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Top ten: the best motoring underdogs

Money and power isn't everything. Time to celebrate the little guy

  1. Mini at the Monte Carlo Rally

    The bulk of Paddy Hopkirk hunches over the wheel of the tiny 1275 Cooper S, piloting it to a crazily unlikely win in 1964. The next year, teammate Timo Mäkinen took another victory, brilliantly co-driven by Paul Easter so they picked up not a single penalty point. Then in ’66, infamy: Cooper Ss GRX 555D, GRX 55D and GRX 5D took a 1-2-3 clean sweep. French officials spent eight hours scrutineering, and found a tiny headlamp infraction – against a rule posted quietly and late – and disqualified the lot. A Citroen was handed the win. Uproar. History remembers the Minis, not the Citroen.

  2. Morgan Motor Company

    Soichiro Honda, boss of the company that bore his name, was once asked about industry mergers, which he shunned. He said Honda would eventually be one of a handful of car companies… and Morgan another. Tiny, cranky Morgan (established in 1909) held out until 1936 before deeming it necessary to add a fourth wheel. It went on far too long with primitive suspension and wood frames. Yet these cars, awful by any normal measure, sold so well there was at times a 10-year waiting list. Now they’re back on three wheels, and looking at electric power. Still from the same ramshackle collection of sheds in the Worcestershire hills.

  3. Ralph Nader

    As a young lawyer in 1965, Nader published a book called Unsafe at Any Speed. He’d analysed crashes, many fatal, involving the Chevy Corvair, GM’s attempt to build a Beetle rivalling small car. Nader showed that GM had knowingly done things that endangered customers so as to cut its own costs. It became a bestseller and kickstarted American and global car-safety legislation. In an attempt to discredit him GM had him followed by private dicks and paid girls to entrap him. Nader sued GM and won $425,000, enough to support his massively influential consumer and environmental crusades for many years after.

  4. Tesla Motors becomes car company v2.0

    The Roadster, a heavily modded Elise, was a prototype. Tesla hadn’t sold a single one. Yet in early 2007 Tesla people sat in their little industrial-estate workshop and told Top Gear of their plan to build a luxury car with a sub-6.0sec 0–60mph time and 250-mile range. On the face of it, a fantastical dream – the horrid G-Wiz was the only EV on sale here at the time – but they kinda convinced us. They were propelled by two very different priceless assets: boffinish technology chief JB Straubel’s near-supernatural understanding of the subtle needs of lithium ion cells, and grandstanding CEO Elon Musk’s deep pockets, charisma and vision.

  5. Senna beats a field of world champions

    To mark the “new” Nürburgring’s opening in 1984, Mercedes staged a one-make race for 190E 2.3-16s. The big-name field included nine former F1 champs plus Alain Prost who hadn’t yet won one, plus Sir Stirling Moss. Senna, an F1 newcomer who drove the hopeless Toleman, subbed at the last minute for Emerson Fittipaldi. Prost gave Senna a lift from the airport. They chatted amicably on the way. Then Prost took pole, Senna an amazing second. Senna went into himself, and didn’t speak to Prost again until after the race. He pushed Prost off after half a lap, and left all the champs trailing to the flag.

  6. Koenigsegg & Pagani start, and keep going

    Founding a supercar company is dead easy. Honestly, about a dozen times a year some neophyte cobbles together a prototype: vast horsepower, promises of “exclusivity”, and a business plan founded on fresh air. The issue is making it last. No one did for nearly four decades after Lamborghini, who after all was a tycoon in a related business, making tractors. Then at the turn of the millennium two quiet men turned up from opposite ends of Europe. Both showed off vastly powerful cars full of wild new design features. Crucially both also engineered those cars – and their businesses – with level-headed exactness. That’s why they’re still with us.

  7. The McLaren F1 GTR at Le Mans 24 Hours

    The McLaren F1 was designed as a road car, no quarter given to compromising it for racing. But soon after, a new sports- car series called BPR launched (a forerunner of today’s FIA GT series), and some team owners persuaded designer Gordon Murray to modify it for that. It didn’t take much, given the efficiency of the road car’s aero and strength of its tub. The GT1 rules meant it had less power than the road car, and at the rainy Le Mans in 1995, McLaren’s first ever entry there, it was up against far faster WSC prototypes. That didn’t stop it winning outright, nor also taking 3rd, 4th and 5th.

  8. Button & Brawn GP take the F1 crown

    Honda’s 2006 re-entry into Formula One was a bit rubbish compared with its earlier glory, so it took on brilliant ex-Ferrari man Ross Brawn as principal in 2007. Then amid the financial meltdown of 2008, Honda pulled out, leaving Button without a seat for ’09. So Brawn led a management buyout, and fitted Mercedes engines into a car originally designed as a Honda. Miraculously Button and Barrichello took a 1-2 in the first race. Button won six of the first seven, and then the championship, and Brawn GP won the only championship in which it ever took part.

  9. Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI

    Mid-Seventies hatchbacks were slow and dull, if useful. For fun there were cheap sports cars, albeit they’d gone off the boil because their manufacturers were too dumb to meet the safety and pollution laws triggered by our underdog number 3. The Golf’s magic I for injection (should have been E for Einspritz), gave it lots of power yet a serene temperament for everyday running around. And the chassis was very much up for games. Suddenly the world had no need for sports cars. Handy, tough and fun, the hot hatch was born. It added incomparably to the sum of joy in all our motoring lives.

  10. NIO takes the ’Ring road-car lap record

    Hordes of hypercar makers are crawling out of the woodwork for an increasingly frenzied “road”-car ’Ring lap record. None of them saw this coming: a new Chinese nameplate brings a car without an engine, and breaks Lamborghini’s record in May this year. NIO is the product of NextEV, a firm established in Formula E, and the EP9 is its flag-waver for an upcoming range of mass-market EVs. With one megawatt – 1,360bhp – of 4WD power and swappable batteries, electricity has put its 6min 45.900secs marker down right in the very cauldron of petrolheadedness. Oh and the EP9 has done a 2mins 40.33secs lap of Circuit of the Americas… autonomously.

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