Horsepower, Democratized! A History of Bringing Power to the Masses

Carter Johnson
by Carter Johnson

While in recent months TTAC has reported on the declining popularity of the four door, there are still a plethora of fast sedans in the marketplace.

In fact, the performance extracted from them was unfathomable even a generation ago. How did we end up at a 500-horsepower Audi, a 640-horsepower Cadillac and 707-horse Dodge? What were once numbers reserved for otherworldly exotics now are found in a pedestrian nameplate.

But this is no new trend, for while the current power war we’re experiencing has generated outlandish performance numbers for a mere average Joe, the recipe of sticking the most punch possible into a sedan for the masses goes back a long way.

While we saw some of the results of turning the wick up in last week’s automotive collaboration article, today I tried to think of the cars that really redefined the way exotic performance and power manifested themselves in the family friendly sedan.

Lotus Cortina

While you could pop down to a Ford dealer and snap up a behemoth Galaxie 500 with a 7-liter V8 packing a potent 360 horsepower in the 1960s, the company also worked with Lotus on a small sedan on the other end of the spectrum.

Utilizing a Ford 1.5-liter block and working between Formula 1 legends Coventry Climax and Cosworth, the equally legendary Lotus produced a twin-cam version of the four-cylinder for the diminutive Cortina, which spun out 105 horsepower. That may not sound like much, but Lotus revised the suspension and “added lightness,” including some alloy panels, to keep the weight down to a claimed 1,785 pounds — about what the seats weighed in a contemporary vehicle.

The result was one of the most legendary sporting sedan packages produced. F1 aces such as Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart flogged these Fords on the world’s race tracks, and the revised suspension helped to produce signature “lifted front wheel, tail-out” cornering. The Cortina was a giant-killer that utilized cutting edge Formula 1 tech in a sedate sedan wrapper, winning Touring Car races around the world against the much larger and more powerful competition.

BMW 2002 Turbo

Although the 2002tii may be better known by U.S. fans for following the recipe established by the Cortina, it was the Turbo model that really brought near supercar performance to the small BMW. A KKK turbocharger was strapped to the M10 2.0-liter fuel injected inline-four resulting in a pretty amazing 170 horsepower in 1974. Consider, for a moment, that the base Corvette 350 V8 made 190 horsepower at the same time and weighed the best part of two 2002s.

So fast and unassuming was the Turbo that BMW slapped ambulance-inspired reversed graphics on the first models to let drivers know what was coming before being overtaken. Impressive though it was, the 2002 Turbo was still pretty expensive for most and BMW only produced 1,672 examples.

Saab 99/900 Turbo

A few years after the 2002 Turbo debuted the potential of turbocharging in a small package, Saab actually made it work. Feeding the 2.0-liter inline-four’s intake with a Garrett turbocharger resulted in 145 horsepower. That power figure represented a near 50-percent increase over a standard 99 in 1978. Distinctive “Inca” alloys and large spoilers front and rear helped to distinguish a design that already stood apart. The forced induction blueprint established with the 99 was continued in the even more powerful 900, culminating in the awesome Aero in the mid-1980s.


BMW’s blueprint for the super sedan preceded the E28 chassis with the early 1980s E12 M535i.

BMW’s Motorsport division took some lessons it learned on the racetrack and helped turn up the wick on the sedan, but it wasn’t until the subsequent E28 model was introduced that the bar was raised. Inserting the exotic, race-bred M88 twin cam inline-six from the M1 gave the M5 286 horsepower and supercar spoiling performance. This was 1984, and the package offered Porsche 911 Turbo performance in a mid-range luxury sedan.

Like the 2002 Turbo, while it was legendary even within its time, it was also expensive. BMW only ended up selling about 2,241 in various parts of the world, including the slightly less powerful, catalyst-equipped model in the U.S.. Though not many were sold, the M5 justifiably became the baseline by which all other super sedans were judged — and still is today.

Lancia Thema 8.32

Lancia took a different route to its performance sedans in the 1980s. They had a platform in the Type Four that manifested performance in a very different ways; Saab’s 9000 version utilized the turbocharging technology pioneered in its 900 siblings and ultimately offered 225 horsepower in Aero form. Alfa Romeo slotted one of its great sounding Busso V6 engines into the chassis. In 24V 3.0-liter Quadrifoglio guise, it made an even more impressive 230 horsepower (and maybe should be on this list). Surely, Lancia would just borrow one of these motors?

Surprisingly, no. Lancia instead looked to Fiat Group’s sibling Ferrari for motivation. It took a 2.9 liter 32-valve V8 from a Ferrari 308, sent it to Ducati for assembly with a unique cross-plane crank and other bits to tune the engine for more pedestrian duty, and stuck it into the Giugiaro designed body. The Thema also pioneered active aerodynamics. It was a recipe which, in total, sounds like quite a success.

However, the Ferrari lump produced just 205 horsepower and was available only in front-drive configuration. Compared to the equally or more powerful Audi 200, BMW M5 and some other exotics in the same price range, the performance was poor relative to the expense of adding the Ferrari nameplate. Despite this, the Thema did bring that automotive patrician down to a more plebeian price level for about 4,000 customers and gave dreamers a four-door Ferrari that never existed.

Ford Sierra Sapphire RS Cosworth

The spiritual (and literal) successor to the Cortina, the Ford Sierra became a popular hit in the 1980s race scene with the RS Cosworth. It was the working man’s hero, with a hatcheted hood hiding a Cosworth-developed twin-cam 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four good for over 200 horsepower. But it was the wild wing on the back that might have been the most outrageous automotive accoutrement of the day and still looks audacious some 30 years on.

Ford also offered the RS power in the more sedate Sapphire sedan package. Sans the outrageous wings and plus a few doors, the Sapphire lacked none of the performance of its more famous brother. The final versions had optional all-wheel drive with a rearward bias driven through viscous differentials. It was 220 horsepower for a little more than half the price of the Thema 8.32. It’s no surprise that Ford sold this recipe nearly 25,000 times.

Lotus Carlton/Omega

While 200 horsepower was very special in the 1980s and the nearly 300 horsepower in the M5 made you a demi-God, the 1990s started with a bang that would take some time to unseat. The underpinnings were the relatively unexciting Opel Omega and Vauxhall Carlton twins from General Motors. Starting with a 3.0-liter inline-six that produced about 180 horsepower for Vauxhall, Lotus stroked the engine out to 3.6 liters and fit twin Garrett turbochargers, the six-speed manual transmission from a Corvette ZR-1, upgraded suspension, giant wheels and huge AP Racing brakes.

It needed all of that weapons-grade running gear to deal with the monstrous 377 horsepower the new engine developed. If you were counting, that was nearly 100 horsepower more than the previous outgoing champion BMW M5, and 200 more than the Carlton GSi or Omega 3000.

It was expensive, but only a bit more than the Thema 8.32, and certainly commensurate with the performance on tap. In an era where the “World’s Fastest Sedan” title changed hands on a regular basis, the Lotus-built GM twins were a brief but bright flash.

Honorable Mention: Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 and 450SEL 6.9

While some of the cars above were quite dear, it’s truly hard to consider the S-Class Mercedes-Benz as a car for the masses. Still, two Mercedes-Benz products were instrumental in the development of the super sedan and are worth mention.

First was the W109 chassis 300SEL 6.3, which — as the name implies — was a pretty standard 300SEL with the 6.3 liter V8 from the 600 model stuck in front. With about 250 horsepower in 1968, it was capable of hitting over 140 mph flat out and could reportedly eclipse 60 in 6.5 seconds.

More memorable, though, was its replacement: the later W116 chassis 450SEL. Punched out to 6.9 liters, the M100 was now good for 286 horsepower and over 400 lb-ft of torque in European guise for the 1975 model year, nearly double a contemporary Corvette. Quite simply, if you wanted to go faster, you needed something exotic like a Ferrari 365GT4 Berlinetta Boxer or that newfangled flying doorstop Lamborghini Countach. But if you wanted to carry your friends with you ( especially rocket launcher-wielding ones), the 450SEL 6.9 was the only choice.

Carter Johnson
Carter Johnson

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  • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Nov 14, 2016

    "Utilizing a Ford 1.5-liter block and working between Formula 1 legends Coventry Climax and Cosworth, the equally legendary Lotus produced a twin-cam version of the four-cylinder for the diminutive Cortina, which spun out 105 horsepower." While Coventry Climax and Cosworth had roles in the development of the Lotus Twin Cam, the basic design of the head was by Harry Mundy. Miles Wilkins owns Fiberglass Services in the UK, which produces licensed replacement body parts for vintage Lotus cars, and he wrote the definitive book on the Lotus Twin Cam engine. Per Wilkins book: The original design of the Twin Cam head was by Harry Mundy, later head of engine design at Jaguar. He was offered either a 1 pound per engine royalty or a flat fee of 1,000 pounds. Lotus being a risky venture, Mundy took the money up front, missing out on the royalties for about 40,000 engines that were eventually built. Detailed design drawings were done by Richard Ansdale on a consultancy basis to Lotus. Steve Sanville, a Lotus employee and foreman of their engine shop, set the tolerances and supervised the making of the original casting pattern. Coventry Climax did detail work on the original camshafts. Harry Weslake did some gas flowing work on the head. Mike Costin had been technical director of Lotus before joining Keith Duckworth to form Cosworth in 1962. Cosworth assembled some of the early prototype versions of the Twin Cam that Lotus used in racing, and did development work on cam profiles. Cosworth later supplied racing versions of the production version Twink, as did BRM.

  • Nels0300 Nels0300 on Nov 14, 2016

    Camry LE with the 2GR-FE. 14 second quarter mile, 0-60 5.8 seconds, plastic wheel covers.

    • See 5 previous
    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Nov 15, 2016

      @gtem Hmm, maybe at the time the XLE was not available in the desired color on the lot? I don't think old people like to order cars. They want to buy off the floor. Yeah, old low miles cars are tricky sometimes. People put 15,000 mile Buicks from 1990 on Facebook and everyone goes crazy. I'm like ehhhh it's gonna fall apart when you start using it though.

  • Bd2 Probably too late to do anything about it for the launch, but Kia should plan on doing an extensive refresh of the front fascia (the earlier, the better) as the design looks really ungainly.
  • Namesakeone Since I include SUVs and minivans as trucks, I really cannot think of a brand that is truly truckless. MG maybe?
  • Sobhuza Trooper Subaru, they were almost there with the BRAT. --On a lighter note, where the hell is my Cooper Works Mini truck?
  • Mike Evs do suck, though. I mean, they really do.
  • Steve Biro I don’t care what brand but it needs to be a compact two-door with an ICE, traditional parallel hybrid or both. A manual transmission option would be nice but I don’t expect it - especially with a hybrid. Don’t show me an EV.