By on November 4, 2016

1978 BMW M1 (E26), Image: BMW

It should come as no surprise that some of the most iconic automobile designs have interesting associations in their geneses. Where those associations come from, though, can sometimes be surprising, as companies leapfrog the globe trying to find the talent, technical expertise, and productive capacity to build a new or unique model.

These stories seem to pop up more often when there’s a shift in a company’s priorities or an attempted to redefine its direction or mission. Large organizations can be slow to adjust to these changes, and so often these major manufacturers turned to small teams to produce what have often become standout models from already legendary lineups.

Often, but not always, as we see in this montage of odd couples.

1965 Volvo 1800S, Image: Volvo

Volvo P1800

The famous Volvo 1800 actually came about thanks to another unusual partnership in the earlier, and lesser known, P1900. In 1953, Volvo commissioned California-based fiberglass body producer Glasspar to help make a sports car based on the 544. A few were made, but changes in leadership ultimately killed the project.

The idea was reborn in the 1800 and design moved from California to Italy, where prototypes for the new sport concept were produced by Frua. Frua couldn’t handle large-scale production, though, so Volvo took the prototypes to Karmann in Germany. Though it initially agreed to produce the car, Volkswagen’s contract with Karmann to produce the competitor Ghia ruled it out.

Stymied, Volvo turned to Jensen in England after exploring some other dead-end options. Jensen’s production possibilities looked promising to Volvo, but ultimately Jensen didn’t have the capacity to produce the bodies.

An agreement was struck with Scottish Pressed Steel, which then produced the P1800 bodies so poorly that a very frustrated Volvo ended up moving production back to Sweden in 1962. The renamed 1800S (no longer with a “P”) signified the changeover.

1965 Chevrolet Vega Cosworth, Image: General Motors

Chevrolet Vega Cosworth

By the 1970s, Detroit was finally catching up with Bob Dylan’s 1964 proclamation that the times were a-changing. Big V8s were being stifled by environmental restrictions and gas shortages. GM announced its plan for a new, small and import-taming model in 1969.

The Vega would Chevrolet’s star to tackle the challenge of a new age — but the Vice President of GM and Chevrolet product manager, a certain John DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean), suggested a higher performance model would help to promote the model.

At DeLorean’s urging, F1’s go-to Cosworth Engineering in England took the new all-aluminum 2.0-liter inline-four and created a high-compression, double overhead cam screamer. Early models were then constructed in Quebec, Canada. Unfortunately, by the time they finally came to production, the compression ratio had severely dropped and the original promise of 185 horsepower had fallen to 110. Worse, the Z/09 Cosworth package nearly doubled the base price of a standard Vega, from $3,098 to $6,065. Oddly, it was this fact that Chevrolet chose to use for its ad campaign, proudly (and stupidly) pronouncing the Cosworth as “One Vega for the Price of Two.”

Unsurprisingly, with poor performance and not the best build quality, Chevrolet ultimately failed to sell the original planned of 5,000 models despite the evocative Formula 1 name and John Player Special color pallet.

1978 BMW M1 (E26), Image: BMW


Similar to the P1800, the development of BMW’s E26 M1 was a multi-national effort its parent company was not prepared to undertake.

Although the M1 had an inline-six like other Bavarian creations of the time, little outside of the block shared any architecture with a series production model. The basic M30 block was modified into a racing unit with dual overhead cams and became the legendary M88/1 by fledgling skunkworks BMW Motorsport. When it came to a home for the motor, BMW turned to Italian designer Giugiaro to produce an angular, mid-engine, two-seat sports car.

The design looked revolutionary, but in fact was an evolution of the French designer Paul Bracq’s 1972 Turbo concept. Still, like Frua, Giugiaro wasn’t prepared to produce the M1 in series, nor was BMW, so the company commissioned Lamborghini to produce the fiberglass bodies and assemble the cars.

The late 1970s saw Lamborghini nearly close its doors and BMW was forced to coordinate body production from Italdesign, a tubular chassis from Marchesi and Company in Modena, and partial production at the Baur Karosserie and BMW Motorsport.

By the time the delay-fraught production was completed, the race series the M1 was intended for was gone, leaving BMW to envision their own one-off Procar Championship series.

1988 Ford Taurus SHO, Image: Ford Motor Company

Ford Taurus SHO

While BMW had the productive capacity to construct the M1’s engine but not the rest of the car, the opposite was true when it came to our next subject.

Ford produced a world-beating sedan package in the 1986 Taurus. Yet, when it came to making the Super High Output version for the 1989 model year, Ford needed some help from Japan.

They commissioned production of a high performance V6 from motorcycle giant Yamaha. The results were impressive: 220 horsepower from the 7,000 rpm redline 3.0 V6, which was mated solely to a five-speed manual produced by Ford-owned Mazda. The recipe proved wildly popular with over 15,500 sold in the first model year alone.

1988 Chrysler TC by Maserati (Q), Image: Chrysler

Chrysler TC by Maserati

After last week’s article, you probably saw this one coming. The list of names associated with the Chrysler TC by Maserati is one of the more impressive rosters on this list and certainly worth a look. The idea was born from Chrysler head Lee Iacocca and his Maserati-owning friend Alejandro de Tomaso (yes, the namesake of the Ford-powered Pantera). Their plan was to take the Chrysler underpinnings and add some hand-crafted Maserati style above.

Produced in Milan, the German Getrag manual version of the TC had a very special engine. Featuring a 16-valve head developed by Maserati in conjunction Cosworth Technology, German Mahle pistons mated with an IHI turbocharger from Japan resulted in 200 turbocharged horsepower for the 1989 model year. On paper, the formula was similar to the Taurus above, but the expensive TC was no where near the sales success with only 7,300 produced in total — of which a scant 501 were made with the Cosworth/Maserati turbo motor.

1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, Image: General Motors

Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1

When it came to producing a world-beating Corvette, all-American Chevrolet turned to … England. That’s because, at the time, General Motors also owned a certain Lotus Automobiles, which in turn took the small-block Chevy concept to new heights with what would ultimately become the LT5.

The engine featured dual-overhead cams, 32 valves and computer-controlled fuel injection, which combined to produce an impressive 375 horsepower in 1987. There was only one little (or, big, as it turned out) problem: how to mate the dual overhead cams with a pushrod block.

The result was a brand new, all-aluminum engine that shared little in architecture with the standard Corvette. Since it wouldn’t run alongside normal GM engine production, LT5 construction was subcontracted to Mercury Marine, which produced all the LT5 GENI and GENII engines for every C4 ZR-1.

1991 Mercedes-Benz 500E (W124), Image: Daimler AG

Mercedes-Benz 500E/E500

As the 1990s saw Mercedes-Benz swallow legendary tuning firm AMG into its portfolio, one would assume when it came to creating a super sedan in Stuttgart, the company would have had plenty of ammunition. After all, it was AMG that had created the supercar thrashing M117/9 6.0 “Hammer” that so captivated all the magazines at the same time Mercedes-Benz was planning its own tuned W124. But as Mercedes-Benz spent time planning the W124’s replacement, Porsche had the capacity on its dormant 959 production line.

A deal was struck where bare chassis were loaded at Daimler-Benz in Unterturkheim and shipped across town to Porsche in Zuffenhausen. Revised and widened fenders covered larger R129 500SL 16-inch wheels and brakes. Porsche installed an all-aluminum 5.0 322 horsepower V8. Mercedes-Benz then repatriated the partially complete cars to paint them, but Porsche completed finally assembly. More than 10,000 were completed in this serve-return manner; some took a further step and were sent over to Affalterbach to be massaged by Mercedes-Benz subordinate AMG into the E60, which held a 380-horsepower 6.0-liter version of the M119.

1993 Audi RS2 Avant (B4), Image: Audi

Audi RS2

Audi wasn’t about to let Mercedes-Benz steal all the Porsche ingenuity.

When it came to creating an even faster version of the Audi 80-based S2 Avant, the Ingolstadt firm employed Porsche to turn its wagon up to 11. Having completed upgrading the W124, Porsche took Audi’s diminutive wagon and quite literally cranked the boost up; a new ECU, intercooler, intake, exhaust, larger turbocharger and a few other changes netted 315 horsepower from the legendary inline-five turbo.

Unlike the subtle W124 exterior changes, the Audi and Porsche combination got a bit shouty, too, mounting 993-spec wheels, brakes, mirrors and even lights with sculpted bumper covers that would become the signature of RS models in the future. Performance was superlative for the day and especially so for a wagon. Consequently, these have become one of the most sought and imitated Audi products in the company’s catalog.

2000 Audi RS4 Avant (B5), Image: Audi

Audi RS4/RS6

As with the RS2, when it came to turning the wick up on the new S4 Avant, Audi needed outside help. This time, though, it wasn’t cousin Porsche that came to the aid of Ingolstadt. Audi’s star was on the rise and its corporate parent had assisted with the procurement of UK-based Cosworth Technology. The twin-turbocharged V6 in the S4 was no slouch, producing over 250 horsepower in European trim. But Cosworth took the engine to another level, redesigning the heads and bolting larger turbos and intercoolers to the V6. The results boosted the motor 115 horsepower to 380 net and a very impressive 141 horsepower per liter. All 4,000 B5 RS4 mills and spares were produced in England by a company that only had 1,000 employees.

When it came to production of the subsequent RS6 twin-turbocharged V8, Cosworth again played a roll, this time casting bespoke blocks for the S6 internals, building the motors up with turbochargers, and then shipping them back to Audi’s Quattro GmbH division for assembly in the car.

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46 Comments on “Strange Bedfellows: A History of Unexpected Automotive Collaborations...”

  • avatar

    I had heard of the Cosworth Vega but never looked deeply into it enough to realize what a turd it was. Amazing that by the 1990s a base Escort had a 2.0 ltr SOHC engine that made 110 hp.

    Meanwhile in the present there’s no high performance variant of the Cruze.

    • 0 avatar

      Talking about Escorts, as early as 1970 a European Escort RS1600 made 113bhp from a 1.6 liter Twincam engine…also made by Cosworth XD
      When the Cosworth Vega was finally available, a European Escort RS2000 with the normal Ford made ‘pinto’ 2-liter had as much as 109hp.

      • 0 avatar

        An Escort RS2000 was as dirty as a 1960 Chrysler 300F. Europeans loved their full emissions gasoline cars long enough to not notice that diesel was a death sentence. The Cosworth Vega prototype made more than 165 hp in 1971, only to wither in its efforts to meet our emissions standards. It’s comedic that Europeans can still be proud of their engines’ superior specific outputs during the almost-twenty years they spent watching us develop emissions controls while they obsessed only about consumption taxes. Big government did Europe no favors in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s; just like today.

    • 0 avatar

      And to get that HP out of that displacement in that era they needed a radical cam shaft. So radical that the spec for the idle speed was 1200-1300 rpm. I went through fits trying to get a customer’s car through emissions. At the time they did idle testing and they wouldn’t accept anything over 1100rpm as an idle speed. So the 3rd party testing company wouldn’t test it. That meant calling in the “specialist” from the state for our area. The owner had the factory shop manuals and despite the fact that those manuals stated that the idle speed was over 1100rpm he refused to accept that. So the owner and I sat there with the state specialist for over an hour while he tried and tried to get it to idle slow enough. Finally he admitted that t wasn’t possible to have a stable idle that low and signed the paper work to pass the vehicle w/o going back to the 3rd party sniffer.

    • 0 avatar

      In 1976 a Corvette 350 V8 had 180 hp. The Cosworth 122 4-cylinder had 110 hp.
      The Cosworth couls still keep up with the Corvette. I know because I own both.A 74 Corvette 4-spedd 350 4 barrel V8 . The Coswoth will go from 60 to 100 with less of a fuss than the Corvette. There was still nothing that could keep up with a Vette (or Trans Am) in the 70s but the Cosworth comes pretty close.Everyone tinks theyre an expert when it comes to cars, but noboby seems to have facts to back up their opinions.You picked the wrong car.By the wat, Car and Driver in their 0-60 issue said the 1974 Cosworth Vega (130 hp) was the fastest car they tested that year. ..Turd huh. Now you can Wipe that stupid grin off your face.

  • avatar
    Car Guy

    The ASC McLaren Mustangs of the late 80’s were always a strange one. Some body and interior changes but otherwise not much different than a GT (except the high price tag).

  • avatar

    I believe the 2.7T RS4 heads had the markings of COSCAST.

  • avatar

    The SHO engine was based on Ford’s 3.0L Vulcan block, and it was originally developed for use in a mid-engined sports car to compete with Pontiac Fiero. Since that model never came to light, they put it in the Taurus to create a high performance variant of a car already pegged as a “driver’s car” compared to its contemporaries from GM and Chrysler.

  • avatar

    wow the world of stance bedfellows, I know Lotus and Porsche outsourced a fair amount of their resources and that help both stay afloat in tough times, I am surprised so many companies put aside their corp ego to work w outside firms. One of the better TTAC articles lately.

    • 0 avatar
      Carter Johnson

      Thanks, Seth! Appreciate the compliment!

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Sometimes contract work is what pays the bills. Porsche supposedly did somewhere between 0-100% of the development work on the transverse I6 in the Daewoo Magnus.

      • 0 avatar

        The beauty of the contract work is that the company doing the work is guaranteed to profit from the deal, assuming of course they bid it right. Develop something for another company and they are the ones that have to wait and see if they can sell enough to actually make a profit on the endeavor.

  • avatar

    Pity you didn’t mention the Lotus Carlton, as it’s more awesome-r than anything on this list.

    Though not as sleeper as the 500E, which is sublime.

  • avatar

    Also, I think of any of the TC models to have, the limited run of 500 manual ones is the one you -don’t- want. Do yourself a parts availability favor.

    • 0 avatar

      I actually have greater lust for a Spirit R/T.

      But then my love for the oddball performance vehicle is strong.

      • 0 avatar

        It has color-key lace alloys, and thusly I have no negative comment about it.

        • 0 avatar
          Carter Johnson

          “That’s not a Chrysler! THIS is a Chrysler…”

          • 0 avatar

            It was the ’80s! Their best available car was the M-body Fifth Avenue, followed by 200 fancy K-Car variants.

          • 0 avatar
            Carter Johnson

            “That’s not a Fifth Avenue! THIS is a Fifth Avenue….”


            Is Chrysler in the 80s the automotive Hershey? With the K-Car being the original chocolate bar and then 124 variants of it?

  • avatar

    I knew about about the basics of most of these, but I knew very few of the backstories. Very few manufacturers can do a really awesome car all by themselves I guess.
    You should have added the Lotus OpelOmega/Vauxhall-Carlton, another completely insane Lotus version of what was originally a GM turd.

  • avatar

    And the ultimate case of two companies working together who you thought never would is GM and Ford developing not one but two transmissions, OK one transaxle and one transmission.

  • avatar

    Another one was Lancia Thema 8.32. Taking a Ferrari 2.9 litre V8 with 32 valves as the basis and then Ducati actually produced that engine with a cross-plane crankshaft that was installed transverselly in the car.

  • avatar

    Surely the sublime Citroen SM deserves a mention ?

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Can’t forget the Citroen SM. A product of the fairly short lived Citroën purchase of Maserati. The V6 engine was similar to the one used in other Maserati models. Most of the rest of the chassis was Citroën including the hydro pneumatic suspension.

  • avatar

    I can think of a few collaborations.

    There’s the Nash Healey, which came about because Donald Healey was a photography buff. On his way to America on the Queen Mary I believe, he spotted a large man using a stereo camera. The man with the 3D camera was George Mason, who ran Nash. Healey told Nash of his plan to go to Detroit to buy some of Cadillac’s then new high compression OHV V8. Mason told him good luck, that Cadillac was using every V8 for their own line and that if things didn’t work out in Detroit, to look him up in Kenosha. The rest is history.

    Other British-American cars are of course the Shelby Cobras (an AC Ace with a Ford V8), the Sunbeam Tiger (also with a Ford V8 courtesy of Mr. Shelby), and the Allards.

    My favorite collaboration would be the Lotus Cortina from Ford. Lotus Twin Cam engine, some aluminum body panels, it’s own dashboard and a heavily tuned suspension. The very earliest MKI models even had a trick rear suspension (that proved to be fragile and tuning the standard Cortina suspension also proved to be just as effective).

    Speaking of Lotus, all current Loti have Toyota engines, though I’m pretty sure Lotus is doing the tuning and supercharging themselves.

    Also regarding Lotus, the DeLorean DMC-12 was engineered by Lotus and is pretty much an early Esprit with the PRV V6 hanging off the back instead of the Lotus 2.2 four mounted midship. The PRV engine itself was a not entirely successful collaboration between Peugeot, Renault and Volvo.

    Does the Innocenti Mini count? An Italian built Mini with a body by Bertone?

  • avatar

    How about Honda and Rover in the ’80s? Particularly the ill-fated Sterling based on the Acura Legend chassis and drivetrain, but with British body/interior and (unfortunately) electronics.

  • avatar

    You forgot Lincoln Mercury Pantera

  • avatar

    Yea I’m late here, but wanted to mention that Kia bought the 2nd gen Lotus Elan and made it’s version of it. Also Tesla used the Elise chassis for it’s first electric car. I think Lotus probably made more money helping other manufacturers then it did selling cars.

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