One of the phenomena that continues to amaze, is how good an otherwise plain (or even ugly) car can look in race trim. Few people were impressed by the styling and lines of the Opel Ascona B, but as the Ascona 400 rally car, it was transformed. The 400 came from the fact that 400 needed to be produced for Group 4 homologation. It also performed well, thanks to a problem, but back to that in a minute. The car had its racing debut in 1980, and produced a victory in the hands of Kleint and Wagner. The next victory was in the Brutal Himalayas Rally, also in 1980. This was enough for the factory to consider a full development effort. For 1982, Opel had secured the services of 1980 World Champion Walter Rohrl. He was a proven winner, in a number of different cars, and was looking for a ride fresh on the heels of deals that had fallen through with Mercedes among others. Opel had also entered into a contract with Cosworth to build the top end of the engines. It would be based on the 2 L Opel engines currently powering the 20S and the Manta GT. But there was a problem. The combination of the block and Cosworth head was down on power. In a scramble to get something more usable, they bored the engine and used the crankshaft from their diesel version of the Ascona to produce a 2.4 liter car that produced good power when combined with the Cosworth 16 valve head and pistons. More importantly, it produced a staggering 200 ft lbs of torque !
The Opels had become renowned for their understeering, but Walter Rohrl managed to conquer the beast. Even Rally champion Ari Vatanen admitted that he never really came to grips with the Ascona and it’s understeering. The car was not blazingly fast, and with rear wheel drive it was not the greatest handler (remember, this was during the introduction of the 4 wheel drive revolution ushered in by the Audi Quattro). In the words of Rohrl, “The strongest point of Ascona is certainly its reliability and incredible toughness. In an accident the Ascona is like a tank. The accident in Portugal (in 1982 which broke the steering column) was really a hard thing, but to the interior nothing has come through, absolutely nothing. The engine is also one of the strengths of Ascona.” He went on to win the Monte Carlo Rally and the Cote D’Ivoire rally on his way to the championship in the Ascona. Despite his struggles with the car, Ari Vatanen won the Safari Rally in 1983 before the 400 was retired from racing. It spawned high end versions of the Ascona and Manta road cars which remain popular today.