Cars don't just appear, they evolve, built on the technology and the style of what came before. Every now and then, it's useful to take a step back, appreciate history, and get a glimpse of how today's efforts stand in the pantheon of preceding hardware.
"Cause Dan drove it." — Sam Posey
Light, airy, drives like the wispy little thing it is. Mazda's first rotary-engined car and the machine that kicked off the brand's half-century love affair with the technology. Without this, you have no twin-turbo RX-7, no Le Mans-winning four-rotor, nowhere to look for proof that car engineers still have silly, impractical, awesome dreams.
Its shape has been seared into your brain, most likely without a name. Blame Speed Racer, George Lucas, Steve McQueen, or the countless kids who sat in study hall doodling generic race cars in their notebooks—the T70 long ago became the epitome of the breed. The Lola may not have been the fastest of the Sixties sports racers, but it was an anything's-possible, Swiss Army knife of a car. It remains the apex of Eric Broadley's design genius and (right, at Daytona in 1969) a standout chapter in the Great Book of Duct Tape.
Somehow European and American all at once. A truckish, unrefined brute, in the good way. Tame one, you're a man.
Yin to the Lola T70's yang—as rarified as the former was not. Looks the business, sounds like unbridled hell. Gold wheels need no explanation.
Ferrari's small, simple Dino in its purest form, with alloy bodywork and gobs of grace. Dollar for dollar, Enzo never did better.
Alfa's Type 33 racer made streetable. Few fit inside, but you'd buy one solely to look at. (Proof: The gent who owns our photo car did just that.)
No front-driver—let alone one from Michigan—has ever said "go to hell" more eloquently.
The Graduate, sure. But also Alfa's masterful aluminum twin-cam. A boattail. And no roof.
The first mid-engine, mass-production road car. Born in 1962 (as a Bonnet) with four-wheel disc brakes and independent rear suspension at a time when the latter wasn't found on a new Ferrari. Steel backbone chassis and bonded-fiberglass body. Yuri Gagarin drove one. French, in the best way.
Benchmark, legend, step-off point for a thousand stories. The result of taking a sports car that beat everybody and doubling the power, but also the embodiment of American car culture: crazy ambition screw-you attitude and a heaping dose of louder-faster-better. Still the standard by which all supercars are judged.
Carroll Shelby's street Mustang built into a winning, genuine badass. The move saved Shelby American and "made" the Mustang, giving both the base Stang and the street GT350 road-racing cred through a combination of good timing and hot-rodder smarts. Fast, crude, and staggeringly effective.
Everyone knows why the E-Type makes it—sex, speed, and more sex—but why this one? Because the coupe somehow added to the roadster's perfection without seeming gratuitous. Because the early, covered-headlight cars were almost pornographically clean. Because 4.2 liters is as large as that wonderful straight-six got.
You could sit down and try to think of a Detroit convertible with more presence, design mojo, subtlety, and grace. You might come up with an answer. You would be incorrect.
"So aerodynamic, it went 140 mph with just 170 horsepower. To this day, it still looks like the future." — Jay Leno
A snowmobile engine sucked the car to the ground. So fast it was banned. Inspired a generation of engineers to stop asking permission.
Dodge Daytona/Plymouth Superbird: Mopar Street/Track siblings with absurd power and functional NASCAR aero. All-day 200-mph insanity.
Ford V8, ZF five-speed, basically a GT40 for the middle class. Knocked as a redneck supercar, but a good one is more riot than you'll ever need.
"The Stratos was a monster, but it was, at the same time, easy to understand." —Sandro Munari
The movie was equal parts fluff and camp, and the car was nothing special. But if you were born in America, you desperately want to jump it over a downed bridge with a young Sally Field in the right seat.
The name is an Italian expletive. The Miura was inarguably prettier, but the Countach seemed far more impossible. And impossible always wins.
Everyone loves trucks, even the guys at a sports-car magazine. And this was the hairy-chested sports car of trucks: small, ballsy, rarely left stock. Made Jeeps look girly.
Used air like no one ever had, turning the entire car into a purpose-built wing and changing racing forever. Livery was icing on the cake.
BMW's claim to inventing the sport sedan here is phooey—the true author was likely Italian and far earlier. But the Germans took the idea and perfected it. The rear-drive, 125-hp tii was small but practical, fun but sensible, highly tuned but stone reliable. And more fun than a drunk monkey.
"The 288 is a great car, but you wouldn't know it until you drove it. The F40 spells it out before you get in, then frightens you when you do. It's sort of the Incredible Hulk on wheels—just don't make it angry." — Nick Mason
In the mid-1980s, a Mercedes tuner best known for wide-body kits and fancy wheels debuted its first complete car, a $120,000 big-block V8 conversion of a $40,000 E-Class sedan. It made no sense; it seemed stupid. It was actually brilliant. It was a five-second car and a Lamborghini competitor, and it's the reason AMG is a Mercedes division today.
Group B rally cars would get faster but no crazier. The Quattro's wonderfulness, pyrotechnic as it was, was based in a street car, unlike the lab-rat specials of other brands. Add recirculating turbos to keep boost up, 500 hp, Haldex, Walter Röhrl, and a tiny wheelbase, and you get crazy German hot-rod magic flung hard through the midnight woods.
Out-of-the-box thinking shouldn't care what people think. On that note, here's a front-driver with its engine mounted backward and heeled way over to fit the transmission, with visibility so good it seems you're outside, but with heated Swedish seats, so you don't feel like you are. And driving it is so fantastic, you don't care how it looks. But it looks cool.
The last good "old" Buick, a turbo-V6 sleeper that beat Corvettes. Everything worth loving about cheap speed, old Detroit, and GM.
In July 1987, we published a test called "The World's Fastest Cars." It included, among other things, F1 champ Phil Hill, Peter Egan, VW's high-speed oval, an Isdera Imperator, and two Porsche 959s. Also this—a humble, 470-hp turbo 911 built days before by a little-known German tuner named Alois. The Ruf won, at a revolutionary 211 mph; the nickname got out, madman Stefan Roser took the car to the 'Ring (YouTube it), and the legend grew from there. The Bird is R&T lore, Porsche touchstone, and engineering masterstroke rolled into one. There had to be a 911 on this list—for us, it could be no other.