Group B Rally’s Forgotten Pickup Trucks Were Doomed From the Start

No fewer than three pickups were officially homologated as Group B rally trucks. These are their stories.
Various pickup trucks homologated for Group B
Goodwood Road & Racing (top left, background), FIA (top right), via Passats de Canto (bottom left)

Group B rally is remembered as a golden age of perilous, runaway performance. Yet the vast majority of cars homologated under this category were tamer, more modest vehicles. In fact, three of them in particular—all of them pickup trucks—ended up in Group B by accident due to a technical oversight. They never belonged, and they never had a hope of winning anything. Still, that didn’t stop one of them (or two, depending where you draw the line) from finishing surprisingly well in a single World Rally Championship event.

Contrary to popular belief, Group B wasn’t just meant to produce dangerously quick cars for mixed-surface racing. Like the milder Group A, it was also meant to foster circuit racing, with various subclasses for different levels of performance, according to Group B Rally Shrine. B12 belonged to the likes of the Ford RS200 and Peugeot 205 T16, while B9 through B11 featured slower cars, like earlier versions of the Renault 5 Turbo. But cars could end up in Group B for a variety of reasons as Goodwood Road & Racing explains, such as cabin size. That meant that any tiny two-door—like a single-cab pickup—would face off with the nastiest cars Group B had to offer. So, even though they were as far from homologation specials as you could get, the Nissan B120, Subaru Brat, and Peugeot 504 pickups all ended up racing in Group B.

All these trucks have broadly similar stories behind their Group B classification. Their homologations seem to have been sought not by car companies, but by privateers entering WRC events geographically close to them, or made a part of a regional championship. (One of the three trucks would race in multiple events, but we’ll get to that.) All remained naturally aspirated, and their drivetrains seemed to be modified only mildly, if at all. So, no boost-wild, four-wheel-drive Pikes Peak trucks here; just humble pickups like a landscaper might drive. Or maybe Cleetus McFarland. So let’s start with one of the trucks us Americans might know: the Datsun 1200.

The Datsun 1200 was known by different names around the globe, from the Nissan Sunny Truck to the 120Y. It had been in production since 1971 by the time homologation was sought in 1984, and whoever homologated it hadn’t made any spicy updates. The Nissan still used its 1.2-liter pushrod four-cylinder and four-speed manual transmission, which drove the rear wheels. The bodywork wasn’t significantly modified, nor was its coil-sprung independent front suspension or solid-axle, leaf-sprung rear. Save for its safety gear, it may as well have been showroom-stock.

Of the three trucks, the Nissan has the most globetrotting competitive history, first entering the 1984 Safari Rally according to the database. Neither entry finished, and it was a repeat performance at Rally Acropolis in Greece. However, the truck’s last outing in Group B at the 1986 Rally New Zealand finally resulted in a finish—37th out of 40, last in class. The Nissan 1200 also placed 9th in the 1983 Safari Rally, but it wasn’t technically a Group B vehicle at that time, so it doesn’t really count. And as we’ll get into later, it wouldn’t be the high point for pickups in the Group B era.

Next up is the Subaru Brat, or the MP-1 as it was called in homologation papers. Though second-gen Brats were sold with 1.8-liter, turbo flat-fours in some markets, only the naturally aspirated, carbureted version received FIA homologation. It did so with a four-speed manual, full-time all-wheel-drive, and an aluminum roll cage. This was legal at the time, but has been banned from most racing series since.

The Brat had an even shorter, patchier history than the Nissan above, contesting only Rally New Zealand in 1985 and 1986. In its first year, amateur driver Ron Shapley drove the Brat to a 23rd-place finish of 39 cars. Not great, but still ahead of three other Group B entries. The following year would be less successful, with Shapley finishing last in class and fourth-last overall. The arms race had escalated, and a naturally aspirated Subaru Brat was no match for even the mildest of Group B misfits. Still, it’s the only one of the three trucks that I could find actual footage of mid-race (embedded above, timestamp 20:53), so it leaves the least to the imagination.

One truck that hadn’t been left behind (and actually remained in production into the new millennium) was the last entry in our story, the Peugeot 504. This midsize French car actually predated the Nissan 1200, entering production in 1968. It was produced in a variety of body styles all the way up to 2006, one of which was a pickup.

Needless to say, the 504 was already venerable by the time the truck was homologated into Group B in 1982. It entered with a humble single-cam, carbureted 2.0-liter four-cylinder, linked by either a four- or five-speed manual to its solid rear axle. Later on, someone also homologated a smaller 1.8-liter engine, while April 1984 saw registration of an Evolution model. Yeah, a Peugeot 504 Pickup Evolution. Cursed words if they were ever uttered. It upgraded to—get this—dual two-barrel Weber carbs. No boost, just the equivalent of independent throttle bodies. At least it sounded good.

As for race performance, the Peugeot 504 pickup’s potential stayed static as the rest of the field’s advanced. Its history is most happily told in reverse, beginning with the 1986 Safari Rally, where all five trucks entered by Kenyan competitors failed to finish. Winding back to 1984, the plucky Peugeot finished 15th overall among 25 finishers and 81 entries. Best of all though was its 1983 performance, where future Kenyan Rally Champion Johnny Hellier would wheel a pre-Evolution 504 to an 8th-place overall finish, or 5th in Group B.

Granted, its total race time was more than twice as long as that of the next Group B car up, but it still marked the high-water mark for pickup trucks. You may also be pleased to remember that the vehicle that finished directly behind it was the Nissan 1200—though because it wasn’t technically part of Group B at the time, it doesn’t count for as much.

So there you have it: the short, accidental, and unglamorous history of pickups in Group B rally. The FIA did them dirty by making them face off against the likes of the Lancia Delta S4, even though they were humble machines entered by enterprising locals, who at best hoped to scrape up points for regional championships. And yet, frivolous entries in world-class races can still change history in their own small ways. Leaving your mark pretty much always requires getting in over your head; it’s the only way to find out if you’ll sink or swim.

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