Some cars are born cool, some cars achieve coolness, and some have coolness thrust upon them. It’s a nebulous thing, shape-shifting with the zeitgeist, yet anchored by perspective and context. Thus, AMC Gremlins, Honda Preludes, and Subaru Brats are quietly bubbling up the coolness index, fueled no doubt by a heavy dose of post-modernist irony for Radwood and Malaise-era cars. Who knows, Pontiac Azteks could be next.
Over the past 35 years, I’ve driven many of the usual suspects on most automotive cool lists: Ferrari Daytona, Citroën DS, various 993-series Porsche 911s, Jaguar E-Type, the original Pagani Zonda, one of the first Mustangs ever built, to name but a few. So what follows is a list of not-so-usual suspects, cars that, all these years later, I also remember as special. To me, they’re cool.
Bugatti EB110 GT
I hear the faint metallic clatter of quad cams and 60 tiny valves. The clutch is firm, but the take-up is progressive, and the jewel-like 3.5-liter quad-turbo V-12 behind my shoulders pulls cleanly and smoothly from as little as 1,000 rpm as I ease the French blue Bugatti EB110 GT out onto the runway.
Deep breath and … nail it! There’s a bit of lag initially, but once the four small IHI turbochargers spool up, the acceleration is phenomenal, the V-12’s basso low-speed growl becoming a hard-edged scream as the revs build, punctuated by the metallic fisssst-pshaw of the four wastegates blowing off the excess boost as I work my way up the six-speed manual gearbox. The sprint to 60 mph is done and dusted in less than four seconds. I’m told the EB110 GT has a top speed of 212 mph. Given the frenetic surge of acceleration showed no sign of abating when I had to get out of the gas at about 150mph, I’m not about to argue.
I’m driving what is—at the time —the third-fastest production car ever built. That’s a cool moment, right there.
But the Bugatti EB110 GT was much more than that. For years, the modern VW-owned Bugatti enterprise quietly ignored any potential modern ideations, preferring to highlight cars from the pre-war Ettore Bugatti era. But the EB110, conceived and created in the late 1980s under the direction of Italian businessman Romano Artioli, is now officially recognized as a ‘middle period’ Bugatti.
Okay, the EB110’s design was a little workmanlike —the bizarre weirdness of Marcello Gandini’s concept ended up being toned down by architect Giampaolo Benedini, the man who designed the spectacularly chic Bugatti factory in Campogalliano, Italy, for Artioli. But the car drove surprisingly well, even at real-world road speeds.
Yes, you needed to keep the little V-12 spinning to keep the turbos on boost—the torque peak of 451 lb-ft arrived at a middling 3,750 rpm—but the 27/73 front-to-rear torque split reduced the understeer that blights many all-wheel-drive cars and helped make the transitions to power oversteer more manageable.
And, more importantly, in terms of its technology —a unique 3.5-liter V-12 with four turbochargers and five valves per cylinder, carbon fiber tub, all-wheel drive—the EB110 truly was a benchmark car.
It still is. The Bugatti EB110 helped define the format of the modern hypercar. It is the missing link between the 197-mph Porsche 959 of 1986—the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive, high-tech rocketship that was, at the time of its launch, the fastest production car in the world—and the 1,479-hp Bugatti Chiron, which has hit 304 mph in Super Sport 300+ spec.
Oh, and it’s rarer than either the 959 or the Chiron. Just 128 were built.
Lancia Delta HF 4WD
The sun is shining, but up here on the ridge, high above the choking smog of Italy’s Po Valley, the snow lies thick on the ground, crowding the edges of the narrow, twisting road. The little red car is alive in my hands, probing, teasing, willing me to go further and faster, to find the edge of the envelope.
The twin-cam 2.0-liter turbo four under the hood is smooth and punchy, with an induction roar at full throttle that makes it sound like a baby Ferrari. The gear ratios are superbly spaced, the steering delicate and precise, the brakes strong and easily modulated.
The poise! The grip! The traction! In early 1987, I’d never driven anything so breathtakingly brilliant as this little red car. It looked scarcely different to thousands of other small hatchbacks jostling along the roads in and around Turin. But the Lancia Delta HF 4WD was indeed a special car, offering performance and road-holding equaled only by exotica costing two or three times as much.
Unveiled at the Turin Motor Show in April 1986, the Delta HF 4WD was to morph, not long after I drove it, into the more powerful Delta Integrale. It wasn’t the first all-wheel-drive hot hatch. Mazda’s BF-series Familia/323 Turbo GT 4WD, which launched in October 1985 and was a car I’d already driven in Australia, beat it to the punch. But it was far more influential, especially after the World Rally Championship switched from the fast-but-dangerous Group B rally racers to the road car-based Group A formula. The Delta HF became Lancia’s front-line rally weapon.
From Subaru’s WRX STi and Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evos I through X, to the forthcoming Toyota GR Yaris, generations of compact, all-wheel-drive, rally-inspired performance road cars have taken their lead from the Delta HF 4WD.
The 2.0-liter engine under the Delta HF 4WD’s hood was shared with other Lancia models, but it was upgraded with a water-cooled Garret T3 turbocharger and intercooler, as well as a Weber Marelli engine management system. It made 164 hp at 5,250 rpm and 188 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm that would go to 209 lb-ft at 2,750 rpm with overboost. They’re not huge numbers by today’s standards, but the little Lancia only weighed about 2,600 pounds.
The HF 4WD’s secret sauce, however, was an all-wheel system that comprised a Ferguson viscous-coupled center differential that nominally distributed 56 percent of the torque to the front axle and 44 percent to the rear axle, which had a Torsen torque-sensing diff.
Outside the Mazda and a handful of Audis, all-wheel-drive performance cars were a rarity back then. I confess the Lancia took a little getting used to. Treating it like a front-drive hot hatch— rushing the corner entry, turning in early and playing with throttle get the car to rotate —would result in the front end resolutely ploughing wide, propelled by the prodigious traction at the rear.
The Delta HF 4WD, I learned on that blistering run through the Italian hills, rewarded a more thoughtful approach and, above all, precision. But driven cleanly, this little hot hatch—half the price of an Audi quattro Coupe (and, truth be told, half as well built, with half as good ergonomics)—could humble a Ferrari on a mountain road.
And that’s what made it cool.
Ford Falcon Phase III GTHO
I think the guys at Australia’s Wheels magazine still get requests for the photo. Black and white, it shows a pair of hands grasping a skinny three-spoke steering wheel and a hood punctuated by a ribbed Shaker scoop. The road ahead, out of focus, disappears dead straight into the distance. But these are the details you notice last. Your eye is always drawn to the dials at the center of the image. On one the needle is nudging 6,700 rpm; on the other, it’s past 140 mph.
It’s probably the most famous photograph to ever appear in an Australian car magazine. Snapped by then Wheels shutterman Uwe Kuessner, it was taken from the back seat of a Ford Falcon Phase III GTHO driven by Mel Nichols (who later went on to become editor of Britain’s Car magazine) early one morning in 1971 on the main highway between Sydney and Melbourne.
I remember, as a car-crazed kid, staring at that photo for what seemed like hours, utterly entranced. Kuessner had captured a magical moment in a magical car and shared it with us all. I felt I knew what it was like to take Australia’s greatest musclecar to the limit.
Eighteen years later, I’m editor of Australia’s Street Machine magazine. The hands grasping that skinny three-spoke steering wheel are mine and view over the hood is in vivid technicolor, all brilliant orange-red Vermillion Fire and black stripes. The Shaker shivers and shimmies as the Cleveland 351 V-8 under the hood idles gruffly. The clutch is heavy, and the Top Loader four-speed needs a good shove to get first gear. I dance a little two-step with the gas and clutch—it’s a barely detuned race engine, after all—and the Falcon growls away.
The ride is softer than expected, and I feel the squidginess in the sidewalls of the 70-series tires—yes, 70-series, which in 1971 were considered low-profile—but after a few miles, I learn to brake early and straight, let the Falcon take a set on corner entry, working through the compliance, and then balance it using the throttle.
The road opens up, and I give the 351 its head. There’s a deep, guttural roar, and the nose lifts as the Falcon squats on its rear axle and surges forward. The speedo needle swings past 100 mph, and then I’m on the brakes, a hefty shove needed to get the 1970s-era disc/drum setup to slow the old Ford down in time for the oncoming corner. Around town, the GTHO feels heavy and tiresome. But out here on the open road it comes alive, eager and responsive and hungry for miles.
The Falcon Phase III GTHO was a homologation special built by Ford Australia for the then-500-mile production touring car race on the formidable Mt. Panorama circuit at Bathurst—the ancestor of today’s blue-ribbon Australian V8 Supercars event. The 1971 Falcon was the fourth facelift of the third generation of Ford’s compact sedan, launched in the U.S. in 1966, and put into production in Australia in 1967. To create the Phase III GTHO, Ford Australia engineers pilfered parts from Mustangs and Torinos—the engine and transmission, the Shaker, even the rear deck spoiler and the steering wheel—and added a few go-faster tweaks of their own.
The Falcon Phase III GTHO was a hero car of mine, and not just because of Uwe Kuessner’s photo and Mel Nichols’ story. This 140 mph four-door was one of the coolest sedans in the world in 1971, rivaling the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 for sheer pace. I’d watched it race and win at Bathurst.
They say you should never meet your heroes. They’re wrong.
Bentley Continental R
The cop stepped off the sidewalk and turned towards us, all silver-buttoned uniform and silly hat. He saw the big blue Bentley coupe steaming majestically towards him through the mid-morning traffic in London’s posh West End and leapt back smartly to wave us through. In the rear-view mirror I saw him step back out on the road again and bring the traffic behind us to a halt.
It may have been a trick of the light, but I swear he tugged his forelock as we swept past.
Two-door Bentleys seem everywhere these days, but back in the 1990s, the Bentley Continental R was a commanding presence—and not just because this 17.5-foot-long, 6.7-foot-wide two-door was bigger than almost anything else on the road at the time. It was the first Bentley since the 1950s not to share sheet metal with a Rolls-Royce. It was powered by turbocharged version of the Rolls-Royce 6.75-liter V-8 that developed a relatively modest 330 hp but 444 lb-ft of torque at little more than idle.
And it was still largely hand-built: The 1994 model I was driving was one of fewer than 680 Continental Rs completed since the car’s launch in 1992. These days, Bentley makes that many Contis every month.
On a quiet road outside London, I squeeze the gas and the big V-8 rumbles quietly, like gunfire from a distant battleship, as the big coupe rocks on its haunches and then lunges down the road. It takes about 6 seconds for the speedo needle to swing past 60 mph, the tach needle tickling a mere 1,450 rpm. Given enough room the Continental R would go on to hit 152 mph, punching a massive hole in the air that left lesser cars rocking in its wake.
The steering is a bit like daytime television—light and vague–but contrary to my expectations, the big Bentley doesn’t handle like an aircraft carrier in a hurricane. Once I’d calibrated the delay between steering input and chassis output, and understood the electronically controlled shocks could cope with the gargantuan weight transfer induced with the merest whiff of the throttle, the Continental R proves remarkably composed through corners.
I quickly learn that fingertips and a feather foot is all the imperious Bentley needs to crush a winding road, that rumbling locomotive of an engine barely raising a sweat as I ride high, wide, and handsome in a cabin redolent with the rich tang of hand-stitched leather and suffused with the warm glow of hand-finished walnut. It felt like the fastest gentleman’s club on earth, at once gloriously indulgent, yet quietly conservative.
And it’s this curiously English dichotomy, carefully contrived in today’s Bentleys and suffused with the cold rationality of modern electronics, that made the Continental R so cool.
Back in London, I pull up alongside a Rolls-Royce. The chalk-stripe suited banker riding in the back can’t help a double take when he realizes the occupants of the Bentley don’t quite fit the typical Continental R buyer profile.
“It’s all right, mate,” observes my companion, photographer Dougie Firth, a phlegmatic Yorkshireman, “He’s just trying to figure out whether we’re rock stars or royalty.”
“He might have to be nice to us. Rock stars make a lot of money, you know.”
1963 Indy 500 Winner Ol’ Calhoun
Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 2011. I can’t believe I’m actually doing this. I’m sitting—shoehorned, in truth—behind the wheel of the actual race car Parnelli Jones drove to victory in the 1963 Indianapolis 500. It’s a car I have utterly adored since I was a kid. And I’m about to drive it. At the Brickyard.
Built in L.A. in 1960 by the legendary A.J. Watson, it’s the quintessential archetype of the Offenhauser-powered front-engine roadsters that dominated at Indy for more than two decades. Nicknamed Ol’ Calhoun, it’s been run only a handful of times since 1964. Spare parts are almost impossible to find, and the rarest items on the car are the 48-year-old Firestone tires. I’d looked them over before climbing into the cockpit: The rock-hard rubber is crazed with a million cracks, and the sidewalls are fraying in a few places.
I’ll be taking it easy.
The late Bill Spoerle, who at the time was heading the team looking after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum’s collection, stands alongside the cockpit and glares at me balefully. Spoerle started at the Speedway in 1961, the year Jones took his rookie test in this very car. In other words, Spoerle has been around long enough to know that letting a journalist loose in one of his priceless cars is a bad idea.
Spoerle, speaking with a German accent so thick you’d swear he’d arrived on the boat from Bremerhaven the day before, warns me once again to keep feathering the throttle once the engine fires. Let an old Offy idle, he’d reminded me several times, and you’ll snap teeth off the cam gears.
A giant 40 hp electric motor that was designed to crank Pratt & Whitney radial aircraft engines into life is connected to Ol’ Calhoun. There’s a turbine-like whirr, then a click as the gears in the starter are locked, and I squeeze the throttle as Bill leans in and flicks on the magneto. Contact! The Offy fires, coughs, fires, and coughs again. Bill’s waving his hand up and down slightly. Pump the gas. The engine spits, sputters and then roars into life, a calico-rip of sound from the exhaust pipe at my left shoulder.
Now comes the part I’ve been dreading: Getting cleanly out of pit lane. I’m six inches taller than Parnelli Jones, and my knees are splayed awkwardly either side of a big four-spoke steering wheel that appears to have been stolen from a Greyhound bus. The transmission is on the left of the cockpit—the entire engine is mounted to the left of the center-line of the chassis—and I have to contort my ankle around it to find the tiny clutch pedal that skims the right hand side of the tiny, two-speed Ford Model A transmission.
As I’m pushed away from standstill, I struggle to get the clutch to the floor, and muscle the shift lever forward to engage low gear. There’s a brief and ugly gnashing sound, but the lever hits home and I gently feed in the revs as I gingerly feel for the clutch to bite.
There! I squeeze the gas some more. A slight twitch from the rear end as the old Firestones struggle for grip. We’re rolling! I feed in more gas and almost immediately begin wrestling for high gear. There’s more metal on metal contact, another twitch of the tail, and Ol’ Calhoun rolls out onto the Speedway.
My hands are tingling. The engine is bolted directly to the frame, and while it might only be a four-banger, those bangs are truly titanic. The twin-cam, 16-valve Meyer-Drake Offenhauser, designed in the 1930s, displaces almost 4.2-liters and runs a compression ratio of 14.5:1 on methanol fuel. Back in 1963, an Offy fresh from the factory would be good for 400 bhp and 340 lb-ft, but an engine builder for a top team could boost that to 449 hp and 410 lb-ft.
All that torque makes Ol’ Calhoun easy to drive at low speeds. In deference to the engine’s age and the fragility of the tires, I’m limited to 3,500 rpm, about 80 mph with the low rear axle gears the IMS mechanics have installed. But even at cruising speeds, driving this old roadster around this storied track is one of the most overwhelmingly visceral experiences I’ve ever had in a car.
I can still hear the constant tickety-tick-tick-tick from the Offy’s valvetrain and the exhaust snarling in my left ear, see the rear tire humming right there, over my right shoulder, and feel the steering wheel buzzing in my hands and the grit peppering my face. It was beyond cool.
As I return to the pits, I recall that Parnelli Jones averaged 150 mph around here to put Ol’ Calhoun on pole back in 1963, drifting a race car with dirt-track axles and a 1930s engine through the turns at more than 130 mph and hitting 180 mph down the long chutes. Yeah, those old-time roadster drivers had cojones like coconuts.
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