Some series production cars scream race car as soon as they roll off the designer’s Staedtler. Whether it’s a svelte and streamlined profile, or a powertrain and chassis combination that demands to be driven at 10/10ths, some road cars emerge from the factory as if they were born to go racing. Think just about any modern supercar or sports car.
Others, while not immediately obvious as a racing machines, with some creative engineering, can be massaged and fettled into something capable of hitting breakneck speeds while racing door-to-door with similarly engineered cars. Think just about any touring car.
Others still, look demure from the outside, but perhaps a little wider and a little lower and sounding a little more gruff, resembling a race car without the stickers. Think just about any homologation special.
And then, there are these, those cars that scream none of the above and yet, have somehow made their way into the annals of motor racing folklore. Behold, the production cars, which on first appearance, are likely to have been voted ‘The Car Least Likely To Become A Race Car’. And yet, somehow, they have.
Toyota Prius GT
When we think of the pioneering Toyota Prius, we think of an environmentally friendly, low emissions, compact hybrid car that became the darling of champagne greenies everywhere. We don’t think of a V8-powered, mid-engined, bewinged and bespangled racer in the illustrious Japanese Super GT series.
But that’s exactly what the humble – and quiet – Toyota Prius became in 2012 when Japanese Super GT race team, apr Racing, shoehorned Toyota’s tried and trusted 3.4-litre V8 race engine (internal code RV8K) behind the cockpit, hooked it up to a bespoke hybrid system sourced from a variety of Toyota hybrid models including the Prius, Camry and Aqua, and went racing.
Detuned to make 220kW by itself, the V8 internal combustion engine was enhanced by the Prius’ hybrid system that could provide even more power, up to 110kW under acceleration. The Prius GT, first thought an oddity, scored a podium finish in its first season, second place in the GT300 class in the 300km enduro at Fuji Speedway. The following year, it scored its first win, and the first for a hybrid, in the 500km race at Fuji Speedway.
apr Racing continued to race the mid-engined GT throughout the second decade of the century, with some success, before announcing that for 2019, in line with new Super GT rules that stipulated all cars must feature a front-engined layout, a new Prius would emerge from the team’s workshop. And it was out with the old and in with the new, a new 5.4-litre V8 engine (sourced from the Lexus RC F GT3 racer) still making 220kW in line with GT300 rules.
It’s a bellowing and howling chimera of a race car, one that has added some street cred to the otherwise dowdy and awkward Toyota Prius.
Volvo 850 Estate
Speaking of dowdy, is there anything more beige than a 1990s vintage Volvo Estate? Okay, maybe an ’80s vintage Volvo Estate. (I still love them, though).
But that all changed in 1994 when Volvo, looking to shed its dowdy image, enlisted the help of Swedish tuning house Steffansson Automotive (SAM) to turn its new 850 sedan into a racer that could contest the hugely popular British Touring Car Championship, then arguably the world’s most competitive motor racing series.
The story goes Steffansson Automotive rocked up to the Volvo factory to collect the body shells for what would become the 850 race car, only to discover that Volvo had fast-tracked production of the better-selling Estate over the sedan, leaving SAM’s engineers to walk away with wagon body shells instead.
Undeterred, the project forged ahead, this time turning the Estate into a bona fide racer. Subsequent wind tunnel testing proved the long roofline of the wagon actually improved downforce when compared with a sedan, a boon in a series where wings and spoilers were banned. Sadly for Steffansson Automotive, what had started as a bit of throwaway project suddenly became very serious for Volvo which had realised the marketing potential behind racing the 850 Estate. Instead, the Swedish car maker turned to Tom Walkinshaw Racing to complete, and then race, the wagon in the 1994 BTCC.
The finished car weighed in at just 950kg, around 500kg lighter than the roadgoing wagon. Powered by a race-tuned 2.0-litre, five-cylinder engine that happily revved out to 8500rpm and pumped out a decent 216kW, the Volvo 850 Estate wasn’t the success on the track Volvo hoped it would be.
It did, however, provide a huge marketing boost, the sight of an otherwise frumpy wagon often taking corners with two wheels in the air, a boon in helping to shake off Volvo’s staid image. If you’ve ever wondered the exact moment Volvo went from being a conservative, stolid car company making boring but safe cars to a brand with edge and vigour and a willingness to be different, then look no further. The Volvo 850 Estate BTCC racer is that moment.
Whaaaaat? When did a Rolls-Royce ever take part in motorsport? I hear you ask. The answer is 1981. And the event, the gruelling Paris-Dakar rally.
Here’s how the story goes. In 1981, the Paris-Dakar wasn’t the serious manufacturer driven behemoth it has become. It also wasn’t in South America like the modern iteration of Dakar. Instead, it was a post-Christmas jaunt from Paris to Dakar, in Senegal.
Two Frenchmen thought it’d be fun to enter a Rolls-Royce Corniche so they set to work turning a comfortable and luxurious grand touring coupe into a desert destroying Dakar challenger.
Out went the 6.75-litre Rolls-Royce V8 engine and in its place, a 261kW Chevy V8 crate motor. The chassis and transmission were sourced from a Toyota HJ45 LandCruiser while much of the body was recast in fibreglass. About the only original elements on the now Dakar-ready Corniche were the grille and the Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet emblem.
It all might have seemed like a bit of a lark, and the two Frenchmen – Thierry de Montcorgé and Jean-Christophe Pelletier – certainly treated it that way, ending each gruelling day with canapes and champagne. But, by the midway point, the Corniche was 13th overall in the running order, not too shabby for a what started out as a bit of a joke.
Sadly, a collision with a tree somewhere in Burkina Faso required some running repairs, repairs deemed illegal by Dakar organisers. The Rolls-Royce was disqualified, although in the spirit of the times, was allowed to continue on to the finish line, albeit in an ‘unclassified’ position. The champagne and canapes flowed freely that night.
Cadillac Series 61 and Le Monstre
French racegoers were shocked when American racer Briggs Cunningham turned up at Le Mans in 1950 with not one, but two Cadillacs. Cunningham had planned to enter a Frankenstein car, a Ford chassis with a transplanted V8 sourced from arch-enemy Cadillac. But Le Mans race organisers banned what became known as the ‘Fordillac’, leaving Cunningham to look for a more mainstream vehicle with which to contest one of the world’s most gruelling races. The answer came in the shape of Cadillac Series 61, a two-door tourer from the luxury arm of General Motors.
The V8-powered Cadillac Series 61 didn’t exactly fit the mould of the then current crop of Le Mans racers, a grid predominantly filled with lightweight, high performance sports cars. It presented in pretty stock trim too, the only modifications a dual-carburettor intake manifold, brake cooling ducts, a second fuel tank, and extra lights.
But perhaps the biggest surprise came in the shape of the second Briggs Cunningham entry, quickly dubbed by the French ‘Le Monstre’ (The Monster). This too was a stock Cadillac under the skin. But while the rules of the day were strict on mechanical mods, no such stringency existed for bodywork. Thus, the second Briggs Cunningham entry featured an aerodynamic and streamlined body moulded onto Cadillac running gear. It wasn’t the prettiest thing, hence the monstrous nickname bestowed on it by the French
And yet, far from being a sideshow to the main event, both Cadillacs acquitted themselves with distinction. The almost-stock Series 61 finished a respectable 10th overall after 24 hours while ‘Le Monstre’ came in just one place behind in 11th.
Cunningham would go on to achieve success at Le Mans, finishing fourth overall and first in class in the 1952 race in his own Cunningham C-4R. He repeated the feat in 1962, fourth overall behind a trio of all-conquering Ferraris and first in class in his privately-entered Jaguar E-Type.
When we think of Pikes Peak, the names Ari and Vatanen and Peugeot spring to mind. Two names that don’t immediately resonate with the gruelling hillclimb held annually in the United States are Mitsubishi and i-MiEV. And yet, in 2012, the little electric car from the Japanese manufacturer tackled the 19.99km, 156-corner climb to the top and did so with aplomb.
Actually, Mitsubishi entered two i-MiEVs into the event, one a pretty stock standard production car, the other, a protype racer called the i-MiEV Evolution built specifically for the event.
The production car, driven by international off-road racer Beccy Gordon, featured no modifications other than the addition of a roll cage and slightly modified front and rear bumpers, completed the climb in 15m10.557s, good for sixth in the Electric Vehicle class.
The i-MiEV Evolution, however, was anything but stock under its aerodynamic skin.
Using many components from the roadgoing car, the single-seater Evolution boasted a tube-frame chassis, carbon-fibre body, all-wheel drive and three 80kW electric motors with a combined output of 240kW.
Two-time Dakar winner Hiroshi Masuoka drove the car at Pikes Peak, completing the run in 10m30.850s to finish second in the Electric Vehicle class behind the Toyota TMG EVP002 of Furnio Nutahara.
Mitsubishi tried twice more to conquer the mountain, entering two Evolution IIs in 2013, posting modest improvements over the previous year.
However, in 2104 it all gelled for Mitsubishi, its two i-MiEV Evolution IIIs finishing second and third outright respectively with vastly improved times. Greg Tracy finished second in time of 9m8.188s less than three seconds behind overall winner Romain Dumas. Masuoka wasn’t exactly dragging his heels either in the second Evolution III, his time of 9m12.204s good enough for third outright.
Dumas, of course, went on to post the fastest ever time at Pikes Peak when he completed the climb in 7m57.148s in 2018 in his all-electric Volkswagen ID R Pikes Peak.
What other cars make unlikely race cars? Let us know in the comments below.
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