These Are Our Favorite Racing-Engined Minivans And SUVs
It is commonly the case that the cars and trucks and busses and vans and everything else that we use to move ourselves and our stuff around take shape around their purpose. Sure, there are a smattering of station wagons out there that can embarrass cars that look twice as fast, and we are living in the age of the frightening fast SUV, but the not-so-distant past contains the best of the bunch. Let’s take a look at some of the most inane creations that far surpass the term “sleeper.”
The BMW X5 LM
This video from 2000 of the seemingly always slightly amused Hans Stuck driving BMW’s one-off X5 LM on the whole-hog Nordschleife is the fuel of dreams for fans of the brand. But hold on, we know the X5 M (or X-Diesel Triple M Power X-Drive Turbo or whatever they call them nowadays) is a quick bit of kit that can paste the heads of your children’s soccer teammates into the leather seatbacks, but this one seems a bit more special. Damn right it is.
Instead of the rear occupants looking into video screens on the headrests in front of them, there is in fact no rear bench at all, and if even if you were to perch on the metal floorpan between the trapeze of red Sabelt, you’d be greeted by an eyeful of carbon-kevlar fixed-back racing buckets. By now we’re used to the various Ms and AMGs made to get the ice cream home before it melts—and they’re damn good at it—but try to go back to the year 2000 when such things were only in their nascency. Now imagine Stuck flirting with the 8-minute mark at the ‘Ring in such a shape. Why was this something that existed? Clearly, it was a promotional stunt to prompt the public into the belief that the “S” in BMW’s SUV truly stood for “sport,” but surely something less ludicrous would have done the trick? Thank heavens the engineers didn’t agree with prudence in this scenario.
Following the overall Le Mans victory earned by the manufacturer’s V12 LMR prototype, Edward Walek, in charge of the X5 program at the time, had the absurd idea of taking that car’s (well, not the engine of course, a sibling unit all the same though) S70/2 V12, removing the FIA-imposed intake restrictors from the 24 Hours configuration, and stuffing the resulting carbon-clad lump into the first-gen X5. These are the kinds of decisions that prove the enduring force of “f*ck yeah” can still produce inspiration in corporeal form, even in the face of massive company bureaucracies.
To cope with the 700-horsepower-howler’s respiration requirements, the hood has been generously scooped away, but aside from that, the SUV would nary draw a second look on the roadways of today. In fact, people would probably laugh at the gold-painted magnesium BBS wheels (but if they do, to hell with their opinion!).
The Renault Espace F1 Matra
Apparently, the mad Bavarians behind the X5 Le Mans had originally intended to fit one of their Formula 1 V10s in the stocky utility vehicle, but did not want to strip away every bit of the production X5’s DNA. Renault Sport on the other hand, well they went further in every way, and did so years earlier too. Of course, the reason for their Frankensteinian mutant was different than BMW’s, and was more like a fanciful celebration of Renault F1 success with Williams and Matra rather than an attempt to move Espaces off the lot, though it ostensibly was also made to denote the 10th anniversary of the Espace line of minivans. Quite the party.
Instead of an SUV like the X5 that still retains at least a slight aura of athleticism, these frogs chose the utterly pedestrian and banal Espace van to demonstrate the engineering prowess they were capable of injecting into seemingly anything with wheels. To be fair though, there is hardly anything Espace about this beautiful abomination, and further differentiating itself the X5 above, it could seat four! Practical! (That is, if the rear passengers were comfortable sitting abreast of an 800HP 3.5L V10 with velocity stacks aimed at their face.) This thing was more or less wholly bespoke throughout, as the van was hacked to oblivion and reconstructed with an abundance of carbon fiber making up the roundly revamped chassis and bodywork—more akin to the silhouette racers of Group 5 and IMSA than anything you could find in a Renault showroom. This was more or less the Renault-Williams RS4 Formula car playing dress-up in the clothes of its fat, sleepy relative. I mean, really, there’s nothing van about a mid-engine rear-wheel drive layout, ceramic brakes, turbofan wheel covers (not always present on the Espace F1 though), and a screamer of a V10 that needs to be started with a freakin’ computer (though, how damn cool is it to see the technician actuating the throttle with his handheld plunger?).
Like BMW though, the people behind this bonkers behemoth opted for one of their own noteworthy pilots to put the thing through its paces: Alain Prost. Seeing Prost go through the van’s six-speed by way of buttons on the steering wheel as he tows behind him the mass of dijon-colored Renault is wonderfully surreal. So is the fact that it could get to 60 from zilch in under three seconds. And crest 190mph.
Ford’s Transit Supervans 1, 2, and 3
Renault’s beastly box was unveiled to the unsuspecting world at the 1994 Paris Autoshow, though perhaps the people in attendance would not have been so surprised if they recalled the first Ford Supervan that preceded the Espace F1 by more than two decades. Indeed, supreme credit goes to the blue oval for being the pioneers of power plant transplanting into ridiculous vehicles, as all the way back in 1971 Ford’d fitted a Transit body with a GT40 chassis and racing-spec V8, mounted amidships, of course. The motor was bumped in capacity to juuuust under five liters, and output rose to over 400HP. To stop the heavy load at speeds no van should even think of, CanAm car brakes were fitted behind the widened 15-inchers on the hubs. This would become known in posterity as the Supervan 1.
Construction of this van was carried out by Terry Drury Racing, and with the bulldog-like body extended in width and length alike to fit atop the racing running gear, it was certainly a less refined example of the van+decidedly-not-van combination, if not with its own essence of pleasing muscular anti-beauty. While it certainly had tons of bark from its 400-some-odd ponies, it was mainly a burnout machine, though this video does show what its like to corral such a brute around a race track, and boy does it look like fun.
Ford stuck with their formula of motorsport underpinnings, and with the second-gen Transit they again opted to give it the Supervan treatment in 1984, but things were much more cohesive on the sequel. This time, Auto Racing Technology of Woolaston carried out the work of transfiguring Ford’s Transit. Departing more from the production shape than even the elongated Supervan 1, the 2 featured ultra-aggressive ducting carved into its flanks, a deep and pavement-kissingly-low front fascia, and a domineering wing mounted to the rear of the long roof to add a semblance of aerodynamic aptitude to a vehicle that by its nature is a horrible partner with atmosphere at speed. No matter though, because when you can’t work with the wind, you may as well pummel it with power. And that’s exactly what FoMoCo and ART opted for, choosing a drivetrain and chassis pairing used in its Group C C100 race car to mount the outward appearance of the MK2 Transit atop. Propelled by the 3.9L V8 DFL variant of the lauded Cosworth DFV with almost 600HP, the Supervan 2 was capable of real-life speeds of 170mph. Maybe the aero did help after all.
A bit over a decade later, the Supervan 2 was heavily updated to become the Supervan 3 with the help of DRL Engineering of Suffolk. Okay, the naming convention may not have been a bastion of creativity, but there was a bountiful amount of trick engineering that went into this version of the Transit-turned-track-terror.
Based on the MK5 Transit, though still constructed upon the C100 chassis like its older brother, this edition burst into the hearts and minds of vanning and racing enthusiasts alike in 1994, and before it was neutered years later with a 220HP motor for greater reliability—why does it need to be reliable?—this vehicle would prove to be the most extreme version of the breed of square-shaped superheroes, though, arguably, the Supervan 1 was more radical relative to its epoch. You’ll note that its conception occurred around the same time as the Espace F1, and in keeping, it was mated with a Ford-Cosworth HB Formula 1 V8 that could churn a herd of horses in the range of 650-700 depending on the trim and tune that day, and could decimate any unwitting unprotected eardrums with a ludicrous 13,800RPM redline yawp.
The bodywork continued the trend of the Supervan 2’s move toward greater aerodynamic grace, and the bodywork reminds me of a box covered with a sheet, with the ground effects and skirting barely able to contain the massive foot-wide magnesium OZ Racing wheels. At one point, in a display of supreme humor, the Supervan 3 was even outfitted in full Royal Mail livery. Oh how I’d love for my car parts to show up in one of those!