Journal: 8 Cars That Were Unexpectedly Well-Suited For Racing

8 Cars That Were Unexpectedly Well-Suited For Racing

By Michael Banovsky
April 14, 2016

You don’t need a red Ferrari to win races—you just need to cross the line first. History is full of oddball racing cars, teams, and drivers who’ve managed to find success, but the vehicles here weren’t really thought of as competitive machines until they started taking home trophies.

Turning luxury sedans, wagons, and Jet Age American cars into racing machines may not sound like a recipe for success, but thankfully for us, these machines were unexpectedly well-suited to race—and win. What’s your favorite unexpectedly fast racing car?

Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.8 by AMG in endurance racing

This wasn’t really supposed to be a purpose-built racing car. But when the boffins at AMG turned their attention to making Mercedes-Benz V8 engines as powerful as possible, a funny thing happened once they stuffed one into the 300 SEL: the luxury sedan started running at the front of the pack. A huge, thirsty sedan isn’t the most practical car for endurance racing, but an estimated 428 horsepower is a great way to equalize things.

Despite having a rear bench seat, wood trim, and its air suspension still fitted, on its debut at the 1971 24 Hours of Spa the car finished first in class and second overall. Decades on, AMG is a household name.

Consulier GTP anywhere it was allowed to race

It’s a shame that the Warren Mosler-designed Consulier GTP didn’t survive a few decades from its 1983 introduction, because the world is definitely lacking in turbocharged 4-cylinder, mid-engined sports cars. In period, this looks-like-a-parts-bin-special was the fastest thing to race in IMSA competition, and was constantly “adjusted” by officials to rein it in. Before it was banned, in its last season the little turbo-4 gave Hurley Haywood (in a Porsche 911 Turbo), Boris Said (in a turbocharged Callaway Corvette), and other series drivers a very hard time.

Volvo 850 Turbo Wagon in the 1995 British Touring Car Championship

Publicity is a fickle thing, but the person who decided that entering a wagon into touring car competition should be given a statue in his honor. Outright performance be damned—sure, the cars were much larger and heavier than the competition—but in a straight line, they were faster. The Volvo team and its drivers were often taunted, something they used as an opportunity to make light of their competition. As Jalopnik reports, in one case, they ran a few laps with a giant stuffed border collie dog in the back!

Audi quattro in circuit racing

The headline says “…cars that were suited for racing,” but in this case, it might as well say, “…technology suited to racing”. Audi’s quattro is a technology that allowed the automaker to bag trophies not only in rallying, but on North American circuits as well. In DTM competition, the drivetrain gave the V8 Quattro a huge advantage over the BMW (E30) M3s when rain showed up. By the time all of the kinks were out, quattro was a leap in dry weather performance, too.

BMC Mini Cooper…pretty much anywhere

With its compact dimensions, ingenious suspension, warm-but-upgradeable engines, and sweet handling, the Mini Cooper wasn’t just quick at the Monte Carlo Rally and other races where the subcompact had a size advantage on narrow mountain roads. No, it was also quick for years in touring car racing—with the tiny Minis like pilot fish among larger and more ponderous sharks.

Studebakers in the La Carrera Panamericana

If you’re planning on entering the La Carrera Panamericana, don’t discount racing a Studebaker. In the four period races from 1950-’54, larger, V8-powered American cars did well—but since the flat out event was revived in the late ’80s, Studebakers have won something like 80% of the time. (And the Raymond Loewy-designed 1953 Studebaker Champion Regal Starliner is the Studebaker to have.)

Volvos in long-distance rally

This is important to note: when people say “Volvos are reliable,” it’s built on a reputation, not on opinion. Its classic lineup is generally robust, but the the 122 “Amazon” and 240 are the tickets to long-term automotive monogamy. In long-distance rally competition, the Volvo drivers would not only win, but in the sport’s early years when roads were roughest, they’d often be among only a handful of finishers.

The Shelby Daytona Coupe at Le Mans

One of my favorite bits of Daytona Coupe lore is that until it was tested and Peter Brock’s Wunibald Kamm-inspired aerodynamic shape was proven to be much faster than the regular open-top Cobra, even Carroll Shelby and many mechanics were skeptical that such a silly shape would be any good on the race track.

Once they were convinced, the groundbreaking car had to turn only a few laps in anger before its competition realized that this odd-looking Shelby was actually one of the fastest sports racing cars the world had ever seen—and stable at high speeds right out of the box, unlike the first iterations of the Ford GT40.

Image sources: Rémi Dargegen, Jordan Koroknai,

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Peter J SmithDaniel CarvalhoMichael Maddalenamichielvdvelden@gmail.comJoel Waggz Wandimi Recent comment authors
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Peter J Smith
Peter J Smith

Why would the Shelby be a surprise? It was engineered, from the get-go, as a race car.

Daniel Carvalho

Just a small correction, the Volvo 850s were not turbocharged, they were 2000cc NA with a little magic unicorn dust made by Tom Wilkinshaw.

Michael Maddalena
Michael Maddalena

Bobby Richard is right. The Mercedes-Benz 450SLC 5.0 AMG Rally cars. Although the R107 2-seat convertible is infinitely more popular, the SLC is the better handling version. Mercedes knew it and rallied it successfully


The Peugeot 404 did great in Afrika rallys

Joel Waggz Wandimi
Joel Waggz Wandimi

What about the Datsun 510?? This list does not make sense without the Datsun 510!

Leon Prinsloo
Leon Prinsloo

For those that are interested in the Volvo 850 racing history in the BTCC and how it happened.

Matthew Astley Symonds
Matthew Astley Symonds

m88 engined BMW 745i raced in South Africa enjoyed success.

Ninjas Loose
Ninjas Loose

“because the world is definitely lacking in turbocharged 4-cylinder, mid-engined sports cars.”

Porsche 919 says hi


Who could forget the only car to win both a Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500? The most valuable car in the world.

Tim Scott
Tim Scott

Two Pugs for consideration, the Peugeot 203 and Peugeot 403 which both won the Round Australia Redex Trial in the 1950s. The Pugs proved extremely reliable and strong and kicked off the brand in Australia. They were probably also Peugeot’s first successes in rallying!

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

What the …….. ?

Unexpectedly ????

Seriously Banovsky where’s y’all getting this ‘ unexpected ‘ thing from lately ? Why do I ask ? Because … the ONLY one in this bunch that might even be considered to of outperformed all ‘expectations ‘ was the Studebakers . And even it in fact [ if you read the history ] lived UP to all expectations !

So a kick in the pants … yes ! But … Unexpected ? Hardly !

FYI ; Y’all gots the wrong Quattro photo

Bobby Richard
Bobby Richard

Another addition would the benz slc that won the african rally. I dont think anybody expected that car to do so well.