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Top Gear's Top 9

Top Gear’s Top 9: weird secret test mules

Got a secret new car to test? Try clothing it under something no-one would suspect…

Ferrari 348 Enzo V12
  1. HSV 'Corvette'

    HSV 'Corvette'

    When GM decided to make the new Corvette mid-engined, it couldn’t do the testing in the body of a Corvette. So it went digging around in the company stories and hit on the idea of clothing a mid-engined chassis in the bones of a HSV ute. And accidentally making something better looking than the C8 Corvette. Whoops.

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  2. McLaren F1 ‘Albert’ & ‘Edward’

    McLaren F1 ‘Albert’ & ‘Edward’

    In the early 1990s, using carbon fibre to make cars was space-ace witchcraft. And McLaren wasn’t going to risk a furiously expensive F1 chassis on a test mule. So it used two Ultima kit car chassis instead. ‘Albert’ was fitted with the F1’s gearbox and a Chevy V8 to mimic the huge torque of the BMW V12, while ‘Edward’ was the test bed for the first V12, along with its exhaust and cooling systems.

    Sadly both were crushed after the F1 was completed, to avoid technical secrets being sold off to competitors, but Gordon Murray revisited the idea when developing the T.50, creating a 12,000rpm Cosworth-engined Ultima… called George.

  3. Lotus Esprit ‘458’

    Lotus Esprit ‘458’

    In the late 2000s, Lotus decided to go on a new model blitz, including a new luxury saloon, a big GT coupe, and a core supercar: the new Esprit. It was initially planned to feature the V8 from the Lexus IS-F, because Toyota was already supplying the four-cylinder engine for the Elise, and the V6 in the back of the Evora.

    Weirdly, Lotus then decided it would build its own V8, and legend has it this was bolted into a salvaged Ferrari 458 Italia, which was seen testing on the lanes of Norfolk before the project was canned and the British-engined Ferrari was scrapped.

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  4. Ferrari 348 Enzo

    Ferrari 348 Enzo

    Ferrari itself is no stranger to splicing a new engine into an old car while it’s refining the oily bits of a new project. This fabulously Mad Max monstrosity was once a relatively humble 348, but in the idle you’ll find the 6.5-litre V12 that went on to star in the Enzo.

    Stretched by 250mm to accommodate the huge powerplant, the Franken-rarri was auctioned to collectors first in 2005, and later in 2014.

  5. Rolls Royce Phantom ‘high-rider’

    Rolls Royce Phantom ‘high-rider’

    It would’ve been corporate suicide for Rolls-Royce to be caught out honing its first SUV – the Cullinan – under the disguise of a humble BMW X5. So instead, the Goodwood engineers thought… vertically. And simply jacked up a shortened Phantom.

    The mule’s hilarious rear wing was designed to put extra load onto the suspension at speed, helping the engineers determine spring and damper rates for their most top-heavy model.

  6. MG Maestro Freelander

    MG Maestro Freelander

    In 1994, decades before the Range Rover Evoque existed, the big news story in small Land Rovers was the upcoming Freelander. Its styling was of course a closely guarded secret, so Land Rover cunningly hid it under something no-one would pay any attention to: a taller MG Maestro van!

    Three were built, and two were destroyed, but this one lives on at the Dunsfold Collection, adjacent to the old Top Gear test track.

    (Image courtesy of the Dunsfold Collection)

  7. Porsche 918 Spyder

    Porsche 918 Spyder

    This isn’t a new car disguised as an old car – it’s more of a naked Porsche 918 with choice chunks of 991-era 911 trying and failing to cover its modesty. This was an early powertrain test mule for the 850bhp hybrid hypercar, which Porsche actually let journalists ride in at Nardo as a sort of ‘yes, it’s actually happening, we really are going to build this thing’ sot of exercise.

    TopGear.com’s Paul Horrell rode in the car at Nardo and was staggered to hear the engineers confidently stating ‘we will build 918 units and we will commence production in three years on 18 September.’ 9/18, if you speak American. Nice.

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  8. Jaguar XJ220 van

    Jaguar XJ220 van

    Why don’t more exotic car-making companies follow Jaguar’s lead? Got a massively powerful new engine to bed in? Don’t risk any carbon fibre. Rip the diesel donkey out of the front of a Ford Transit, plumb your mega-powered wonder-motor into the loading bay, and head out onto public roads to gather your data with a 542bhp tradeswagon.

    It’s the perfect cover, see – everyone expects a white van to be driven hyper-aggressively, so no-one would suspect it had the heart of an supercar.

  9. Lamborghini Countach Evoluzione

    Lamborghini Countach Evoluzione

    In the late 1980s, a young engineer at Lamborghini unveiled a pet project to propel Lambos into the 21st Century. It looked like a Countach, but the car was made from carbon and Kevlar panels. It sat on a honeycomb composite chassis. The aero covers on the wheels reduced drag. It was reportedly almost half a tonne lighter than a regular Countach.

    Unfortunately Lamborghini was a bit broke, so it decided baking all these carbon fibre pieces in an autoclave was too expensive, and used the Evoluzione for a crash test.

    The young engineer decided to leave the company and set up his own supercar start-up down the road, specialising in carbon fibre. His name? Horacio Pagani. You might have heard of him…

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