Three Of The Wildest Italian Stallions That Never Had Their Chance To Race
The history and future of motorsport is and will be strewn with examples of stillborn racing machines. Whether it’s just poor, unforeseeable timing—which seems to be the case most often—exorbitant costs of the sort that spiral, or a simple case of building a dud. Some would have been competitive, some probably the opposite. Here are three of a specific genre though: Italian-built in the 1980s.
Alfa Romeo 164 ProCar
When you hear “ProCar,” a BMW M1 will probably come to mind, if anything. The M1 ProCars raced in a short-lived, two-season series that was designed with the dual purpose of giving the not-yet-homologated Bimmers a means to compete prior to their inception into Group 4, while also providing another source of entertainment during Formula 1 weekends (the races initially took place in the days leading up to the Sunday event, and featured a mixture of F1’s top contenders and anyone who could foot the bill/qualify to keep up).
So where does this humble and slightly homely looking Alfa come into play? As the story goes, Bernie Ecclestone began hashing out plans to develop the ProCar series into a multi-make affair sometime in the mid-to-late ‘80s, with the idea being more or less: “Put Formula 1-level engines in production car bodies and let them race each other.” This was the aborted idea known as Formula S.
It sounds much more intriguing than the open-wheelers if you ask me, but unfortunately it was not to be; a pair of 164 ProCars were the only efforts made, by anyone. But what a car. Packing a 3.5-liter V10 good for 620-plus-horsepower and a redline somewhere above or below the 13k mark depending on who you ask, it was a screamer if there ever was one. The fact that it was mounted amidships in a lightweight aluminum chassis developed by Brabham and then sheathed in the unassuming bodywork of the ho-hum 164—albeit here it was a three piece shell made from an ultra-light composite of carbon, kevlar, and Nomex—just makes it flat-out cool. If you didn’t poke your head inside to see the single seat and otherwise barren interior, the only giveaways that this wasn’t your typical sedan were the huge slicks and the relatively tiny rear wing. Besides making this one of the most unique sleepers, it also meant there wasn’t all that much in the way of downforce, which allowed the 164 ProCar to achieve speeds above 210mph. 0-60 was reported at a few fractions over two seconds.
That’s all thanks to the featherweight reading on the scale—roughly 1,650lbs—and that wild V10. The motor was intended for Formula 1 though, and its development can be traced back a few years prior to the first tests of the ProCar in 1988, when Alfa began developing a new V10, its first and only, to be placed in the French Ligier chassis for use in Formula 1, before that partnership folded as a result of Fiat purchasing Alfa.
Back to the motor. The project began in earnest near the end of ‘85, and the quad-cam was ready for dyno testing not long after in ‘86, which made it the first of the new breed of F1 “power units,” and the first working V10 ever built for the top-spec of auto racing. Pino D’Agostino and his team of engineers beat both Honda and Renault to the punch in the V10 game, but sadly, like the 164 ProCar, the motor never got to see its fair shot at competing. Few videos exist of the brief on-track demonstration at Monza with Riccardo Patrese behind the wheel, and though it’s a clip worth watching, it’s a bit bittersweet—can you imagine a full field of cars like this one bumping doors like touring cars and drafting down the straights at 200-plus? If only.
Ferrari 288 GTO Evoluzione
Like the ProCar above, the Ferrari 288 GTO Evoluzione never got its shot at racing anything other than itself on the test track, but unlike the Alfa, its legacy didn’t begin and end with itself: the Evo paved the way for the F40, with one of the cars being used as a development bed in some capacity for Enzo’s ultimate road car. The F40 did see some track time at such prestigious venues as La Circuit de la Sarthe, but it was always a road car first and foremost, even if pop culture tells us it is the epitome of a racing car that doesn’t really belong on the street—except, well, it did. If you can put a number plate on it and drive past the cops without flinching, it’s a road car.
The 288 GTO Evo though? Different story. This was designed for one purpose: Group B. This weird winged wonder was never intended to chase Quattros and S4s off of dirt jumps, but like Porsche’s 959, it was aimed at becoming a serious contender in the tarmac events in the Group B calendar in both the WRC and the Italian Rally Championship before the FIA decided everyone was having too much fun and too many people were dying as a result. That’s not meant to downplay the tragic loss of lives, but it seems a little silly to nix the tarmac-based Group B events because of it. That’s what happened though, and it meant the 288 GTO and its ridiculous Evo never got their shot.
What was it though? Besides a challenge to the idea of Ferraris being pretty (I love the way it looks, but a punched-up face and and ass like a cheese-grater underneath the most function-over-form wing ever stacked on a trunk certainly doesn’t fall under the category of “traditionally beautiful”), it was a twin-turbocharged, 650-horsepower, tube-framed carbon-bodied beast. I usually hate calling cars “beasts,” but it seems fitting here given the Evo’s looks and its ability to paste heads into barely-covered seatbacks. Weight was reported to be less than 1,000kgs, or about 2,200lbs with all the juices. Together with Pininfarina and Michelotto, Ferrari planned a series of 20 of these Evos to be used as works and privateer entries in Group B, but when the project was halted and the knowledge distilled into the F40 instead, only six cars were built, with one of them derived from an existing 288 GTO and the other five constructed from the ground up.
It’s easily one of the more unique Ferraris to leave the Maranello gates, full of squares and a general abruptness of design, and though there’s not much like it it slots into the manufacturer’s history as a little-known but important piece; it represents both the end of a short-lived attempt at Group B competition as well as a telling link between the design language of Ferrari’s road cars of the ‘70s as they gave way to the next generation of angular designs. In the Evo you can see hints of Dino that led to the form of the 308 that gave us the 288, and from certain angles it looks like an F40 wearing a mustache-and-glasses disguise. Everyone always wants to compare the F40 with the 959—and they should—but wouldn’t you have rather seen the überPorsche competing with this thing instead?
Speaking of Group B’s demise, we come to the Lancia ECV, or the aptly named “Experimental Composite Vehicle.” Lancia and Abarth were already working towards an update for the successful, championship-winning Delta S4 in the same year that Group B got the axe (1986), with the focus falling predominantly on an updated aerodynamic package, the most noticeable result of this work being a ground-effect-style skirting around the car’s lowermost edges—the car was basically an S4 with a more efficient cooling system and a trick bodykit. That’s putting it simply of course, but this isn’t about that car, it’s the one that came afterwards, the really interesting one: the ECV.
While the standard S4—what a weird term, “standard S4”—was constructed with a tube-frame chassis and composite panels, the ECV, while retaining much of the S4’s distinctive outward appearance, was based on a monocoque comprised of aluminum and carbon fiber, hence the name ECV. In addition to the overhauled underpinnings, the ECV’s other major advancement over the S4 was its new 1.8-liter inline four (mainly just the new head design) engineered by Claudio Lombardi and dubbed the “TriFlux” for its unique manifold system (one intake and two exhaust manifolds) that could shut off the feed to one turbo at lower RPM and feed all the spent air into one unit. Ditching the supercharger and turbocharger design of the S4, the twin-turbo TriFlux was said to be good for roughly 600 at the crank, but if it were ever to race this number would have to be greatly reduced, halved actually.
That’s because even before the death knell of Group B, the governing body of the sport had started plans for a replacement series called Group S. The intention was to slow the cars down in terms of raw power, which would force the manufacturers to spend their money and energy on novel chassis constructions and advancements in the way of aero and electronics rather than brutal speed bought on the backs of massive super- and turbochargers.
That series never saw the light of day though, and sadly neither did the ECV. Lancia kept on developing it anyway though, eventually taking the whole thing apart to build an even more focused Group S-style car, the ECV2. The 2 eschewed pretty much any semblance of the original S4 in terms of looks, with the only recognizable slice being the doors and roofline, though that too was modified. Though the same monocoque was underneath it all, the ECV2 was a much more compact design overall.
The prospect of cars sporting F1-level technology bumping against snow banks and clawing their way through deep gravel is something that could have become reality if it weren’t for Toivonen’s tragic accident, and if the slower but more technically advanced Group S series had been implemented beforehand, it’s likely that lives would have been saved. So while we’d love to see the ECV going up against the revised Ford RS200, Toyota’s 222D, and the the weird pug-like Audi prototype, that would just be a bonus to the fact that more people would have lived to drive and watch them.