May 20 2019

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11 classics that are slower than you think

Sporty style but not necessarily supercar pace

We’ve all heard the maxim speed sells. But when it comes to classic cars that speed was often as likely to have been created by the marketing team as the engineering department.

Some of the 11 cars here bask in the reflected glory of their faster siblings. Others dine out on urban folklore. They all have one thing in common: they’re not as fast as you think.

1. Lotus Esprit

Giugiaro’s wedgy bodywork gave the original S1 Esprit the visual drama to compete with any 1970s supercar, and an appearance as Bond’s wheels in The Spy Who Loved Me proved the perfect billboard.

Shame the boys at Hethel forgot to give it the trousers to go with that mouth. Lotus said the 160bhp S1 could crack 60mph in 6.8 secs, but road testers struggled to get within a second of that and the top speed was a disappointing 124mph.

1. Lotus Esprit (continued)

Proper supercar pace would have to wait until 1980 and the launch of the limited-edition 210bhp Essex Esprit Turbo, a forced-induction Esprit wearing the garish colours of Lotus’ F1 sponsor, Essex Petroleum.

Lotus released a regular-production Turbo the following year. The graphics were toned down, but the performance wasn’t: zero to 60mph took 6 secs and it could touch 150mph flat out.

2. Ford Escort RS1800

Ford grabbed the manufacturers’ WRC title in ’79 and ’81 with its 250bhp Cosworth-powered MK2 RS1800 thanks to the heroics of drivers including Bjorn Waldegard and Ari Vatanen.

And 109 regular customers were lucky enough to get their hands on the road cars Ford was required to build to homologate the racers.

2. Ford Escort RS1800 (continued)

But despite their fancy four-valve heads the road cars made just 115bhp – only 5bhp more than the cheaper RS2000’s single-cam Pinto.

Worse yet, in road tests both Autocar and Motor found the RS2000 actually accelerated faster though the gears and was only a couple of mph short at the top end.

3. Porsche 911

The excitement of driving an early 911 has always been about more than straight-line speed. Hairy lift-off oversteer and scary front-wheel lockup on wet roads means even the modestly powerful models can set your pulse racing.

Which is just as well, because while the performance of cars such as the 140mph 2.4S pictured above is legendary, some lesser 911s were about as spritely as a tortoise with a club foot.

3. Porsche 911 (continued)

When Road & Track tested a car fitted with the Sportomatic semi-auto transmission in 1968 it needed 10.3 secs to reach 60mph, making it almost as slow off the line as the four-cylinder 912.

The 912 died in 1969, but was resurrected for 1976 as the 912E, a stopgap between the departure of the 914 and arrival of the 924.

Essentially a 911 with a humble VW flat-four under the rear lid, the 90bhp 912 took 11.3 secs to reach 60mph, meaning even a well-driven MGB was a threat at the lights.

4. Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit II

Once famously describing the output of its engines as ‘adequate’, even Rolls had to admit that by the time the Silver Spirit II was launched in 1989, the power and performance provided by its 6.75-litre V8 was anything but.

4. Rolls Royce Silver Spirit II (continued)

No one chooses a Rolls for charging about – there was the Bentley Turbo for that. But they do expect effortless performance to help them outrun the proles.

Sadly, the 226bhp Spirit’s 10.4-second 0-60mph best was effortlessly humiliated by BMW’s 300bhp 750iL, which got there in 7.7, had a creamy V12 and was almost half the price.

5. 1980 Chevrolet Corvette

The 1970s was a tough time for American car fans. Modifications needed to meet tougher crash legislation added extra weight, while a drop in compression ratios to accommodate lead-free fuel, followed by the adoption of catalytic converters mid-decade, robbed once-virile V8 engines of power.

5. 1980 Chevrolet Corvette (continued)

But things were even tougher in California, where some cars and engine options weren’t offered at all.

While the 49-state Corvette for the 1980 model year was still a 5.7-litre V8, the only version available in California was a feeble 180bhp 5-litre with single exhaust and compulsory three-speed automatic transmission that would have struggled to break 10 secs to 60mph.

And, as if to rub salt in the wound, federal rules meant that an 85mph speedo was now standard.

6. Mini Cooper

With its twin SU carbs and three-into-one manifold, the original 1961 Cooper 997 made the Mini a whole lot more mischievous, as John Cooper himself proves in the picture above.

But not actually that fast. Autocar recorded 0-60mph in 18 secs and 87mph flat out. That kind of pace wasn’t likely to take many sports car scalps, unlike tuning firm Downton’s Mini conversions that could do the 0-60mph job in half the time.

6. Mini Cooper (continued)

The Cooper S that landed two years later was a far more serious machine. First came the 70bhp 1071 S (13.5 secs), followed by the lusty 76bhp 1275 (10.9 secs).

Still, tuning companies such as Broadspeed, whose uprated 1275 could reach 121mph and scramble to 60mph in 8.2 secs, showed what the Mini was capable of if only BMC would let it off the leash.

7. Ford Mustang

Think Mustang and you probably think Bullitt, burnouts and V8s with cylinders the size of beer barrels. McQueen’s Highland Green fastback had a 325bhp, 390cu in (6.4-litre) V8, and even that wasn’t top of the tree.

The hemi-head Nascar engine in the Boss 429 was officially rated at 375bhp, but was rumoured to put out nearer 500…

7. Ford Mustang (continued)

But even at the height of the 1960s muscle car years, most Mustangs were relatively mild performers. In 1965, the first year of production, the base ’Stang was a 170cu in (2.8-litre) straight-six with a meagre 120bhp – and that was under the inflated SAE gross bhp rating system.

It needed 15.1 secs to get to 60mph and topped out at 90mph, which would have given that black Charger plenty of time to disappear into the distance.

8. DeLorean DMC-12

‘Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.’ So said Doc brown in the final seconds of Back to the Future, and he was right – there are other locations more suitable for getting a slothful DMC-12 up to 88mph. Such as Bonneville Salt Flats.

8. DeLorean DMC-12 (continued)

The combination of a backbone chassis, GRP body and stainless-steel skin made the DeLorean unnecessarily heavy, and the feeble federal-spec 130bhp PRV V6 was no powerhouse.

DeLorean talked of a 130mph top speed and 8.5 secs 0-60mph times, but they were as optimistic as the sales projections. Ten seconds and 120mph was closer to the money.

9. Datsun 260Z

Succeeding where MG’s six-cylinder C failed, the 240Z (pictured above) was fast, fun and affordable, although UK import tariffs meant it was never quite the bargain here it was in the US.

So if the 240Z was dynamite, the 260Z, the same car with an extra 200cc and 11bhp, ought to be even more explosive, right?

9. Datsun 260Z (continued)

Not so. While euro-spec 240s could rip to 60mph in 8 seconds dead, the heavier, taller-geared 260Z took 0.8 secs longer, and by 100mph the gap had grown to almost 2 secs. The stretched 260Z 2+2 fared even worse, only just squeaking below 10 secs. 260Z? 260ZZZZZ, more like.

10. Lamborghini Countach

With that shape and those doors, Lamborghini could have plucked a ludicrous top speed out of thin air to affix to the Countach and people would have believed it.

And that’s exactly what it did. The original narrow-arch LP400’s claimed 190mph max was a hypothetical figure based on the car being able to hit 8000rpm in fifth gear. The true figure was nearer 170mph.

10. Lamborghini Countach (continued)

With the extra drag of its fat arches and Pirelli P7 tyres, later cars were even slower, especially if equipped with the optional rear wing. Car and Driver tested a European-spec LP5000S in 1983 and the results were less than epic: 160mph without the boomerang, and a measly 150mph with.

11. Jaguar E-type

Jaguar’s E-type was the sensation of the ’61 Geneva show: as beautiful as any Ferrari yet, at £2097, a fraction of the price. And when Autocar’s road testers recorded 150.4mph in one, its legend was complete.

But a pre-restoration strip-down of Autocar’s test car decades later confirmed the racing rubber it wore for the top speed run was only one of the cheats at play.

11. Jaguar E-type (continued)

The engine was a blueprinted XK150S unit fitted with a gas-flowed head and matched inlet and exhaust manifolds. Production E-types would top out at closer to 140mph and Motor’s 2+2 automatic was all done by 136mph.

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