Michael’s writing can also be found at vLane.com, an extensive automotive community site.
You can keep your Audi R8 V10, and your Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera. Post photos of a wrecked Ferrari F430 and I wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t shed a tear, ditto for videos of a BMW M3 getting its undercarriage smoothed over. The only muscle car IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d buy from Barrett-Jackson is a Hemi Cuda Convertible Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ and afterward IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d place a brick on the accelerator pedal so it floors right into the closest immovable object.
I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hate horsepower, excess, or innovation: itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just that the bar for innovation is so low that todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hot cars are judged on numbers and marketing, not merit.
Aside: I bet very few Gallardo Superleggera owners know the term Ã¢â‚¬Å“SuperleggeraÃ¢â‚¬Â Ã¢â‚¬â€ super light Ã¢â‚¬â€ was coined by Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Touring. The first car they penned? The Alfa Romeo 8C. The last? The Jensen Interceptor.
To find truly interesting production cars, you have to do a little digging Ã¢â‚¬â€ but nearly every manufacturer has a few.
Like Volkswagen. If you think the luxo-barge Phaeton Ã¢â‚¬â€ with cabin dehumidifier Ã¢â‚¬â€ is neat, you may want to check out the Golf Country, a five-door hatchback marketed exclusively to German out-of-doorsmen. With a 4X4 system, boar bars, and crazily-raised chassis, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be correct to assume it was developed by rednecks.
Thing is: in Europe even rednecks drive German hatchbacks.
Looking for off-road cars is an easy way to stumble across vehicles truly mad (Sbarro Windhound), warmed over (Monteverdi Safari), and sublime (Matra-Simca Rancho Grand Raid.) Actually, the sweetly-styled Rancho was likely the first car-based crossover. Blame the French. (Matra-Simca, interestingly, was part of Chrysler Europe in those days. The replacement for the Rancho? The Renault Espace, basically the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first modern minivan.)
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s important to know your history.
Speaking of the French, even the plebeian CitroÃƒÂ«n 2CV didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t escape innovation: the limited-production 2CV Sahara doubled the horsepower of a normal 2CV and had four-wheel driveÃ¢â‚¬Â¦because it had two engines. Tally ho!
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Ah,Ã¢â‚¬Â you say, Ã¢â‚¬Å“I know a strange car: the BMW Isetta!Ã¢â‚¬Â
Strange? Not a chance. For strange youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be looking up videos of a Messerschmitt winning an on-two-wheels contest, or old Goggomobil commercials. You lose Intrawebs points for having already seen the radial engined Goggo on Jalopnik, though.
If you knew about it, maybe youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be enthralled with the first modern super sedan, the Lancia Thema 8.32: a front-drive, Ferrari-engined luxury car with retractable rear spoiler.
The Japanese, too, have a few home-grown oddities. Since just about everything in Japan is a little strange, even NissanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Pike Factory-designed Be-1, Pao, S-Cargo, and Figaro models donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t seem weird. Nissan has such a rich history, if you judge history by the number of oddball models the company has produced. From the March Superturbo, an economy car with both a supercharger and turbo, to the Rasheen, a block-stock compact crossover, Nissan has given just about everything a try. My favourite is the Nissan Autech A-10 Nostalgic Sports Sedan. It was never sold, but the only working prototype was based on the Rasheen Ã¢â‚¬â€ with a rear-drive, drift-ready Silvia chassis and turbocharged motor.
Ok, back to weird production cars: what about an AMG-tuned Mitsubishi? They exist, in the form of the Mitsubishi Galant AMG and Mitsubishi Debonair V3000 Royal AMG. Both were front-drive. Both had AMG bodykits. And both were awful. Or the Daihatsu Charade De Tomaso 926R, a never-produced rally special. You could have bought a Ã¢â‚¬Å“normalÃ¢â‚¬Â Charade De Tomaso Turbo, though. Toyota isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t exempt (Bb Open Deck and Mega Cruiser), nor is Mazda (the Ã¢â‚¬Å“REPUÃ¢â‚¬Â rotary-powered pickup truck and Truck of the Year-winning Navajo), Honda (City, with a Motocompo folding scooter designed to fit in its trunk), or Suzuki (MightyBoy and SC100 Whizzkid.)
Canada, too, had a some strange happenings. Remember Passport, GM CanadaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s answer to Asuna? Or the Iraqi Taxi, a Canadian-built Chevrolet Malibu with a three-speed manual, destined for taxi duty in Iraq? Saddam Hussein reneged on the deal, leaving thousands of cars for our Chevrolet dealerships to sell at a steep discount.
Though not production, pretty much every carmaker has produced truly stunning Ã¢â‚¬â€ drivable Ã¢â‚¬â€ one-offs that took motorsport to heart. The Ford SuperVan and the Renault Espace F1 (0-200 km/h in six seconds!) are F1-engined vans, while the BMW X5 LM is a Le Mans-engined SUV. Honda tuner Mugen popped an endurance racing motor into what we call the Acura RL, making the Legend MAX. CitroÃƒÂ«n tapped Lotus to develop the Visa by Lotus, a mid-engined Esprit Turbo-powered subcompact rally car.
Finally, what about concept cars? Sure, the Bertone Stratos concept car became the inspiration for the legendary Lancia Stratos, but less-known is that the Bertone Volvo Tundra concept became the CitroÃƒÂ«n BX, spawning the BX 4TC road car (and Group B rally car.)
See? The most modern supercars seem somehow less special when you consider how cool they could have been. Maybe IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d like the Audi R8 if it had the Procon-Ten safety system instead of airbags, or UFO brakes instead of vented rotors. With the history of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“carÃ¢â‚¬Â as we know it spanning over a century and every corner of the planet, it doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t surprise me that Jack Nicholson was driving around in a hydrogen-powered Chevrolet in the 70s, or that Ferdinand Porsche stole the idea for the Volkswagen (Beetle) from his close friend and Tatra engineer, Hans Ledwinka. Hell, Ferdinand PorscheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first design was the Lohner-Porsche Mixte, an all-electric all-wheel drive car made in 1899. His second added an onboard generator, just like the Chevrolet Volt.
Apparently, NASA also studied the Mixte when designing the Apollo Lunar Rover.
What surprises me is that though every automaker has a rich history, modern cars are so damn boring. Though factors like market acceptance and internal politics have conspired against most of the above, I wish the world was more Tatra than Toyota, more Goggomobil than Grand Cherokee, and more Sbarro than Superleggera.