Some were the right car for the wrong time. Some were too far ahead of their time. Some had unexpected specialness. Some were-short lived due to outside factors, and some of these unlikely and unsung heroes have since been vindicated or celebrated after being shunned in their time. However, all lay some claim to greatness and were a huge gamble worth taking.
1. Tucker ‘48 – 1947-48
Known as the Tucker Torpedo for its shape and swiveling central light, only 52 were built. Preston Tucker’s advanced labor-of-love had an air-cooled rear engine, all-independent suspension, ahead-of-its-time crash safety and ergonomics, but magnesium wheels, all-disc brakes, fuel injection and oil pressure operated overhead valves didn’t make production – some featured ‘Tuckermatic’ continuously variable twin torque converter transmission. Despite positive public reaction and vindication, Tucker folded under financial investigation, bad publicity and limited resources.
(1948) Engine: 5.5-liter rear-mounted air-cooled flat-6-cylinders; Power 168HP@3200rpm; Torque: 372lb/ft@2000rpm; Gearbox: 4-speed manual or continuously-variable twin torque converter ‘Tuckermatic’, RWD; Length: 5563mm; Width: 2007mm; Height: 1524mm; Wheelbase: 3302mm; Weight: 1921kg
2. Lancia Thema 8.32 – 1987-92
Elegant, discrete and luxurious the Thema 8.32 was Lancia’s super saloon Q-car gambit. With a detuned cross-plane crankshaft version of the Ferrari 308’s 2.9-liter V8 in a front-wheel-drive layout, the 8.32 had epic acoustics and brisk performance. The high-revving 8.32 didn’t torque-steer much, but under-steered when pushed. Its’ biggest problem was that the cheaper 2-liter 4-cylinder Thema Turbo was lighter and could match the exotic 8.32’s performance.
(1987) Engine: 2.9-liter transverse V8-cylinders; Power 215HP@6750rpm; Torque: 210lb/ft@4500rpm; Gearbox: 5-speed manual, FWD; 0-97km/h: 6.8-seconds; Top speed: 240km/h; Length: 4590mm; Width: 1755mm; Height: 1433mm; Wheelbase: 2660mm; Weight: 1400kg; Tires: 205/55VR15
3. Lotus Elan – 1989-95
The right car at the wrong time, the Elan’s front-drive layout and high development costs were departures for Lotus. Brilliant fun, the road-oriented Elan sports car was light, compact, conventional and covered cross-country ground like little else. Quick, agile, grippy, direct, sharp and intuitive, the Elan’s mass-market viability suffered from Japanese competition and recession. Lotus produced ended in 1995 but licensed Kia production carried on until 1999.
(SE, 1989) Engine: 1.6-liter transverse turbocharged 4-cylinders; Power 167HP@6600rpm; Torque: 148lb/ft@4200rpm; Gearbox: 5-speed manual, FWD; 0-97km/h: 6.5-seconds; Top speed: 220km/h; Length: 3802mm; Width: 1735mm; Height: 1229mm; Wheelbase: 2250mm; Weight: 1020kg
4. NSU RO80 – 1967-77
Spacious, handsome, advanced and innovative the RO80 used a smooth and high-revving rotary Wankel engine, an auto-clutch gearbox, in-board front brakes, all-disc brakes and all-independent suspension. Initial engine unreliability and leaks were addressed, its’ reputation and NSU’s finances had fatally suffered. Used examples are rare and many were retro-fitted with less complex Ford V4 ‘Essex’ engines. NSU was eventually co-opted into Volkswagen’s Audi and Auto Union wing.
(1969) Engine: 1-liter twin-rotor Wankel-engine; Power 115HP@5500rpm; Torque: 139lb/ft@4500rpm; Gearbox: 3-speed semi-automatic, FWD; 0-97km/h: 14.2-seconds; Top speed: 188km/h; Length: 4782mm; Width: 1759mm; Height: 1422mm; Wheelbase: 2858mm; Weight: 1190kg
5. Volvo 300-series – 1976-91
A result of Volvo’s stake in DAF, the 300-series was ungainly, unconventional and less practical than compact competitors. However, with a front-engine, rear-drive layout with rear transaxle gearbox and DeDion suspension – Just like a Maserati or Alfa Romeo – the small Volvo developed a cult following, and is a cheap used popular project car for amateur racers and even has its own race series.
(360 GLE, 1983) Engine: 2-liter in-line 4-cylinders; Power 118HP@5700rpm; Torque: 118lb/ft@4200rpm; Gearbox: transaxle 5-speed manual, RWD; 0-97km/h: 9.5-seconds; Top speed: 185km/h; Length: 4415mm; Width: 1660mm; Height: 1392mm; Wheelbase: 2400mm; Weight: 1110kg; Tires: 185/60HR14
6. Monteverdi Safari – 1976-82
Launched 3-years before Mercedes’ G-Wagon, the Monteverdi Safari was initially the Range Rover’s only up-market SUV alternative. Based on an International Harvester Scout donor, the Swiss niche luxury sports car maker built 3-door Safari offered excellent off-road ability and durability. Engines included the Scout’s 5.7-liter V8 or 5.2-, 5.9- and 7.2-liter Chrysler options. Airy, elegant and uncomplicated styling used Peugeot rear and Fiat front lights.
(1978) Engine: 5.7-liter V8-cylinders; Power 165HP@3600rpm; Torque: 295lb/ft@2000rpm; Gearbox: 3-speed automatic, selectable 4WD, with low ratios; Top speed: 165km/h; Length: 4510mm; Width: 1800mm; Height: 1760mm; Wheelbase: 2540mm; Weight: 2020kg
7. Giocattolo Motori – 1986-89
An Australian-built miniature lightweight supercar and Group B racer, the Giocattolo is based on Alfa Romeo’s charismatic small front-drive Sprint coupe. Of only 15-examples, the first two featured a highly-tuned mid-mounted 2.5-liter Alfa V6, before a cheaper, better-available and more powerful Holden HSV 5-liter V8 was used. With F1-style suspension, and a lightweight kevlar and carbon-fiber winged and wide body, the 1085kg Giocattolo offered devastating performance and looks.
Engine: 5-liter mid-mounted V8-cylinders; Power: 300HP; Torque: 368lb/ft; 0-100km/h: 5.4-seconds; Top speed: 260km/h; Gearbox: 5-speed manual, RWD; Length: approximately-4020mm; Height: approximately-1290mm; Wheelbase: 2456mm; Weight: 1085kg; Rear tires: 285/40VR15