When you talk about iconic racecars, a simple list of 10 doesn’t just pop into mind. Instead you’re bombarded by a surge of images, paint schemes, engine sounds, and rockstar drivers, all demanding attention and – more importantly – deserving it. Narrowing that down to 10 is no small feat, and there are many more that deserve to be talked about, but they will have to wait for another time. These 10 iconic racing cars are legendary, beautiful, technological wonders that capture the hearts of their audience and the souls of their engineers and pilots.
1988 McLaren MP4/4
What do you get when you combine drivers Senna and Prost, groundbreaking new aero and chassis development from McLaren, a 650hp Honda turbo V6, and one of the most recognisable liveries in racing history, courtesy of Marlboro? None other than the McLaren MP4/4, the first car equipped with a chassis that positioned the driver lying back rather than sitting up. It was a design that had been in the works for two years, but would affect the shape of F1 cars forever. The MP4/4 was one of the most successful racing cars to compete in F1, and it was not uncommon for it to qualify a staggering 2 seconds faster than any of its competition (a delta unheard of in today’s races).
The Quattro is a ridiculous car. A 5 cylinder turbo engine placed entirely fore of the front axle gives a middle finger to conventional logic and, really, it shouldn’t work. But try telling that to Stig Blomqvist, Michele Mouton, Walter Röhrl, and the other rally drivers who piloted the automotive enigma to 23 WRC victories and two championships. The Quattro dominated wherever it went. As Group B grew, the car adapted to its surroundings. The final iteration putt down 591bhp (up from the original 300), boasted massive front and rear wings, and had 320mm hacked off the wheelbase, all in the name of speed.
The Gulf livery, Steve McQueen, LeMans…the 917 brings up so many images of the glory days of auto racing, when what it took to be a driver was testosterone and chest hair, and traction control was contained within your right foot. With a flat-12 twin-spark engine making 520hp when first released, the car was notably unstable, but devilishly fast. It won Porsche’s first 24 Hours of LeMans in 1970, and subsequent iterations of the car only got faster. In its final form in CanAm, the twin-turbo 917/30 was capable of producing an insane 1580bhp in qualifying trim, with the car weighing a scant 1800 lbs.
With a body designed by an ex-aeronautical engineer, four wheel disk brakes, and an aluminium monocoque chassis, the D-Type was way ahead of its time. A major focus was put onto the aerodynamic efficiency of the car, even going so far as to slant the engine to reduce the frontal area, and adding a vertical fin behind the driver to improve high-speed stability on LeMans’ incredibly long Mulsanne Straight. In 1955, the D-Type won both LeMans and the 12 Hours of Sebring in America. The Jaguar’s reign was short lived due to rule changes disallowing its 3.8 litre engine, but in its prime it could achieve as much as 12mph higher top speed than Ferrari’s best.
Aston Martin DBR-1
In 1959, The World Sportscar Championship adjusted their rules, no longer requiring manufacturers to base their racecars off of road-going variants. This meant it was back to the drawing board for Aston Martin designers, who were finally able to create the racing car they really wanted. The body became much lower and sleeker, the engine was an all-new alloy racing unit, and the iconic fender vent was introduced (which graces the sides of Aston’s vehicles even to this day). The DBR-1 won a handful of races in 1957 and 1958, but took their first and only LeMans victory in 1959.
For many, the DTM series of yester-decade represents one of the purest and most raw forms of bare-knuckles racing around – so when the new DTM was introduced in 2000, there was a lot of excitement surrounding it. New class rules meant manufacturers would bring 2 door coupé models, and Mercedes-Benz used their new CLK. With a spec 4.0 litre V8 engine capable of 9000 rpms and a purpose-built chassis, unrelated to the road car, these cars were seriously quick. Drivers compared their handling to that of prototype racecars, rather than the touring-based cars these replaced. Since 2000, Mercedes has won 9 of 14 championships.
Bentley Speed 8
In 1930, Bentley ran their final motor race, claiming that they had learned what they needed to know about speed and reliability. Fast forward to 2001, and a few details have changed here and there in automotive design. Bentley decided that maybe there was a thing or two more they could learn at LeMans after all, so they planned an all-out attack with their new Speed 8 prototype racecar. Using a modified Audi R8 engine, Bentley came back to the circuit full-force, finishing 3rd in their debut year. It only took until 2003 for Bentley to tweak the car enough to emerge victorious and, true to style, to quietly back out of racing, having proved what they’re capable of.
BMW E30 M3 Motorsport
It’s a bold statement to lay claim to “the most successful racing car in history.” Could there really be such a thing? Some say the E30 M3 has won more races than any other car produced, which could very well give it that title. After racing success during the 1970s, BMW formed their M division to support the habit and develop even better racing and road-going cars. The 3 series was only the second road-based car that M laid their hands on, but to many it remains the best. M went so far as to replace the standard inline 6 cylinder engine with a higher revving and lighter 4 cylinder, to make the car as competitive as possible in the incredibly grueling DTM and World Touring classes.
It’s definitely the most modest car on this list, but don’t let the Impreza’s humble road-car beginnings sway you. The Impreza made its racing debut with the Subaru World Rally Team in 1993, sporting the now-famous blue and yellow livery of State Express 555, a cigarette company popular in Asia. The colours would become so connected with Subaru that the rally team kept them long after they were no longer partnered with 555. With driver Colin McRae (and Possum Bourne) and others behind the wheel, the little Impreza won rallies year after year, and played a big part in promoting the car to enthusiasts and making all-wheel-drive a mainstay in modern road cars.
Mercedes Silver Arrow
During the 1930s, racecars were not sponsored by companies with their own colours and liveries. They were sponsored by national pride, and private bank accounts. Each country had their own colour that was most prevalent on their racing cars. There was the Italian Rosso Corsa, the Blue de France, the British Racing Green…and German racing cars were white. So of course when Mercedes and the Auto Union brought their unthinkably fast supercharged cars, making as much as 646hp (in 1937!), they were done up in white. While under watch of the scrutineers, however, it was determined that they were 1kg overweight, and the quick-thinking team stripped the bodies of their paint to reveal raw aluminum. While they dominated the Grand Prix, the press christened them the Silver Arrows and the name stuck with German racing cars for decades.