These Are The Groundbreaking Sports Cars That Detroit Didn’t Make
Without children of my own, it seems like a good idea to avoid offering parenting advice to friends with them. Likewise, as I haven’t put a vehicle into production, it seems unreasonable to offer comment on the cars that weren’t made. I can say, however, that the talent to build sports cars has always shone brightly in the U.S. even as the market itself—or dealers within—have never seemed all that hungry for them. That’s a shame.
These prototypes, concepts, and almost-rans represent a good portion of the shelved projects that could have torn up roads like the Tail of the Dragon…had they been made.
It’s really tough for an enthusiast such as myself to begin with the tale of the Renault Alpine and Porsche 911-fighting Ford GT70 mid-engined rally car. It’s true, it’s real, and I have a difficult time imagining that thousands aren’t burbling across the countryside, such was its level of completion. Six were made in total, with engines fitted varying between 4- and 6-cylinders. Designer? Ercole Spada, with direction from Ford as it realized the Escort was increasingly uncompetitive in rallying.
Ford Cougar II
To sit above the Mustang, the Ford Cougar would have been a smaller and sportier alternative to both the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and Jaguar XK-E…had it been built. Using a Shelby Cobra frame and warmed-over 289 V8 engine but with vastly more tidy aerodynamics, it was reportedly—and I think optimistically—capable of 170 mph in 1963.
Ford Mustang I
A year earlier than the Cougar II, Ford had gone all out in promoting the Mustang I, even showing it publicly as a sort of high-performance “learner’s” sports car. Spearheaded by the Lee Iacocca, it was to compete against entry-level cars from MG, Sunbeam, Triumph and others. With a V4 engine and mid-engined layout, the two prototypes made by Troutman-Barnes did what they needed to do: give Ford some much-needed high-performance credentials as it started to invest in racing.
Ford Mach 2
After the GT40 was winning races, Ford saw the potential in a road-going, mid-engined, 289 V8-powered sports car that it designed and showed as the Mach 2. Built on a modified Mustang platform, it never made it past the concept stage.
American Motors AMX/3 by Vignale
No, I have not simply mislabeled photos of a DeTomaso Pantera, but you’re not far from the truth. Amazingly, six prototypes were built of this mid-engined sports car, which American Motors ordered Vignale, designer Richard Teague, and engineer Giotto Bizzarrini to take point on. It would have been one of the fastest cars in 1970, but as we know, American Motors had precious little in the way of resources to spend on a sports car.
Pontiac Bonneville Special
You know its moniker from the countless plasticky ’90s and ’00s sedans that bore the famous Utah salt flat’s name, but in 1954, “Bonneville” was bolted to a far more worthy machine. Pontiac’s take on sports cars featured a straight-eight engine, fiberglass bodywork, and composite canopy.
Pontiac Banshee XP-833
When John Z. DeLorean was working for a division within General Motors that doesn’t have a Corvette to sell, you can bet he pulled out every stop to see his Corvette-based Pontiac Banshee in production. A more simple rear suspension, trim, 6 or 8-cylinder engine, and tidy proportions shows what might have been.
One hundred and fifty miles per hour in 1960 is nothing to scoff at, especially if the car is being motivated by a slant-six engine. Making 250 horsepower, the engine was one of the hottest from Plymouth at the time. The Virgil Exner-styled body it was dropped into wouldn’t have looked out of place at an international sports car race, either.
Dodge Charger III
As if a Syd Mead drawing drove off a page and onto a show stand, the Dodge Charger III would have been the car to do it. Consider it a 427 HEMI-powered Viper, an updated Shelby Daytona Coupe, or an air brake-equipped competitor for the Corvette…all in 1968.
The very first Corvette made was fitted with a V8 engine…along with an Oldsmobile badge on its nose and tail. It’s unlikely that the car had been seriously considered for production, but it’s fun to see how the first Corvette’s fiberglass bodywork was poked and prodded to accommodate 1954 Oldsmobile styling cues.
Cadillac NART by Zagato
This is what you get when Ferrari distributor Luigi Chinetti plays around in the General Motors parts bin: a Lamborghini Espada-style four-place grand touring sports car…albeit with its engine behind the rear seats. It’s unconventionally attractive not not outright pretty—you either love or hate its forward-curved rear glass and rear buttresses.
Built with the cooperation of General Motors, the idea was shelved after a single (surviving) prototype was constructed.
Pretty much every Chevrolet prototype sports car
Consider that General Motors was at the height of its powers through the ’50s and ’60s, and having a production sports car on its books must have been like an ant sitting on an elephant. Thing is, history shows us that the General was more content to fund research into designing and developing sports cars than it was in building them. (A ban on racing toward the end of the ’50s didn’t help, either.)
Don’t believe me? A by no means exhaustive list includes the SR-2, CERV-I, CERV-II, CERV-III, Corvair Coupé Speciale by Pininfarina, Corvair Testudo by Bertone, Corvair Rondine Coupé by Pininfarina, Corvette XP-819, Astro II XP-880, XP-882, XP-895, XP-897GT, AeroVette, and Corvette Indy.
Lots of money to spend on R&D means lots of crushed cars…and a few standout survivors.
Chevrolet Corvette SS
When Juan Manuel Fangio did a few practice laps in the car before the 1957 12 Hours of Sebring, he broke the course record inside of two laps. Of course, you probably are shocked that you missed this magnesium-bodied, 1980-lb. engineering marvel that had been fitted in period with a 307 horsepower V8 featuring aluminum heads and fuel injection. That its top speed at 183 mph was reportedly nearly 10 mph faster than the period Jaguar D-Types is of little concern if mechanical problems emerge inside of 25 laps.
As the story goes, Fangio had been so impressed with the car in practice that he’d asked Zora Arkus-Duntov to have a go. Just as well Chevrolet’s car was fast but fragile: Fangio and co-driver Jean Behra finished first in their Maserati 450S.
Chevrolet Corvair Monza GT and Monza SS
In 1966, Porsche’s final street-legal racing car was to be the 906. Equipped with a fiberglass body, mid-mounted air-cooled flat-6 engine, disc brakes, and a few production-based parts, the car has since entered the history books as one of the most desirable Porsches ever.
Four years earlier (and down 100 horsepower), Chevrolet’s engineers introduced the Corvair Monza GT, which was feature-for-feature identical to the 906. Its engine was based on that of the production Corvair, however, so perhaps a better description is to say it’s a better-looking Porsche 914/6 introduced nearly a decade early. Thankfully, the only models made, coupé and spyder, survive today.
You’re looking at the world’s first hypercar, or perhaps a McLaren F1-challenging American supercar…had it been made. Actually, being General Motors, it was made: two transmissions (three-speed Hydramatic and a two-speed) for six forward gears, two brake discs per wheel, all-wheel drives with front and rear torque vectoring, fully composite bodywork, and a 225 mph top speed.
Six hundred and fifty horsepower from a twin-turbocharged 5.7-litre V8 engine in 1990 is pretty remarkable, too, if only a prototype.
What’s your favorite sports car prototype from Detroit?
Photography by carstyling.ru