Subaru WRX. Photo by Laurance Yap
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by Paul Williams

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the RM classic car auction in Toronto. Not to buy, mind you, just to look. Believe me, there were some very flashy cars available. However, at one point I joined a group of people admiring a comparatively dull vehicle heading for the auction block. It was a 1970 Chevy Nova, a compact family car of the day, and it mesmerized those in the know.

“Man, that’s a real Q-ship,” said one of the older guys.

“A Q-ship?” I thought. “What the heck is that?”

Turns out it’s a navy term that found its way into the lexicon of car nuts after World War II. It derives from the cunning practice of fitting old merchant ships with huge guns. The guns would be hidden and the Q-ships would steam innocuously among enemy fleets. When the time was right, they’d drop the screens covering the guns, and attack.

1970 SS 396 Nova

1970 SS 396 Nova
1970 SS 396 Nova (L78)
photo courtesy Northern Digital Classics

The term Q-ship came to mean anything that was more powerful than it appeared. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. For a car, a sleeper.

The Chevy Nova at the auction was a case in point. It was dull green, had matching vinyl bench seats, steel wheels with little chrome hubcaps, and tall, skinny tires. It seemed the type of vehicle that parents of the era would disappoint their kids with, when arriving home in the in the promised new car.

But all was not as it seemed. Under the hood of this Nova was a 396 cubic inch, 375 horsepower V8 mated to a four-speed transmission and a positraction rear-end. It had disc brakes and a discreet dual exhaust. It could have been the L78 SS396 package, which was available for the little Nova, but de-trimmed, so that externally there was nothing to give it away, not even a V8 badge.

This, of course, was the idea, because underneath the car was actually a dragster.

The 1960s and 70s were notorious for Q-ships. You could buy a bottom-of-the-line Chevrolet Biscayne with no options except a 409 cubic inch V8, with triple carb’s. Chrysler’s famed Hemi-head V8 could seemingly be ordered with anything they built, even the family station wagon. Of course, anything Hemi-powered is now worth a fortune. Even in the 1980s you could order a plain-Jane Mustang LX with the 5.0 litre V8 and a five-speed. Ask Autos’s Grant Yoxon. He owns one.

I like the notion of a Q-ship: something that blends into the crowd, but really kicks butt. Unfortunately, there’s not much on the market that fits this description anymore. The reason is that car manufacturers just don’t offer the engine options that they used to. Not only that, they’re inflexible when it comes to special orders.

I asked around for examples of current Q-ships, and a friend suggested maybe a V6 Cavalier would fit the bill. Sorry, what I have in mind is a V8 Cavalier. No, make that a twin-turbo V8 Cavalier! Or a Honda Civic sedan with the 240 horsepower S2000 motor.

Something like that.

Okay, what about Volvo’s T5 option? It’s a 247 horsepower twin-turbocharged inline-5 that you can order for your S60 sedan or wagon. From the outside, it’s a regular Volvo, but under the hood it’s in Boxster S territory. True, T5s come with fancy wheels, but so do a lot of cars these days.

Or how about the Subaru Impreza WRX wagon? The WRX sedan has muscular fenders and a big spoiler, which gives it away. But the wagon is, well, a wagon. At 227 hp and 0-100 kph in a shade under six seconds it’s also a wagon with attitude.

What is it with wagons, anyway? The Audi S6 Avant is another one with large cojones. At 340 h.p. this thing’s a missile, but you could fund your own Impreza WRX rally team for the price of one S6.

Of course, there are many custom Q-ships. I’ve heard of re-engined Civics and Neons. Do you have one? Or do you have a modern Q-ship suggestion?

If you do, send in a picture and a description. We’ll try to feature you and your Q-ship suggestions in a future article.

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