Tag Archives: Fast and Forbidden
Few automotive nameplates have a better batting average of successful joint ventures than Ferrari and Lancia. After Lancia was forced to withdraw from Formula 1 for financial reasons in 1955, the company’s racing operations, including its grand prix car – the radical D50 – was given to Ferrari, who used it (with some modifications) to win the 1956 world championship with Juan-Manuel Fangio. The 1970s saw Lancia turn the rallying world upside down with the spacey, Bertone-styled Stratos, which was propelled by Ferrari’s 2.4L Dino V6.
Consequently, when rumors of a new Lancia-Ferrari road car collaboration began circulating in the mid-‘80s, not many people were caught off-guard by them. However, the vehicle behind said rumors – the Thema 8.32 – raised more than its share of eyebrows. And if you ask us, it still does.
Over the years, the auto industry has more or less agreed upon minimum displacements for engines with a given number of cylinders. Four-bangers seldom go smaller than 1.5L (at least in this market), sixes rarely dip below 3.0L, and these days you hardly ever see a V8 smaller than about 4.5L. Obviously, there are no hard and fast official rules regarding engine size, and there have been some noteworthy powerplants that bucked the trend.
One example that springs right to our mind is a line of peewee V6s made by Mitsubishi from the early-‘90s to the mid-2000s. Codenamed the 6A1 engine family, these overhead cam six-pots ranged in size from 2.5L all the way down to an a-DOR-able 1.6L unit offered in Japanese and Pacific Rim market Mirages and Lancers. But the middle child of the family – the DOHC version of the 2.0L 6A12 – was found in a snappy compact, front-drive sport coupe called the FTO.
As the 1970s were drawing to a close, the traditional formula for a small European sports car (two seats, rear-wheel-drive and a fold-down roof) was being replaced by a new formula: The hot hatch. The first modern hot hatch (We’re excluding the O.G. Mini Cooper, since it had a funky bottom-hinged trunklid rather than a hatch.) to really gain traction in the marketplace was the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which took Europe by storm upon its introduction in 1976 and won a huge following over here beginning in 1983 as the Pennsylvania-built Rabbit GTI.
Naturally, VW’s success did not go unnoticed by the competition; by the early ‘80s there was a bumper crop of diabolical 3-doors being peddled by manufacturers from Europe and Japan. Sadly, not all of them followed in the ur-GTI’s wheeltracks and made it to the U.S. One of the ones we really wish had gotten its Green Card shared part of its name with that of the category’s originator. We speak, of course, of the Peugeot 205 GTI.
Most car geeks outside Japan will tell you that the fanciest, biggest-engined sedan Toyota makes is the Lexus LS. And it’s certainly a stately, full-size car in the mold of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Jaguar XJ, Audi A8 or BMW 7 Series, available in standard- and long-wheelbase forms with a V8 or a V8 that’s boosted by a hybrid system to provide V12-ish performance. Make no mistake, the LS is a sweet ride.
However, those folks who assume that the LS is Toyota’s top four-door aren’t as in the know as they think they are. As it turns out, the most prestigious car made by the Japanese juggernaut is longer than even the extended wheelbase LS, powered by an engine that isn’t used by any other vehicle, and is only officially available on the home market. Its name? Century.
Think “early ‘90s personal luxury coupe” and a few cars immediately spring to mind: Lincoln Mark VIII, Cadillac Eldorado, Mercedes-Benz 300CE, Lexus SC, Acura Legend and – if you’re really into impressing your friends – the Infiniti M30. Sadly, by the start of the decade, this segment of the market (or at least what it had looked like to that point) was drawing its dying breaths. One by one, the American entries all died off (the Eldorado being the last to leave the building at the end of 2002) and the imports were cutting production numbers and moving upmarket to make building 2-doors turn into something loosely resembling economic sense.
Before this turmoil, though, there was still a perceived demand for such self-indulgent vehicles. And building such premium toys went a long way toward convincing the outside world that your company was serious about being a player in the upper echelons of the market. Even relatively humble Mazda couldn’t resist jumping in, and jump in it did with both feet by way of the handsome, muscular, forward-thinking and, as fate would decree, Japan-only Cosmo.
Say “station wagon” to the average American and chances are the first picture that pops into his or her noggin is a big, Disco Age American land schooner wearing green paint and mouldings and veneers made from only the finest plastic trees. With so many of today’s car buyers having spent their formative years in these motorized mastadons, is it any surprise contemporary wagons seem to be such a hard sell over here today? (The shortage of manufacturers willing to take the risk of selling them in this hemisphere makes it a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, but bear with us.)
In Europe, however, the honeymoon with the station wagon (or “estate cars” or “kombis,” depending on where you are over there) hasn’t ended. In fact, wagons are so popular in the Old Country that many manufacturers offer high performance versions thereof. But in the mid-‘90s, the species Stationwagonus Wickedfastimus as we know it today didn’t really exist. It took a collaboration between two then-distant (now less so) corporate cousins from the Fatherland to create this category. And the Adam/Eve of the segment they came up with – the Audi RS2 Avant – was a real humdinger.