Party Foul - 1984 Mitsubishi Starion 4WD Group B Prototype

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Japanese motoring giant Miitsubishi had a long history on the world rally stage. The brand hit the ground running by winning the insanely tough East Africa Safari rally on its first try in 1974, using a Lancer 1600 GSR specially developed for the event. Helped by their fantastic reliability, Mitsubishi cut out a niche for itself in harsh endurance rallying. Such was their dominance that they locked out the podium in the 1976 East Africa Safari, and finished 1-2-3-4 in Australia's Southern Cross Rally.

By the early 1980's the corporation had decided to approach the World Rally Championship in a more traditional manner, and produced a car geared for outright speed. This machine was the Lancer EX 2000 Turbo, a rear wheel drive weapon built to conquer Group 4 rally racing in 1981. But while the EX 2000 was making its rounds and experiencing many disappointing teething problems, Mitsubishi got some bad news. Group 4 was to be cancelled for 1982, with a new class system replacing it. The Group B era dawned.

 

The Lancer EX 2000 Turbo came too late to the Group 4 party.

The Lancer EX 2000 Turbo came too late to the Group 4 party.

With the success of Audi's innovative quattro still burned into their minds, Mitsubishi knew the rear wheel drive Lancer EX 2000 wasn't going to cut it in under the new rules. Rather than try to improve an obsolete design, they decided to abandon the Lancer altogether, and start with a clean slate.

The new car was to be based on the company's new and hip halo car, the Starion coupe. The Starion was based on much of the same technology as the Lancer, which made it easy to transfer parts from the failed Group 4 rally car. With this handy feature to play with, the project was given to Andrew Cowan, head of Railliart UK. 

The butch Starion was to be Mitsubishi's Group B hero.

The butch Starion was to be Mitsubishi's Group B hero.

While designing the new car, the team at Ralliart looked very closely at their most fierce competitor, the Audi quattro. Among the design team was Alan Wilkinson, who had actually worked at Audi Sport during the development of the Teutonic titan. Because of his insider experience, he was able to identify some key flaws with the German brute. One of the biggest was the position of the engine. In Audi's passenger cars the engine had been mounted far forward of the front axle in an attempt to increase interior space, which worked perfectly. The quattro's layout was no different.

But having a big and heavy 5-cylinder so far forward meant the quattro suffered catastrophic understeer, especially on tight tarmac stages. This was a problem the engineers at Ralliart wanted to avoid at all costs. A solution was found in the form of a Pajero transfer case. The unit was mounted to the 5-speed manual transmission to convert the Starion to four wheel drive, and freed up space, allowing the engine to be mounted further back. The end result meant the car was now technically mid-engined, greatly improving weight distribution. The Starion's fashionable pop-up headlights also went out of the window, being replaced by more reliable fixed units. The change allowed the nose to be shortened by 15 cm, giving room to a larger radiator and improving weight distribution even further. 

The quattro sported a very long and heavy nose.

The quattro sported a very long and heavy nose.

The Starion's modifications made sure that problem was cured.

The Starion's modifications made sure that problem was cured.

With the layout sorted Ralliart UK turned its attention to the engine. Despite their wishes to simply continue with the Lancer's powerplant, Raillart received orders to wait for a completely new design. This Sirius Dash variant of the venerable 4G63T 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder featured an unusual 12 valve cylinder head. The system included tow intake valves and one exhaust valve, with only one intake valve in constant operation. The second intake valve was electronically operated, and only sprung into action beyond 2500 rpm. 

The idea behind this system was to give the engine the low down torque of an 8 valve engine, and the high end power of a 16 valve engine. the concept was meant to be the perfect compromise. In a further bid to increase power, the unit was bored out to 2.140 cc. The unusual figure corresponded with Group B's equivalency formula for turbocharged engines, which multiplied displacement by 1.4. This meant the Starion fell into the 3L class, competing directly with the Audi quattro. The end result was 350 horsepower at 7000 rpm, with peak torque 343 nm (253 lb ft) at 5000 rpm. The figures were similar to those of the Audi, but the Starion was 50 kg lighter at just 1050 kg (2315 lbs). 

Not keen on wasting time, Mitsubishi entered an early development version of the Starion 4WD in the 1984 Rallye Milles Pistes, part of the French Rallye Championship. There the car showed amazing promise, winning the Prototype class. The strong showing increased confidence in the car s abilities, but did not help speed up its development.

Delay after delay crippled the project. As time drew by, Mitsubishi's management started having second thoughts about continuing to found the effort. In a world where every tenth of a second counted, the company was quickly falling behind. In the meantime, Peugeot's mad tube frame chassis rear-mid engined 205 T16 replaced the Audi quattro as Group B's apex predator. With the fall of the mighty quattro the writing was on the wall for Mitsubishi. Once again their car had become hopelessly obsolete.

The Starion was expected to pass homologation in 1986, with a planned debut at the RAC Lombard Rally. Unfortunately, a series of fatal crashes saw Group B cancelled in its entirety for the 1987 season. After this second and final blow Mitsubishi finally pulled the plug on the maligned car, but not before letting it race once more. An impressive 2nd place in the Hong Kong - Beijing Rally followed, but it was all in vain.

The Mitsubishi Starion 4WD was a advanced idea left to rot. It directly targeted the all powerful Audi quattro, intending to fully exploit the German's weaknesses. Despite brilliant engineering and economic use of parts, the project never reached its final stage. Countless delays and corporate doubts blocked the car's progress massively. Just like it's Group 4 predecessor, the Starion 4WD simply entered after the party was over.

Bonus: footage of the Starion competing in the 1984 Rallye Milles Pistes.