We all know the story…it’s happening right now in countless places all around the globe; somewhere out there, while you’re reading this, there’s a big loudmouth bully picking on an unassuming little guy that was just minding his own business. The little guy stands there, letting the jerk run his mouth until he can’t take any more. Then, with a solid punch he knocks the bully out, sending teeth flying across the room.
The power to give one hell of a savage beating when, at the beginning, everything points out to a crawling in shame exit strategy is why I absolutely love sleeper cars. Before going any further, let me just take a minute to clear up a couple of things on what has become a controversial, frequently poorly discussed topic. First: it’s beyond obvious that any modest little car , when stuffed with a big engine is gonna go like a rat with its tail on fire and give any half decent sports car a run for its money, at the very least in a light to light straight line. However, that’s not a sleeper, that’s a tuned/modded (whatever you wanna call it) car. Second: a debaged monster is not a sleeper car, that’s called cheating actually. You don’t scrape the badge of an M5 and say it’s a sleeper; that’s – at best – your very shameful attempt at being stealthy. Plus, of course everyone expects a BMW or Mercedes (for instance) to be fast, and the special editions’ (AMGs, Ms and such) looks alone give them away in a heartbeat, so is not only debadging dumb but also pretty pointless.
Sleeper cars are bone stock, they are discrete (at most they have a couple of special badges, perhaps a funny looking spoiler) and as such, they’ll fly right under the radar of anyone who’s not a car fanatic. At this point some of you may be saying: “your logic is flawed! If someone has a car nice/tuned enough to go around showing off and picking on others, surely he/she’ll be able to spot the sleepers, no matter how subtle they look, so he/she’ll won’t step up to those looking for a fight”. You’d think so, right? However, you’ve gotta remember that it’s not only proper car aficionados that go for something fast…you’ve got the people who just have too much money on their hands and are looking for something to show off. Hell, even car guys will overlook sleepers at times. These are usually low production numbers vehicles, and as such it’s no surprise that they’re completely missing from a lot of people’s mental archive.
Because they’re usually so damn obscure and often maintenance-wise more demanding then its more basic siblings, it means you can very likely get a decent sleeper at a pretty affordable price and just like that you’re left with a ready to go speed loving machine that’s a ton of fun to play with when you want to, but that’s also able to carry the kids, dog, shopping bags and everything else you need to haul around on a daily basis.
This article is dedicated to European sleepers, the US version will be on Automotive Views soon. I chose my 3 very favorite ones, there are many other great euro sleepers so your “top 3” on this topic will probably be pretty different from mine.
We’re starting in Italy, home of great food, fantastic wine, beautiful people and this, the Thema. At this point you’re probably thinking that this Lancia has about as much presence and beauty as a cereal box, but you’d be wrong…in fact some cereal boxes do much better in those departments. Coming from the same company that blessed us with automotive porn like the Stratos, the 037 and the Flaminia GT, the Thema feels as exciting as a brick. Don’t get me wrong, I actually kind of like, it’s pretty in an ugly sort of way, but in terms of excitement…you can’t find anything particularly wrong with it, but you can’t find anything right either. However, despite looking like a regular boring Thema, what you see pictured here is anything but regular.
Back in the mid 80’s someone over at Lancia looked at a Thema and went “meh”, than he probably yawned and continuously did so until he remembered that Lancia was owned by Fiat, the same company who just happened to own Ferrari as well…it was at that moment that a little light bulb came on. You see, the Ferrari 308 production had ended in 85 and apparently there were some V8s lying around, and that’s just not right, it’s much better to put them to good use. Some interesting engineering and mild tweaking later, the result was the absolutely amazing Thema 8.32, better known as the Thema Ferrari.
Why not call it Thema Ferrari all the time? Because Ferrari is…well, Ferrari; they’re always looking forward to put as much distance as possible from anything that doesn’t meet their high thoroughbred ideal, just look at what happened to poor Dino…so if you open the bonnet on a Thema 8.32 what you’ll find written on the engine is “Lancia by Ferrari”…see the difference?
The designation 8.32 comes from the engine itself; it refers to the 8 cylinders and 32 valves on Ferrari’s disowned V8. So what does this all mean for the Thema? Well, by today’s standards at first glance the numbers aren’t really impressive: 215bhp, 0 to 60 in about 6.8 seconds and a top speed of just under 150 mph. At this point you’re not gasping the way you’d expect to be when you heard the whole Lancia with Ferrari engine deal, but don’t discard the Thema just yet because torque matters and the V8 delivers on that department (especially with the aid of the effective 5 speed manual gearbox). The Lancia is more than capable of getting the jump on someone or coming from far behind and overtake in a heartbeat. Plus, with the Lancia you get a great companion to cover large distances with – when its working…let’s not get into that – because let’s not forget, this is a serious luxury car after all.
Price-wise…this is where it gets tricky for US buyers, but if you’re in Europe, good news! These are very affordable; sure, it will demand more TLC than your ordinary sedan – so, SO much more – but it will be worth it.
If the Thema isn’t your cup of tea and you’re looking for something a bit more versatile, but that can still go from A to B in “damn that was fast!”, the Swedes got you covered. Meet the V70 850 R. Like the Lancia, it’s a very interesting…box with wheels…that’s about it. A suburban box as a matter of fact because Volvo station wagons scream soccer mom as laud as your ear drums can take. However, as you might have guessed by now this is no plain old school run wagon.
Back in 95, Volvo asked Porsche for a few pointers in turning the normal 850 Turbo into something a little bit more…spicy. The new recipe was officially called 850 T5-R and apparently, people liked the extra heat. The 850 T5-R sold out so fast that the Swedish manufacturer decided it would be a good idea to pull the same stunt the following year. And that is how the 850 R came to be. There were two versions, sedan and station wagon and of course, I’m a huge fan of the stations because in terms of appearance, they’re the ultimate sleepers. Just look at it, would you ever suspect any savagery going on under the bland looks? The V70 850 R packs a respectable 250bhp (that’s from a 5 cylinder 2.3L engine by the way…) but the real pièce de résistance is the acceleration of the thing once the turbo kicks in. From 0 to 60, the V70 will keep you in suspense for over 7 seconds but after that, hold on because it will just keep going.
Don’t expect a particularly smooth ride though, this is a performance machine after all, so the suspension is stiff, but the interior makes it better. The rocket breadbox has very comfortable seats and all the equipment you can possibly need in a car. Plus, you won’t mind some slight back pain when the joy of overtaking smug-mobiles all day kicks in. James Mackintosh from CarThrottle.com sums up the 850R (in his particular case the sedan version, but the principal is the same) really well: “It’s a strange combination of rock-like solidity and Volvo-ness, and a motor that feels like it’s sucking down gallons of JP8 and spitting out flaming baby skulls.” So…fast, safe, reliable and on top of that a master of disguise; doesn’t get much better than that! A word of warning to US buyers; although you can get clean a V70 850R for a low price, the ones sold in the States are equipped with an automatic 4 speed instead of the proper 5 speed manual present in European models; but again, according to Mackintosh, this was one of the most efficient gearboxes of its time so, you’ll still be able to put it through its paces in style.
Last but certainly not least, my favorite Opel of all time and one of the great sleepers, perhaps “the” greatest: the Lotus Omega. Before we continue, a little detail: the pictures used for this article are of a Vauxhall Carlton. As you know, Opel is marketed as Vauxhall in the UK; why I’ll never understand…as far as changes go it’s just putting ugly as sin Vauxhall badges and grills on decent looking Opels. Long story short, the Carlton and the Omega are exactly the same car.
Before I said this was probably the greatest sleeper, but why, what does it have going on besides the funny looking spoiler? To put it in the simplest terms, the Lotus Omega is one of the most amazing, perfect cars ever made. Back in the early 90’s, the Opel Omega wasn’t exactly sporty (and when I say exactly, I mean not at all). It was just a big, efficient enough German sedan to go from A to B. But something had to be done because Opel’s neighbors were up to no good…and why should they have all the fun? Mercedes had the E500, BMW had the M5, and Opel…well, Opel had nothing, but when the company joined the arms race, it did so with a weapon of mass destruction.
General Motors bought Lotus back in 86 and somewhere along the line the company decided it would be a good idea to use the British manufacturer’s expertise to promote Opel (Vauxhall) sales. What resulted of the apparently innocent idea was a monster that caused what Tiff Needell referred to it as a “national scandal”. But I’m getting ahead of myself; what Lotus did was take a 3.0L 177 bhp engine and turn it into a 3.6L twinturbo 377 bhp bruiser. 0 to 60: 5.2 seconds – that’s faster than a 12 cylinder Ferrari Testarossa…top speed: 177mph (and let’s not forget, this is a 3500+ lbs car). To handle the new power, Lotus fitted the Omega with a brilliant six speed manual from the legendary ZR1; the suspension was completely re-imagined and so were the brakes. It’s impressive to notice that from such a major overhaul, pretty much the only thing that gives the Omega away is the simple body kit and small spoiler.
Going back to that Needell comment, it’s well worth discussing why exactly was the Omega such a controversial machine in Britain. You see, the German giants (Audi, BMW, and Mercedes) had all agreed on a 250kph (155mph) limitation on their cars in order to prevent a top speed war. But Opel said screw it to the whole thing and as a result, the Omega could beat the 155 mark by 22mph. In typical British overreaction, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents described it as a “high speed safety hazard” while the Association of Chief Police Officers considered it “an outrageous invitation to speed”. Although the Lotus Omega wasn’t the Armageddon horseman its critics in the UK claimed it to be, objectively, the car was indeed a highly desirable target for thieves and that wasn’t good for the cops because the hottest thing they had was a brand new fleet of Senators that would max out at under 150mph…
As with the previous two cars, I wanna leave a special note for potential US based buyers; although it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever find one of these for sale in the States, you can legally import it under the Department of Transportation’s “Show and Display” exemption. So, if you can afford it (the car in Europe is not as affordable as the previous ones; it enjoys a well established cult status and that makes it relatively pricey), for heaven’s sake man/woman, do it now! They’re getting harder to find every year and in the US, they’d be an even more special and unique sight than they are across the pond.
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