Most racing cars follow the same formula. Fit a powerful engine in a lightweight chassis, cover it with some aerodynamic body panels and bolt on four wheels. But every now and then motorsport engineers and designers get a bit creative and try out something new. Unfortunately however, ever-increasing rules and regulations in top-level motorsport nowadays aren’t really conducive with outlandish ideas and experimental designs. This means that most – but not all – of the more unusual race cars ever devised were developed in the past, when the rule book was more of a pamphlet.
Rover-BRM Gas Turbine Car
The Rover-BRM was a racing car developed in the early 1960s through a partnership between Rover and BRM (British Racing Motors). From the outside the Rover-BRM car wasn’t particularly unusual. There were two slightly odd-looking air intakes on either side of the cockpit, but nothing too strange. Remove the rear aluminium bodywork however and it gets very interesting. Instead of a normal internal combustion engine, with cylinders and pistons etc, is a gas turbine engine. Formula 1 driver Graham Hill said it was like driving along with a 707 jet liner behind the cockpit. The engine produced 150 horsepower and the top speed of the car was 142 mph. The car ran at Le Mans in 1963, (in 1964 the team withdrew before the race) and in 1965 it placed a respectable 10th.
Tyrrell 012 “Boomerang”
The Tyrrell 012 was a fairly conventional race car which competed in the 1983 and 1984 F1 Championships, as well as the first few races of the 1985 season. Despite a lightweight, and for the time still rare, carbon fiber chassis, the car wasn’t particularly competitive, being outgunned by the hugely powerful turbo powered cars of the time. However at the 1983 Austrian Grand Prix, Tyrrell debuted an unusual version of the car later dubbed the ‘Boomerang’. This car featured a distinctive rear wing which tapered towards the rear like a giant, well, boomerang.
The Golden Submarine was a one-of-a-kind streamlined race car designed way back in 1917. While the rest of the world was frantically fighting World War I, American’s Fred Offenhauser and Harry Miller were busy building a race car for Barney Oldfield. The Golden Submarine was designed to be both aerodynamic and considerably safer for the driver in the event of an accident due to a built-in roll cage. The bodywork was formed from lightweight aluminium, while the unique gold color of the car was achieved by mixing bronze dust and lacquer. The car was hugely expensive for the time, costing approximately $15,000 to build. The Golden Submarine competed in 54 races and ended up with 20 wins, 2 seconds and 2 third place finishes.
Brabham BT46B “Fan Car”
The Brabham BT46 was a racing car designed by Gordon Murray for the 1978 Formula 1 season. At the Swedish race, Brabham unveiled a revised version of the racer called the BT46B Fan Car. This used a large rear fan at the rear of the car to produce huge levels of downforce. The team tried to say the fan was primarily for improved cooling, however it was clearly not the case, it was a giant vacuum used to suck the car to the road. On its only F1 outing the car won, finishing over 30 seconds ahead of the 2nd place car. Other manufacturers were outraged, although technically legal, the fan car was voluntarily retired after just one race to prevent a major revolt by the other teams.
The only modern race car of the list, the DeltaWing is an unusual design which looks more like a land speed record car than something which was actually designed to take corners. The product of a collaboration between a number of partners, the DeltaWing’s racing debut was at the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans. It retired after the 75th lap due to a collision. In 2013 the DeltaWing returned to racing in the American Le Mans Series in the P1 class. It didn’t do particularly well, placing last in its class at the end of the season.
Tyrrell P34 six-wheeler
The Tyrrell P34 6-wheeled race car is probably the most famous of all unusual race cars. When it was debuted at the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix it blew some minds, and proved to be extremely competitive too. The car’s crowning achievement came later in the season at the Swedish Grand Prix where Tyrrell’s drivers, Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler managed a one-two finish. At the same time Scheckter also made history by becoming the only professional racing driver to win a race using a six-wheeled car. Oddly he left the team at the end of the season claiming that the car was “a piece of junk!” The Tyrrell P34 competed in 1977 too, but the car was less successful mainly due to underdevelopment of the bespoke 10-inch front tires made specifically for the vehicle. The car was replaced for the 1978 season.
The Mercedes-Benz T80 was an amazing creation which unfortunately never really got the chance to prove itself. It was designed by Ferdinand Porsche and was intended to break the world land speed record, however at the time of its construction, 1939, war was looming and the car was put into storage and its engine removed. That engine by the way, was a 44.5 litre V12 aircraft-derived unit which produced 3,000 horsepower. It was calculated that if the T80 had been given the opportunity to stretch its legs, its top speed would have been in the region of 470 mph!
SpeedyCop Upside Down Race Car
The 24 hours of Le Mons race series, which is a parodical budget racing series based in the US, pits homemade race cars against each other in a 24 hour endurance race event. One of the rules of the Le Mons series is that the cars must cost no more than $500. SpeedyCop is one of the regulars at the events, and in 2013 he campaigned it what was to become known as the “Upside Down Race Car”. Based on a 1990 Ford Festiva, the car features the inverted bodywork of a 1999 Camaro. It finished 98th out of 139 cars.
Pat Clancy six-wheel Indy Car
In 1948, at the Indianapolis 500, a six-wheeled car built by Pat Clancy, and driven by Billy DeVore powered its way to 12th position overall. The four rear wheels of the car were driven by two axles connected by a universal joint. The six-wheel Indy car only lasted one race, in 1949 it was converted back to a conventional 4-wheel racer. It remains the only six-wheel car to ever race at the Indianapolis 500.
The Chaparral 2J was an unusual experiment in creating a race car which could provide its own downforce using powerful fans – like the Brabham BT46B “Fan Car” above. However the Chaparral 2J took the idea to the extreme. It used two fans at the rear of the car powered by a 45 horsepower snowmobile engine to create a vacuum under the car. A plastic skirt around the bottom of the car helped to increase the vacuum effect. It was said that the downforce generated by the fans was actually more than the weight of the car itself. Meaning that it could conceivably been driven on the ceiling! Despite proving to be highly competitive, qualifying 2 seconds faster than the next car in the 1970 SCCA Can Am Series, the Chaparral 2J was fairly unreliable due to mechanical problems. Other teams also successfully argued that the fans broke the rules regarding movable aerodynamic devices, and it was outlawed for the 1971 season.