Classic Alternatives

In the world of fashion, it’s considered something of an embarrassment to show up at a prestigious event and find that someone else is wearing the same designer outfit. Luckily, the automotive world is more forgiving—many great friendships are formed at car shows and races between drivers who happen to own the same type of car. Still, being just a number in the crowd can be a bit discouraging. A red Ferrari 308 loses some of its visceral impact when surrounded by 17 other red Ferrari 308s. The machine is no less wonderful than it was before it joined the herd, but it does lose the distinctness it enjoys when motoring out in the world of common cars. Standing out in a large crowd of enthusiasts requires a car that’s a bit obscure. However, few drivers want to give up spirited performance and quality engineering simply for the sake of being different. Fortunately, nearly every desirable classic in the world has a lesser-known spiritual counterpart, a car that provides the same thrills while avoiding the me-too syndrome that comes with the ownership of more popular autos. To help with the hunt, we’ve chosen four benchmark classics from different sporting categories and uncovered a lesser-known alternative for each. Be forewarned: Ownership of any of these offbeat cars will guarantee plenty of curious onlookers with a never-ending barrage of questions—you might just make more friends than you can handle.

Sporting Sedan

The Alfa Romeo Gulia-based GTV coupes of the 1960s and ’70s are embraced by enthusiasts for their willing engines and nimble performance. The GTV also provides great leaps in relative comfort and practicality compared to an open-top sports car. Best of all, the back seat allows you to bring along three friends for that spirited jaunt along a winding road—providing two of them are either small or don’t mind eating their knees.

Alfa cranked out nearly 150,000 105 and 115-series GTVs in more than a decade of production, and many have survived to become classics. At vintage races and car shows across the U.S., the GTV is a popular sight. For something a bit different, however, set a course due north for Scandinavia.

Swedish manufacturer Volvo has always manufactured cars to the beat of their own drum, and their products are rarely confused with those of any other marque. The company has earned legions of fans by making automobiles that are sturdy, uniquely styled and, more often than not, surprisingly fun to drive.

This example has the larger B20 engine in place of the standard B18B.

One of the most popular Volvos in history was the Amazon, launched in 1956 and marketed around the world as the 120 series. It was a upscale compact sedan, and like many Volvos it showcased the company’s focus on safety and solid construction.

Volvo already had a sporty offering at the time with the P1800, but for the final two years of Amazon production, they decided to spice up their little sedan with a 123GT version. Fitting the Amazon with a high-compression, B18B-spec engine sourced from the P1800 livened performance considerably. The 123GT also got an alternator, four-speed manual transmission fitted with electric overdrive, sport-tuned suspension, racy steering wheel, dash-mounted tachometer and driving lights.

Interior bits like the dash-mounted tachometer pod set the 123GT apart from regular Amazons, and finding replacements is difficult.

These changes transformed the usually sedate Amazon into a surprisingly lively little monster. The sporty bits weren’t just for show, either, as the Volvo was homologated for racing with the FIA; it bears registration No. 5152.

Like the Alfa GTV, the Volvo 123GT is a two-door 2+2 with a punchy inline-four displacing a bit less than 2 liters. Only about 1500 123GTs were made, however, so the GTV is downright common by comparison. The 123GT was never officially imported to the U.S., but several came to our shores through private channels and from Canada. For even more exclusivity, Volvo made a few European-spec 123GTs powered by larger B20B engines, though they were not FIA-homologated.

The 123GT’s standard powerplant lacks the spin-happy nature of the Alfa, but the Volvo’s engine features a robust pushrod overhead valve design with twin carburetors and five main bearings. Like many Volvo engines, the B18 can go reliably for hundreds of thousands of miles. It’s a bit down on power compared to the larger-displacement Alfa GTV engines, but the 123GT has ample torque down low—great for getting out of corners in a hurry.

The 123GT can work beautifully as a daily driver or a weekend track warrior. The Viking helmet is optional.

Italian Exotic

With equal parts performance, style and celebrity, the 1975-’85 Ferrari 308 introduced the masses to Italy’s most famous sports car manufacturer. These days, Ferrari’s iconic mid-engined V8 two-seater is at the bottom of its depreciation curve, and we named it as a future collectible in last issue’s cover story. It’s a great choice for any sports car enthusiast who craves the spine-tingling thrills that only a Ferrari can provide. Unfortunately, the Ferrari 308 isn’t an option for everyone, as the buy-in cost can be high. Plus, the Ferrari can gobble up as much as $5000 a year in operating costs.

The car’s celebrity breeds intense popularity, and it’s also likely that there will be several Ferrari 308s at any medium- to large-sized Italian car gathering. Fortunately, Italy has birthed more than one mid-engined sports car: Lancia has an alternative to the 308 in the U.S.-market Beta Scorpion.

This attractive little sports car was initially intended to be a European-market big brother to the Fiat X1/9. An early prototype of this so-called Fiat X1/8 was produced in 1970. In 1972 the project was renamed X1/20, and the final prototype was ready by spring of 1974. Like the 308, the wedge shape came from the pens at Pininfarina.

U.S. cars came with an anemic 1.8-liter, so many Scorpion owners install the higher-output European 2-liter engine.

Fiat was going to introduce the new car in 1974, but when they looked at their available options and decided to specify a 2-liter engine, the new car quickly became too much like their X1/9. Fiat decided to sell the new car as a Lancia, as they had purchased the brand several years earlier. They named it the Montecarlo.

Unfortunately, the U.S. never got the 2-liter Lancia Montecarlo. First off, Chevy had the American rights to the Monte Carlo name, and it’s unlikely that the lawyers would have cared much about the lack of a space between the words or the lowercase “C.” Furthermore, the Montecarlo’s 120 horsepower, 2-liter engine was not up to U.S. emissions regulations.

Lancia did have access to a smog-certified 1.8-liter four, however, and the U.S. market was too attractive for the company to ignore. Lancia outfitted their stylish sports car with the smaller engine, raised the ride height about an inch, gave it the Scorpion moniker, and started selling them to Americans in 1976.

Unfortunately, the Scorpion gave up nearly 40 horsepower to its overseas counterpart, so it lacked much of the sting implied by its new name. In stock trim, this Lancia needs nearly 20 seconds to cover the quarter mile, so don’t expect to get anything other than laughs in a red-light drag race. These days, replacing the anemic 1.8 with the Euro-spec 2-liter is a popular upgrade.

The power is wanting, but otherwise the Scorpion has plenty to offer, including spirited handling that’s very much like that found in a Fiat X1/9. Plus, it features a retractable soft-top sunroof. Although the automotive press deemed the brakes subpar when the Scorpion debuted, fixes in that area are easily made.

At full throttle, nobody is going to mistake the Scorpion for the potent Ferrari 308. For those who place less emphasis on terminal velocity, however, the Lancia shares many qualities with the Ferrari, including the mid-engine layout, knockout styling and undeniably Italian driving experience.

The car is a sure standout in any crowd, too. There were just a few more than 1800 Lancia Scorpions sent to America—by contrast, Ferrari produced about 12,000 Ferrari 308s. Considering that many under-loved Scorpions have already been dissolved by rust, they’re quite rare today.

It turns out that both cars had a bit of Hollywood in them, too. The Ferrari 308 got plenty of camera time with Tom Selleck on “Magnum, P.I.,” but the Scorpion got to share the screen with Don Knotts: The sporty little Lancia played Herbie’s girlfriend Giselle in the Disney film “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.”

Classic Roadster

What about something a little different, like the fiberglass-bodied Elva? Like the MGB, the Elva does well on road or track, and the MGA-sourced engine works nicely in the lightweight roadster.

Reasonably priced British roadsters make up a huge segment of the classic sports car world. They’re abundant today because the manufacturers sold huge volumes of these cars when new by giving enthusiasts what they craved: top-down, two-seat fun for a reasonable price. Of all the little British cars, the MGA and MGB were among the most popular, with sales figures in the hundreds of thousands.

With so many out there, prices for these popular MGs have remained reasonable, but don’t expect to be the only MG at a British car show or vintage race of any appreciable size. At larger events, the MGBs can stretch off into the horizon in every direction.

A British sports car enthusiast who wants to stand out from the crowd without giving up ease of maintenance and drivability has an excellent alternative in the highly rare, fiberglass-bodied Elva Courier. Only about 600 Couriers were produced during an eight-year stretch that began in 1958—heck, British Leyland probably lost more MGBs than that due to labor riots.

Following a string of successful sports racing cars, Frank G. Nichols developed the Elva Courier prototype in 1958 with help from Peter Nott. The prototype had an aluminum body, but production examples were outfitted with a fiberglass shell over the tubular steel frame. The 1.5-liter MGA engine and transmission gave the little Courier mechanical reliability and adequate punch, particularly since the Elva undercut the MGA by more than 400 pounds.

The Courier was built as much for the track as it was for the street, and from the very start these lightweight roadsters were popular with road racers. Mark Donohue took the E Production SCCA championship in 1961 in an Elva Courier, and even today you’ll find Couriers on track with both vintage and modern club racing organizations.

The earliest Mk1 Couriers had a split-pane front windscreen, but in 1959 a Mk2 arrived. It sported a curved single-pane windshield, larger 1.6-liter MGA engine and standard front disc brakes. In 1961, Trojan Limited bought the rights to the Courier and took over production.

Under Trojan, the Courier evolved into the Mk3. Several big changes were in store, including a switch from tubular steel to a square section frame. The newer design also had an independent rear suspension and available rear disc brakes. Furthermore, the engine was moved farther forward in the body, improving interior space but increasing the tendency of the car to understeer. Racers didn’t like that last part.

The Mk4 debuted for 1963, sporting the front suspension and steering of the Triumph Vitesse, a TVR-sourced rear suspension, and a choice of either a 1.8-liter MGB engine or a Ford 1500 engine. The body was revised to allow for roll-up side windows.

Despite the changes, Trojan didn’t see Courier popularity rise as they had hoped, and in 1965 the design passed to Ken Sheppard Customized Sport Cars. The final few dozen Sheppard-built Couriers are highly regarded for their build quality, but 1966 marked the end of all Courier production.

American Iron

Most people picture the Chevy Camaro or Ford Mustang when they think muscle car, but the Holman Moody Fairlane is an ultra-rare and extremely potent alternative.

Take a big V8 and put it in a relatively compact two-door four-seater, and you’ve got the classic American pony car. Both Chevy and Ford have enjoyed decades of success by applying this recipe to their Camaro and Mustang models, and from the very start these cars have been fixtures in road racing.

The Mustang and Camaro stars shine so brightly, in fact, that they tend to make people forget that there are other options in the world of classic V8 American muscle cars. One ultra-obscure example is the Holman Moody Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt.

The first—and for a long time, only—such Fairlane was built in 1964. Holman Moody, founded in 1957, was Ford’s official racing arm. NASCAR wanted to test a unibody design with NASCAR running gear, so they gave the order for Holman Moody to produce a monster out of the company’s mid-sized car, the Fairlane. The company started with a longer Fairlane 500, and packed in a fire-breathing, 427-cubic-inch V8. They put famed driver Glenn “Fireball” Roberts at the wheel.

The creation was impressive in testing, so they decided to enter it in the 250-mile Daytona American Challenge Cup race in 1964. Despite stiff competition from the world’s best dedicated sports cars, Roberts drove the Fairlane to second place overall behind A.J. Foyt in a Cooper Monaco.

The Holman Moody Fairlane was then sold to Alan Mann, a British racer and team owner. Mann raced the car a couple of times in England and then sold it. Unfortunately, the trail goes cold after that. Perhaps someday this storied Fairlane will show up in a barn, but that’s an outside bet.

All hope is not lost, however. Thanks to Lee Holman, the son of Holman Moody co-founder John Holman, it’s once again possible to obtain these cars. Holman Moody never threw away anything, so they’ve got the blueprints and necessary parts to turn back the clock.

Since 2003, Lee has produced two more racing Fairlanes according to the original design specifications. He’s planning to build another two, so it’ll be possible to count the grand total of these cars on one hand—even if the original ever shows up. It’s highly unlikely that a Holman Moody Fairlane owner would end up parked next to a sister car at the grocery store.

One glance at the spec sheet shows that this Fairlane is not your average mid-1960s grocery-getter. A pair of big Holley 750 carburetors feed a snarling 427-cubic inch V8, exactly the type of engine you’d find in a NASCAR monster from that era. The Fairlane weighs in at under 3000 pounds, aided by a fiberglass front end and doors. Although it’s built to be FIA-legal for vintage racing, their rules allow for a modernized cage, so safety isn’t sacrificed for the sake of period-correctness.

The first Holman Moody Fairlane, a gray example, has already sold; the car has made quite an impact on the FIA vintage racing scene in Europe. A second example clad in the same white as the original car is up for sale now, and the third car is in the process of construction. Check out holmanmoody.com/autosales.html for more.

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Comments
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sfisher71
sfisher71 New Reader
11/10/10 1:39 p.m.

I always thought the 122S was cute and quaint, till I saw one on a lift. The Panhard rod at the rear, combined with four trailing arms and coil springs, got my attention. Then I looked up front and realized that the upper A-arms were bolted to the inboard side of the crossbrace -- meaning you can get as much negative camber as you want simply by shimming the inner A-arm mounts. A couple of aluminum spacers and you could make this thing as knock-kneed as an F1 car. Somebody was thinking when they put it together.

Couple this with a solidity that always made it feel as though the car had been machined from a solid billet, and ours was a rewarding family car for us for many years. I used it on a number of classic-car tours in the San Francisco Bay Area, drove to the wine country and back, and was always pleased at the amount of affection and attention the car received as our daily driver for most of a decade -- all after the car's 30th birthday.

tuna55
tuna55 UltimaDork
11/11/10 11:30 a.m.

We've done that exact camber modification along with several others. -Brian from the Tunachuckers

mjamgb
mjamgb New Reader
1/12/11 4:32 p.m.

I got a '67 122s for free a few years ago... "just needs head-work."

Well, it now has a b20 from a wrecked p1800, rebuilt steering, rebuilt suspension, brakes and drive-train. I put Ford Ltd. wheels on it and quite frankly it is a hoot to drive. If only it wasn't still rusty with an ugly paint job!

Son (11) has put in dibs on it since he knows he will never get the truck at 15.

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