10 supercars from non-luxury brands

It’s the worst kept secret in the automotive industry. Chevrolet will soon roll out a mid-engine supercar version of the Corvette, probably called the 2020 Corvette Zora.

When it debuts, it will be the first production mid-engine Corvette. And if it lives up to the hype, it should be the quickest, fastest, and most-powerful Corvette ever, outperforming the recently revealed 755-horsepower 2018 Corvette ZR1, as well as many Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other European exotics from Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, and McLaren.

The Corvette Zora will be a supercar from a non-luxury brand, which is unique, even rare, but it certainly isn’t unheard of. Over the past 60 years a handful of non-luxury auto brands have put supercars in their showrooms.

These blue-collar dream cars have acted as halos for the carmakers more pedestrian lineups, but they’re also idols of the everyman. Gritty, hard-working automotive underdogs from America and Japan that take on the elitist establishment and punch above their weight, unafraid to battle their more expensive competition from Italy and Germany.

1969–70 AMC AMX/3

1969 American Motors AMX/3
1969 American Motors AMX/3 (Gooding & Company)

This one turned out to be a non-starter, but AMC had the right idea. American Motors was already in financial trouble in 1970. Much smaller than Ford, GM, and Chrysler, it needed something to drum up excitement for its lineup of cars, which included the Hornet, the Ambassador, and the two-seat AMX. It needed showroom traffic.

The beautiful mid-engined AMC AMX/3 arrived at the 1970 Chicago Auto Show, but it was just an engine-less fiberglass buck. The concept car, designed by Dick Teaque and his team, was a hit, and the automaker continued to take steps toward production. In 1968, AMC contracted with Turin’s Giotto Bizzarrini (of Ferrari, Iso Rivolta, and Le Mans fame) to make a steel-bodied working prototype. The design included a 105.3-inch wheelbase and AMC’s 390-cubic-inch V-8, bolted to a four-speed transaxle. Thirty cars were to be built, each with a steel monocoque chassis developed with input from ItalDesign. BMW performed further development and testing. However, in the end, only five examples of the AMX/3 were finished before mounting costs and America’s looming bumper regulations killed the project. (A sixth was built from spare parts in the 1990s.)

In 2016, car number four—a 1969 development prototype which was used at Monza for aerodynamic testing at 170 mph when new—won its class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance after an extensive restoration.

2009 Chevy Corvette ZR1

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 burnout
2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 convertible

When it hit the streets in 2009, the supercharged Corvette ZR1 was the fastest, quickest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced Corvette that Chevy had ever produced. In production until 2013, its 6.2-liter LS9 V-8 cranked out 638 horsepower and over 600 lb-ft of torque. It could spin its massive rear tires at 75 mph on the freeway, with the traction control on, blast from 0–60 mph in 3.4 seconds, squirt through the quarter mile deep in the 11s and crest 200 mph.

But it was also comfortable, docile in traffic, and forgiving in the corners, unlike its rival the Dodge Viper, which was as volatile as its namesake. Chevy has actually used the ZR1 label on numerous Corvettes since the 1970s, including the LT5-powered ZR-1 (notice the hyphen) C4 model, which was produced from 1990–95, and the all-new 2018 C7 Corvette ZR1, which was just introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show with a 755-hp supercharged V-8. It will be the fastest, quickest, most powerful, and the most technologically advanced Corvette in the sports car’s 65-year history.

1971 De Tomaso Pantera

1971 DeTomaso Pantera
1971 De Tomaso Pantera
Gooding & Compnay

We’re cheating a little on this one. In late 1971, Ford’s Lincoln/Mercury dealers began selling the De Tomaso Pantera, a mid-engine supercar powered by Ford’s 351-cu-in V-8 and built in Italy. Designed at the Italian design firm Ghia by American born designer Tom Tjaarda, who later designed the Ford Maverick, the Pantera replaced the Mangusta, another De Tomaso mid-engine sports car powered by a 302-cu-in small-block Ford.

Alejandro De Tomaso was born and raised in Argentina and founded his company in Italy in 1958. In 1971 he sold much of the company to Ford, only to buy it back in 1974. Pantera sales suffered due to quality issues, overheating problems, and the fact that Lincoln/Mercury dealers were preoccupied with moving massive, underpowered gas-guzzling traditional American luxury cars as bumpers got bigger and gas lines got longer.

After about 5500 Panteras were sold in the U.S., the experiment here ended in 1975 with the mandatory adoption of catalytic converters. However, production of the car for other markets would continue well into the ’90s.

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10
1992 Dodge Viper RT/10
FCA

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in 1992 the Chrysler Corporation was desperate. Times were tough, and much like AMC’s executives did almost 25 years earlier with the AMX/3, Chrysler’s brass decided a supercar was what the ailing automaker needed. Only this time, the supercar would not only see production, it would become a legend.

Chrysler President Bob Lutz, head of design Tom Gale, and Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, with help from Carroll Shelby, created the Dodge Viper, a V-10-powered modern interpretation of the Shelby Cobra. The original Viper was unlike anything else around; it had no air conditioning, no windows, no traction control nor anti-lock brakes. And like the Cobra, it had a side exhaust. When it debuted it was the nastiest beast on the boulevard, with a front-mounted 8.0-liter naturally aspirated V-10, a six-speed manual transmission, and the handling characteristics of a sawed-off shotgun.

Its power numbers were manic for the time: 400 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque. Remember, in 1992 Dodge was still selling K-cars. Over the years, Dodge’s supercar would grow a roof, some luxuries, and even more power as it matured and evolved over several more generations, but it never lost its serrated edge. Sadly, the Dodge Viper’s time is over. It ended production just this past year.

1991 Honda NSX

1991 Acura NSX
1991 Acura NSX
Acura

In the U.S., Honda’s all-aluminum supercar was marketed as the Acura NSX, but in its home country of Japan (and the rest of the world) it was sold alongside Civics and Accords in Honda showrooms. Engineered with the help of Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna, the mid-engine sports car was powered by a mid-mounted naturally aspirated 3.0-liter V-6 with titanium connecting rods and double overhead cams. It revved to 8000 rpm and made 270 horsepower. That doesn’t sound like much, but the car was small and light with its aluminum structure and body, which was handcrafted in a dedicated assembly plant. It was a marvel of engineering.

Many car companies, including General Motors and Ferrari, bought an NSX to study its construction, and it was used as a benchmark for the handling of the McLaren F1 by Gordon Murray. With tweaks including a change to fixed headlamps, a removable roof panel, larger 3.2-liter engine, and six-speed manual transmission, production of the first-generation NSX ended in 2005.

With the introduction of the new hybrid-powered 2017 NSX, the first generation of the supercar is already a hot collectible. Clean, unmodified, low-mileage early examples now sell in the $50,000 neighborhood.

1966 Ford GT40

1966 Ford GT40 MK1 P/1057
1966 Ford GT40 MK1 P/1057
RM Sotheby's

Most car fans know that the Ford GT40 beat Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966, ’67, ’68, and ’69, embarrassing Enzo Ferrari, solidifying Carroll Shelby’s genius, and giving Henry Ford II and his company the respect of the world. But fewer realize that Ford sold street versions of the GT40.

According to the book Ford Total Performance, written by Martyn L. Schorr, Ford didn’t offer street versions of the Mark I or Mark II GT40s in the U.S. because they didn’t pass federal regulations for headlamp placement or ground clearance. In 1966, however, Ford marketed a street version of the GT40 Mark III, which met those requirements. Production was limited to just 20 cars, according to Schorr’s book, but just seven were built. And they cost an astronomical $18,500 (more than $140,000 today), which was much more than a Ferrari or Maserati at the time.

They turned out to be a tough sell. Schorr writes that “finding buyers for the Mark III proved to be an exercise in futility.” At the time, after he had written about the street car in Hi-Performance Cars magazine, Ford even offered Schorr one for just $5300. He wrote, “While I had fallen in lust with the GT40 Mark III, I figured down the road they would be just used cars and affordable. I passed.” Oops. That was a multi-million dollar mistake.

2005 Ford GT

2005 Ford GT
2005 Ford GT (RM Sotheby's)

In 2005, to celebrate its 100th anniversary, Ford reimagined its legendary mid-engine supercar. Although the design of the modern Ford GT mimicked the shape of the original quite closely, it was a bit larger in every dimension, including three inches taller, but the name GT43 just didn’t sound right. Built for just two years, about 4000 Ford GTs were produced in 2005 and ’06. Each was powered by a supercharged 5.4-liter V-8 cranking out 550 horsepower backed by a six-speed manual transmission. Base price was around $150,000, but the supercar became an instant collectable, and clean low-mileage examples now cost about twice that.

2017 Ford GT

2017 Ford GT (Wes Duenkel for Ford)
2017 Ford GT rear 3/4 (Wes Duenkel for Ford)

The second-generation of the Ford GT debuted at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show. Far more radical in design, execution, and technological advancement than the 2005 version, the new Ford GT is powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 making 647 horsepower and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The supercar, which features active aerodynamics and carbon fiber construction, is assembled in Ontario, Canada, and Ford says it will build about 250 a year, each costing over $450,000. Jay Leno already has his.

Aside from its aspirations to build a supercar for the street, the GT project had its target firmly set on winning Le Mans in 2016. The Blue Oval and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ford GT brought home the hardware indeed, winning its class at Le Mans 50 years after it first shocked the world (and Ferrari) in 1966.

2009 Nissan GT-R

2010 Nissan GT-R
2010 Nissan GT-R
Nissan

Although the latest GT-R is the first to be sold in the U.S., the original five generations of Nissan’s supercar ruled the streets of Japan and other markets for decades. The Nissan Skyline GT-R first appeared in 1969 and the first all-wheel drive, turbocharged model was introduced in 1989.

Nicknamed Godzilla by enthusiasts around the world, the modern, all-wheel drive Nissan GT-R, which remains in production, arrived in the U.S. for the 2009 model year. It is powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter double-overhead cam V-6 built at Nissan’s assembly plant in Yokohama, Japan. Each engine takes about six hours to build as they are assembled by hand in a clean-room environment by four master craftsmen known as Takumi. Each engine, which then wears its builder’s name, is dyno tested to ensure power and quality. When it debuted, the engine made 478 horsepower. Today, after nearly a decade of enhancements, the GT-R Nismo cranks out 600 horses. Prices range from about $100,000 for the GT-R Pure to more than $175,000 for the Nismo model.

1967 Toyota 2000GT

Toyota 2000GT
The beautifully detailed Toyota 2000GT features hinged side panels that allow battery, air filter and windshield washer reservoir access (RM Auctions)

Built from 1967 to 1970, this front-engine coupe was Japan’s first serious performance car and many say it was the inspiration for the far more affordable Datsun 240Z. Only 351 were produced, all featuring Toyota’s inline six-cylinder engine reengineered by Yamaha (which also assembled the cars) with a double overhead cam cylinder head.

The vast majority of the cars got a 2.0-liter version of the engine making 150 horsepower, but nine cars received a 2.3-liter engine. The 2000GT used a five-speed manual transmission, and it was the first Japanese car with four-wheel disc brakes. All were coupes, but two were converted into convertibles for use in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, which was filmed in Japan. The conversions were necessary because actor Sean Connery, standing at 6-foot-2, simply couldn’t fit in the diminutive sports car. In America, the 2000GT sold for $6,800, which was more than a Corvette, Porsche, or Jaguar E-Type at the time. Only 62 cars were imported to the U.S. In recent years, 2000GTs have sold for more than $1,000,000.