Review by Brendan McAleer, photos courtesy of manufacturers
Sometime around the Lamborghini Countach LP5000S, I stopped caring about how fast a car looked. Nothing against the Countach, but the original version – the LP400 that provoked Giovanni Bertone into making the semi-obscene Piedmontese exclamation that would give the car its name – was better than the fussy, be-winged cocaine-rocket of the 5000S.
On that day, I fell in love with the idea of the Q-Ship car, the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing; the sleeper. Even today, stuff like the E63 wagon or a de-badged Audi S4 with a software reflash is much preferred to a flashy ride with fake aerodynamic “enhancements”. I like fast cars, but I like ’em to fly under the radar.
Sabine Schmitz, the queen of the Nürburgring and professional racing driver, was the inspiration for this inaugural edition of a list of secret weapons. When shown Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson’s lap in a diesel-powered Jaguar, she scoffed good-naturedly, “I could do that time in a van.” Put to the test, she very nearly pulled it off too, sliding around the treacherous Nordschleife’s slippery corners in a full-sized white Ford Transit van.
So, in honour of Ms. Schmitz’s van tango, a selection of sneaky-fast vans that are packing some hidden firepower. With one of these, your plumber would never be late, and the FedEx guy would be able to deliver quicker than Santa Claus.
Dodge Caravan Turbo
In early 2000, I took my humble little MX-6 GT down to the local drag strip for the informal Friday Night street-legals. It was a warm summer’s night, and I thought I’d give the plucky ‘6 a little hand by chucking out the spare tire and whatever other weight savings I could manage. As the pile of junk started to build, a guy pulled up next to me in a burgundy 1980s Dodge Caravan, popped open the sliding door and unloaded a box of tools, threw the bench seat out onto the grass, and then drove off to line up against a Fox-body Mustang GT.
He subsequently blew past the ‘Stang about halfway down the drag strip, and went through the quarter-mile a full half-second faster.
Dodge Caravan Turbo & Porsche B32. Porsche image courtesy Autobild. Click image to enlarge
Chrysler pretty much invented the minivan segment with their Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan, which debuted in 1984 in glorious, highly unrealistic wood-panelled splendour. The initial engines were a pair of emphysematic four-cylinders, both of which soon proved insufficient for carting around an eight-passenger van.
Some bright bulb at Chrysler had the idea of swapping in the 2.5L turbocharged K-series engine, which put out 150 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque, and at least made the Caravan capable of a passing maneuver. You could even get it with a five-speed manual transmission, but it was almost immediately outsold by a new V6 option.
However, there were a few turbo Dodges and Plymouths out there, outfitted with a similar engine to the one Carroll Shelby used in the Shelby Daytona and the Omni GLHS. Crank up the boost and these average-looking 1980s bricks can drop into the 12-second quarter-mile bracket, spinning their front tires most of the way.
Porsche famously dropped a VW van engine into their budget-coupe 924. What you might not know is that they pulled rather the opposite trick with the extremely rare B32.
The B32 is a Volkswagen Type 3 (a Vanagon) with the running gear removed and replaced by that of a Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2. Just let that sink in for a moment.
As the rumour goes, Porsche needed parts-carriers and sleeping quarters to keep up with their racing and testing efforts, and the underpowered VW was far too slow. Having access to one of the best R&D departments on the planet, Porsche’s engineers swapped the 911’s engine and transmission over, tweaked the suspension and aerodynamics, and hit the road. Horsepower was essentially doubled, and the B32 was now capable of over 200 km/h. The only other way to get one of these blocky slugs to go that fast is to drop it from a C130 Hercules.
Porsche only built 12 to 15 of the B32 for public consumption, and surviving examples are insanely rare. However, the engineering necessary to build your own replica is not all that difficult. Special mention also goes here to the loony-tunes Race-Taxi, a Swiss-built VW Microbus with 993 Turbo power.