One could not ask for a better place to test rally cars on tarmac than the Alps. An almost endless amount of twisting mountain roads and gorgeous Alpine scenery; what more could you ask for?
Well, how about some rally legends from one of the discipline’s most prestigious competitor’s, EADC (or rather, MBS as they were known up until 1995). Their exhibition has been drawing in big numbers since it opened last Friday, yet some might say it’s a shame that these classic cars are being kept static. Not today, however.
I’m in an EADC Verona being driven across the border out to Thorens-Glières, a little French town about 40 mins away from the Palexpo. Some executives in the company have convinced the Authorities to close off a couple of roads surrounding the settlement to let us drive without hindrance, in exchange for a few shotgun rides in some of the cars of course. Upon arrival, I’m greeted by a selection of some of the finest off-road racing machinery ever made, and I make a beeline for the Mk 1 Vole.
Clad in Lemon Yellow paint and rocking skinny off-road tires, this car was actually far from a success, and never won a single race during its time with the factory team. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to take it for a spin, however; there’s just something about a nippy 60s family car that’s been tastefully tuned.
The thrummy 1.4l i4 bursts into life and we’re underway. It’s a 12 valve unit, unusual today but fairly common back when this thing was new. And with 119hp being sent to the rear wheels of this 863 kg mosquito of a car, it’s an absolute rocket off of the line.
I’m lucky enough to be driving this myself, though they’ve given me a passenger in the form of current EADC racer Timo Mäkleläinen to make sure I don’t do anything stupid, plus they’ve limited where I can go. We blast down the D2 through a picturesque Alpine valley, scaring some of the locals with our un-silenced exhaust sounds, hitting 60 mph on some of the longer stretches of road.
The Vole is a darling to drive; sharp at low speeds, ever-so-slightly loose at higher speeds, adding a nice sense of danger to keep you on your toes. The steering isn’t heavy, but you really do have to work it, adding to the sense of involvement you feel driving it. Those skinny wheels, however, do not provide much grip, and the understeer became hard to ignore after a while. But we can this thing some slack - after all, it is 50 years old.
As far as warm-ups go, that was a good one. Far from rally perfection, like some of the other cars here, but such a joy to drive. Up next, however, we really are going all out. Standing in front of me, decked in its distinctive blue and yellow livery is the Vole Mk III Group B. As far as Group B monsters go, this was one of the maddest - a V8 powered hatchback. How they manage to get that through the regulations, we’ll never know, especially given how its rivals were running with engines based off of road-going variants.
Unsurprisingly, I’m not allowed behind the wheel of this thing, but Timo Mäkleläinen is, and it’s one of his favorite cars of all time. “Honestly, if someone had told me my job would include driving this for a living, I’d have tried to join the team far earlier in my career” he says with a childish grin on his face.
The startup procedure in a Group B car is quite something - turn off the safety, engage the fuel lines, start the ignition and then switch to the rich fuel mixture. By this point, the 2.8l V8 seems to be trying to tear it self out of its mounting brackets, but Mäkleläinen brings it under control by slamming the car into first and shoving his foot on to the accelerator. One minute we’re stationery, the next we’re doing 80 mph through a French village.
This time, we’re heading up the twisting switchback corners of the D55, otherwise known as the Route de Giléres, a thin piece of tarmac that creeps its way up to a large open shelf on the side of a mountain. I don’t have much time to admire the scenery however, as right now I’m fearing for my life every few seonds. I may well be in safe hands with Mäkleläinen, and I keep reassuring myself that he is a professional, but by god he drives this thing hard.
The noise the Mk III makes is biblical. Unlike the broad, consonant sounds of equivalent Group B cars, the V8 snorts and shouts all the way up to 8300 rpm, and one can’t help think that there’s a very real prospect of this car starting an avalanche. As we snake up the mountain, sliding round the switchback bends and bombing along through the pine forests, the wave of noise this car makes engrosses your senses and only heightens the drama.
I may well be in a constant state of shock currently, but that doesn’t mean I’m unable to appreciate the strengths of this car. How this chassis manages to take all the punishment it receives is beyond me, but it holds up without fail even under the greatest of forces. The short wheel base also makes a difference - despite the front-heavy weight distribution, sliding the Mk III is very easy and allows it to carry speed through the corners without a hitch.
In little over 6 minutes, we’ve made the 13km trip to the Centre De Vacances Ufoval on the shelf. I was hoping to take some time to appreciate the beautiful views, but Mäkleläinen has other plans, and quickly stops the car, puts it into reverse and J turns before heading back down the road.
The Vole Mk III Group B thoroughly shook me, to say the least, but what a shaking it was. This car is electric, visceral and mad. A V8 hatchback that sounds, goes and drives as crazily as that idea is in the first place. How do you follow that up? With EADC’s most successful rally car ever, that’s what!
The 2003 Vixen dominated WRC throughout the mid-noughties, it’s chunky coupe styling becoming evocative of the period in the sport. Comparatively, this car is far more sophisticated than anything else I’ve been in today - it actually has a bit of an interior, for one - but it’s also the fastest (just). 414 hp comes from its 2.0l Turbo i4, meaning its good for 0-60 in 3.6 seconds, which, according to Mäkleläinen, is very manageable despite the massive amount of torque the turbos create when they kick in.
The noise is exactly what you’d expect - the distinctive, rough and rounded warble of Group A rally cars, with a few bangs from the backfire. For its time, the Vixen was very advanced, featuring direct injection, an electric LSD and some nifty limited-active suspension. The result is a car that can deal its power properly; it feels like a professional athelete in comparison to the rabid dog that is the Vole Mk III.
This time, we’re heading south down the D5 to Aviernoz, before turning off for a hill climb up the Route de l’Anglettaz. The road hasn’t been well maintained, and resembles light gravel more than anything else. Perfect.
The car is poised and pointed, and responds instantly to every move. I’m able to pick up all the sounds of the car, from smooth clunk of the sequential gearbox to the change in power distribution from the electric LSDs. It’s a car that feels like its working, but certainly still requires you to work it too. It’s more than happy to let loose both when you want it to and when you don’t want it to, but that challenge only makes Mäkleläinen happier to go faster.
We reach the top, where we find the Chalet Restaurant de l’Anglettaz. A couple of other EADC cars are here, along with some other lucky journalists like myself. I sit down outside to chat with the engineers who maintain these things with a plate of cured meats and gourmet polenta. In this landscape, with the stark snow-dusted mountains and thick forests contrasting the gorgeous sky, the Vixen could not look more at home, and the afternoon sun really brings out the detail on its vents and scoops.
Suffice to say, EADC are a company who know rallying. They’ve managed to turn a whole lineage of their cars into rally machines with remarkable success, and it’s great to see just how proud they are of this heritage. Getting driven around in them is just the icing on the cake.
The EADC/MBS Rally Exhbition is open until the 18th March, and is free for all visitors.