We take a look at some amazing rally cars owned by rallying royalty – welcome to the McRae family Fords.
Ever had one of those moments when you’re instantly transported back to your childhood? One moment you’re caught up in the comings and goings of adult life, juggling bills, working out what you’ll have for lunch and planning how you’ll break the news of your latest car part purchase to your better half, the next you’re involuntarily yanked back to a state somewhere between awe and incredible over-excitement. No? Well for me this involuntary moment of pure childhood glee occurred when Jimmy McRae slid open the doors of the family’s collection of rally cars.
I’ve been a full-blown rally anorak since I was old enough to talk, and Colin and Jimmy were the closest to childhood heroes I got, with long treks into Welsh forests rewarded by the sound of gravel being chucked into the air and anti-lag crackling away menacingly. When those doors rolled back, I was greeted by some of the most evocative and influential cars ever to grace a special stage, including every significant car in Colin’s career.
Obviously it’s Ford that we’re most interested in, and there are more than a few to catch our attention. The Shell-sponsored Sierra three-door that Jimmy, Colin and Alister all piloted at one time or another, Colin’s legendary Millington Diamond-engined Mk2, and Jimmy’s BDA Mk1 are all nestled together, just itching to be driven. It seems to make sense to start with Jimmy’s Mk1, especially as the man in question has just driven me across Lanark in it.
It’s 40 years since Jimmy first drove a Mk1 Escort in anger, a car he graduated to from his very first rally car, a four-door Mk1 Cortina, and he has fond memories of competing in it. “I sold the Cortina and scraped together enough cash for a Twin Cam Escort,” recalls Jimmy. “The difference between the two cars was night and day, you could hurl the Escort around much better, carry more speed and generally go through a stage quicker in it.”
Later in ’74 Jimmy used the car to compete in the Tour Of Mull, a notoriously challenging set of stages taking in some of the Hebridean island’s toughest, fastest roads. Not only was he still finding his feet in the Escort, it was the first time he’d competed on night stages, making his eventual class win all the more impressive. Jimmy’s career eventually saw him pilot Vauxhall Magnums, Chevettes, Opel Manta 400s, a Metro 6R4, and Sierras, but his year with the Escort undoubtedly left an impression.
Two into one
The red Mk1 actually came about through a trade a number of years ago, Colin swapping an Impreza for a ex-Lothian Sportscars Tarmac-spec Mk2, complete with BDA. “The Mk2’s shell was in a really bad way, so we made the decision to strip it of the running gear and suspension and refit them to a Mk1.”
The project started but was left in limbo for a number of years, but a few years ago, Jimmy decided to resurrect the idea. The shell was sent off to Bob and Richard at Goudies Accident and Repair Centre in Kilmarnock have any rot cut out and fresh metal welded in, plus a coat of custom gloss red paint.
“I suggested painting it in the same colours as my original Mk1, so red with yellow stripes, but both Bob and Richard swiftly vetoed that idea,” Jimmy chuckles. This work was carried out and then the shell and running gear were sent off to Dom Buckley, another family friend with a long history of tinkering with McRae-brand rally cars over the last 20 years.
The finished car was dropped back to the McRae residence two years ago, though Jimmy has yet to get round to using it in anger. It’s been built to comply with British Historic rally regulations, so the BDA sports a spec not too dissimilar to what Jimmy could reasonably have expected to have at his disposal if he’d continued to rally Escorts into the late ’70s. The engine makes roughly 235 bhp, breathes through a pair of 45 Webers, boasts a ported and polished head and free-flowing manifold and exhaust system — all simple, honest and most significantly, reliable alterations.
There’s a basic gravel suspension set-up, plus Historic compliant brakes and fuel system, while all panels are steel, with only the roll-cage and fire suppression providing a nod to the last 40 years of progress.
“It isn’t the quickest thing I’ve ever driven, but it is great fun to throw around,” says Jimmy. “It’s not hard to see where the old Escorts got their reputation from and why people regard them as highly as they do. I’m planning on tackling the Tour Of Mull in it later this year — it’d be nice to give it another go exactly 40 years since I first competed there in an Escort.”
As interesting as Jimmy’s Mk1 is, it’s hard to ignore the red and black Mk2 lurking further back in the garage. This car should be instantly recognisable to any Escort or rally fan as the very special Mk2 that Colin and DJM Motorsport built at the end of the 2002, and indeed it was featured in this very magazine way back in 2005. Time hasn’t dulled this car’s ability to slacken jaws though, and the spec-list is every bit as special.
The fully-independent rear suspension was one of the things that really set rally tongues wagging 10 years ago, and a quick peek under the rear end shows why — it’s staggeringly well prepared and engineered under there, a million miles away from the old school live axle living under the back of Jimmy’s car. The car might be extremely complex, but Colin’s original brief for it was simply enough — a rear-wheel-drive Escort brought right up to date, but without losing that special something that has made Mk2s the lifeblood of British rallying for decades. I couldn’t do the amount of engineering nous invested in this car justice if I had an entire magazine to fill, but suffice it to say that very little Dagenham steel or structure remains.
The car is spaceframed, with the roll cage linked to the suspension mounting points, carbon fibre panels and interior with seats and pedals built around Colin, the aforementioned independent set-up that offers 215 mm of travel, a custom gearbox, and the Millington Diamond engine mounted a full 330 mm further back, giving a 50/50 weight distribution.
“Colin built this car as a toy, just a bit of fun, but it’s interesting to note that several of the Irish rally guys have used this car as the basis for their own Mk2s, so it’s been fairly influential,” says Jimmy. Needless to say, the car was phenomenally quick, able to utterly destroy regular Escorts and even humble full-fat four-wheel-drive WRC cars.
The Escort had bucketloads of traction, and Colin was able to barrel into corners and carry staggering amounts of speed out the other end, making up for the car’s rear-wheel-drive disadvantage. Colin tackled numerous events in the car between 2004 and 2006, with assaults on the Manx and Irish Tarmac rallies among the most spectacular, and the car never looked or sounded better than when driven at full chat and set up in asphalt trim.
Next to the tour-de-force that is Colin’s Mk2, the Sierra three-door can’t help but look a little old-school and, dare I say it, humble. Yet this is one of the most significant cars in the McRae clan’s collection, as it was driven in anger by Jimmy, Colin and Alister, served as a stepping stone into the world of big power, turbocharged rally cars, and collected a fair bit of silverware along the way.
Jimmy was the first to use the car in 1987, though before he’d even sat in it, an enthusiastic chancer had already driven it in anger! “I was driving for RED Motorsport and struck a deal with Boreham to use the car, though we had to build it up to rally spec. Someone from the team was sent down to collect it and drive it back up North, and though it arrived in one piece, some enterprising local nicked it as the driver was opening the workshop doors,” chuckles Jimmy.
The car spent the next few hours tearing round Liverpool before being used to ram-raid a TV shop — you can still see the small mark on the whaletail where it was reversed through the shop window! Despite this, the car went on to be very successful, Jimmy even claiming victory on the Circuit Of Ireland just two weeks later. The car played a big part in Jimmy’s victory in the 1988 British Rally Championship, with a fine first on that year’s Scottish International proving to be the icing on the cake. “It was the first time I’d won my home rally, so it was nice to finally have it ticked off the list.”
Colin used the car to contest the British Open Rally Championship the following year, though it was detuned to Group N spec, and even managed to haul it to a fantastic fifth place in that year’s Rally Of New Zealand, a fine result against world-class opposition.
It’s impossible to overstate just how significant this collection of old rally cars is, and how much looking around them all meant to me. The McRae family’s association with Fords is a long one, and it could be argued that they’ve played an instrumental role in their massive success over the last 40 years. There’s also the fact that Jimmy still holds old Fords in huge regard, so much so that he’s built what essentially amounts to a loving tribute to his first competitive rally car, plus the stunning condition in which the entire collection is kept in. The sight of Jimmy’s Mk1, Colin’s Mk2, and the family’s Sierra being wheeled back into the garage, along with the various Subarus, Novas and Minis, isn’t a sight that I’ll forget any time soon.
Words Jamie Arkle
Photos Adrian Brannan
This feature on the McRae family Fords first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue
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