Others, though, were never built with competition in mind yet went on to pursue motorsport careers. Sometimes this resulted in unexpected success, occasionally in abject failure. Regardless of this, it has resulted in many unlikely race cars and here we celebrate the best and worst, arranged in date order.
Austin Seven – 1923
Austin launched the UK’s first affordable car in 1922 and the Seven made its competition debut the following year with a simple two-seat open body. It competed at Brooklands in the Easter Monday meeting and achieved a flying lap of 62.40mph. Driven by Captain Waite, this first Austin Seven race car was then driven back to his home and completed 190 miles that day, including race mileage.
From there, the Austin Seven has never looked back and it went on to be the inspiration for many post-war sports car companies, including Lotus. Today, the Seven remains a stalwart of classic clubman racing thanks to its low-cost, high-fun quotient.
Iso Isetta – 1954
The forerunner to the BMW Isetta was the first car to leave the start of the 1954 Mille Migila road race. Then, 22hr 10min 2sec and 1000 miles later, it was the last to cross the finish line, in 177th place. However, the diminutive bubble car still finished where many other competitors fell by the wayside.
Driven by Italian duo Domenico Stragliotto and Adolfo Montorio, the Isetta was powered by a 236cc two-stroke engine with just 9.5bhp. What it lacked in power, though, the Iso made up for in economy and won its class. However, the Italian public soon took the Fiat 500 to their hearts and it was BMW who took up the Isetta.
Citroën 2CV – 1955
The first motorsport outing for the Citroën 2CV was in the 1955 Mille Miglia, where four of them contested the classic 1000-mile event. Plenty of other 2CVs went on to be used in beach racing, but they have found their niche in 24-hour endurance events across Europe.
The French and Belgians kickstarted 24-hour racing with 2CVs and it was embraced with enthusiasm in the UK from 1989 onwards. Modern 2CV race cars now produce as much as 65bhp from the original 602cc flat twin engine, although others have been converted with BMW engines to make as much as 130bhp for hillclimbing.
Messerschmitt Tg500 – 1961
Ken Piper is one of the unsung heroes of British motorsport. He campaigned a Messerschmitt Tg500 with considerable success in the early 1960s. His 1961 Tg500 was used for sprints, hillclimbs and autocross, performing very well against more overtly sporting machinery and often winning outright.
The Tg500 was helped by its 494cc two-stroke parallel twin engine being right over the rear axle to aid with traction. Messerschmitt had previously used its KR200 model to set 22 international speed records in 1955 over a 24-hour period, resulting in an overall average speed of 64mph.
Corvair Stinger – 1966
As with so many race cars, the Corvair Stinger came about because of necessity. Don Yenko found he couldn’t keep up with Shelby Mustangs in his Corvette, so he set about building a Corvair that could. Attracted by the flat six engine’s low centre of gravity, Yenko quickly built 100 cars in 1965 to qualify for the sports car category, which also required removing the rear seats.
At its first race in January 1966, the Corvair Stinger came second overall and it went on to win the Central Division Championship with Jerry Thompson at the wheel. More Stingers were made during 1966 and 14 in 1967, giving a production total believed to stand at 185 cars.
Mercedes 300SEL 6.8 Red Pig – 1969
Roten Sau, or Red Pig, is hardly the catchiest or kindest nickname for a race car, but it just fits this Mercedes 300SEL 6.8. There’s nothing subtle about it, least of all the huge V8 engine crammed under the bonnet that punches out 420bhp and made the big saloon more than a match for smaller, lighter rivals.
The Red Pig made its debut at Macau in a six-hour race, although 5mpg fuel consumption and an equally avid appetite for tyres made it a tricky car to nurse home. Back in Europe, Mercedes’ board members were less impressed and ordered the project be halted, so the cars were sold to AMG and developed further. With illicit help from Mercedes’ Eric Waxenberger, the car went on to compete at the Nürburgring and Spa.
Jaguar XJ12C – 1976
Jaguar’s XJ12C race programme is a lesson in what might have been with proper funding and support. When the company decided to take on the might of Ford in the European Touring Car Championship, the XJ12C was chosen over the then-new XJ-S. Two were prepared by Broadspeed Engineering.
Sadly, the car’s thirst for fuel and tyres held it back, along with reliability issues. Not even the talents of Derek Bell and Andy Rouse could salvage the 1976 season and the following year wasn’t much better. By the end of 1977, the project was canned after two lightweight versions had failed to deliver consistent results or a championship title.
Mercedes 450 SLC – 1978
The elegant Mercedes 450 SLC was aimed at Eurotrash boulevardiers, so it was quite a shock to see it competing as a works entry in the exhausting Rally Vuelta a la América del Sud across Argentina. This 18,000-mile endurance event made the comfortable SLC a sound choice, with its automatic gearbox and understressed 230bhp 4.5-litre V8 engine. It was good enough to take the win with Brit Andrew Cowan at the wheel.
In 1979, the car developed into the 450 SLC 5.0, with engine capacity increased and power up to 290bhp. Hannu Mikkola took the car to victory in the Bandama Rally on the Ivory Coast, which inspired Mercedes to run a full World Rally Championship campaign in 1980 and raise the power to 400bhp. After this one-year effort, Mercedes has never returned to rallying with a works team.
Ferrari 308 Group 4 – 1982
Although never intended to go rallying, the Ferrari 308 was homologated for just this purpose as early as 1976. Not wanting to get involved directly, the factory left the work to Michelotto, which prepared 11 customer cars in total, with power increased to as much as 400bhp.
There was also a Group B version and four of these were made with 450bhp motors, but the 308 made only a minor imprint on rally stages. The best result it managed was second overall in the 1982 Tour de Corse with Jean-Claude Andruet at the wheel. Perhaps finishing behind Jean Ragnotti’s Renault 5 Turbo was too much for Ferrari to bear and it stuck to circuit racing from that point onwards.
Rolls-Royce Corniche – 1981
It may look like a Rolls-Royce Corniche coupé, but this entrant in the 1981 Paris-Dakar Rally was a Frankenstein’s monster machine. Under its delicate Crewe-built body was the four-wheel drive gubbins from a Toyota Land Cruiser and power came from a distinctly blue-collar Chevrolet small-block V8 engine.
The combination was most unlikely, as was sponsorship from haute couture designer Christian Dior, but its creator wanted something that would cope with Africa’s deserts. That creator was Thierry de Montcorgé, who also drove it, and he commissioned its build after a bet that he could get a Rolls to the end of the rally. Despite breaking the steering halfway to Dakar and missing the official time cut-off, de Montcorgé made it to the end to win his flutter.
Citroën Visa 1000 Pistes – 1983
Given Citroën’s dominance of the World Rally Championship in recent times, the Visa 1000 Pistes is not where you’d expect it to have started from. However, this incongruous rally car was conceived to compete in the French event of the same name. Out went the normal Visa’s front-drive running gear and in came an all-wheel-drive set-up with a five-speed gearbox and 112bhp from its 1360cc engine.
It could manage 118mph flat out, but a more important number is the 200 built to qualify it for the World Rally Championship. This also made Citroën the first French car company to offer a production 4x4 competition car to customers.
BMW M3 (E30) – 1987
BMW developed the E30-generation M3 to go circuit racing, but that didn’t stop others from looking to the rallying world for further success. The four-wheel-drive Group B monsters were gone, which left an opportunity for the M3’s superbly balanced chassis to win on Tarmac, which it did to great effect. Bernard Béguin gave the BMW a brilliant win on the 1987 Tour de Corse. An M3 also won the Rallye de France that year.
However, it’s the win of Belgian ace Patrick Snijers on the 1988 Manx Rally that earned the little BMW its status. In a battle with Jimmy McRae in a Ford Sierra Cosworth, Snijers was never less than fully committed. The fans loved it and Snijers put his mark on the event just as much as the BMW’s rear wheels had left theirs on the road.
Volvo 850 – 1994
Volvo kept the exact specification of its 1994 British Touring Car Championship entry so secret that not even its drivers, Rickard Rydell and Jan Lammers, knew it was an estate till just before the season kicked off. The choice of estate was partly due to its superior aerodynamics, but mostly down to the huge amount of publicity it generated.
Run by TWR, which had been Volvo’s key rival in 1980s touring car racing, the 850 wagons were built in the UK and used a non-turbo 2.0-litre five-cylinder engine with 290bhp to meet regulations. It could rev to 8500rpm, sounded superb and was the first car in the BTCC to use a catalytic convertor, so even Volvo’s oddest race car still had to be a bit sensible in its sole season of competition.
Honda Civic Tourer – 2014
Two decades on from Volvo’s shock estate entry to the British Touring Car Championship, Honda pulled off the same trick with the Civic Tourer. More normally seen pottering to the garden centre on a Sunday, this Civic was built by Team Dynamics with a 300bhp 2.0-litre turbo engine and X-Trac sequential gearbox. If that doesn’t sound like much when a Civic Type R of similar vintage makes the same power, this one also came with more than 300lb ft of torque, AP Racing brakes and suspension by Penske.
Gordon Shedden gave the Civic Tourer its first victory at Donington Park in round two of the 2014 BTCC season and he went on to enjoy two further wins in the car. His team-mate, Matt Neal, managed only a single win in the Honda estate, but he did match Shedden’s three fastest laps throughout the year.
Toyota Prius – 2016
Fuel economy and green credentials be damned: this Toyota Prius came about because of that old motorsport tradition of exploiting a loophole to its full potential. Cars built before a certain date could have their engine mounted anywhere under the Japan Automobile Federation GT300 rules that year, and the Prius fitted the bill.
As a result, Toyota squeezed in a 3.5-litre RV8-K positioned as low and far back in the chassis as possible. Toyota Racing Development remained tight-lipped about performance figures, but the GT300 Prius had to retain its hybrid drivetrain to meet with regulations, albeit repositioned to the passenger footwell to help with weight distribution.
Jaguar F-Type – 2018
Sadly, neither of the two Jaguar F-Type rally cars will ever see the muck of a stage in anger. Built to celebrate 70 years of the firm and commemorate the famous XK120, registered NUB 120, driven by Ian Appleyard in three consecutive Alpine Rallies, both are based on F-Type Convertibles with 2.0-litre engines.
Jaguar stripped the cars to save weight, added a full roll cage and finished them to full FIA specification. The exterior features a flag logo, which is also used on the F-Type Chequered Flag Limited Edition models, although they are purely road cars rather than being prepped for rallying.