A few weeks ago, we had an article on Group 5 racing (here). And while that era gave us some wonderfully flamboyant racing cars, everyone could agree that Group 5 didn’t quite achieve its goals. It had originally been intended as a fast racing class where the cars looked like production cars but as the 80s dawned, the outlandish Gr5 cars were barely recogniseable caricatures of their underlying production cousins. Something had to be done, and the FIA’s solution was Group A.
The FIA had learned some hard lessons with Gr5 as various race teams (well, ok, Porsche) exploited loopholes in the wording of the rulebook to the hilt. This mistake would not be made again, and so Group A rules would be a lot more strict and more thoroughly spelled out. In this, it was successful and so from 1985 to 1992, GrA cars like the BMW M3 and Ford Sierra Cosworth became legends and any person with the right amount of coin could have a roadcar just like it in their driveway. In Japan, the premier GrA car was always the Skyline, but at the 0-1600cc class, war was being waged between the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla.
When it comes to racing, Honda was very much of a late bloomer. Whereas Mazda, Nissan and Toyota had been racing touring cars since the late 60s, until the mid 80s, Honda’s most notable motorsport successes were on bikes only. But GrA would give Honda an opportunity, and in 1985 it had the right car in the Civic Si.
But first, the rules. GrA rules were much stricter than the Gr5 rules that preceded them. GrA cars had to be based on roadcars cars with a production run of at least 5000 units, and this requirement meant that the cars you saw on the racetrack were always going to be based on the reasonably popular models of the day.
Where the Gr5 rulebook would say that certain areas of the car like say, fender modifications and floorpan modofications were “free”, GrA rules would spell things out a lot more. The basic structure of the production car had to be maintained and things like suspension pickup points could only be moved by a specified amount. Engine blocks and cylinder heads had to be the standard type, and gearbox and diff casings had to be stock too. Under the bonnet, engine management and cams could be changed, and the engine blueprinted, but the stock style single throttle body inlet manifolds had to be retained. As you can see below, even the amountof material that could be milled off the cylinder head ports was controlled.
In theory, anyone could take a standard roadcar, open the FIA rulebook and then start developing it into a race winner. However, the reality was quite different. The car manufacturers realised that GrA could bring tremendous marketing benefits and so they were mostly eager to throw their weight behind an official race program. Here’s an example of how Toyota went about it.
This is the Group A TRD race prep manual for the AE86. It’s pretty detailed…not only did Toyota (via TRD) offer racing parts for sale to customer race teams, but it would also supply insider know-how on things like engine building. The manual even goes so far as to make suggestions for cam grinds to use and offers templates for head porting and combustion chamber shaping. Of course, you didn’t have to follow Toyota’s recipe to the letter and any race team was free to develop its own solutions, but having the manufacturer work out, and test parts and techniques on your behalf was a great start, and things like rose jointed suspension arms, coilovers, and big brake kits could be bought right off the racing parts shelves at TRD and race teams could focus on setup and development instead of fabrication.
That meant that the only successful GrA cars were the ones that received a strong level of manufacturer support, and in the under 1600cc class, only Honda and Toyota were really serious about it. In most countries, the local Toyota importer would even have staff responsible for liasing between local race teams and the TRD skunkworks back in Japan, and Toyota would actually help to bring in (and often subsidise the cost of) racing parts from Japan.
The above is an extract from the TRD racing parts catalog, and of particular interest is the old-school ECU, which is what we would call a “tuned ROM” today, except that there was also a dash switch that enriched or leaned the fuel mixture across the board from plus to minus 9%, in gradations of 3%. Ahh don’t you just love old tech…
And when it came to racing modifications, the regs were pretty tight. And that meant that if you wanted to have a good racecar, you had to start off with a roadcar that was pretty good in the first place. And in the Division 1 (0-1600cc) class, Toyota and Honda had the right sort of cars to go racing.
In 1985, Honda had the AT-series Civic, and the hottest roadcar model was the Si with the 1600cc twincam, 16v ZC motor (also found in early CRXs sold worldwide). Weighing 910kg, the Si made good use of its 135ps and was a very competitive hot hatch in its day. Shame it was only sold in Japan.
Toyota had the AE86 Corolla Levin, and back in the days before it revolutionised tofu transportation, it was a well respected RWD 900kg coupe which was well served by its 130ps, 1600cc twincam 16v 4AGE motor. Halfway through the 1986 season, Toyota would introduce the FWD AE82 Corolla FX to its Group A lineup, although many teams all around the world would continue to campaign the older AE86 out of choice, and it has to be said that the ageing rear drive coupe was still competitive right up until the very late 80s.
The Civic and the Corolla would be a close match on the street, and so it would prove on the track as well. In GrA trim, the Civic and Corollas could be lightened to the class limit of 780kg, and with about 180ps apiece, the performance of the racecars were suitably ballistic.
Japan would adopt GrA in 1985 like most countries did, and Toyota was ready with the AE86, a well developed package which could win a GrA race outright, beating the turbo Skylines and BMW 635s if the conditions were right. Honda didn’t come into the picture until midway through the season, so the inaugural 1985 Div 1 championship would go to Toyota.
Things would heat up significantly in 1986 with Honda taking out the first race in fine style. This would be the only Honda victory in that year however and Toyota would win the remaining races of the season, even though the margins were sometimes as slim as 15 seconds.
In 1987, Honda would have its revenge, winning every race in its class that season, in what was perhaps the golden age of GrA, with the BMW M3 and Sierra RS500 duking it out in Division 3.
In 1988, Civics would again dominate Div 1 more often, winning all but one race and taking out the championship. By the end of 1988, the old AT Civic Si would be phased out in favour of the EF Civic SiR, with the immortal B16A VTEC motor, which was producing 215ps in the hands of the top teams. Toyota would campaign the AE92 Levin coupe and the Civic vs Corolla battle would be waged right up until 1993 when Super Touring replaced GrA in Japan.
Outside of Japan, the Honda Civic was not raced, and Toyota Corollas became the dominant car in the under 1600 classes everywhere. In Australia, Corollas won the Div 1 class every year from 1985 to 1992. In the European championship, the VW Golf would give the Corollas a run for its money but again, Toyota would be the class champions from 1985 to 1987.
In the end, the very thing that made GrA appealing made it turn onto itself. The limited nature of the racing modifications allowed meant that the manufacturer which put out the most racing-compatible roadcar would dominate. And so GrA would be dominated by particular models from time to time as various manufacturers released new models which got the upper hand. In Japan, especially, the R32 Skyline GT-R became so dominant that GrA more or less became a one make series in the big banger class.
But one class where GrA was a resounding success was the under 1600cc class, at least in Japan. Corolla and Civic would trade punches right up until the last year of GrA, and in the 9 years of the All-Japan championship, the Civic would bring home the series trophy 5 times to Corolla’s 4, in what were always close-fought racing, in a class of racing where the hero cars closely resembled the cars that any Joe Suzuki could buy and own.
Group A. Good times.
And finally…here’s some Youtubes!
And here’s a short one from the last year of Japanese GrA, which the Civic won:
And here’s the giant killing 93 Civic again, pitted against some contemporary supercars and race cars from other classes.