Ten of the Most Unusual Race Cars of All Time

By Ronan Glon

December 02, 2014

From the technologically unconventional to the downright unexpected, we’ve compiled a list of the ten strangest race cars ever to line up on a starting grid. We’re only looking at cars that were designed to compete in major international race events, meaning that an Alfa GTV6-powered Miata built for Le Mons, although entertaining, is off limits.
Chaparral 2J “Sucker Car” (Can-Am)
The 2J was the last evolution of Chaparral’s successful 2 race cars. It was fitted with a snowmobile engine that spun a pair of fans designed to suck air out from under the car, effectively creating downforce without adding drag. A 7.6-liter engine rated at roughly 680 horsepower helped offset the extra weight added by the complex setup.
Quickly nicknamed Sucker Car, the 2J required a great deal of fine-tuning before it worked as planned. Race authorities received several complaints about it during the 1970 season and banned the car on account that it was fitted with a movable aerodynamic device.
Citroen ID 19 (NASCAR)
NASCAR is often considered the stereotypical American race series but it was common for European manufacturers to compete in the sport in the 1950s. A pair of Citroën ID 19s driven by Los Angeles-based pilots Bill Jones and Ralph Roberts won first and second place in their class at the 500-mile Riverside race in 1958.
An article published in a period issue of Motor Racing and recently uncovered by Autoweek reveals that the two ID 19s were powered by an unmodified 70-horsepower 1.9-liter four-cylinder and were fully stock save for the addition of seatbelts and a roll cage. The four-banger allowed them to reach a top speed of 101 mph while averaging 19.3 mpg over the course of the race.
First in class doesn’t mean the IDs won the overall race – they placed 18th and 19th, respectively.
DeltaWing (LeMans)
With a design that looks like it comes straight out of a Batman flick, the DeltaWing is a masterpiece of engineering. It eschews typical aerodynamic add-ons such as spoilers and instead relies on two tunnels that run underneath the car to create downforce.
The DeltaWing made its track debut at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it occupied the 56th garage that is reserved for experimental race cars. The beginning of the race was promising for the off-beat racer but it retired after hitting a concrete barrier in the 75th lap.
An evolution of the DeltaWing powered by a turbocharged 1.9-liter four-cylinder engine rated at about 350 horsepower still competes in endurance events today.
Lada Granta (WTCC)
Russia’s Lada is best-known for building millions of Fiat 124 clones and the timeless Niva, a rugged off-roader once described by the company as a “Renault 5 on a Land Rover chassis,” so seeing the name pop up in Touring Car racing is a little peculiar.
Lada’s first major effort in the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) came in 2009 but it was far from successful. The company went back to the drawing board and it competed in every race of the 2013 season with three heavily-modified examples of the Granta, a no-frills econobox sold largely in Russia.
Surprisingly, Lada managed to take second place in the 2013 manufacturer’s championship with 601 points, finishing behind the Honda team that earned 1,017 points. Lada took third place this year, and it has announced plans to debut a new car next year.
Mercedes-Benz 300SEL AMG (European Touring Car Championship)
In the late 1960s, a German company called Aufrecht Melcher Großaspach (AMG) ambitiously set off to turn a large, heavy Mercedes-Benz 300SEL (w109) into a full-blown race car capable of devouring more nimble competitors like the Alfa Romeo GTA and the Ford Capri on the track.
The idea initially seemed downright insane, but AMG used its engineering genius to transform the 6.3-liter M100 V8 engine found under the hood of the dictator-friendly 600 limousine into a 450-horsepower 6.8-liter unit. A series of well thought-out suspension and brake upgrades considerably improved handling.
Nicknamed Red Pig, the tuned 300SEL was entered in the 1971 24 Hours of Spa. It had to stop by the pits often because it burned gasoline at an alarmingly high rate and it went through tires quickly due to its considerable weight but it managed to take second place in the event, finishing behind a Ford Capri.
Today, Mercedes-AMG’s bigger models like the S65 and the GL63 owe their existence to the Red Pig.
Rolls-Royce Corniche (Paris-Dakar)
In the early days of the grueling Paris-Dakar, an “anything goes” atmosphere reigned as competitors tried every imaginable solution to make it across the desert. The creativity award goes to French pilot Thierry de Montcorgé who competed in the event with a Rolls-Royce Corniche.
In reality, de Montcorgé’s race car shared precious few parts with the Corniche. The body was made out of polyester, most of the body panels were crafted out of aluminum and the car was powered by a Chevrolet-sourced 5.7-liter V8 engine that spun all four wheels via a Toyota-sourced four-speed manual transmission. The Roller’s exquisite dashboard was carried over to the race car with only minor modifications.
Rover-BRM (Le Mans)
Fiat, Chrysler and Renault all experimented with turbine engines, but Rover remains the only major manufacturer to ever enter a turbine-powered car in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Developed with input from British Racing Motors (BRM), the car was fitted with a fairly basic gas turbine that developed 150 horsepower.
The Rover-BRM participated in the 1963 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the number 00, denoting it as an experimental car. It surprisingly finished the race and recorded a top speed of about 150 mph on the Mulsanne Straight.
Rover did not participate in the 1964 edition of the race but it returned the following year and competed in the two-liter class. It finished tenth overall, a surprising result considering its experimental nature, but the turbine was quickly losing credibility as a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine and Rover stopped developing it.
smart fortwo (Dakar Rally)
Spanish pilot José Luis Álvarez boldly prepared to compete in the 2013 Dakar Rally with a heavily-modified first-gen smart fortwo.The tiny racer shared almost no parts with the stock fortwo that still relentlessly buzzes around the streets of Europe.
The smart’s chassis came from the AVT-like Polaris XP 900, a modification that significantly increased its ground clearance, and it was powered by a Polaris-sourced 900cc two-cylinder engine rated at 90 horsepower. That’s not a whole lot on paper, but it was a respectable amount for a car that weighed just 1,650 pounds.
The team had to cancel its Dakar entry because it failed to raise enough money from sponsors.
Toyota Prius GT300 (Super GT)
Known as “the world’s fastest Prius,” the GT300 was designed to compete in Japan’s Super GT series against cars like the Audi R8, the BMW Z4, the Lamborghini Gallardo and the Porsche 911. That understandably sounds ambitious, but the GT300 is no ordinary Prius.
Power comes from a 295-horsepower gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain consisting of a de-tuned 3.4-liter V8 engine sourced from Toyota’s LMP1 program and the Prius’ original Hybrid Synergy Drive unit. Electricity is stored in a lithium-ion battery pack that helps lower the center of gravity.
Tyrrell P34 (Formula One)
Introduced in time for the 1976 season, the Tyrrell P34 stands out as the first and only Formula One car fitted with four front wheels. Although undeniably odd to look at, the six-wheeled setup had number of advantages. It reduced drag, it boosted traction and it significantly increased the braking surface.
Jody Sheckter and Patrick Depailler drove the P34 to a one-two finish at the 1976 Swedish Grand Prix, helping Tyrrell-Ford secure third place in the 1976 International Cup for Manufacturers. Several modifications were made to the car for the 1977 season but it was never truly fine-tuned, prompting Tyrrell to retire it at the end of the season.