Driving Walter Röhrl's Opel Ascona 400 rally car

How does the a genuine WRC rally car feel on snow and ice to a mere mortal? We find out

This is the last rear-wheel drive car to win the World Rally Championship. Let's dwell on that for a minute. The Audi Quattros were already in existence, but initially fragile, and not dominant at all.

Walter Röhrl drove an Ascona 400 to victory in the 1982 drivers' championship, albeit with the manufacturers' championship indeed going to Audi. Title glory for Röhrl came courtesy of winning two rallies outright – Monte Carlo and Ivory Coast – and finishing second and third across seven other rallies. The durability and strength of the Ascona made this feat possible, and the win greatly improved the image of Opel in export markets.

But how did it come to be? It all started with Tony Fall, a British rally driver who ran the British Opel Dealer Team in the UK, and later the Opel Motorsport operation in Germany. Having cautiously competed in Group 1 and 2 rallying, Opel was ready to enter the top level of Group 4 rallying.

Creating the Ascona 400

It did so with the two-door Ascona, of which 400 units had to be built in order to obtain the homologation papers. Opel was definitely not Lancia, and so it actually built and sold the cars. The homologation special, sporting bodywork with widened fenders and other appendages by the German tuning company Irmscher, was decorated with racy decals similar to the official livery of Opel Motorsport.

It was shown for the first time at the Frankfurt show in September 1979. It had a 2.4-litre four-cylinder inline engine, developing 144 durable horsepower, and driving the rear wheels. The Ascona 400 homologation model was capable of over 126mph and ran the 0-62mph sprint in 7.6 seconds, depending on final drive ratio (there was a choice of two). It shared the five-link rear axle arrangement with the rally car, but the 16-valve engine, for ease of use and reliability, was fuelled by a Bosch L-Jetronic injection system and not by a duo of Webers as on the works rally vehicles.

To begin with, Opel started to build a race engine based on a standard 2-litre block, but quickly realised that the unit could never produce enough power. The management, always eager to save money, made the engineers' life very difficult: they demanded that the motor be extremely reliable, easily tuneable in the rally car, and detuneable for road use.

The solution was found in the shape of a completely new, crossflow 16-valve cylinder head. Four valves per cylinder, which came from aviation, went out of fashion throughout the automotive industry in the 1920s. They did not reappear until the late 1950s, in motor racing, and it was via rallying that Opel introduced the technology to its road cars in 1979. Opel had no expertise in the field of 16-valve heads, so they turned to Cosworth, well known in the rally world for its work on the Ford Escort engine.

Cosworth designed a 95.2mm x 85mm, 2.4-litre, 16-valve cross-flow engine with a dry sump which, running on two Weber 48DCOE carbs, easily developed in excess of 240bhp and 270Nm of torque. The internals were composed of Cosworth pistons, steel connecting rods and a counterbalanced (with eight weights) crankshaft. I was told by an old Opel hand that the original Cosworth crankshaft was hellishly expensive and ripped itself happily to pieces.

A German had the brilliant idea to use the exceedingly strong crankshaft from the Opel Rekord's 2.3 litre diesel engine, and it proved strong enough for all the versions of the rally engine. In so-called Phase 3 guise, at the end of the Ascona's competitive life, the engine, equipped with Weber 50DCOE carburettors, was capable of developing up to 340bhp, with a durability penalty, of course, but still a fantastic result from a normally-aspirated engine in the early 1980s. The engine was mated to a strengthened Getrag five-speed gearbox with a dog-leg layout.

All the bodywork modifications and vents were designed with input from wind tunnel research, and were produced by Irmscher for both the road car and the rally car, with only minor differences in the shape of the wheelarch extensions. The rudimentary ducktail rear spoiler reduced rear lift by almost 100 per cent, the front spoiler and rubber splitters on the hood reduced front end lift by around per cent, and the triangular engine cover vents were carried over to the Manta 400.

All the additional bodywork parts for the rally car were made from Kevlar and GRP, with mods available for different types of rallies. For instance, the fuel tank could have a capacity between 60 and 300 litres, the rear window in the forest rally spec was made from plastic, and the dry weight of the car, depending on spec, ranged from 980kg to 1060kg. It was designed to be simple to service, and that is why privateer teams kept on using these cars up to 1986.

Emulating Röhrl

Ever since I was grown up enough to understand who Walter Röhrl was, I wanted to emulate his driving style. An unattainable task, like practising singing in the bathroom while dreaming of equaling Frank Sinatra. Languid movement of hands on the wheel, all the physics of car motion exquisitely anticipated, decisive and balletic inputs. I am still trying, but perhaps sitting in the seat which he occupied for most of the 1982 season will influence my driving skill in a positive way.

The former employee of the Augsburg bishop, (not his personal chauffeur, as some people have written in the past), Röhrl was brought up in strict Catholic faith, and when he started to compete, he always prayed to God, to quote, 'not for Him to help me win, but so that nothing happened to me'. An iron will and unfailingly meticulous preparation were his trademarks, not to mention an otherworldly, effortless mastery of anything on wheels.

This car helped him secure his 1982 World Championship, but my first sighting of the car was in unauspicious circumstances in a parking lot at the Opel factory. The trip was far from having been well planned, and to the last minute I had no idea which cars I would be able to extricate from the clutches of the Opel Classic team. There was no time for subtlety, I just got in and drove around some villages in the vicinity of Rüsselsheim, and then, accompanied by the mustachioed Wolfgang, I set off for Opel's R&D Center at Dudenhofen, where we intended to shoot the bulk of my story. It was a lovely April day...

At first a drizzle hit the windshield. No problem. Then the drizzle turned to heavy rain. We were still moving briskly along th Autobahn, I was keeping the aftermarket speedo around 100mph. Then the rain rapidly turned into snow. All right. I turned to Wolfgang and asked what kind of tyres we had on, as I hadn't looked very carefully. 'Ja', he said dismissively, 'they are some winter tyres left over from the last event.'

'Wolfgang, I think they are TB15s, lightly treaded Michelin slicks,' I replied. He straightened up in his seat. The snow turned to hail. I kept my steering inputs small and gentle, and caressed the throttle, not difficult at all with a proper, normally-aspirated engine. That engine, reacting blitzschnell, quick as a lightning, developing only around 200bhp for longevity instead of around 270 in Walter's time, made my journey possible without wrecking the precious museum exhibit. And without slowing down.

The area inside the secret facility provided for us was covered in German-quality, totally perfect racetrack tarmac with an impossibly high grip level in the wet. With the unassisted steering geared at 2.7 turns lock to lock, and the sticky rally slicks on the quickly drying asphalt, a slalom was harder than any workout. Going really sideways was also pretty difficult, because unsticking the rears meant an entry speed slightly above 'insane'. However, I discovered that the correct amount of opposite lock dials itself up, with the forces on the steering wheel perfectly linear, natural and friendly.

The Ascona never appeared unpredictable, never wanted to bite. As Walter Röhrl often reminded everyone in interviews, WRC rallies in the early '90s had a different format: very often crews pressed on for 30-40 hours practically without rest, and a winning car was often the one which could be driven with less concentration, at night, with the driver completely exhausted. Nobody wanted a car that would drive itself into a tree just because its window of controllability was too small. With that caveat, I desperately wanted to try the car out on a loose surface, but knew that gravel was out of the question: it would damage the museum piece in an unacceptable way. So I waited for snow and ice.

Ascona on ice

Around five years later, my wish was suddenly granted. This is the scene: the Austrian Alps, winter, dark and misty. Snow drifts are melting away – a very bad sign. My hosts are not optimistic. It really feels like Monte Carlo weather; snow, damp, mud, ice, slush.

The light seeping through the mountains doesn't flatter the old Ascona. All the scars, scratches and blemishes are visible. Some museum cars don't like to wander outside. This one doesn't care, it's a proper rally machine, all the better for the patina, the signs of real use, the whiff of old dust, stale oil and sweat. A historic rally car should never be tarted up by a gaggle of OCD detailers, parked on a red carpet and caressed by technicians every few minutes.

The following day the weather does not get any better. The slushy top layer of snow offers zero grip, and it refuses to melt in a uniform manner, there are dips and holes in it. Today the Ascona 400 is running on civilian studded Vredestein winter tyres – road legal in many European countries, but lacking the ultimate bite of a full-on rally studded tyre.

I can't back off now, a lot of Germans and Austrians are watching. I squeeze myself into the seat. The driving position seems strange, and the seat back is reclined too far for me to feel really comfortable. I am much shorter than Walter, perhaps that's the reason. I start the engine and it sounds... ordinary. Ah well, it's an Opel which was able to beat more refined machinery, so who cares what it sounds like.

The steering is sublime, requiring no effort at all on snow. It loads up ideally, and the car can be placed at any angle with supreme confidence right away. On the other hand, the Getrag 'box needs a firm shove into gear. There are instruments on the dashboard, but most can be ignored unless they indicate that the engine is about to blow up. The driver of this car simply has to concentrate on driving and nothing else. On rallies of the period if you made a mistake, you died. Keeping that thought at the back of one's head is better than traction control.

The rear tyres occasionally can't find traction, and the car bogs down. After a few laps of the Austrian winter driving centre I discover that, to preserve momentum, I need to avoid all but the most shallow slides, and to keep skimming the surface of the melting snow. Deep ruts throw the old car in random directions, and I am fighting.

It's hard to keep it straight on the notionally straight sections. Transitioning from one slide to the other is a dream, when the surface becomes smoother. Sometimes I need to tap the brake pedal to squash the nose down, to the limit of front suspension travel in order to make it possible to steer. No need to lift a lot, just steer.

I am shamelessly having fun in Walter Röhrl's old Opel. There is plenty of room for mistakes, and the chance of me hurting myself on this track is little. But just imagine the tall German, turning the wheel with languid precision, pushing the Ascona to victory over the Col de Turini, with 400 metre drops and no barriers: that puts things in perspective. Now I know that this rally car is a bit like that buddy, whose presence makes you capable of taking more risks than you normally would.

Driving the Rothmans-liveried Opel at my hopelessly low speeds becomes reflex action, I instinctively know how much opposite lock I need here and there, how much more gas I apply to compensate understeer in the hairpin. But just like with every other carnal pleasure, it's better to end it before it mutates into disaster. Now I am probably one of a handful of people who know how the Ascona 400 rally car handles in different conditions, and my new dream is to drive it on next year's Rally Legend tour in San Marino.

Not a realistic dream? So what. If you told me a decade ago that I would drive Walter Röhrl's old steed on snow, I would have laughed.

Photography by Bartlomiej Szyperski, Stefan Lindloff, Piotr R. Frankowski, LAT

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