1998 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR AMG Coupé Straßenversion

Car Culture

Homologation Specials Were a Unique Breed of Car Models

FIA used to demand companies to produce a batch of their race cars for road use. We owe many of our eternal favorites to them

1973 Lancia Stratos HF
The Lancia Stratos is arguably the first homologation special, created with focus on rallying. It used a V6 engine from the Ferrari Dino 246 and several internal parts from Fiat cars

People love competitions. Some of us train ourselves for years to participate in matches and in tournaments, ideally each one more important than the previous. The majority of us settle for watching competitions, but that cannot be considered relaxing at all: both sides are equally intense and consuming, albeit in different ways.

When we talk about cars, performance-oriented ones are the overall favorites primarily for being the closest we can get to competition models. The industry helps us by giving them flashy colors, special seats, better powertrain, and an upgraded dynamic behavior, and by offering that in degrees of tuning in order to match every budget.

Now, what if I said that some race cars have actually been sold to the public? No, I am not saying you can run to the nearest Mercedes-Benz dealer and get a copy of Lewis Hamilton’s F1 car, mostly because he will keep driving them for some time; I am talking about the other way around. Let’s take a look at what are homologation specials.

1980 Renault 5 Turbo
Renault wanted to fight the Stratos and resorted to completely reworking the 5: the 1980 model received a turbocharged mid-engine and several visual changes

What is a homologation special?

Entities such as the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) designed some racing categories for urban cars; the intention was to race with modified versions of urban cars. To ensure companies would not use entirely upgraded cars, homologation rules were created: they could only compete if a number of units went to the streets.

FIA used to demand a minimum of 5,000 units to be marketed, but dropped it to 2,500 in 1991. In practice, automakers would develop a new car or improve an existing one with as many capabilities as those strict requirements allowed. That decision ended bringing impressive performance standards to cars which used to be quite mundane.

Now, it is necessary to understand this label’s scope. The Dodge Charger, for example, had its famous Daytona version produced only for racing, so it does not properly qualify. On the other hand, the MG Metro 6R4 and the Renault 5 Turbo may have been heavily modified, but were made available for street use just the way they were.

1981 Opel Manta 400
Opel created competition versions of the Manta Coupé since its first generation. The second, however, had the 400 edition, which became famous mostly for its unique external appearance (source: WheelsAge)

What modifications did they have?

As you can imagine, performance-oriented ones above all. The Ford Sierra RS 500 Cosworth, for example, had a tuned 2.0-liter engine good for 224 hp. The Audi Sport Quattro S1 went further and included a carbon-kevlar body shell and the 80’s windshield because the steeper rake could reduce light reflection coming from the dashboard.

The most common type, however, was of heavily altered versions. Besides the European hatchbacks mentioned, we can mention the Opel Manta 400 and its more aerodynamic body, the Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution with a more robust suspension and flared wheel arches, and the Fiat 131 Abarth with many rally-oriented modifications.

Last, but not least, some cars went the opposite way: they were designed from the beginning to compete, then adapted to road use. You can notice that this is the case of Ford RS200 and Lancia 037 Stradale (rally cars), and of Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR and Porsche 911 GT1 (24 Hours of Le Mans), by simply taking a look at them.

1986 BMW M3 Coupe
The very first M3 was created in 1986 to allow BMW to race in the Group A. Back then, it would compete with the Mercedes-Benz 190E (source: WheelsAge)

What implications were there?

First of all, the simple possibility of buying homologation specials was already thrilling; they were literally race cars you could drive in the city. Most of them came at huge price premiums compared to the regular ones, but they sold out quickly anyway especially because people just knew they would become high-valued collectibles soon.

Secondly, such integration between race and city cars allowed automakers to improve the latter; those cars were great opportunities to research and to test new technologies in practice. Some solutions became part of the regular line, while others turned out to be too impractical and/or expensive for urban use and ended up scrapped.

Thirdly, some of those cars did reach mass production and became city icons themselves: the Renault 5 Turbo had two “editions” and spawned the Clio V6 successor; Nissan created the R390 GT1 supercar, Porsche went on with its GT tradition; and the very first BMW M3 and Subaru Impreza STI were born as typical homologation specials.

1998 Subaru Impreza 22B STi
Large fender flares, even larger rear wing, and an engine increased to 2.2 liters to make 280 hp. That’s the very first Subaru Impreza STI (credit: Peter Kuhn; source: WheelsAge)

How did they end?

Basically, the very same regulations which created them in the first place were responsible for their demise. FIA gradually became less strict when it comes to producing street-legal units up to the point where there is no need for specials like those anymore. The main explanation is making everything easier for the automakers to compete.

Nowadays, homologation specials have become highly collectible cars, which gather millions of dollars at auctions every now and then, but there is more to them: they have become nostalgic. One of those items which make us miss the past despite being happy for living in the present, along with cassette players or fuel carburetors.

Some automakers still produce cars on the edge between race and street-legal, but most of them are actually track-oriented models. Ferrari, for example, has kept a long line of those which is currently represented by the FXX K Evo. That type of car is only prepared for personal track use, so it is not homologated for regular street driving.

1998 Nissan R390 GT1 Road Version
The 1998 R390 GT1 only had two units produced for street use. One was kept by Nissan and the other was sold to a private collector (credit: Ted Seven; source: WheelsAge)

As you could see, homologation specials were quite amusing in the 1980s and the 1990s. Some companies produced them merely to fulfil racing regulations while others saw them as a golden opportunity to advertise one of their urban models and strengthen their connection with the public. Share your opinions using the button below!

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Danillo Almeida

Danillo Almeida

Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.