The eight best road cars with racing engines

15th April 2020
Henry Biggs

As our name suggests, we love all things road and racing related. But where the two meet, that’s where things really get interesting for us. Technology developed under competition conditions has been improving the performance, handing, safety, even the economy of our daily drivers for decades.


Sometimes the relationship between road and race is much closer, giving us some fearsome street machines. We don’t mean homologation specials numbered in the tens or low hundreds. We mean road cars with racing engines. So here’s a handy list, for when someone next tells you the Porsche 918 Spyder isn’t as special as the McLaren P1, or that the Fiat Dino is a poor man’s Ferrari.


1964 Plymouth Belvedere

The Chrysler 426 ‘Hemi’ of the mid-‘60s is one of those engines, like Alfa Romeo’s Busso V6, famous enough to have one word recognition among enthusiasts. In fact, this wasn’t the first time Chrysler had trialled hemispherical combustion chambers from which it gets its name; that was an experimental V16 aero-engine at the tail end of WW2. It was followed by the first generation road car Hemi V8 in the 1950s but the second generation is the one which created the legend.

Chrysler had abandoned the technology in 1959 only to revive it five years later for competition use. NASCAR multivalve engine but by using Hemi cylinder heads, Chrysler was able to use significantly larger valves to improve high-rpm breathing. Nicknamed the ‘Elephant Engine’ due to its size and power, just 11,000 426 (7.0-litre) Hemis made it into street cars between 1964 and 1970, the first being the Plymouth Belevedere and its sister car the Dodge Coronet. Detuned the engines still made 425hp and 637Nm (470lb ft) and are used in Top Fuel drag racing to this day.


1966 Fiat Dino

Admit it, this wasn’t the car you were expecting. The Fiat Dino is the less well known but to my mind prettier cousin to Ferrari’s Dino 206 GT, 246 GT and 246 GTS, and the car which allowed Ferrari to homologate its 2.0-litre V6 engine for Formula 2 racing. New FIA rules for the 1967 season required 500 engines to be built in less than a year, something tiny Ferrari was incapable of so a deal was struck with Fiat for it to be used in a new grand tourer. The engine was named the Dino, the nickname of Enzo Ferrari’s late son Alfredo who was said to be the inspiration behind the Vittorio Jano designed engine.

Aurelio Lampredi reengineered it for road car use and while Enzo Ferrari had envisioned the engine being built in Maranello for installation by Fiat, the Italian giant insisted on taking over production so all engines have FIAT visible on the cylinder block casting. The engine in 2.0-litre and later 2.4-litre sizes was front-mounted in the Fiat Dino GT and Spider, designed by Bertone and Pininfarina respectively, while in mid-mounted guise it powered Ferrari’s Dino and of course the legendary Lancia Stratos.


1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1

GM’s answer to the runaway success of the Ford Mustang was the Chevrolet Camaro, introduced in late 1966 and available in first generation form until 1969. As with most of the pony and muscle cars of the era, there was a bewildering array of engine options available, from straight-sixes to the 4.9-litre V8 in the Z/28 ‘ready to race’ package. One thing GM wasn’t prepared to offer in a car of the Camaro’s size and weight was a big block V8.

Frustrated by the corporate edict from on high, the Chevrolet division used the Central Office Production Order system, intended for fleet and special vehicles to sneak a handful of 427ci (7.0-litre) equipped Camaros out of the factory in 1969. And this wasn’t any big block; the ZL-1 was an all-aluminium, hand assembled V8 intended solely for drag racing and rated at 430 gross horsepower and 610Nm (450lb ft). Just 69 made it out of the factory door; as an option it cost as much as a base model V8 Camaro alone. A pair of them made it down under where one took the Australian Touring Car Championship (later V8 Supercars) in 1971 and 1972.


1970 Alfa Romeo Montreal

It’s rare that concept cars become more extreme when they make it to production but the Alfa Romeo Montreal is one exception. When it debuted at Expo ‘67 held in Montreal, Canada, it lacked a name and was built on Giulia GT running gear, including its 1.6-litre inline-four. However, reaction to its Marcello Gandini penned body was so positive that Alfa Romeo readied it for production. Appearing at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show, the production car still used GTV underpinnings of double wishbone suspension up front and a live axle and limited-slip differential at the rear, but under that supercar style bonnet was a more appropriate V8.

This was an enlarged version of the 2.0-litre V8 from the Tipo 33 sports prototype racer – and incidentally one of the most beautiful road cars of all time, the 33 Stradale. Now displacing an extra half litre but still dry sumped and with mechanical fuel injection, the Montreal produced 200hp. The Montreal was more expensive than a contemporary Porsche 911, perhaps in part due to its production process. The chassis was built at the Alfa Romeo Arese plant before heading to one Bertone plant for the bodywork, then another for its paintwork and interior, then finally returned to Alfa for the mechanicals to be fitted. Incidentally, the Montreal was never sold in Canada because Alfa Romeo didn’t want to develop the necessary North American emissions control equipment.


1971 Jaguar E-Type S3

Racing engine designs tend to have limited lifespans because of the rapid pace of competition research and development. Jaguar’s however saw road car use for more than a quarter of a century and, despite being originally intended for Le Mans, it was more than 15 years old before it made it to the great race. The engine’s origins stretch back to the 1950s, when Jaguar engineer Claude Baily proposed an 8.0-litre V12 to continue the firm’s Le Sarthe success with the C-Type and D-Type.

By the mid-‘60s the engine was being tested in production trim in the Jaguar Mark X saloon and 5.0-litre, quad-cam, all-aluminium competition format in the XJ13. While that project was canned, an SOHC, 5.3-litre version was taken forward to production, first finding a home under the unmistakeable bonnet of the Series 3 E-Type, putting it once again top of the performance pile. The engine saw duty in the XJ12, its sister car the Daimler Double Six and the XJ-S, before finally achieving victory at Le Mans in the 1988 XJR-9.


1984 BMW M5 (E28)

As it has evolved into the techno-saloon we know today, the BMW M5 has used almost every one of what enthusiasts would regard as a performance engine configuration including V10s and both naturally aspirated and forced induction V8s. The original straight-six is the one we are interested in here, specifically the M88/3, based directly on the M49 racing engine used in the 3.0 CSL which took six European Touring Car Championships and a class win at Le Mans in the mid ‘70s.

The first variant, the M88/1 was fitted to the original BMW M1; dry-sumped and with a four-valve head and Kugelfischer fuel injection it produced 277hp and 324Nm (239lb ft). In its ultimate turbocharged incarnation the M88/2 in the 3.5 CSL produced 900hp for Group 5 competition, winning three rounds of the 1976 World Championship for Makes. In comparison, the 286hp of the original BMW M5 seems tame but it was the fastest production saloon car in the world on its debut, blazing a trail for today’s four-door supercars and remains one of the rarest BMW Motorsport models.


1995 Ferrari F50

It’s fair to say that the Ferrari F50 didn’t receive the adulation of either its predecessor, the Ferrari F40, or its successor, the Ferrari Enzo in the Maranello marques pantheon of anniversary models. The main objections that armchair critics raised were the styling – but come on, it was the mid-‘90s, everything was blobby, we’re lucky it was still red rather than teal – and the fact that its performance was not as raw as the F40’s.

However, in spirit the F50 was much closer to Enzo Ferrari’s ethos of ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ than its predecessor which was more of a marketing exercise. The F50 genuinely took Ferrari’s F1 technology and applied it to the road. From the carbon fibre tub and horizontally mounted suspension components to the 4.7-litre V12, this was as close as you could get to a contemporary Ferrari F1 experience. That engine really was a development of the V12 which won Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell six Grands Prix in 1990 and in 1993 powered the Ferrari 333 SP Sports Prototype. It was at the pinnacle of engineering for its day with five valves per cylinder, dual chain-driven overhead cams and dry sump lubrication. Good for 513bhp and 470Nm (347lb ft), enough to eclipse the F40’s 0-62mph time by half a second.  


2013 Porsche 918 Spyder

I am sure most people were expecting to see the exalted Porsche Carrera GT here but its V10, designed for a shelved Footwork F1 car, never saw action. The 4.6 litre V8 in the Porsche 918 Spyder however shared its architecture with that of the engine in the Porsche RS Spyder. Created in conjunction with Penske Racing, the RS Spyder was Porsche’s first return to top flight sports prototype racing since 1999. It won its class on its debut outing at Laguna Seca at the tail end of the 2005 season. It took the ALMS LMP2 championship in 2006 to 2008, Le Mans class victories in 2008 and 2009 and outright victory at the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring.

Pretty good starting point really. Porsche didn’t just up the 3.4-litre V8’s capacity, it also gave the car some serious techno creds. The engine’s 599hp is supplemented by a pair of electric motors – one on each axle – delivering an additional 282hp and a total torque figure just shy of 1,355Nm (1,000lb ft). Utilising Porsche’s PDK dual-clutch gearbox, the Porsche recorded 0-62mph times in the sub 2.5 second range, a top speed near 220mph, and it could travel 20 miles on battery power alone.

  • BMW

  • M5

  • Plymouth

  • Belvedere

  • Fiat

  • Dino

  • Chevrolet

  • Camaro

  • Alfa Romeo

  • Montreal

  • Jaguar

  • E-Type

  • Ferrari

  • F50

  • Porsche

  • 918 Spyder

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