The Big Test. Which of our contenders lives up to its fearsome widow-maker reputation – Ford Capri 3.0, Porsche 911 Turbo 930, AC Cobra, TVR Griffith, Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9, Ferrari F40 or Lancia Stratos? Plus, Simon Kidston delivers his verdict on each.
Clockwise from top left: Lancia Stratos, Ferrari F40, Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9, TVR Griffith 500 SE, Ford Capri 3.0 GXL, AC Cobra 427, Porsche 911 Turbo. 7 DeadlySinners. Widow-maker legends put to the test. Yikes! AC Cobra 427, Ford Capri 3.0, 911 Turbo 930, TVR Griffith 500, Ferrari F40, Lancia Stratos, Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9. Cars with a reputation for being tricky to drive hard have an irresistible appeal. Is owning one a sure route to a happy but short life? Words Sam Dawson. Photography Laurens Parsons.
Danger doesn’t sell cars like it used to. We live in an era where new car firms barely trust us to apply our own brakes, and we’re being cajoled into finding a future of sitting in an automated box playing with an iPad as opposed to driving ourselves ‘exciting’. We’re at a point where there’s something politically incorrect in admitting enjoying an engrossing drive. Roll up to a dinner party in a sports car nowadays and you’re more likely to be castigated than appreciated.
So where does that leave cars that punish novices and make fools of the unwary? We’ve gathered together seven deadly sinners to see whether they can be tamed, or if they really are too much of a liability in the hands of ordinary drivers. There’s a rally car apparently incapable of being driven in a straight line, a hot hatch with a penchant for violent lift-off oversteer, and a V6 coupé that seems unable to exit a junction without generating tyre smoke. There’s an unbalanced rear-engined status-symbol with turbo-lag, a Nineties roadster with no driver aids and the supercar that sacrificed all comfort to crack 200mph. There’s also the most outrageous musclecar of them all. Time to put reputation to the test.
Seven deadly sinners (clockwise from top left): Lancia Stratos, Ferrari F40, Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9, TVR Griffith, Ford Capri 3.0, AC Cobra, Porsche 911 Turbo 930.
‘That sense of twitchy restlessness never really goes away – it’s always jiggling, booming and fizzing’
AC Cobra 427
This AC Cobra 427 has bitten me before I’ve even sat down. The sharp aluminium spike created by the curved door top spears a shin as my legs try to find a way round the wooden steering wheel rim, leaving a bruise that lingers for weeks. Once ensconced, I find that the skimpy seats don’t adjust and I’m clamped in place by an unyielding four-point harness. To operate the gearlever I have to spread my left arm out wide and get the power of my shoulder muscles behind the shove. There’s no room for negotiation: if you want to play with the Cobra, you play by its rules.
Fire up the 7.0-litre, 485bhp V8, and following an angry whipcrack from under the bonnet, what sounds like a cauldron of molten lead boils over aggressively behind you. The Cobra’s exhausts run straight under the thin cockpit floor, heat soaking through the bare-metal bulkhead. Driving with the roof off isn’t for showing off – the rush of fresh air is the only way to keep cool.
On the Longcross test track’s straights and banking, it feels strangely easy-going despite the cacophony thanks to its subterranean torque-pull. From behind the wheel the usual bulk that usually blunts a big American V8, providing a counterweight for the torque to push against, just isn’t there. I can cruise at high speed in a 427 Cobra, but I can’t do the stop-start traffic crawl – tempt that torque, even with clutch-control, and the car will headbutt the next driver’s personal space with a deep, malevolent cackle.
It’s also so deceptively comfortable at high speeds that I often find myself approaching corners much faster than intended. A hundred miles per hour is like 50mph in overdrive in an MGB. In fourth on the Cobra’s brutally heavy Hurst shifter, I’m breaking the motorway speed limit yet barely turning over 2000rpm.
1964 AC Cobra 427 road test. Short wheelbase and huge engine means danger at every turn. Seven litres of fire-breathing terror – feeling brave? Cobra’s interior is dangerous even with the engine off.
When I reach a bend, I soon realise quite how much torque was propelling me. Although the Cobra feels compact and wieldy, with three-and-a-half turns lock-to-lock on the light rack-and-pinion steering and a compact turning circle that helps me effect neat U-turns, the monstrous engine dominates my every move, thundering out of corners faster than I occasionally want to, the weight of the huge V8 block dragging the nose wide. The gearchange also hinders the driver’s ability to drive smoothly. It’s incredibly weighty, as is the clutch pedal, and the width of the transmission tunnel requires a forceful stretch to the lever, which is heavy and easy to miss-slot thanks to its short-travel, closely stacked planes. Changing gear breaks progress up into defined chunks of acceleration and deceleration punctured by fraught, clanking heft.
Get your braking done in a straight line on the powerful but simple disc brake set-up, pitch into a bend at modest speeds and the light rear end of the car bounces restlessly on its compact coil-spring and double-wishbone suspension, whipping that big wheel left and right, threatening to rip it out of your fingers and reducing your chances of setting the car up for a clean corner exit. It takes an expert driver to get the best out of a 427, a car that makes TVRs feel like MX-5s.
Owning a Cobra 427
‘I still remember to this day the first time I saw an AC Cobra, and I’ve only seen a tiny handful over the past 50 years,’ says the 427’s owner Phil Howard. ‘It’s a compelling one-off mixture of power and seductive curves; utterly intoxicating.’ When he got the chance to buy the AC Heritage-bult car, he couldn’t resist. ‘Ultimately, it’s an unsophisticated car, all about brute force and grunt. Zero to 60mph in four seconds – that’s still fast today, let alone back then – yet with Sixties brakes and suspension, it demands respect.
‘Its sheer impracticality limits the amount of time you spend in it – no roof, two seats and you need to stop for fuel an awful lot. The torque is truly staggering, something it’ll readily remind you of every time you drive over a cattle grid or even a damp patch of road.
‘That point about keeping the tank full isn’t just a reflection on its thirst – the fuel tank is in the back and, when it empties, the tail gets very light indeed.’
TECHNICAL DATA 1964 AC Cobra 427
Engine 6998cc V8, ohv, two Holley four-barrel carbs
Power andtorque 485bhp @ 6500rpm; 480lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive Suspension Front andrear: independent, unequal-length double wishbones, telescopicdampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steering Rack and pinion Brakes
Discs Weight 1147kg (2529lb)
Performance Top speed: 165mph;
Fuel consumption 9-12mpg
Price new $7000 (£4250, 1966)
Values now £250k-£850k (continuation series)
‘There’s no room for negotiation: if you want to play with the Cobra, you play by its rules’
Ford Capri 3.0 GXL
Despite its Ford engine and its place in the marque’s Shelby-sired Total Performance programme, the Cobra 427 never had any pretentions beyond being an expensive low-volume hand-built car for racers and wealthy enthusiasts. But Ford also has a knack for putting high performance in the hands of ordinary motorists for acceptable prices and spurring ownership cults that only strengthen when the cars hit the secondhand market.
Witness the endlessly customisable European Mustang counterpart, the Ford Capri 3000 GXL V6. Blessed with looks seemingly cribbed from a wishlist of its 1969 target-market’s dream wheels – DBS, Daytona, E-type, Grifo – its use of the Cortina-related platform made them acceptable family cars, with adult-sized rear seats and a big boot. And then Ford followed the Cobra recipe and squeezed in Dagenham’s largest available engine – the 3.0-litre ‘Essex’ V6.
At first impression it’s hard to see what could be considered so dangerous about the infamous ‘free-litah Capri’ so beloved in secondhand form by legions of boy-racers. The laid-back driving position is comfy and more akin to an aloof Jaguar XJ6 than something hunched and sweaty-palmed.
The fake wood and faux leather also hint at something trying to major on luxury rather than performance – it was, certainly so far as Ford’s initial target market was concerned – and 138bhp hardly sounds intimidating. However, this was a pre-hot-hatch world, where ordinary saloons rarely made much more than 70bhp. To an average driver straight from a plodding repmobile, the Capri had twice the horizon-troubling urge.
1973 Ford Capri 3.0 GXL road test. GT interior is soothing –until it all goes wrong. Sam was especially glad the road was dry at this point. Torquey Essex V6 is too much for the chassis to handle.
At low speeds the Capri rolls and lurches on its long springs like a cardboard-box-ramming pursuer in Starsky & Hutch, but it still manages to do it all softly, within safe and friendly limits. Then you glance at the speedometer and realise you’re going about 20mph faster than you thought you were.
Torque from the Essex V6 builds deceptively, stealthily edging in increments of speed. Ultimately, you’ll reach a bend and the Capri’s Cortina-based crudity suddenly reaches the limits of its roadholding capabilities. The torque you indulged in on the straights becomes a lurid liability when you try and get the power down in the corners, and the brakes squeal and fade.
The soft suspension has the effect of catapulting the car’s mass across the chassis in a loose, uncontrollable manner, so you’re constantly flailing at the wheel trying to counteract the inertia. The rather urgent torque delivery also equals wild wheelspin out of bends and junctions.
There is a right way to drive a V6 Capri, and funnily enough the correct manner owes more to one of its inspirations – the Aston Martin DBS. Keep things smooth; drive it like a laid-back grand tourer, guiding the wheel and gearlever gently, feeding the power in smoothly out of bends as you might in a Maserati Ghibli. Then allow that spongy, crude suspension to breathe between bends and see the torque as a useful well of cruising urge to draw upon when the circumstances are just right. As such the Capri offers a surprising taste of GT sophistication – ironically because even back then, a lot of the GTs its owners aspired to were actually more mechanically crude than they might have thought. Live rear axles were still the norm even at the top of the market.
However, the Capri’s reputation lies in the misuse of its power by inexperienced drivers. It’s actually its primitive mechanical underpinnings that make it such a handful when commandeered by young men who’d come straight from a Mini Cooper or Escort 1300 Sport expecting a similar combination of compliant chassis dynamics and revvy, flat-out-everywhere engines.
The Capri truly underlines the way in which the majority of drivers reckon they’re above average – this car really does need treating with respect if you’re to avoid doing something idiotic with it, and the first step to driving it properly is to admit your median abilities. If you fleetingly think, on a jaunt down the Snake Pass, that you’re Jochen Mass at the Nürburgring, flexing his Capri RS2600 through Pflantzgarten on the throttle, you’ll have booked an advance appointment with a tree before you’ve even hit the pedal.
Owning a Capri
‘I had my first three-litre Capri when I was 17 and I’ve had one ever since,’ says Darren Line. ‘Everything that’s said about them is true – they are absolutely lethal in the wrong hands, especially in the wet. It doesn’t take much, on a wet road if you’re going too fast, to send a Capri like this into a spin. Those cart springs can barely cope, and although 138bhp maybe doesn’t sound like much, it’s all the torque that does it.
‘I have two now. This one has never been restored, is all-original and has done only 24,500 miles from new. I bought it from an old guy who’d picked it up new and looked after it, Waxoyling it to the point where the valances were black, but hardly using it. The other one has been restored to better-than- new spec, and I’ve modified it so it can cope with its power. But I absolutely had to have this one as I knew the opportunity would never come up again.’
TECHNICAL DATA 1973 Ford Capri 3.0 GXL
Engine 2994cc V6, ohv, Weber 40 DFAV carburettor
Power andtorque 138bhp @ 4750rpm; 173lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front:independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs, track control arms,anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, telescopic dampers, semi-elliptic leafsprings, anti-roll bar
Steering Rack and pinion
Brakes Discs front,drums rear
Weight 1080kg (2376lb)
Performance Top speed:123mph; 0-60mph: 8sec
Fuel consumption 27mpg
Price new £1427
Values now £6250-£17,500
Peugeot 205 GTi 1.9
As mass-production rear-drive platforms such as the old Cortina’s fell out of favour, putting derivatives like the Capri on the endangeredspecies register by the late Eighties, machominded motorists sneered. Front-drive cars understeered. You could control them in most situations merely by backing off the throttle. Meek, blunt little bonnets designed around transverse cylinder layouts couldn’t accommodate V-engines, and while hot hatches with their stiffened suspension and crisplyaccelerating fuel-injected engines were fun, real men – by this point wearing a denim jacket over a Dr. Feelgood T-shirt and making this point wielding a frothing mug of Hofmeister – drove rear-drive coupés. Sideways, like Bodie and Doyle. Hot hatches were shopping cars for soft, wine-bar yuppies.
It was an attitude that prevailed until those yuppies discovered lift-off oversteer. The Peugeot 205 GTi 1.9 was easily the most pleasantly balanced hot hatch in 1.6 form, but faced with turbocharged Renault 5s and 16-valve VW Golfs, Peugeot dropped in a 130bhp 1.9 – the kind of engine that was considered more than adequate propelling a big sports saloon. The 205 GTi 1.9 was to the fuel-injected three-door era what the V6 was to the Capri.
Climb on board a 205 GTi 1.9 and it’s an instant reminder as to how easy hot hatches are to drive quickly within only a few minutes’ acquaintance. The driving position blends the familiarity of a shopping car with the reassuring grip across your back afforded by black and red Recaro seats. The giddy anticipation felt is that of a 17-year-old out on his own for the first time: it’ll be like driving Mum’s car, only faster and quicker through the bends. No radical relearning of technique will be required – all the extra effort will be the car’s.
The first sense that not all is as it seems comes when you turn the key, and the whole car is infused with a restless, angry booming. It’s a deep note that never settles, as though someone in a car right behind you is playing drum ‘n’ bass loudly through a subwoofer.
1990 Peugeot 205 GTi 1.9 road test. Push hard enough and the Peugeot will lock its inside rear wheel. 1.9-litre 8v engine made 875kg Peugeot fly. Red and black interior warns you not to get over-confident.
Zero to 60mph feels far quicker than its on-paper 7.4 seconds suggest. It shrugs off the motorway limit so nonchalantly you’ll never be troubled by that end-of-the-slip-road fear present in many small cars of this era. However, that sense of twitchy restlessness never goes away. Even in fifth gear at 70mph, it never feels like comfortable cruising. It’s always jiggling, booming and fizzing, and whenever you hit the accelerator within legal speeds, it still darts urgently away.
It’s a demeanour more suited to B-roads, where hedgerows and tarmac undulations act as a curb on any attempts at the land-speed record but instant throttle torque and keen helm responses are rewarded. Peugeot revised the 205’s suspension mounting points for the GTi, rather than stiffer springs and dampers that most of its rivals were lumbered with, lending it genuine suppleness. But it was B-roads that gave the ‘One-Nine GTi’ its fearsome reputation.
With no cruise-friendly straight-ahead dead-zone in its three-turn lock-to-lock steering but the claw-like seats anchoring your body in an upright, bent-armed driving position and a 185/55 R15 tyre gluing each corner to the road, the 205 GTi feels ebullient. It never disguises the challenge of the road itself beneath its tyres, but in its apparent vicelessness it feels invincible – right to the point of mid-corner throttle adjustment. Lift off and, rather than cancelling understeer as per most FWD cars, the 205 tightens its line abruptly.
However, you’re playing a dangerous game. Indulge when pushing as hard into a corner as the 205 will encourage you, and that inside rear wheel that cocks amusingly off the ground – lifted at least in part by the rear anti-roll bar – isn’t a mere quirk. Your rearward contact patch with the road has suddenly halved in size. All it takes is a sudden lateral lurch and you’ll overwhelm what’s left, sending the little Peugeot through a hedge backwards.
It sounds dangerous, but it’s a reminder of the car’s true purpose. Thanks to Group B and the 205 T16, people forget the 205 GTi’s Group A rallying role. So many great rally drivers – Colin McRae and Richard Burns among them – piloted 1.9 GTis. It doesn’t deserve the frivolous yuppiemobile title of hot hatch. It’s every bit as much of a Group A homologation special as a Lancia Delta Integrale, and should be respected as such by motor sport fans and drivers alike.
Owning a 205 GTI
‘We always had 205 GTis when we were younger – they were all about fun, part of growing up,’ says Lucy Jobling, co-owner of GTi restoration specialist Pug1Off, founded by husband Matt.
‘The idea to restore the cars came about because so many examples had been thrashed and were becoming seriously dishevelled, but there was still a huge following for them – mainly people now in their thirties and forties who regret selling secondhand examples they bought when they were younger, but who are now prepared to pay for one in mint condition.
‘They’re not modified by boy racers any more, unless they’re putting a 405 Mi16 2.0-litre engine in.’ Matt adds, ‘It’s something of a myth that they’re prone to sudden lift-off oversteer. That’s at its worst when the back axle is tired and seized, but they should behave unless you’re silly with them.’
TECHNICAL DATA 1990 Peugeot 205 GTi 1.9
Engine 1905cc transverse four-cylinder, sohc, Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection
Power and torque 130bhp @ 6000rpm; 119lb ft @ 4750rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Suspension Front: independent, MacPherson struts, coil springs, lower wishbones, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, trailing arms, transverse torsion bars, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Steering Rack and pinion
Brakes Servo-assisted discs
Weight 875kg (1929lb)
Performance Top speed: 127mph; 0-60mph: 7.8sec
Fuel consumption 28mpg
Price new £12,265
Values now £3750-£12k
‘All it takes is a sudden lateral lurch and you’ll send the little Peugeot through a hedge backwards’
If the Peugeot’s rallying credibility is hidden behind a smokescreen of wine bars and joyriders, the Lancia Stratos’ multi-surface prowess is overt, the matt-black rear spoiler and roof aerofoil of this particular example scribbling forcefully over its secondary role as a design icon. Its rallying career was actually relatively brief, confined to the mid-Seventies before being stymied first by over-zealous Fiat executives wanting to use the sport to sell more massproduced cars, then secondly by the four-wheel-drive revolution led by the Audi quattro.
Before grip proved to be the way to win rallies, power oversteer was deemed the fastest way round a gravel-strewn bend, and a semi-supercar V6 sitting in the middle of a wheelbase shorter than a Mini’s will deliver this with aplomb. Even Gran Turismo-playing Millennials born a decade after the Stratos’ rallying career ended are thoroughly aware of this peculiar trait – on any given rally video game, the Stratos will be the biggest and most frustrating challenge. The car that won’t go in a straight line. The one that spins off on every corner. Along with its 037 and Delta S4 successors, the Stratos always seemed to be a car that only experts were capable of driving at all, let alone winning rallies with.
Funnily enough, though, the most common handling trait you’ll encounter – once you’ve crammed yourself into the tiny cockpit, familiarised yourself with the satisfyingly firm action of the gearbox and powered up the raging Dino 246 V6 – is actually understeer. There would be nothing unusual in this when driving any other car, but in a Stratos it’s an ever-present warning, a sign that it will swap ends soon, and there will only be an inch of tyre slip from the front end before it breaks free.
There’s not as much steering feel as you might expect from something apparently so delicate. It doesn’t fizz with feedback – partly a result of its relatively stocky 215/60 R15 front tyres – but instead it’s smooth and pure.
1974 Lancia Stratos Stradale road test. Rear spoiler and aerofoil try their hardest to keep the Stratos in a straight line. Mid-engined layout and short wheelbase mean trouble. Not much room for armtwirling if it all goes awry.
You steer a Stratos with your biceps and shoulders rather than your wrists and fingertips, firmly massaging it through turns almost as you might a motorbike rather than a car. Just as well really, as just like a motorcycle the sudden application of throttle mid-corner or wild and harsh movements at the helm will send it dangerously off course at high speed.
Even at moderate speeds you can feel the rear end steering almost as articulately as the front. Turn in, and while the nose tracks as purely as a sports racquet, there’s an unnerving vagueness followed by a slight lateral wandering that you feel at the base of your spine where the bucket seats are at their firmest. Try a quick direction-changing manoeuvre much faster than 50mph and you’ll soon be adding opposite lock whether you want to or not.
It’s an issue made more acute by how cramped the Stratos is. Although there’s more legroom than you may think as a result of the minimalist dashboard, my head is jammed against the roof and I’m very aware of how close the windscreen header rail and rear-view mirror are to my forehead, and how useless the tiny, vibrating door mirrors are. With the rising edge to the B-pillar windows and the overarching roof-aerofoil beyond them, rear three-quarter visibility is non-existent too, and the way the blunt nose drops away makes it impossible to work out where the front edges are unless you pop the headlights up. As a result, not only is it difficult to control in corners, it’s also hard to place it on the road to get the best angle of attack. Walter Röhrl once infamously talked of rallying being an eyes-closed, out-of-body experience at times, and you have to drive a Stratos with an acute sense of spatial awareness, visualising it as though you’re watching from the third-person vantage point of a tracking helicopter, thinking about the ideal road position and what you want each end of the car to do, then translating this through to your muscles while remaining calm and flowing at all times. Cornering a Stratos is a near-spiritual discipline.
It’s not all hard work, though. The white-noise strafing from its megaphone exhausts past 3000rpm is something to let loose at every opportunity, and the Dino gearbox is easy to master after a few lusty, clanking shifts. However, it’s a drive that forces you to concentrate as hard as possible on the physics of the situation – or suffer the consequences.
‘Not only is it difficult to control in corners, it’s also hard to place it on the road to get the best angle of attack’
Owning a Stratos
‘I owned another Lancia Stratos many years ago, sold it, and immediately regretted it,’ says owner Phil Hylander. ‘I spent the next five years looking for another one, and eventually found this unrestored example. It’s interesting to contrast the Stratos to another car I own, the Dino 246 GT. I was born in the Sixties, so I was drawn to both cars’ aesthetics, but for cars sharing a gearbox and engine they couldn’t be more different.
‘The shorter wheelbase and much lighter weight make the Stratos feel completely unrelated to the Dino. You feel like you’re sitting above the front wheels, and there’s a disarming directness to the steering. The Dino feels much more passive. With the Stratos, it feels like the back end could get away from you at any moment. But the steering gives you the ability to get it back quickly. The brakes are responsive too. It’s not violently powerful like an F40, but the Stratos driving experience isn’t reflected in its raw statistics.’
TECHNICAL DATA 1974 Lancia Stratos Stradale
Engine 2418cc V6, dohc per bank, three Weber carburettors (40IDF28 left and centre, 40IDF29 right) Power and torque 190bhp @ 7400rpm; 166lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Fivespeed manual, rear wheel drive
Suspension Front: independent, double wishbones, telescopic dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: Chapman struts, lower wishbones, telescopic dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steering Rack and pinion
Brakes Discs front and rear
Weight 910kg (2006lb)
Performance Top speed: 140mph; 0-60mph: 6.8sec
Fuel consumption 23mpg
Price new 9,000,000 lira (approx £7600)
Values now £210k-£320k
Porsche 911 Turbo 3.3 930
Speaking of design imbalance, no celebration of inherently risky cars can be complete without a Porsche 911. With the sole exception of Alpine, no other manufacturer has persisted with the idea of a sports car with the engine’s mass behind the rear axle.
The racetrack logic behind it is perfectly sound – the rearward weight swing under acceleration brings unparalleled traction, transmitting all the driven wheels’ power to the road off the line and out of bends. Use this advantage properly and you’ll have a distinct advantage over conventionally arranged opposition. Get it wrong, brake hard into a tight bend, lift off the accelerator at the wrong moment, and the mass in the tail will whip the car into a violent spin. Given the controlling effect of the mass, there’s very little that opposite lock alone can do to contain it.
And then, to complicate matters further, Porsche added a KKK turbocharger, in an era when turbos meant delayed action power feed and sudden jolts of torque halfway through the rev range. So how do you corner at high speed in a 911 Turbo if keeping the throttle planted risks an attitude-upsetting lurch?
Initially the Turbo feels like any other 911, thanks to the familiar interior with its perilously upright windscreen seemingly close to my nose. However, it isn’t merely ‘a turbocharged 911’ – Porsche made their flagship over as much in the name of grip as speed. In fact, grippiness seems to be an overarching theme in the Turbo. It’s a trait manifested in the reassuringly firm seat bolstering, in the way that the traditionally talkative steering is dulled into surging currents by the 205/55 VR16 front tyres, the thickly sculpted rim of the steering wheel and the broad-shouldered, wide-stanced way its 1775mm width forces you to negotiate corners. The off-puttingly vague and long-throw four-speed gearbox discourages gearchanges, encouraging you instead to choose a ratio and let the long and variable flow of turbocharged torque do the rest as the flat-six wuffles and skiffles behind you.
1985 Porsche 911 (930) Turbo road test. Flat six sits even further back in the 3.3. 911 Turbo was significantly tamer in 3.3-litre guise. Communicative steering dulled by wide rubber.
Because of this excess grip and the way the massive 225/50 VR16 tyres and rearward weight bias encourage you to put faith in the car’s stability under acceleration, it actually defies its ditchhunting reputation and emerges as a very benign car, almost to the point of dullness. But don’t let this trigger an outbreak of laid-back laziness – you always have to remember the physics of a 911 and drive it smoothly, like a racing driver, getting all your braking done in a dead-straight line and waiting until the apex has been clipped before accelerating.
Even then there’s a disconcerting amount of shimmy and wander. The brakes encourage progression – they’re powerful and the pedal pulsates with feedback – but with no anti-lock system and the rear end squirming even in the dry when braking from high speeds, it’ll be deceleration that’ll be your downfall in a 911 Turbo. There’s no room for adjustment in one of these – everything requires a physics lesson and assertive commitment.
But what of the boost and, more importantly, the turbo lag? In truth the Porsche’s turbocharger feeds in extra torque with remarkably silken progression, so long as you’re smooth with the throttle. Obviously if you stamp hard on the accelerator all hell will break loose, but no one in their right mind drives a Porsche 911 like that. For the most part the pleasure comes from getting it right and being precise. The rest, it must be said, is largely bravado. In fact, much of the 911 Turbo’s legend – from its supposedly scary driving characteristics to its apparent ubiquity in the Eighties, is shrouded in untruths. Porsche itself complicated matters, offering a ‘Turbo Look’ bodykit and wheel package as an option on much cheaper normally aspirated G-series 911s that swiftly outsold the real thing.
Even Gordon Gekko’s went unseen in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, merely referenced by a pair of awestruck underlings rather than being shown on screen. That says a lot about the Turbo somehow – because its reputation, be it as an untameable oversteering monster or the apparently once-common symbol of neoliberal success, is more myth than reality even today.
Owning a Porsche 911 Turbo 930
‘I’ve had various 930s over 15 years, and some of the stuff I’ve read about them doesn’t make any sense at all,’ says long-term Turbo owner John Ward. ‘However, like any 911, you have to be aware of the hefty lump that’s right behind you, and the inherent imbalance of the chassis. I’d say most owners have had one near-miss at some point early in their ownership that’s made them aware of the car’s physics.
‘Mine came when I was overtaking a motorbike and realised we were both going much faster than I’d thought. We reached a corner and I thought “I daren’t brake!” and ended up in a tank-slapper moment. You’ve always got to remember the slow in, fast out rule with 911s.
‘Generally, Turbos have monumental grip that you can trust – in the dry. I have a very early 3.0-litre car that I nearly crashed once, but I was only doing 30mph. The brakes were carried over from the standard 911 of the time and didn’t work when cold. I had to stop it on the handbrake!’
TECHNICAL DATA 1985 Porsche 911 (930) Turbo 3.3
Engine 3299cc horizontally opposed six-cylinder, ohc per bank, Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection, KKK Type 3 LDZ turbo
Power and torque 300bhp @ 5500rpm; 304lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, RWD
Suspension Front: independent, MacPherson struts, torsion bars, anti-roll bar. Rear: independent, oblique arms, transverse torsion bars, telescopic dampers, antiroll bar
Steering Rack and pinion
Weight 1300kg (2866lb)
Performance Top speed: 161mph; 0-60mph: 5.4sec
Fuel consumption 23mpg
Price new £39,300
Values now £35k-£75k
‘There’s no room for adjustment – everything requires a physics lesson and assertive commitment’
‘When you drive a Cobra, you ride with the Devil. And you’d best know what you’re doing’
In 1985, the supercar world was rocked by a revolutionary product. It used the latest miniaturised computer technology, was uniquely manoeuvrable, and came from Japan. However, it didn’t have wheels and its only motors operated a pair of tape spools. It was the Sony Handycam, and before long the young, moneyed extroverts who owned supercars were setting them up in the cockpit, showing the world just what their cars could do. On public roads. With a plethora of YouTube channels now providing a similar service, it could be said to be the point when the cult of the modern supercar began.
One of the most infamous videos of this era shows a Ferrari F40 owner weaving through traffic on an alarmingly crowded Japanese motorway, en route to 200mph. That top speed was seismic – a barrier every supercar tried to break in the Eighties to the point where Lamborghini claimed its Countach could achieve it – even without actual proof. This Ferrari did deliver the goods.
Production wasn’t limited to selected customers – faced with the cancellation of the costly Group B programme that sired the 288 GTO, Ferrari would sell as many as they could to make the project profitable, which meant that a fair few went to wealthy – and yes, reckless – extroverts as well, regardless of consequences. That 201mph top speed may have come as a result of an engineering tour de force, but it acted like bait to the Handycam brigade.
You only need to sit in an F40 to understand why it’s the moral victor of the Eighties supercar wars. The racing bucket seat with its provision for a four-point harness is comfy, but you’re clamped in a bare carbon-fibre interior like an astronaut preparing for a moonshot. There’s no luxury here – the ascetic Ferrari strained every sinew to reach 200mph. My vision is focused by a cluster of red instruments in a sea of grey alcantara. Responsibility weighs heavy.
1988 Ferrari F40 road test. Twin-turbocharged F40 needslightning quick reactions. Purely driver-focused. You need to be 478bhp V8 will launch with addictive savagery.
Fire up the engine, and there’s a harsh metallic bark followed by a hard mechanical drilling, as though the combustion process has been replaced by eight pickaxe-wielding miners rapidly hammering the cylinders around the block. At low speeds the steering is heavy, a consequence of 235/40 ZR17 front tyres and firm, lateral racerstyle suspension-arm geometry. The gearshift would feel harsh and mechanical to a driver coming straight from a hot hatch, but it’s not so different to that of the 328 GTB, a few trace remnants of which you can still make out between the F40’s front and rear clamshells.
The car is quite user-friendly when negotiating B-road bends, despite its dramatically low stance and near-two-metre width, thanks to an elegantly balanced mid-engined chassis plus enormous tyres – 335/35 ZR17 at the rear – designed with such lofty limits in mind that ordinary roads are almost an insult to its abilities. The key thing is to keep it off-boost, short-shifting below 3500rpm.
The engine remains unmusical at sub-3000rpm speeds, but just at the moment a 328 would start hinting at a need for an upchange, the F40’s two IHI 163 turbochargers spool up, the growling becomes a high-pitched squeal, and performance touches another plane. The scenery moves so quickly that you start to lose sight of the details of the world around you, simplifying itself into Eighties eight-bit computer-game-style blocks of colour, streaks of blue sky, green hedgerows and a grey slab of road. Your sole task is to stay on the grey part as all three needles in your line of sight – rev counter, speedometer and boost gauge – sweep relentlessly clockwise.
I don’t have enough room to do 200mph, but the temptation to spool up the turbochargers and go for it is ever-present in an F40. It’s this – plus the Handycam – that’s responsible for the F40’s reputation. It can and will reach 200mph, and its chattering wastegates are a constant reminder of this, whispering temptation into your ears. However, there is no safety net in the form of things like traction control and four-wheel drive. The F40’s unyielding, unrelenting grip, tough race-car control surfaces and brutally heavy steering and gearshift may bruise and jar after a back-road sortie, but the briefest of forays into the boost zone will always leave you wanting to go back and push it harder. This is how psychological addiction begins, and although the F40 is competent and fairly flawless so long as you don’t tempt the turbochargers on anything other than a clear, open road, it’s the drug-like effect it has on your senses that make it so potentially dangerous.
‘It will reach 200mph, and its chattering wastegates constantly whisper temptation into your ears’
Owning an Ferrari F40
James Cottingham, specialist at DK Engineering says, ‘Once you get around the 10-yearly bag-fuel-tank change – which is inescapably inexpensive – they’re actually relatively easy to live with, more comfortable and with more space than a LaFerrari. They’re not GTs but unlike most of its rivals and descendents, you can certainly contemplate a long drive in one.
‘By Ferrari standards they’re relatively inexpensive to maintain, retaining many of the servicing-friendly features of the 288 GTO, including the access hatch to replace the cambelt so you don’t have to drop the engine out. It’s the body panels that are difficult to replace – typically the result of a crash.
‘If it’s damp, be very careful. Traction is limited, and you need a dead-straight line before you give it full beans. It needs to be driven with respect and caution. Provoke the boost while cornering too fast and it’ll swap ends five times before you have time to react.’
TECHNICAL DATA 1988 Ferrari F40
Engine 2936cc V8, dohc per bank, Weber-Marelli IAW electronicfuel injection, two IHI turbochargers Power and torque 478bhp @ 7000rpm; 424lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Five-speedmanual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front and rear: independent,double wishbones, telescopic dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steering Rack and pinion
Weight 1235kg (2723lb)
Performance Top speed: 201mph; 0-60mph: 3.7sec
Price new £163,000
Values now £575k-£1m
The Ferrari F40 has a very effective mechanism limiting its potential to put people in danger – the sheer expense of buying and running one. Even at their cheapest they never dropped much below £190,000, and nowadays the cost of entry is pushing a million pounds. This makes them eternal investments, with even the most passionate owners unwilling to do anything reckless in them.
Things have always been different with TVRs, especially in the late Nineties. Prior to the implosion of the dotcom boom, their combination of genuinely high performance and a price tag that, at around £30,000, undercut Porsche made them viable alternatives to various boring executive saloons. The pioneers of the new digital economy saw themselves as too young for an optioned-up W124 E-Class or BMW 535i E34. These were people who’d gone bungee-jumping and kitesurfing on gap years before setting up their internet companies, and the next thrill-seeking fads to blow off steam involved hurtling round racetracks or attempting to reach their new toy’s top speed before going home, firing up the computer and bragging about their exploits on a new-fangled web forum under a pseudonym alluding to their driving prowess.
However, ‘Binned it on a track day’ soon became one such boast, and in this TVR Griffith 500 it’s not hard to see why. Simplicity, and an emphasis on high performance rather than the latest safety systems, kept the price down, leaving TVR’s engineers free to focus on fitting ever-larger Rover-derived V8s into their glassfibre showstoppers.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about this Griffith 500 – the biggest-capacity Rover V8 TVR used, in its most track-orientated car of the time – is how it makes incredibly fast driving so easy. The familiarity of the British roadster form helps. It’s actually incredibly well-balanced. You don’t have to learn any tricky new physics lessons in rear-biased weight distribution or the effects of turbo lag.
1999 TVR Griffith 500 SE road test. Interior’s spacious enough for victims of all shapes and sizes. Not much Rover left in 500 form. Peril, but not because it’s yellow. Time to concentrate.
With the engine up front driving the rear wheels, normally aspirated power delivery and long-travel pedals, you can meter acceleration and braking actions progressively. Despite a reputation for being an unruly animal it’s actually a very communicative car, not unlike a Lotus Elan. But the Elan never had a 5.0-litre V8.
The driving position is perfect for the tall. Even with fairly long legs I have to point the toes of my right foot to access the upper reaches of the rev range. In early forays into sharp B-road bends the chassis feels viceless, the wheel sizzling with information without jarring my palms. Few cars have steering quite so uncorrupted. Helm action is immediate and urgent. In tight bends and with its big tyres – 225/45 VR16 at the front, 245/45 at the rear – gripping hard in each corner of its compact chassis, it turns around the driver as purely as the Stratos, only without the constant threat of rear-end breakaway.
That said, I’m not feeling the need at this stage to push it much beyond 4000rpm, given how the V8’s low-down 360lb ft of torque feels more than sufficient. And therein lies the Griffith 500’s sting, because the Rover unit can be revved much higher than this.
The TVR Griffith 500 is so dangerous in the wrong hands precisely because its chassis is so competent and the car feels so limitless on real-world driving roads. Before long you’re exploring more and more of the rev range, putting ever-greater pressure on those tyres, and the TVR’s seemingly neutral attitude never really shifts. Sooner or later, it will break traction, and when that happens you’ll have been attempting something frankly stupid in retrospect, or doing intergalactic speeds – and unlike the German and Japanese rivals, there will be nothing to mitigate the accident. No airbags, traction control or anti-lock brakes, just opposite lock and blind luck.
It could be argued that the TVR Griffith 500 offers nothing that a sports car driver of the analogue era had to deal with. However, no one at the wheel of a Triumph TR5 or Austin-Healey 3000 ever had to contend with 340bhp and four seconds to 60mph. This was previously accessible only to those who could buy an Italian supercar. TVR changed that, dropping the entry to the fast car club several rungs down the traditional ownership ladder, and in doing so became many power-crazed drivers’ first introduction to high performance. No wonder so many ended up beached in gravel traps or crunched against Armco barriers.
Owning a TVR Griffith
‘I knew about their reputation, ensured that I was careful, accelerated in straight lines and was slow around corners, but I’d grown used to ABS and traction control,’ says Mike Duma of his early TVR ownership experience. ‘Then I started to press on and was surprised that even in second and third gear if you put your foot down too sharply the back end would step out – when you’re going in a straight line! It was a sobering reminder of what I could and couldn’t do in the car.
‘However, around where I live – Matlock Bath in Derbyshire – it’s perfect on the country lanes. It’ll cruise nicely with the roof down in the sunshine, but you know a genuine adrenaline hit is just under your right foot. ‘I bought it because I wanted something British with soul, a proper performance car that didn’t depreciate or cost a fortune to run. And yes, I was drawn to the “cool because it’s dangerous” factor too.’
TECHNICAL DATA 1999 TVR Griffith 500 SE
Engine 4997cc V8, ohv, Lucas 14CUX electronic fuel injection
Power and torque 340bhp @ 5600rpm; 360lb ft @ 3750rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front and rear: independent, unequal-length double wishbones, telescopic dampers, coil springs; anti-roll bar at front
Steering Rack and pinion
Brakes Discs front and rear
Weight 1060kg (2337lb)
Performance Top speed: 160mph; 0-60mph: 4.1sec
Fuel consumption 21mpg
Price new £32,995
Values now £12,000-£19,500
‘The TVR Griffith 500 is so dangerous in the wrong hands precisely because its chassis is so competent’
There is one genuinely dangerous car here. The Ford Capri 3000 GXL deserves its reputation because it comes as a result of cost-cutting design flaws rather than solely speed and power – elements that, as the rest of our septet demonstrate, are responsibilities the driver must ultimately bear. The Capri, on the other hand, genuinely struggles to contain its everpresent surges of torque with its primitive suspension, and steering that appears smooth under normal circumstances but slow-witted in a crisis.
The Stratos may seem eager to snap sideways, but the responsive steering means that so long as you’ve got the skills, this needn’t be a problem. Same goes for the 911 Turbo – discipline and a grounding in physics are essential to avoid doing something catastrophic. They will challenge you but they’re not insurmountable.
Diverse though the Peugeot, Ferrari and TVR may seem, they’re also paragons of utmost competence. You’ll need to have your wits about you but, far from being outright sinners, they’re some of the best-handling cars in their respective genres.
However, the AC Cobra 427 really is as terrifying as its reputation would have you believe. It isn’t flawed like the Capri but the way it leaves you in no doubt of the colossal amounts of power and torque you’re having to deal with makes it the most deadly automotive sinner of them all. When you drive a Cobra, you ride with the Devil. And you’d best know what you’re doing.
Thanks to: Tickover (tickover.co.uk), Darren Line, the Intensive Car Unit (01702 335365), James Cottingham, DK Engineering (dkeng.co.uk), Phil Hylander, Karl Chopra, Design 911 (design911.co.uk), Alex Bailey, Pug1Off (pug1off.com), the TVR Car Club (tvr-car-club.co.uk), Mike Duma, James Agger Autosport (jamesagger.com), Brooklands Cars (brooklandscarsltd.com) and Phil Howard.
Simon Kidston’s market choice
‘Diverse? You bet! Some of our cars might grace the cover of an auction catalogue, while others wouldn’t get a second glance parked on a suburban street. But let’s start with the scariest.
‘A Sixties road tester commented that the 7.0-litre Cobra didn’t need a rear-view mirror – it accelerated so fast, your eyes would be in the back of your head. Racing pedigree, rarity and looks, it has it all. The only drawback is a largely US-centric market, as over here it still suffers from a whiff of nightclub owner.
‘The Ford Capri is coming into its own as a bluecollar classic. So too is the TVR Griffith 500, although anything named after a Trevor might be out of its depth on the international stage. Not so the little Pug, beloved of a generation of London estate agents (and Gregor Fisken’s first company car) and City Hoorahs. Evil torque steer but it blew the doors off most Golfs and has a bright – if limited – future.
‘It’s clear which ones have global appeal. The Stratos looks sensational, has Ferrari power and beat all comers in rallying. Never mind Third World build quality and a preponderance of Group 4 fakes. ‘The 930 Turbo shouts flared trousers, big hair, checked seats and Seventies disco – it’s now hip. However, the F40 rivals the Stratos for school-project finish combined with iconic looks and did-it-all pedigree, and it’s a Ferrari. For me, it’s the winner.’