Every once in a while an automaker gets a sudden cash bonus, and instead of using it to add another speed to their already extremely unresponsive automatic transmissions or perfecting their beige paint, they throw it at something crazy, something inventive. Sometimes the idea works, hurling itself into the future. And sometimes it fails miserably, the technology or sociology involved still too natal. Sticking for now to post-WWII, here’s a few examples of both outcomes:
1981 Cadillac Fleetwood V8-6-4
To satisfy the stringent CAFE standards of the worst era of American carbuilding, GM engineers devised a big V8 whose computer would shut half of the mill down when it reached highway speeds. The concept was brilliant, but this was 1981, and Microsoft had just released their MS-DOS software as the pinnacle of mass computing. The processing speed in a Cadillac just wasn’t enough to ever get the V8-6-4 working well on a consistent basis. Today, every hybrid on the road uses a computer to start and stop the engine, and several vehicles offer highway-speed cylinder deactivation.
199x Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4
Though the Plain Jane 3000GT was generally considered a FWD drama queen, the VR-4 version was another matter entirely. It had 300 hp, two turbos, 4WD, and four-wheel-steering, as well as computer controlled magnetic suspension, performance ride-height adjustment, and an adjustable rear wing. Sadly, the DSM engineers didn’t take enough time to study the effects of all this performance on the engine, whose #1 cylinder main bearing would devour itself within 60-75,000 miles.
1980 Audi Quattro
Audi’s first 4WD sports hatch was an immediate success in Group B Rally, effectively revolutionizing the sport and standardizing AWD to this day. Few RWD cars could beat it, and it’s still known as one of the greatest rally cars of all time. It may have been too popular, though, because today it’s nigh-impossible to find an Ur-Quattro in good shape for less than a kidney.
Photo by aldenjewell
1949 Chrysler Crown Imperial
Disc brakes have been around since the Industrial Revolution, but Chrysler was the first to include them as standard equipment on one of their stellar luxo-cruisers in 1949, when the appropriate metals technology was finally available. Today almost every car on the market carries front disc brakes, and most of them have rear discs, too. But by tacking this safety feature on their top-of-the-line model, Chrysler may or may not have started the industry-wide trend of cheaping out on disc brakes. On many cars for years to come, if you wanted clampers instead of shoes, you’d have to tick the box beside the options for A/C and in-car Hi-Fi.
1932 Stout Scarab
William Stout’s oddly attractive proto-minivan was quirky, to be sure. The engine sat in the back, the seats were rearrangable, and the styling was love-it-or-hate-it. But he certainly tried something new, and in his attempt to build the rolling office, inadvertently built the first minivan. A fiberglass body, monocoque frame, and air suspension were all unheard of in the day, but are ubiquitous today. Sadly, all that innovation made the Scarab too expensive for the Depression-era mobile businessman, and the company flopped, having only built 9 examples.
One of the most famous, beautiful, and banal Ferraris ever built, the F40 remains not so much an icon of power and money, but of power, money, and actual automotive enthusiasm. It wasn’t a car for a millionaire who wanted to look cool. You had to know how to drive it. It was also one of the first production cars to use carbon fiber, that lightweight, uber-expensive aluminum replacement that’s supercar standard issue today. It’s even getting cheaper to produce nowadays, and could end up in consumer-level cars soon to help reduce weight and improve fuel economy.
In 2007, 80 grand could get you 193 mph and a 0-60 time of 3.2 seconds. Nissan’s GT-R, an homage to their older and more analog Skyline GT-R, was thrust into the spotlight with its supercomputing brain and organ-perforating launch control. It handled brilliantly, performed like a supercar, and was available for relatively low cost. The roar of subsequent enthusiasm woke the suits at Nissan, who started hiking the price like a nerdy kid’s gym shorts. The 2013 model will set you back up to $106,000.
1953 Nash Metropolitan
We can’t blame American automakers for insisting that “Bigger is better” in the 1950s, because even though they were built out of tank-grade steel and iron, cars back then weren’t very safe. If you wanted a “crumple zone,” you would just tack on an acre of bodywork. And since gas was cheaper than air, no one needed a small car. Had the tiny, 1,785 lb, 40 mpg Metropolitan come around in the ‘70s, instead, it might have dramatically turned back the army of Japanese fuel-savers that built the foundation of today’s import industry.
1992 Jaguar XJ220
At the concept stage, anything is possible. A V12? Sure. Four-wheel-drive? No problem. Scissor-wing doors? Of course, my good man. Getting that all into a road car is another matter, one laboriously filtered through the accounting department. This was Jaguar’s experience in the early ‘90s. When they finally released their halo supercar, the engine had been scaled back to a 542 hp, twin turbocharged V6, the Lambo doors were gone, and it had been cut to RWD. None of this made the XJ220 any less of a legend, and it held the production car top speed record of 217.1 mph for two years. Until the McLaren F1 came along and demolished it. We won’t know if the extra cylinders and drive wheels would have helped the XJ220 hold on to its record a little longer, but we know that the world economic recession didn’t help at all. Twenty years later, a 4WD V12 would have worked brilliantly. Just ask the Lamborghini.
Shelby Cobra 427
Shelby’s monumental transformation of a tame, civilized British sports car into a Cosby-scaring track beast is a long story, but the idea of dropping a 7-liter V8 into a 2,355 lb roadster took root, and now power-to-weight insanities like the Ariel Atom V8 and everything TVR makes haunt our dreams. Shelby’s chimera was so powerful, in fact, that many of its owners couldn’t even drive it safely. It certainly would have benefited from modern steering, braking, and suspension technology.
What would you add to the list?