In some of our past and upcoming articles, we’ve been throwing around the word homologation, and it occurs that we should pause to explain what it means.
THE POLITICS OF MOTORSPORT
Most types of motor racing have complex rules and regulations designed to pit like against like. Competitors are typically divided into classes based on factors like engine displacement, power-to-weight ratio, wheelbase, or list price, so that (for example) a 1,000 cc (61 cu. in.) supermini is running against other 1,000 cc mini-cars, not against 5-liter (305 cu. in.) V-8 sports cars.
Sportsmanship and the spirit of honest competition notwithstanding, such rules are very much driven by money. Motorsport is big business, which gives race promoters and officials a strong incentive to maintain a relatively equal playing field — they want to ensure that audiences get a good show. At that time, however, the publicity value of racing victories and championships gives manufacturers and teams a strong incentive to win even if that means taking what we might politely call creative liberties with the rules.
RACING VS. PRODUCTION
One of the ongoing dilemmas for the various racing officiating bodies is trying to curb manufacturers’ natural temptation to stack the deck with purpose-built engines and other experimental hardware. Of course, some forms of motorsport do have prototype or factory experimental classes, but, at least to our point of view, pitting a one-off engineering special against modified stock cars is more an academic exercise than an exciting race.
A common regulatory tactic to require that race cars be based on a production car. In most cases, the rules allow the race car to be modified in certain ways, the details of which vary from series to series and even from season to season, but the production car’s specifications serve as the baseline for whatever changes are made. For example, the rules might permit changing the camshaft, but require racers to retain the stock engine displacement.
Especially for smaller manufacturers, the exact definition of “production car” can be hazy indeed. Therefore, the rules usually set a minimum number of units the manufacturer must produce for public sale before the car can be raced. Depending on the series and class, that number might be as few as 25 or as many as 5,000.
Under such rules, before a car will be eligible for competition, the manufacturer must submit the specifications of the production car to the appropriate officiating body along with the manufacturer’s assertion that the requisite number of production cars have been offered for public sale. This process is called homologation, derived from the Greek word homologeo, meaning “to agree.”
Homologation is a prerequisite for qualification, not a substitute for it. A car might be properly homologated and still be disqualified for having non-homologated components or modifications forbidden by the rules.
In some cases, engines and other components can be homologated separately from the cars themselves. For example, if a manufacturer produces 500 examples of a particular engine and 500 examples of a particular car, race officials might permit the car to be raced with that engine even if that combination hasn’t been offered to the public.
Sometimes, the officiating body will also allow manufacturers to field cars with incremental or evolutionary changes from the original homologation specs. Such “evolution” models usually also have to be homologated, but the requirements are lower; for example, the manufacturer might only need to build 250 cars to the new spec even if the original requirement was 5,000 units.
Homologation rules don’t prevent manufacturers from developing purpose-built racing versions of their cars; the rules simply make it more expensive. There have been many examples over the years of features or models offered to the public in limited numbers for the sole purpose of facilitating racing homologation.
Such “homologation specials” are usually rare, expensive, and not necessarily well-suited to normal driving, but they do have a tendency to become coveted collector’s items. Famous examples include the Dodge Charger Daytona and its Plymouth Road Runner Superbird cousin; the fearsome Porsche 959; and the original BMW E30 M3.