s spec to find evidence of Toyota’s African competition pedigree nor its dedication to winning there. The car had was homologated with incredible suspension travel, while its gear ratios tended towards the vast side of long, even when in ‘close’ ratio form. While this was less than ideal on, say, the Tour de Corse, it was a godsend on the Safari, where top speeds could reach up to 145mph and merely surviving to the end was often a cause for celebration in itself.
Perhaps the easiest means of grasping how important the pair of African WRC events were Toyota at the time is to look at the weight of expectation thrust upon the men charged with driving the Celica on its debut event, the 1983 Safari. Toyota had prepared cars for Hannu Mikkola, Per Eklund and Sandro Munari, and at least one of them was expected to be atop the podium come the end of play, and no excuses would be tolerated.
Luckily for all concerned, the Celica took to the East African plains like the proverbial duck to water. Munari’s car retired with an alternator issue and Eklund would crashed out, but Mikkola kept on plugging away. He would ultimately win by a full 11 minutes.
The Twin Cam Turbo would soon become known by a pair of nicknames, one kind, the other anything but. ‘The King of Africa’ was as self-explanatory as it was warranted, while the other, ‘the Whistling Pig,’ was derived from its unique sounding wastegate expulsions.
Whatever its moniker, the Celica proved to be damn near unbeatable on the African continent, and it would eventually retire with 6 wins to its name – 3 on the Ivory Coast and 3 on The Safari. No other car won an African WRC rally between 1984 and 1986, confirming Toyota as the dominant force on that continent and bolstering its image once more.
In short, the Celica TA 63 was the right car for the right job. It was never a threat to its all-wheel drive rivals in Europe and never looked like being so, but then it had never been intended to be a Corsican car or even an RAC challenger. It was tough, quick, and brutally capable, all while sounding like nothing else competing at the time.
Not that Toyota was content to sit on its African laurels with the Twin Cam up, running and winning. The company recognised that its next rally car would need to be able to win anywhere, all over the world and on all surfaces. Their would-be solution was MR2 based and would have competed under Group B’s mooted replacement, Group S. That category’s cancellation effectively killed the programme stone dead, though much of the thinking was ploughed into Toyota’s next Celica and the car with which it would finally conquer the WRC outright, the Group A ST165.