6 September 2012

The five coolest cars you’ve never heard of

It’s hard to stump the most jaded of car guys. In their world, “Jensen Interceptor” and “Facel Vega” are answers to softball questions from the “Obscure Cars for $1,000” category. And they always remember to phrase their answers in the form of a question. If not even one of the cars on the list below is news to you, then we clearly need to dig deeper for the Final Jeopardy question.

  1. 1970-74 Bolwell Nagari: Australia has a rich automotive history and its muscle car era is like a parallel universe where things look familiar, if just a bit off. Missing, however, is a really killer indigenous sports car. The Nagari could have been it had its timing been better. It had good looks — kind of a pleasing mix of early C3 CorvetteAlfa Montreal and Ferrari 250 GTO — small-block Ford power, and just 2,000 pounds at the curb. Sure, it was a bit kit car in its execution, but few low-volume cars of the day weren’t. Sadly, the fuel crisis put an end to the idea of an Australian supercar. Its legend will last a lunchtime.
  2. 1962 Apollo GT: Kids today want to get out of school and come up with the next big tech startup that Google overpays for. A generation ago, they wanted to start the car company that the Big Three would conspire to crush. A very young American engineer named Milt Brown decided to take on Ferrari and Aston Martin, creating a lovely Italian-bodied coupe called the Apollo GT. Unlike the Nagari, it was quite professional in its execution, looking very much like a Ferrari 330GT and powered by a Buick V-8. Final assembly took place in Oakland, Calif. Sadly, the venture collapsed due to lack of funding after fewer than 90 cars were built. 
  3. 1972-76 Volkswagen SP2: Volkswagen has traditionally had a large operation in Latin American, and its Brazilian arm, Volkswagen do Brazil, has a history of creating cars for the Brazilian market only. Since the Brazilian market of the 1970s was largely import-free, VW found the need to create a locally built replacement for the Karmann Ghia. From a styling standpoint, it was sensational — far prettier than the Porsche 924 of the same era. Unfortunately, the steel-bodied SP2 was heavy, and with just 75 hp from the air-cooled four, performance was leisurely at best. Still, the survivors of the run of 10,000 or so are considered national treasures in Brazil.
  4. 1972-85 Alpine A310: French rally driver Jean Rédélé founded the Alpine marque, which basically functioned as the motorsports division for Renault. His earliest cars were variations on existing Renault models. Later cars like the A110 were bespoke sports cars that were generally competitive in European rally competition. Called the French 911 by some, the A110 was capable if not really pretty. Its successor, the A310, was handsome with a long production life, but few examples wound up in the U.S.
  5.  1971 Monteverdi Hai: Surely the only Swiss supercar until the equally obscure LeBlanc Mirabeau, the Hai (German for “shark”) was a very pretty mid-engine two-seater powered by a wicked Chrysler 426 hemi. Peter Monteverdi, not having access to wind tunnels and computer-aided design software, produced a shape (with input possibly by Pietro Frua) that while pretty, had the aerodynamic properties of a Cessna 172 —the car exhibited appalling front-end lift at speeds over 120 mph.  Only two were built before the combination of a high price tag, bad reviews, a dismal world economy and a fuel shortage scuttled any interest.

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