A humble Group A rally car with a fascinating history? It can only be the McRae family’s Sierra three-door…
Words Jamie Arkle / Photos Ade Brannan
It’s hard to escape the fact that from the outside it looks just like any other modern farm building. Okay, it’s been given a lick of paint, has some beefy doors and the starlings roosting in the beams have been unceremoniously evicted, but other than that, this building gives no real clue to the treasure within.
We’re at the McRae family residence in Lanark, and I’m hopping from foot to foot, barely managing to contain myself.
As a kid, Colin McRae was my hero, and his father, Jimmy, was the driver my dad supported above all others. Long treks into damp, misty Welsh forests were rewarded by the crackle of anti-lag and the whine of an old-school turbo, shortly followed by the sight of Colin giving it his all.
Back to the shed, though, and as Jimmy pushes the button to open the steel roller doors, my inner eight-year-old has pretty much overcome my adult self, and I can barely stop myself ducking under the door before it’s open more than a foot or two.
Inside is an awe-inspiring collection of rally cars. If, like me, you’re a fan of the sport, you can’t fail to be genuinely excited and humbled by the sheer quality of machines in here. The famous Japanese car with the boxer engine and ‘555’ decals is present, of course, as is Colin’s Vauxhall Nova Sport, the car he cut his rallying teeth in, but it’s the slightly worn-looking Sierra that really gets my heart racing.
This car might not have netted Colin the WRC crown, but it provided an important step up in his career, allowing him to experience a competitive rally car for the first time. It’s also a car with a genuinely exciting story, having been used in anger by Colin, Jimmy and Alister McRae, plus a few opportunistic thieves.
The McRae’s association with this car goes back to 1987, a season that saw Jimmy McRae use it and another three-door to compete in the British Rally Championship (BRC) because his Metro 6R4 had been outlawed the previous year.
Back then, the Sierra ran to a full Group A spec. Though the Group B monsters had been put out to pasture, the BRC was still ultra-competitive, bristling with four-wheel-drive Mazdas and Lancias. All this meant that the relatively heavy, rear-wheel-drive Sierra was always going to be at something of a disadvantage, and it took all of Jimmy’s skill to coax good results from it. Tarmac minimised the Ford’s traction disadvantage, so it should come as no surprise that Jimmy’s best result in the car occurred at that year’s Manx rally.
So, how did Jimmy come to be competing in a Sierra? “We struck a deal with Boreham. They’d sell us a car for the event and all the bits to turn it into a Group A machine, but we had to do the work,” he explains.
RED Motorsport was dispatched to collect the car and drive it up north. All was going well and the car arrived safely in Liverpool, whereupon the driver nipped out to open the workshop doors. In that time, an opportunistic local had seized his chance and driven off in the immaculate Cosworth. It spent the next few hours tearing around Liverpool before being used to a ram-raid a TV shop.
“Look at the rear wing closely, and you can still see the mark where they reversed into the shop window,” chuckles Jimmy.
The car was recovered a few days later, fortunately with minimal damage. Amazingly, Jimmy went on to win the Circuit of Ireland in the very same car just two weeks later, a victory that must’ve been all the sweeter knowing just what the car had gone through beforehand.
Jimmy managed to haul the Sierra to some very impressive results over the course of the ’87 and ’88 seasons, the most impressive of which was probably victory on the 1988 Scottish Rally.
“I’d never won it, and it was an important event as it’s my home rally. We were on course to do it the year before, but the clutch went mid-stage and we had to settle for second.”
Thankfully, 1988 proved to be Jimmy’s year, and he managed to take the Sierra to victory in the punishing Scottish forests. He went on to claim overall championship honours.
Colin McRae’s association with this car began in 1989, and it was his first experience of a truly competitive rally car – as Jimmy explains: “Colin actually took to it right away and was competitive from the very beginning. That’s pretty impressive, considering how different the car was to the Nova he’d been using previously.”
It wasn’t long before Colin was making full use of the Sierra’s rear-wheel-drive layout, and spectators and rally fans soon realised they were witnessing a gifted driver honing his talents. The McRae family actually used a selection of Sierras during this period, including Group A and Group N configurations. This means that finding out a definitive spec of each car on each rally is a challenge; even Jimmy isn’t entirely sure of the exact details of each specific car.
One thing that is known is that D541 UVW spent time in both classes and was used by Colin and Jimmy between 1987 and 1990. It was during one of its spells as a Group N car that Colin had most success in it, though, when he campaigned in the 1989 British Open Rally Championship. His main competition that year came from Pentti Airikkala and David Middleton. The former was campaigning a Starion, the latter a 4WD Celica, so Colin was really up against it.
Though always ultra-quick and competitive, Colin’s relative lack of experience proved to be his undoing. Searing special stage times were all too often brought to an abrupt end by a spectacular accident, and his only Group N victory in a three-door Sierra was, fittingly, at that year’s Scottish rally.
That said, Colin did achieve other notable results in another Group A Sierra before making the move to Subaru: D937 U00 was hauled kicking and screaming to fifth place in the 1989 Rally of New Zealand – a significant result against world-class competition.
Colin went on to bigger things, of course, and the Sierra was gradually phased out of top-line competition (though Alister McRae used it for a few rounds in 1990). The car was eventually sold in Group A spec to a driver in Ireland, and it was used extensively in the Emerald Isle.
“We actually bought it back in 2002, and it was in a terrible state, which says a lot considering how much stick me, Colin and Alister gave it,” comments Jimmy.
In fact the Sierra was so bad that the McRae family took the decision to reshell it, transferring all the running gear and suspension (and the battered rear wing) into the new, rot-free body. The car sported many different liveries and colour schemes in its long career, but the family eventually opted to deck it out in the famous Shell Gemini scheme.
If ever a car was more than the sum of its component parts, this is it. Yes it’s a moderately powerful Group A rally car, but that’s not what makes it remarkable. What really sets it apart is the personal history – the ups and the downs of one of motorsport’s most successful dynasties, all summed up in one car.
Jimmy took me out for a quick passenger ride, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Yes, it might not have beaten Lancia and Toyota on the world stage, but that really doesn’t matter. What is important is this car, this family and the association they have with it.
ENGINE 1993CC DOHC Cosworth YB, Cosworth pistons and rods, Garrett turbo with restrictor, larger-capacity front-mounted intercooler, Marelli electronic fuel injection and ignition, uprated water system including alloy swirl pot and header tank, stock airbox
TRANSMISSION Getrag five-speed gearbox, limited-slip differential, uprated clutch
SUSPENSION Front: competition coilovers with uprated, custom-poundage springs, 28mm diameter ARB, strut brace; rear: semi-independent damper and spring arrangement, custom-poundage springs, 16mm diameter ARB
BRAKES Front: 330mm ventilated discs with four-pot callipers; rear: 305mm discs with four-pot callipers
WHEELS & TYRES Front: 6x15in Speedline Corse gravel alloys; rear: 7x16in OZ gravel alloys, Pirelli gravel tyres (front: 225/55×15; rear: 225/50×16)
INTERIOR Full FIA Group A interior comprising Recaro bucket seats, Willans harnesses, steering wheel, fire-suppression system, FIA-approved multi-point roll cage, glasses holder, fuel cell, spare wheel, Rally Master stage timing equipment
EXTERIOR Steel Sierra three-door bodyshell, Cosworth bumpers, skirts and spoiler, Shell/Gemini livery, Hella spotlights