Race cars are the pinnacle of automotive engineering. These vehicles must withstand flat-out driving for hours on end, with very little downtime. Every race series has tight regulations that control what technology and designs race cars can use, as competitors would start using jet power and bathtub-sized gas tanks if they weren’t restricted. While some of these rules can be limiting, such as NASCAR’s prior carburetor requirement, rarely do such restrictions prevent race cars from having incredible performance. After all, not having to meet road-legal emissions and safety standards gives racing companies far more freedom to build performance vehicles.
At least, that’s usually the case. Some race series require automakers to sell a certain number of road-legal variants of their new race cars in order to compete. This process is known as homologation. Homologation rules can have different requirements depending on the competition, as some race series will require a production car that simply has the same shell as its track-going counterpart. Others necessitate a street model that’s almost identical to what will be performing in the race. While some of these homologated street cars are just visually modified from their standard variations, others give a real peek into what owning a road-legal race car would be like. Even though such cars are less common now, here are 20 race cars that were once available to the public.
20 Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2
These days, there’s little in common between the cars competing in NASCAR and the factory models that they’re supposedly based on, both mechanically and visually. It was up until the ‘90s that NASCAR vehicles shared a visually similar body to the road-going model due to different homologation rules. During such times, automakers had to implement their aerodynamic changes for the track onto production cars as well. There are several examples of these specialized oval track racers from the ‘60s, but such models became less common during the ‘70s. While these cars died down over the years, they didn’t completely disappear.
One of the final examples of a homologated aerodynamic NASCAR was the Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2. Based on the otherwise sedate 1986 Grand Prix, this slippery model was redesigned entirely for the track.
At the front, the 2+2 donned a sharper nose that cut through the air, and at the back, a wraparound fastback window sat in place of the long, flat trunk lid of standard Grand Prix. Hemmings reported that this rear glass successfully prevented rear lift at high speeds which plagued prior versions of the race car. While the giant window did heavily impede on the street car’s practicality, as the trunk opening was rendered inaccessibly tiny, it made for a much-improved performer on the oval.
19 Lancia Stratos
While there are many automakers competing in the rally world today, Lancia is not one of them, despite how well its cars performed in the past. Unfortunately, the company has become a shadow of its former self, now selling the rather uninteresting Ypsilon hatchback as its sole model. Worse still, the company had a number of Chrysler models dumped into its lineup for a few years, which likely didn’t do its brand image any favors. It’s a sad state of affairs for a company that created some of the most iconic rally cars of all time. Among the most popular and well-known examples to come out of the company was the Stratos.
While today’s rally machines are frequently based on compact cars with four-wheel-drive, things were done differently in the ‘70s. The Stratos was a specially built machine with similar design language to supercars of the time. Its 2.4-liter V6 was mounted in the middle of the car and was sourced from the Ferrari Dino. This specialized model was offered to the public for a short time, retaining the Ferrari motor and gorgeous styling of the race car. It’s no surprise that the 492 Stratos’s built are highly valuable today.
18 Plymouth Superbird
Muscle cars are known for many things, but aerodynamics isn’t really one of them. No matter which model you look at, nearly every classic American car cuts through the air about as well as a brick. This presented a rather large problem on the high-speed NASCAR circuits. Chrysler had great difficulty making its iconic Dodge Charger drive at high speeds due to its squared-off shape and the gaping maw of a grille. The 1969 Charger Daytona changed that. After the slightly improved Charger 500 failed at NASCAR, Dodge released the Daytona, which used a sharp nose cone and gigantic rear spoiler to slip through the air effortlessly.
The Daytona proved successful, as it was capable of hitting 200 miles per hour.
While the Charger Daytona was an amazing machine, the similar Road Runner-based Plymouth Superbird was even better. Besides featuring handsome graphics, the Plymouth also had an improved nose and wing. It’s unmistakable, given the large ‘Plymouth’ decal running across the rear quarter panel and the Looney Tunes’ Road Runner character illustrated on that ridiculous wing. Unsurprisingly, when the car was offered to the public, many found its aerodynamic alterations to be off-putting. Today, however, the Superbird is a highly collectible and valuable piece of Mopar history.
17 Audi Quattro
Rally cars today are almost solely offered with four-wheel-drive, as would be expected for a machine that’s designed to tear around on loose surfaces. However, this wasn’t always the case. In the past, the vast majority of old rally cars utilized rear-wheel-drive, which couldn’t possibly provide the same amount of grip as later four-wheel-drive competitors. As a result, cars like the Mini Cooper, which was front-wheel-drive, were able to be highly competitive against its more powerful rear-wheel-drive competitors.
However, Audi convinced the regulatory board for the World Rally Championship to allow four-wheel-drive in its competitions, forever changing the motorsport. Audi developed the Quattro to compete in the new Group B segment in 1981, setting the stage for the company’s four-wheel-drive future and setting a new precedent for rallying. As with other rally cars, the Quattro saw a production model alongside the race version. While it wasn’t the first mass-produced four-wheel-drive passenger car, the Quattro’s performance-oriented nature made the model hugely popular, resulting in it becoming a full production car, rather than a short-lived homologation model, according to Autoweek. While many automakers only produce the minimum number of homologated street cars necessary for the race series, the Quattro continued to sell even after Audi left rally racing.
16 Mercedes-Benz 190 E Evo
These days, it’s hard to picture Mercedes as anything other than a luxury brand. Even when discussing its high-performance AMG branch, those models seem to lean towards a comfortable high-speed cruising experience over sharp driving characteristics. As such, many of Mercedes’ cars, even its supercar fighting SLS and GT, are quite heavy and a little cumbersome. This choice is most likely due to its consumers preferring comfort in their premium German car. Mercedes isn’t known for standing out in performance or on the race track, as other brands are generally more adept at building sports cars.
The company’s 190 E was a small, simple four-door sedan that became a surprising performance offering when Mercedes teamed up with the legendary racing company Cosworth, to create the 190 E 2.3-16. Originally, these Cosworth-powered machines were intended to compete in rally racing, but it was refocused to compete in touring car racing after Audi’s Quattro dominated the rally world, according to Motor Trend.
As the years went on, the model was transformed into the 190e 2.5-16 Evolution II, which had a 235-horsepower motor, a wide and low body kit, and a giant rear wing.
The Evo II performed quite well on the circuit, taking third place in the DTM racing series on its debut entry.
15 Mercury Cyclone Spoiler
Mercury has left us, mostly because it didn’t have anything to offer other than Fords with slightly different badging. While some may argue that it was a mid-level luxury brand, many of its final offerings weren’t much better equipped than standard Fords. By the end, it certainly wasn’t a performance brand, with its last fast car being the 2004 Mercury Marauder. However, there was a time when the company did offer performance-oriented machines that didn’t encroach on Ford’s territory. It even offered a muscle car that was good enough to compete in NASCAR for a few years. Mercury built a model designed for nothing other than tracks like Daytona.
Based on the Montego, the Cyclone Spoiler models featured a front air dam and rear spoiler, hence the name, to improve high-speed stability. Late-model examples featured a unique three-pronged nose that’s unlike anything else on the road. With 7-liter V8s and a crazy look, the Cyclone Spoilers were incredible cars for the money. Ford was intending to go further with the model, with plans on producing a version with a huge nosecone, much like the winged Mopars of the time. However, this super aerodynamic model, and its King Cobra Ford counterpart, never saw production.
14 Plymouth 'Cuda AAR
It’s a common misconception that muscle cars were only designed for straight lines; that the shallow corners of the NASCAR circuits were the only corners they could handle. In reality, muscle cars were frequently equipped with fatter tires and stiffer suspension to work in conjunction with the extra power. While there are plenty of models that were specifically designed to tear up the drag strip with close ratio gearboxes and heavy big block motors, there were others that were built for handling. The American Trans-Am racing series strongly featured muscle cars that raced around tracks that had both left and right corners. It was so popular that two muscle cars had performance versions named after the series. One special car built for Trans-Am racing was the 1970 Plymouth ‘Cuda AAR, standing for the All-American Racers company. As big block muscle cars are quite nose heavy, Trans-Am racers were limited to smaller, lightweight five-liter motors.
To give the road-going version the race car’s traits while still being drivable, the AAR Cuda had a 340 cubic inch V8 with triple carburetors, allowing it to be both fast and light, at least for a muscle car.
To make this package even more enticing, it had a black, fiberglass hood, side stripes, and dual side exit exhaust.
13 Ford RS200
Ford has been competing in rally racing for quite some time, but its entries are generally based on its compact models. It has produced legendary models like Sierra RS and the winged Escort RS Cosworth. Truly, there’s nothing shabby about Ford’s rally machines, no matter how humble their beginnings. The brand has been in the business for years and it knows how to create some incredible cars designed for nothing other than rally racing. When the insane Group B rally segment took off, Ford decided to get into that action by building an incredible new car that was purpose-built for the series.
The Ford RS200 was an all original model that was a mid-engine, four-wheel-drive monster of a vehicle. Ford left nothing on the table to make it as quick as possible on dirt. It had a tiny 1.8-liter motor that was turbocharged to 250 horsepower in road-spec, with Group B cars making up to 450. Road and Track reports that some insane versions may have produced up to 800 horsepower, though there’s no confirmation of such models. Regardless, it is remarkable that this tiny, mid-engine, trail hunter was available to the public. Even with a much tamer motor sitting behind the driver’s seat, the RS200 was an incredible machine in street spec.
12 Lancia 037
By this point, it’s pretty clear that the Group B rally segment resulted in so many absolutely insane cars, all of which were offered to consumers, despite their complete lack of consumer-oriented design. It’s unlikely such cars would ever see decent sales, almost certainly as a result of their price and lack of practicality. Unsurprisingly, there weren’t many companies that were willing to make the sacrifice of making a low-production car just so a racing version could compete in rallying. Lancia, however, was willing to take the plunge multiple times, building some truly ridiculous machines over the years.
The Stratos was an Italian off-road supercar, the Delta HF Integrale was a potent hot hatchback, but none were as insane as the 037. Where the other cars could be mistaken for some sort of street car, if extreme ones, the 037 was clearly nothing other than a race car. Its panel gaps were ridiculous, it was covered in various vents, and had a ridiculously barebones interior. On rally stages, the model was something different, as many Group B cars were four-wheel-drive, but the Lancia was rear-wheel-drive. And yet it was able to hold its own against the more advanced competition. Both on the street and on the dirt, Lancia was an insane company.
11 Porsche 911 GT3
Most performance car companies build similar cars to each other. Generally, sports cars are either front engine, rear-wheel-drive machines that are somewhat affordable, or they’re extremely expensive mid-engine supercars. Porsche is seemingly driven by its extreme traditionalism, at least when it comes its signature 911 model. The 911 has always had its engine located behind the rear wheels, which could potentially lead to catastrophic handling characteristics. After all, there’s a reason why so many supercars are mid-engine affairs. But, Porsche has had plenty of time to perfect this unusual layout and make it into something amazing. Given all the time and effort put into improving the standard 911, it’s no surprise that Porsche makes a race car version.
Today, the 911 GT3 stands as the company’s homologation model for the GT Championship, with the car being named after the GT3 Group it competes in.
While some road cars hide their race car status, the 911 GT3 looks quite similar to the track car, given its gigantic rear wing and huge air intakes. Some models even have a factory roll cage, which renders the back seats useless, but will certainly make the car stiffer in the corners and safer if anything goes wrong.
10 Toyota Celica GT-Four
In today’s world of the Prius, Camry, and Highlander, it’s hard to remember that Toyota has quite a history in motorsports. Given how the brand has built many off-road machines and lightweight compacts, it really should be no surprise that it has built multiple rally cars over the years, with the Celica GT-Four being one of the most notable. Perhaps the final, front-wheel-drive-only, naturally aspirated Celica has made people forget how incredible the model used to be in its earlier generations. To meet homologation standards for rally racing, the GT-Four was released featuring four-wheel-drive and a big turbocharger. Being such a small car usually powered by considerably less powerful engines, the GT-Four was quite an automobile.
Perhaps its most well-known feature was its cheat device. In its rally form, Toyota designed the turbocharger to bypass the mandatory restrictor plate. Jalopnik reported that this cheat was particularly clever as it wasn’t visible when the turbo was removed from the engine. Toyota was eventually caught and banned from the 1996 WRC season. Of course, the factory vehicle wasn’t fitted with such a device, but that didn’t make this 250-horsepower street machine any less impressive. Unsurprisingly, this is easily the most desirable version of the Celica.
9 Maserati MC12
In 2002, Ferrari released its new premiere supercar, the Enzo Ferrari. This supercar was apparently so incredible that it was named after the company’s founder. Every so often, Ferrari releases a model that is designed to be the best of the best. It started with the F40, then the F50, followed the Enzo Ferrari, and most recently, the LaFerrari. Given how exclusive the Enzo was, it’s rather surprising that there was an alternative version of the model sold under a different brand. Apparently, Maserati was able to convince Ferrari to use the Enzo as a basis for a new model. While the Enzo was meant to be the ultimate Ferrari of the time, the Maserati MC12 was a new model designed to meet homologation requirements, so the company could compete in the GT Championship.
As a result, the MC12 was a far more hardcore track car than the Ferrari. While the Enzo had quite unique styling, with its F1-style nose, the MC12 went for a more traditional long and low supercar look.
However, in some regards, the Maserati stands out more than the legendary Ferrari, as many of these cars were sold in an attractive two-tone blue and white paint job.
8 Porsche 959
The 911 has made a name for itself due to its unique design and incredible performance. Beyond the raw specifications and numbers, it’s impressive that Porsche was able to make an otherwise undesirable layout work so well over the years. Despite the model’s styling evolving slowly over the years, the technology underneath certainly hasn’t. While the company has produced many high-tech machines in various body styles, some might complain that Porsche avoids innovation, as it clearly favors a car that hasn’t changed much in many regards. This is somewhat clear given how most of the company’s other offerings aren’t as performance-oriented as the 911.
However, in the ‘80s Porsche pushed further with another new design that was completely unlike anything they had yet sold. The 959 looked like a disproportional 911, but it had many new technologies that separated the two models. While twin turbocharging can be had in a family crossover these days, it was highly uncommon back in the ‘80s, even in race cars. Speaking of, the 959 was originally meant to be a rally car, which ultimately never came to be. However, the 959 was still a 200 mile per hour beast that featured extraordinarily futuristic technologies for the time.
7 Subaru Impreza 22b STI
Today, the most well-known name in the rallying world would most likely be Subaru due to its Impreza and WRX models having proved their worth on dirt roads and rallycross stages. The company has been building iconic rally machines for decades now. They’ve won racing series, starred in video games, and appeared in popular Gymkhana videos. Subaru’s signature WRX STI model has really only had one true competitor, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and even that model is no longer available.
The WRX has become a modern-day icon among many automotive enthusiasts, given the model’s all-wheel-drive system and turbocharged powerplant. This car had to start somewhere and one of Subaru’s earliest models to dominate the rally circuit was the Impreza 22b STI. From a visual standpoint, the 22b stands out from Subaru’s other iconic rally cars due to its coupe body, but its performance it what made it stand out in all other regards.
In 1998, this compact turbocharged beast of a car produced 300 horsepower in its street trim, which was shockingly close to the Corvette’s power rating.
While the new WRX and STi models are rightly criticized for their sedate styling, the 22b certainly stood out from the crowd with its giant wing and fog light covers.
6 BMW M1
Generally, popular brands are rather conservative in their styling and design, even when making vehicles that are meant to attract more exclusive clientele. BMW is well-known for building driver-oriented machines that don’t stand out too much from the crowd. While others may build flashy machines for their highest-ranking vehicle in the lineup, BMW’s tend to feature similar styling cues throughout the model range, with each model’s size and performance being what gives the car its identity. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but not many.
Perhaps the most eye-catching BMW was also the model that started the brand’s legendary M line. The M1 was BMW’s first true supercar. The original plan was to have the mid-engine supercar be built by a company that had some practice building such vehicles. Lamborghini was intended to build the model, but financial trouble lead to the contract being canceled. Being BMW’s first supercar, the M1 had some rather insane styling cues. Its pop-up headlights and long, flat hood certainly made it unlike anything else on the road. However, the race car was even more extreme, possessing an absolutely gigantic rear spoiler. Despite the insane styling, the M1 was rather subdued under the skin as it was powered by a simple straight six.
5 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR
Given how difficult it is to build low-production, specialty cars, it’s no surprise that so many homologation models are generally variants of pre-existing production cars with little changes for improved aerodynamics or a modified engine for extra power. However, the best examples of such cars are the ones that are specially built solely for the purpose of creating a dedicated racing machine. Due to its name, the Mercedes CLK GTR might seem to be based on the standard model, and it does share some styling touches, but there’s no mistaking the GTR for any other late-‘90s Mercedes, or any other car ever produced.
Unlike many of these other street-legal homologation specials, the CLK GTR doesn’t look like a road car from any angle. The aerodynamic nose is so long and low, there’s no way it could ever clear a speed bump, and those doors aren’t meant for easy ingress. Apart from the lack of sponsorship stickers, there’s nothing to visually separate the road car from the race car.
Unsurprisingly, given its shape and massive V12 motor, the CLK GTR is fast regardless of what sort of road it was designed for.
Despite the model’s race car design, there were a handful of roadster variants produced.
4 Renault 5 Turbo
Building a hot hatchback is usually straightforward. Take a practical compact car, turbocharge the motor and give it a bright paint job. Given their budget design philosophy, the vast majority of these machines are front-wheel-drive. It’s not uncommon for these models to be the basis for rally cars, with examples like the Mini Cooper and Peugeot 205 GTi earning quite a name for themselves on rally stages. When Renault decided to build a rally car during the ‘80s, it decided to build something different.
The Renault 5 Turbo, or R5 Turbo, sounds like a fairly ordinary entry for this segment, with a 1.4-liter turbocharged motor, which produced 158 horsepower in street trim, and far more for rallying. What wasn’t normal was the placement of its engine. A peek under the hood would reveal a lack of a powertrain. For that, one would need to look under the rear hatch. Sacrificing practicality for performance, the motor took the place of the rear seats and storage area. While the standard R5 was nothing but a cheap and practical hatchback, the Turbo model was certainly no sleeper. With wide fender flares and huge intakes covering the rear half of the car, there’s no mistaking the R5 Turbo for anything else. Renault kept this mid-engine hot hatch tradition alive by offering a mid-engine, V6-powered Clio years later.
3 Porsche 911 GT1
Today, Porsche has the 911 GT3 model for homologation purposes. While it certainly has considerable performance improvements over the standard car and a big rear wing, it’s unlikely to attract the general public’s eye any more than the standard car, no matter how flashy the paint. Back in the ‘80s, the company sold the 959, a true supercar that could hit 211 miles per hour in the proper trim. This model drew plenty of attention towards the brand, both due to its special, low styling, and its incredible technology. Between the production of these two models was an even more extreme street legal race car known as the 911 GT1.
Where the GT2 and GT3 911 cars are simply standard 911’s with upgraded components, the GT1 was literally a race car given a few things added to make it street legal.
Much like the Mercedes CLK GTR, this Porsche was created for the GT Championship and really wasn’t meant for any road usage. This low-slung machine made the 959 look like a high-riding SUV in comparison, both in height and practicality. One aspect that was similar to the 959 was its usage of a twin-turbocharged flat six. While it has 911 headlights, there’s no mistaking the GT1 for a standard model.
2 TVR Cerbera Speed 12
The name TVR likely doesn’t mean anything to many people, even dedicated gearheads. TVR is a small British car company that has been producing absolutely insane sports cars for many years. These performance vehicles have crazy styling and even crazier mechanical design choices. There were cars that had bizarre features such as door handle buttons placed on the wing mirrors and modern cars that lacked any driver aids, including anti-lock brakes. These machines are very much unlike anything else on today’s automotive landscape. However, there was one particularly insane car that nearly made it to production.
Cerbera Speed 12 would be quite an achievement even in today’s world, let alone back in the ‘90s. While many street versions of homologated race cars generally dial back the extreme performance, TVR had no interest in doing so with the Speed 12. Under its long hood was a massive 7.7-liter V12, that supposedly produced around 800 horsepower, but it has been debated how accurate that figure was. Evo retells stories of the engine supposedly making up to 1000 horsepower during development. And this was for a road car! Unfortunately, Evo also reports that only one example made it to production and the other developmental cars were parted out for race cars.
1 MG Metro 6R4
There has almost never been a good car that wore the Metro name. While many recognize the Geo Metro, the MG Metro wasn’t a much better car. It was a tiny British economy car powered by horribly small motors designed for nothing other than fuel economy. Granted, it did have a turbo version, but an old phrase regarding lipstick and pigs comes to mind when discussing that model. However, there was one particular model that claimed to be an MG Metro but really had little in common with the standard car other than the basic shape.
Where the regular Metro had four-cylinders powering the front wheels, the Metro 6R4 used a 3.0-liter V6 that was mounted in the rear of the car and drove all four wheels.
It stands out from other homologated vehicles with its power and status as a Group B rally car that wasn’t an entirely specialty-built car but instead based on a bland and affordable hatchback. Of course, its giant fenders and front and rear spoilers didn’t allow the street 6R4 blend in whatsoever. This model’s incredible powertrain did so well, that it even became the basis for the later Jaguar XJ220 supercar, featuring two turbos in that application. While there are some incredible homologated cars, there are few that were such an extreme upgrade from a bland standard model.
Sources: Car And Driver, Hemmings, Motor Trend, Road And Track, Wikipedia
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