Beginning in May, the new Nissan Sentra Cup will combine the thrill of motorsport with the excitement of pinching pennies. A single-make car-racing series unique to Canada, the Sentra Cup takes the no-frills, 149-horsepower base model of Nissan’s compact sedan and turns it into a rollcaged, sticky-tired monster. Which still has just 149 hp.
The Sentra Cup is the replacement for the Micra Cup, and if all this is news to you, you might be wondering if someone at Nissan Canada’s head office might have taken one too many trips around the race course. The Micra, which is discontinued for the 2021 model year, was a cheap and cheerful hatchback with the all the speed and power of a middle-aged Yorkshire terrier. Giving the little hatchback its own racing series back in 2015 seemed more than a little absurd.
However, Nissan’s marketing ploy has actually been genius. Making its least-expensive models – first the Micra and now the Sentra – available to racing teams shows confidence in the reliability and endurance of its most basic machines. Especially in the province of Quebec, where many people drive as if they are temporarily possessed by the ghost of Gilles Villeneuve, seeing dozens of Micras or Sentras whipping around a racetrack is compelling stuff.
It is also not without precedent. Over the years, many manufacturers have decided to make race cars out of vehicles that would look out of place in a racing paddock, let alone on the track itself.
And, like the Sentra and Micra, there’s something quite delightful about the phenomenon. It’s a bit like seeing a pig raised by greyhounds, tearing things up and winning the coveted trophy. Even if you don’t care about racing one whit, it’s still good fun. Here are a few of the least likely racing machines ever made.
1971 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL AMG
Let’s bear out that racing pig analogy with a machine that earned the nickname Die Rote Sau – the Red Sow. Possibly the most famous car on this list, the Rote Sau is where AMG, Mercedes’ performance-car unit, got its start. A huge, heavy sedan, it possessed none of the usual attributes of its fellow racers; it was neither nimble, nor aerodynamic.
It was, in fact, an aptly named pig. However, AMG’s engineers had thrown away the 300SEL’s normal 2.8-litre inline-six engine and replaced it with the V8 engine normally found in the Mercedes 600-series limousine. Bored out to 6.8 L of displacement, the engine now made 428 horsepower, well over twice that of the ordinary 300SEL.
Complete with interior wood panelling and a cushy rear bench seat, the Rote Sau absolutely devoured a field of lightweight racing machines at the 24 Hours of Spa race in Belgium. It finished second overall, first in its class, and laid out a lasting recipe for big-engined AMGs.
2013 Smart Fortwo Dakar
The Dakar desert rally is one of the most brutally gruelling endurance motorsports events. Teams compete in specially outfitted off-road vehicles, built to take an absolute beating. And once, someone tried to compete in a 2.5-metre-long city car.
The Smart car is, of course, not a very smart basis for any kind of racing machine. However, Spanish racer Jose Luis Alvarez actually created a very convincing rally car. He took the bones of a Polaris side-by-side utility vehicle and bolted the Fortwo’s body on top. The resulting machine had 90 horsepower and plenty of suspension travel, and weighed half as much as a Honda Civic. Regrettably, it never even started the race, as Alvarez’s fundraising effort fell short of the steep entry fee.
1994 Volvo 850 Estate BTCC
Volvos are safe. They are boxy. They are stalwart. Particularly in wagon form, they offer practicality mixed with the sex appeal of an IKEA bookcase. Not this one, though.
Built for the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) in secret, the 850 variant that Volvo decided to take racing was the wagon version. The theory was that the wagon’s long roof would allow for better aerodynamics, and not even the drivers were told of the decision until the last minute.
Finishing eighth overall, the racing 850 Estate wasn’t really a great success, but it was very competitive. It was also the focus of a great deal of abuse; touring-car racing normally involves a lot of banging fenders together on the track, and other drivers would reportedly become incensed every time they got passed by a wagon. Race officials changed the rules in 1995, forcing Volvo to go back to racing sedans.
1958 Citroën ID19 NASCAR
Yes, you’ve read that correctly. NASCAR, the sport of barbecue and Budweiser, once hosted a pair of the most French cars of all time. Immediately, Sacha Baron Cohen’s over-the-top portrayal of French racing driver Jean Girard in Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby springs to mind: “And now, the matador shall dance with the blind shoemaker.” The ID19 was the budget version of the gorgeous Citroën DS sedan, and as it happens, its 70-horsepower engine made it predictably slow. Still, both cars won their class, just squeaked into the top 20, and finished all 500 miles of the race with only two pit stops each.
2016 Toyota Prius GT
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Toyota Prius make a daring outside pass on a Lamborghini Huracan and then put the Italian exotic thoroughly in its rearview mirror. It’s not the sort of thing encountered every day, but for spectators at a Japanese Super GT race, a fast Toyota Prius has been a common sight for years.
The Prius GT is one of the oddest racing machines ever. It retains a full hybrid system built around a supercapacitor, paired with a 5.4-litre V8 engine sourced from Lexus. Total output is over 500 horsepower.
The first generation of the Prius GT had the V8 in the middle, which meant a fully gutted interior. New regulations mean the new Prius GT is front-engined, which raises the question, would a road-going version be possible? It’d certainly be entertaining.
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