Cool Cars That Gained a Cult Following views: 5866
A car need not be a VW Beetle, Chevy Corvette, or Porsche 911 to have a legion of dedicated fans. There are plenty of cars that, while flying a little under the radar, nonetheless have a throng of followers who are no less passionate about their vehicles. Here are 10 of our favorites.
Datsun 510 1968-73
For decades now, Datsun (Nissan) has been a fixture of the American automotive landscape. But in the 1960s, Datsuns certainly weren't as common as Fords or Chevys. So the company built the 510 Sedan, at least in part, to be the breakthrough car for Datsun in the U.S. And it was a hit.
The 510 used a tough yet lightweight chassis, and it became known as the bargain BMW because of its fully independent MacPherson strut front and semi-trailing arm suspension (though the wagon version did use a solid axle and leaf springs for its rear suspension). The 510 was a blast to drive, thanks in part to its double-overhead-cam, four-cylinder engine. The Datsun won numerous racing championships around the world, including two SCCA Trans-Am Championships and an East African Safari Classic. This racing pedigree gave rise to a full catalog of performance parts from Datsun and a healthy aftermarket from other outlets.
Many Japanese cars from the 1970s and 1980s are now collectable, but the Datsun 510 was the first one to hit cult status. Even though these popular cars are cheap and were produced in large numbers (400,000 globally), finding one in good condition here in the U.S. is a challenge—and there are many folks hunting for them.
BMW 2002 1968-76
Long before BMW was known as the Ultimate Driving Machine, the automaker crafted this tiny 2100-pound car that became a major step in plotting the company's future course. The BMW 2002 was a plucky half-pint sedan with a punchy four-cylinder engine and front and rear independent suspension. The 2002 delivered sporty moves in the corners and room for four adults at a time when most automakers were producing thirsty and cumbersome V-8-powered heavyweights that were more at home on the boulevard than any canyon road.
Today, the high-performance, 130-hp, fuel-injected 2002 tii commands close to $20,000 in good condition. The company even produced a 170-hp turbocharged model between 1973 and 1974 (BMW's first turbo), but the car was never officially sold in the U.S. As the predecessor to the modern BMW 3 Series, the 2002 enjoys cult car status for its style, driving zest, and historical importance.
Subaru Impreza WRX 2002-07
Few cars today can trace their lineage directly to a racing machine. But few cars are the Subaru Impreza WRX.
The original 1992 WRX was the road-going version of the Subaru Impreza WRC (World Rally Championship). In the mid-1990s, race fans in the U.S. could only dream of owning this turbocharged, rally-derived sport sedan. The U.S.-spec Impreza RS had the look, but not the performance.
Then, in 2002, we finally got our own WRX packing a 227-hp turbocharged flat-four-cylinder engine with brilliant all-wheel-drive traction and handing. It was the car Subaru (and rally) fans had been waiting for. Two years later, Subaru brought us the 300-hp WRX STi—the ultimate performance WRX. And the aftermarket for performance parts for these cars that had been developed around the world blew up in the U.S. WRXs with serious horsepower and a unique exhaust growl became one of the cornerstone car models of the sport compact world.
Toyota Pickup 1981-85
In the 1980s, Toyota built its reputation for quality and reliability in the U.S. on the backs of not only its small cars but also its pickup trucks.
It actually started in 1979, a watershed model year for the Toyota pickup. Not only could you get the SR5 with a five-speed manual in two-wheel-drive models but also, for the very first time, Toyota had a four-wheel-drive pickup in the U.S. This rugged truck had a heavy-duty solid-axle leaf-sprung suspension at each end of the chassis. And Toyota timed the 4WD launch perfectly with the rise of off-roading.
Two years later, the company put out the 22R with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that became one of the most reliable truck powerplants of all time. Toyota then added an Xtracab model when it revamped the truck in 1984. These 4WD Toyotas became the go-to truck for four-wheelers that needed a reliable and capable pickup—no other brand of compact truck could touch Toyota's rough riding capability. A cottage industry developing hardcore 4WD parts for these trucks took hold in the 1980s. These rigs were such a part of the culture that a modified one appears in all three Back to the Future films.
By the late 1980s, the Toyota truck became more carlike. It was still a tough, solid workhorse, but those early Toyota trucks are the ones now gaining the attention of collectors who were kids at that time.
Dodge Viper 1992-13
Since the Chevrolet Corvette's debut in 1953, many American sports cars tried and failed to compete. Only the 1960s Shelby Cobra truly challenged the Vette.
In 1989, Dodge unveiled a concept to take on the Corvette: the Viper. The production Viper of 1992 looked just like the concept and packed its now-iconic aluminum V-10 engine with an incredible (at the time) 400 hp. It looked like a modern-day Cobra—and drove like one too.
The Viper's cult status took off with the American Club Racer track-ready package that arrived in 1999. It gave Viper owners with the itch to go racing a hardcore track package straight from Dodge. A 2003 redesign made the Viper a better car to drive in every way, but some critics thought the styling was vanilla. No matter: Viper loyalists snapped up the next-gen, 500-hp snakes in big numbers, and the subsequent coupe and ACR models of this generation were hugely popular. Dodge even massaged that 8.3-liter V-10 all the way to 600 hp in 2008.
The newest Viper just slithered into the public imagination last week, when Chrysler revealed the 2013 Viper (now with 640 hp and badged under the SRT performance label rather than Dodge) at the New York International Auto Show.
VW GTI 1983-92
The Volkswagen Beetle may well be the ultimate cult car. But it was the GTI of the 1980s that gave rise to a new generation of VW enthusiasts.
The 1983 GTI was based on the Rabbit, and delivered what no economy car at the time could—fun. The first GTIs from 1983-84 (Mark I) were entertaining to drive, with taut handling and reasonable acceleration, for the early 1980s at least. In 1987, the Mark II GTI offered a 16-valve model (16V) with 123 hp; our colleagues at Car and Driver called the hatchback "the original econohunk." The next few generations of GTI became turbocharged and even V-6-powered. In 2003 VW created a special 20th anniversary U.S. edition with a firmer suspension and more serious components.
VW's newest generations have brought back much of the fun of the earlier cars. The current Golf R is a 253-hp, all-wheel-drive monster GTI that can hit 60 mph in around 5.5 seconds. But it's those first two generations of GTI that created the fan base and later aftermarket industry for these front-drive fun machines. Those early GTIs in good condition are highly sought after.
Ford Mustang 5.0 GT 1985-93
The classic Ford Mustangs from the 1960s and early 1970s are some of the most iconic cult cars of all time. But the downsized ponycars of 1974 to 1978 killed that buzz. In the '80s, Ford had to reinvent the Mustang and restore its former glory—or risk losing an entire generation of performance buyers.
The 1979 Mustang was a huge leap forward. But it was the 5.0-liter GT Mustangs that arrived in the mid-1980s that made hearts melt. The pushrod 302-cubic-inch V-8 was a powerhouse at the time and packed an exhaust note few could mistake. In 1985, the Mustang GT received a major power bump up to 210 hp; in 1987 that jumped to 225 hp, a level so impressive the number would be seared into the brains of Mustang fans of the day. After all, the mighty Corvette made only 15 hp more.
The 5.0-liter Mustangs were quick—in some cases quicker than the hottest GM muscle cars at the time. That led law enforcement agencies to buy the more subdued 5.0 LX Mustangs in the notchback body style for high-speed pursuit. The Mustang's popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s lead to a booming aftermarket and a specialty magazine (now called 5.0 Mustang & Super Ford Magazine). While Ford changed the body style in 1994, the 5.0-liter V-8 stuck around until it was replaced with a smaller 4.6-liter V-8 in 1996. However, Ford brought back the 5.0-liter for 2011 in a Mustang packing 411 horses.
Honda Civic Si 1984-2000
Today the Honda Civic is largely a commodity car. The same can be said for the sportier Si model—it's just mediocre. But that was not the case with the Civic Si's of the 1980s and 1990s. Like the 1955 Chevy and 1932 Ford before it, the unassuming Honda Civic grew to become the most popular car for young performance-minded enthusiasts—in the Civic's case, during the height of the sport compact car movement and The Fast and the Furious generation.
Honda Civics and Si models were modified with incredibly stout engine blocks and turbocharged to within an inch of their lives to create front-wheel-drive machines that could devastate larger, more expensive cars in a drag race. Civics owners modded them for road course work, too, and they could be built to handle better than many of the compact cars at the time.
Our favorite model was the 1999 Civic Si. It was a brilliant-handling coupe thanks to its strut front and multilink rear suspension. And it could rip to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds—not too shabby for the time. The latest Civic Si is much faster, but it doesn't have the soul of the older cars.
Buick Grand National 1982-87
To capitalize on its recent manufacturer's cup win in Nascar's Grand National Series, Buick decided to build a special car in 1982. A handful of those early Grand Nationals packed a 175-hp turbocharged 3.8-liter V-6. The original Buick Grand National wasn't quite the fire-breather of the later cars, but realize that this V-6 made more power than the 5.0-liter "high-output" V-8 in the 1982 Ford Mustang.
Soon, fuel injection, an intercooler for the turbo, and more boost increased the Grand National's performance. In fact, power went up just about every year until the last year, 1987, when the car hit 245 hp in standard trim and 276 hp in the limited edition GNX trim. The GNX was one of the quickest cars on the planet at that time, and these mean black Buick Grand Nationals have long enjoyed cult status among casual enthusiasts and drag racers. The robust 3.8-liter V-6s can withstand very high levels of turbo boost. So these cars are tremendous platforms for racing. And the quickest street-legal modified cars can routinely run in the 9-second bracket in the quarter-mile. That's a full 2 seconds quicker than the quickest modern exotics.
Volvo 740 Turbo 1986-91
A Volvo station wagon that's quicker than a Porsche? In the late 1980s, it was true.
Volvo launched the 700 series in 1982 with the upscale 760—a major step up from the 240 that had been in Volvo's family since, well, practically the dawn of time. The 760 wasn't exactly a performance car, but in the late 1980s, Volvo stuffed its brilliant turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder engine into the 700-series chassis. The result: turbocharged Volvo 740 sedans and wagons that were giant killers of the day. These rear-drive "turbo bricks" could handle lots of turbocharged boost. The production cars were fast, but aftermarket support has created some wild monsters, mostly in Sweden.
The 740 Turbos, as well as the earlier 240 Turbos, have a small but loyal following in the U.S., with several websites catering to these unique cars.
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