1) Ferrari 208 GTB
What could have more promise, more raw curb appeal, than a mid-engined, pointy-nosed Ferrari with a V8 engine burbling away behind the seats? Well, one with more than 153hp, for a kick-off.
Yep, in 1980, Ferrari decided to pull a fast one on Italy’s own tax authorities, who had decided to double the duty paid on cars with engines larger than 2,000cc. The engineers cunningly slung a de-bored version of their Tipo V8 into the 308, creating a 1,990cc eight-cylinder supercar good for a mere 214kph. Only 160 examples were made before Ferrari revised the design by adding a turbocharger. This got the car to 60mph (97kph) in a respectable 6.6sec, and put the top speed beyond 241kph.
If you’ve ever watched Back to The Future and thought the dramatic run-up needed to get Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine up to the magic 88mph was a bit Hollywood, then you need to hear just how pathetically slow the DeLorean really was.
The Northern Irish-built sports car was designed to have a high-revving Wankel rotary engine in the middle, before plans then changed to a Ford V6 engine. This was too unreliable—dammit, America—so DeLorean changed tack and went for a Citroen V6 that wasn’t powerful enough. Dammit, France.
Plans to turbocharge the Citroen’s weak engine were dropped, and DeLorean eventually settled on a truly rubbish joint-venture V6 designed by Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo. The 2.8-liter motor generated just 130hp, and wouldn’t fit in the mid-engine bay, so the car had to be reconfigured for a rear-mounted powerplant. This would have made for scary handling, if the 10.5sec 0-60mph time hadn’t caused rivers to nod off before they got to a bend, let alone the space-time continuum.
3) Smart Roadster
With sales on the innovative little Smart ForTwo city car not as red-hot as parent-brand Mercedes-Benz was hoping, there was panic in the Smart offices in the late ’90s. How could the urban-offshoot brand generate some buzz, steal headlines from BMW’s exciting new Mini project, and get people through the showroom doors?
Someone happened on the idea of a lightweight sports car. The result was the two-seat Roadster, clothed in plastic panels and powered by a 0.7-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine, tickling the rear tires with just 81hp. This was then diluted by a painfully slow automated manual gearbox with ‘F1-style’ sequential shifting, which had about as much true F1 pedigree as a can of Rich Energy drink. Despite funky styling and peppy cornering, the Roadster sold about as quickly as it got moving.
If you think 0-60mph in 10.6sec is limp, try not to think too hard about the European entry-level model, which made do with just 61hp. Is 0-60mph in 15sec technically ‘moving’ at all?
4) Porsche 914/4
Platform sharing between Volkswagen and Porsche goes back further than you think. These days, a Touareg and a Cayenne share chassis foundations and tech, but back in the ’60s, VW and Porsche were planning to launch a co-developed targa-roofed sports car. The entry-level four-cylinder engine version would be badged as a VW, and the higher-powered flat-six blessed with a Porsche badge.
However, Porsche got cold feet about selling a badge-engineered Volkswagen, so the finished car was only ever sold with Stuttgart’s prancing horse on the badge. The base-model for the USA offered up just 80hp, so despite weighing as much as a roller skate, the 914/4 took 13.3sec to haul itself from 0-100kph. The 914/6 had 109hp, and only took 8.7sec. Much more like it.
5) Chevrolet Corvette C3 ‘California’
A low point for America’s sports car arrived in 1980, when Chevrolet simply gave up trying to get its big-block V8 engines to comply with the state of California’s strict emissions laws, and just bunged in a smaller, strangled motor instead. Sold (thankfully) just in the 1980 model year, the C3 ‘California’ was merely available with a combination of a V8 displacing 305 cubic inches and a Stone Age three-speed automatic gearbox.
Yup, from a mighty five liters, the Golden State’s ‘Vette could muster just 180hp.
Mind you, the 5.7-liter version sold elsewhere in the US only had 230hp. And to rub yet more salt in the wound, 1980 Corvettes were fitted with a speedo that only read up to 85mph (137kph), after a new law enacted in America demanded speedos read no higher to discourage speeding. Land of the free, eh?
6) Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ
Here to prove that not all great sports cars are fast—just as not all fast cars are sporty—the Toyobaru was never a straight-line weapon. Subaru insisted on a flat-four engine for a low center of gravity, and both companies shunned turbocharging for crisp throttle response.
So, the 197hp coupe was never going to be a rocket ship, but it’s a modern example of the old-school mantra that power isn’t everything, and a sweet chassis that makes use of every single horsepower beats an over-endowed lump of soulless numerical showing off every time. Almost.
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.