- Peter MacKay
Misfits: Race cars that refused to conform
For generations, motorsport has been utilised to develop a car manufacturer’s brand image. Some endeavours have been successful, others comically fail. In the marketing department, hair brained ideas are devised and sent down to engineering to be magically developed into reality. When these two opposite factions of an organisation intertwine, the fruits of their labour can last in the memory for generations.
Volvo 850 BTCC Estate
In the 1990’s, the United Kingdom was rife with British Touring Championship (BTCC) fever. Live on Sunday grandstand, all the family gathered round to watch Mum and Dad’s company cars viciously battling for glory. A grid full of world class drivers, opulent spending and close racing provided a mesmerizing spectacle. Watching apparently ordinary cars doing extraordinary things was pure box office. For car manufacturers, the marketing budget couldn’t be blown fast enough. BTCC was big business.
Swedish manufacturer, Volvo, arguably profited most from BTCC racing. At the time, Volvo estate cars were renowned for vast loading space, comfort and not a lot else. More akin to a hearse than a sports car, Volvo estates certainly weren’t on the petrol head radar. In 1994, in conjunction with technical partner TWR, Volvo played a PR masterstroke. Volvo entered their humble 850 estate car into the most competitive race series in the world, the BTCC. Powered by a warbling, 5-cylinder engine and heavily modified to race car specification, the Volvo 850 raced wheel to wheel with the touring car establishment throughout the 1994 season.
To this day, the Volvo 850 BTCC is undoubtedly the most fondly remembered touring car of all time. Overnight, customers walked into Volvo showrooms, spotting the 850 wagons and immediately identifying them with the fire spitting race car. All of a sudden, Volvo estate cars developed a cult following for their understated looks and sports car pace. To this day, Volvo estate cars remain a staple choice for motorway police engaging in high speed chases. Such chases reminiscent of Rickard Rydell and Jan Lammers hunting down Alain Menu’s Renault Laguna in their 850 estates.
Subaru Vivio WRC
When undertaking the most gruelling world rally of them all, The Safari Rally, choice of vehicle is essential. A 660cc city car wouldn’t rank high on the list for such a tough event. In April 1993, Subaru embarked on The Safari with the mostly unlikely WRC car ever built. Subaru elected their Vivio city car to be run by Banbury firm, Prodrive and driven by multiple Safari rally winner, Colin McRae.
Following a competition within Subaru’s Japanese dealerships, a team of mechanics travelled to Africa to compete in this iconic event.
In true McRae fashion, Colin dragged the diminutive Vivio to 4th place in the early stages of the rally but sadly it wasn’t to last. Despite valiant efforts from the unqualified Japanese mechanics to preserve the plucky Vivio for a few more stages, the car eventually limped to an honourable death in Mombasa.
Although this one off project delivered little reward, for the Subaru dealer mechanics working with Colin McRae and Prodrive, would remain a memory of a lifetime. For Subaru, the tale of the little Vivio is a heart-warming footnote in a glorious history of rallying success.
Volvo V60 Polestar V8 Supercar
In Australia, the V8 Supercar Championship is the pinnacle of motorsport. For generations, the sport has been dominated by tribal warfare between bitter enemies, Ford and Holden. A rivalry born in Detroit, exported and intensified down under. Every year, the finest drivers in the southern hemisphere battle over the hallowed tarmac of Mount Panorama, competing for the crown of Australian motorsport, the Bathurst 1000. Ford Falcon or Holden Commodore? There is no more divisive rivalry in motorsport.
In 2014, a 20-year-old upstart and a Swedish family car, crashed the party. Partnered by series stalwarts, Garry Rogers Motorsport, Volvo dived into the piranha pool of Australian motorsport with their S60 saloon car. Cheap ‘Volvo driver’ jibes from the sniggering establishment did little to dampen the spirits of the new kids on the block. At the opening round of the season, the Clipsal 500, Volvo and their rookie sensation, Scott McLaughlin, silenced the cynics.
Both McLaughlin and the Volvo S60, were taking to the Supercar grid for the very first time at the 2014 Clipsal 500. Nevertheless, the rapid young Kiwi deployed his devastating one lap pace, to qualify the embryonic Volvo on the front row of the grid. McLaughlin’s talent was clear for all to see but his profile was undoubtedly boosted by piloting the misfit Volvo.
In the race, Volvo and McLaughlin demonstrated their speed was no flash in the pan. As the final laps approached, series rookie McLaughlin squared up to the heavyweight champion of Supercars, Jamie Whincup. A 7 times series champion, driving the leading 888 Red Bull Holden, Whincup is the gold standard to aspire to. At Clipsal, McLaughlin dethroned Whincup at the first time of asking, forcing the king of supercars into a rare mistake on the last corner and clinching second place. In parc ferme, the crown prince of Supercars quipped “We have heard all the jokes about Volvo drivers, I think we have silenced them now”
Sadly, the Volvo programme in Australia’s premier race series only lasted until the end of 2016. Despite a huge shift in perceptions of the Volvo brand in Australia, the Gothenberg factory pulled the plug. Polestar, the company’s performance division, have since shifted their attention to electric vehicles. Therefore, the Australian Supercar paddock filled with snarling V8, gas guzzling engines, was left behind.
Scott McLaughlin was plucked by the biggest name in motorsport, Roger Penske, to drive for established brand Ford. He has since clocked up two Supercars titles and a prestigious Bathurst 1000 win. Without the Volvo S60 Supercar, he may never have got such an opportunity to showcase his superhuman talents behind the wheel.
Audi R10 TDI
In 2006, Audi changed the face of the world’s most famous motor race, forever. Audi Sport engineer, Ulrich Baretzky, was convinced diesel engines could deliver a competitive advantage in the Le Mans 24-hour race. With some careful corporate lobbying of his Ingolstadt paymasters and pilsner fuelled persuasion of the race organisers, Baretzky’s dream became reality. A turbo diesel powered motor would propel Audi’s Le Man prototypes from the beginning of the 2006 season.
In the face of ridicule from the old guard, Audi won the gruelling 12 hours of Sebring and 24 hours of Le Mans, at their first attempt with the V12 turbo diesel engine.
Whenever 9 times Le Man winner, Tom Kristensen, is asked about the best car he drove during his career, the answer may surprise you. A Porsche TWR? BMW V12 LMR? Bentley Speed 8? Nope. A diesel powered, Audi R10 TDI. Ask any driver who competed in an R10 TDI and they will gush over the incomparable avalanche of torque delivered from the turbo diesel engine.
Audi’s R10 TDI was so effective and dominant in endurance racing that diesel technology was eventually banned, making way for new hybrid power regulations. For the last 8 editions of the French day long classic, hybrid powered cars have won outright. However, without Ulrich Baretzky and Dr Wolfgang Ulrich pushing for alternative powertrains at Le Mans, this great race may have faded into insignificance for the world’s car manufacturers.
Audi’s motor racing dominance with TDI technology, dovetailed beautifully with their road car strategy of the time. Desperate to convince the public, particularly in the USA, that diesel was a viable alternative fuel, the R10 TDI steamrolling the competition gave a helping hand.
All of the aforementioned cars have a common theme. Only Porsche and Ferrari could consider going motor racing purely for competition. Every other car manufacturer in the world will go motor racing either to develop new technology or to promote their products.
Volvo’s 850 BTCC estate transformed Volvo’s image of a bland antique dealer’s car, to the choice of motorway cops. Subaru’s Vivio WRC gave loyal mechanics an experience of a lifetime. Scott McLaughlin bloodying Holden’s nose in their back yard, ensured respect was demanded by Volvo, overnight. Ulrich Baretzky’s dominant R10 TDI proved that diesel powered Audi’s could deliver superb performance on track and on road. These misfit cars changed perceptions for good.