At Dyler.com, we have thousands of cars listed on our site, and you can bet your last penny that the most popular models are powered by a flat-six, a V8, or a V12.
Yet for every flat-six, V8, and V12, there’s a W8, a Wankel (stop laughing!), and a V5. These unconventional engines are left-field solutions to questions that could have been solved through more straightforward engineering methods. However, the brains behind these engineering anomalies took convention and tossed it in the bin. We salute them for that. Viva The Weird.
To celebrate these engineering obscurities, we’ve put together this list of cars powered by truly strange motors. There’s a brace of Volkswagens, a BMW with an F1-derived V10, a Chrysler with a jet engine, and - get ready for it! - a Ford concept car driven by a small nuclear reactor.
Whilst these cars and engines never truly made it into the mainstream, they’re some of the biggest “what if’s” in automotive history and have earned a deserved cult following amongst petrolheads who choose the road less driven.
Strap yourself in because things are about to get very weird quickly. Very quickly.
Volkswagen Passat W8
“A Passat,” you say?! “That’s the car driven by nice people!” That’s very much correct, and it has been repeatedly proven that a bastard has never been seen behind the wheel of Volkswagen’s rather pleasant family sedan. Not even this one - the Passat W8. Back in the early 2000s, VW were experimenting with all sorts of strange engines and to showcase quite how good it was at producing an innovative power unit, they dropped their halo motor - the W8 - into a Passat B5.5. The beguiling W8 motor started out as one of VW’s VR6 engines with two cylinders lopped off to form a VR4. Another VR4 with all cylinders running off a common crank was added to it at 72 degrees and there you have the W8, which slotted sideways under the Passat’s bonnet. On top of being a more compact engine than a regular V8, it was also modular - bolt on four more cylinders? Then you have a W12. Attach a few more, then you have the thunderous, gravity churning W16 found in the Bugatti Veyron. In addition to being very much engineering novelty, the Passat W8 looked lovely in that subtle, unthreatening way all VWs of the early-to-mid 2000s did. The Passat W8 was also fitted with a Haldex AWD system to help it cope with the engine’s 275 bhp and 155mph top speed. Between 2002 and 2005, Volkswagen made just 11,000 Passat W8s. If you’re looking for a rare, feel-good car that won’t draw too much attention, you could do a lot worse than this.
Yes, I know we started with a Passat and we’re now on to a 1990s Toyota MPV but we promise you - we’re not taking the piss. Hear us out… With its design like a transverse egg, the first-gen Toyota Previa of the 1990s was never going to be a humdrum people mover akin to the Plymouth Voyager or Mk1 Ford Galaxy. Under the skin of the Previa’s Hen Fruit body was a 2.4-liter inline-four engine mounted at a 75-degrees under the front seats. The sideways four banger sent its full 138 bhp to the Previa’s rear wheels. With the exception of the GR Yaris and a few other models, Toyota is not usually a company that does something “just because”. With that in mind, it opted for this unusual arrangement because it allowed for more interior space whilst giving the Previa better weight distribution and a lower center of gravity. What’s more, the first-gen “Prev” came with a five-speed manual gearbox as standard. As we’ve already seen, the performance of this 1,500kg people van is far from rapid. So, what did Toyota do to improve performance? Well, it dropped the manual box in favor of an automatic and fitted a supercharger to the Previa’s lopsided motor to boost performance to 161 bhp. Given the rise in the popularity of #VanLife over recent years, we can’t think of a cooler car to hit the road in than a Mk1 Previa. After all, with its manual, mid-engined, rear-wheel drive layout, you’re essentially driving something that’s akin to a Ferrari F355 or a Lamborghini Diablo. Just way, way cooler. If we had the column space, we’d run you through more wonderful Previa weirdness. However, we don’t, so we’ll leave that to Doug DeMuro…
Chrysler Turbine Car
You wanted something properly weird? Here you go - it’s the Chrysler Turbine Car! Back in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the United States was firmly in the grasp of the Jet Age. Given the zeitgeist, one of America’s ‘Big Three’ carmakers - Chrysler - got stuck in and began to properly explore the possibility of running a car with an in-house developed gas turbine jet engine with just 60 moving parts; significantly fewer than a traditional piston motor with its 300 or so. Unveiled in 1963, the Chrysler Turbine Car could run on pretty much anything flammable. Potential fuels included regular gasoline, peanut oil, kerosene, and as demonstrated by former President of Mexico - Adolfo Mateos - tequila. However, the cons of the low maintenance gas turbine engine outweighed the pros. It produced a meager 130bhp and would idle at an insanely high 22,500rpm. Subsequently, the Ghia-designed Chrysler Turbine car had a serious thirst - its George Bestian drinking habit meant it would consume fuel at 17mpg. It was also expensive. Back at its time of launch, each of the 55 Turbine Cars and five prototypes allegedly cost Chrysler $300,000 USD to make. Despite the poor MPG and high manufacturing cost, it would be the Clean Air Act of 1966 that actually rang the death knell for the Chrysler Turbine Car due to the nitrogen oxide fumes its gas turbine emitted. Of the 55 Turbine Cars made, Chrysler destroyed 45 of them, kept three for itself, and sold another six to private owners including Jay Leno who’ll show you around his one if you click here.
In addition to being the era of the Jet Age and the Space Race, the 1950s and 60s were the peak of the Atomic Age. Nuclear power - then in its infancy - was seen as the epitome of social and technical progress. As society began to find wider uses for the atom in everything from medicine to tourism, carmakers began to turn their attention to the nuclear powered car. Enter this - 1957 Ford Nucleon; a concept which never made it past the model stage. Had it made it into production, Ford would have scrapped the traditional Internal Combustion Engine in favor of a small nuclear reactor located at the rear of the car. Yes. You read that correctly. No need to read it again. Its uranium fission-fuelled reactor would drive the Nucleon’s steam engine, which meant it shared a similar powertrain to a nuclear submarine. In addition to tapping into post-war America’s appetite for the atom, Ford - along with most of wider society - genuinely believed that nuclear power was a more efficient form of energy than fossil fuels. In car terms, this meant that the Nucleon could run for 5,000 miles before its relatively emission free reactor would need to be replaced. Given what we now know about the risks of nuclear energy, it’s certainly a good thing that the Nucleon never made it into production. Nonetheless, in today’s age of the Electric Vehicle and hydrogen power, the idea of the atom-fuelled car is a fascinating footnote in automotive history.
BMW M5 V10 E60
Like we saw with the Volkswagen Passat W8 earlier on, the early-to-mid 2000s were a golden age for carmakers doing stuff just because they could. BMW was no exception to this rule, and with the launch of the E60 M5 in 2005, it decided to shoehorn a Formula 1-derived* V10 under the bonnet to create a 500bhp, 200mph plus super saloon. Given that BMW owned the Sauber F1 Team at the time, BMW also strengthened the E60 M5’s ties to F1 by fitting it with a seven-speed paddle-shift gearbox. In certain markets, BMW also offered a six-speed manual. Despite the reliability issues on some E60 M5s which haven’t been well looked after, a good one still provides thunderous amounts of power and a drive as good as any other modern classic BMW M car. Oh, yeah we almost forgot; if you STILL can’t get past the Bangle-designed E60 but can’t quell your urge for a V10-powered super saloon , don’t worry - Audi made an RS 6 V10 from 2008 to 2010.
NSU Ro 80
This is the NSU Ro 80, a car so advanced for its time that it effectively killed its parent company. Before Audi became Audi, it was - sort of - NSU and NSU was just as forward-thinking and technologically-driven as Audi is today. Got that? Right. So, the NSU Ro 80 was a four-door executive sedan produced from 1967 to 1977. Nothing unusual in that. That’s until we get to the engine. The Ro 80 was powered by a 113bhp 995cc twin-rotor Wankel motor, driving the front wheels. This made it the second mass-production car in automotive history after the Mazda Cosmo to run this engine configuration. Whilst refined and quiet, the Ro 80’s engine would prove to be its downfall. It would rev quietly and quickly to very high engine speeds, thus causing severe damage to the engine’s components. Whilst NSU resolved the problem on later models, the Ro 80’s unreliability saw the company hemorrhage its limited finances on fixing the reliability issues and placating disgruntled buyers. By 1969, the cash-strapped NSU had been taken over by Volkswagen and in 1977, NSU became what we know as Audi today.
There’s nothing really unusual about a car being fitted with a flat or “boxer” motor - after all, Subaru and Porsche have been doing it for years in the search for performance and a lower center of gravity. Not Lancia though. Not in this case, anyway. Produced from 1977 to 1984, the Lancia Gamma Coupé was available with a series of flat-four engines ranging from 2.0L to 2.5L; strange considering that the Gamma Coupé was a big, wafty, front-wheel drive thing. Surely the FIAT V6 would have been better suited to such a machine, right? That would be correct, but remember that the Gamma was designed by Pininfarina - the Italian styling house who is responsible for automotive works of art including the FIAT Dino, Ferrari 365 “Daytona“, and Bentley Azure. Pininfarina, with aesthetics in mind, requested Lancia that the Gamma’s V6 be replaced by the flat-four as it would allow designer Aldo Brovarone to lower the bonnet line and steeply rake the car’s windscreen. It’s almost impossible to argue that it was the wrong call as the Gamma Coupé is one of the most proportionally perfect Lancias to ever be penned by Pininfarina.
Volkswagen Bora V5
Yes, it’s Volkswagen and its odd engines again and this time we’re looking at the V5. In production from 1997 to 2006, the V5 was the midpoint between a V6 and an in-line four. This was when VW was finding ways to get more of a punch from smaller engines at a time before turbocharging became mainstream. To create the V5, VW took its VR6 motor - a smaller, lighter, narrower, more complex spin off of a V6 - and lopped off a cylinder. That was it. The result was a weird, uneven engine which had one side heavier than the other and an odd vibration. The V5 had a shared cylinder head, so some exhaust manifold runners were longer than others, whilst some intake runners were longer than others. As a result, the engine produced a strange, bubbling exhaust note unlike any other. Until Volkswagen went all sensible and began fitting in-line fours with small turbos in the early-to-mid 2000s, the V5 could be found in the Jetta/Bora (above), Mk4 Golf, B5 Passats, and the first-gen ‘new’ Beetles. The odd number of cylinders actually worked, and in our books, the V5 is the peak of Volkswagen doing what it does best - being fantastically obscure, yet simultaneously logical. If you would like to delve deeper into the hows and whys of VW’s gloriously unusual V5 motor, here’s a video by Engineering Explained with everything you need to know!
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