The Top 10 Parts Bin Specials That Should Have Happened
The term “parts bin special” is typically used as a pejorative within gearhead circles, a descriptor of vehicles developed on the cheap by taking a bit of one model and injecting it with some DNA (usually an engine, suspension parts or other mechanical bits) from within the same company or corporate sphere of influence. But for every 10 shared-component stinkbombs, there’s a bitchin’ bitsa like the Pontiac Trans-Am 20th Anniversary Edition, Aston Martin DB7 or Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3. And after much investigation and contemplation, we’ve compiled a list of 10 what-if rides that, with a little modification of various parts and some creativity and/or courage by their makers, could have made the motoring world an even better place. Also: While we would have loved to present each of our predominantly plausible prototypes with digitally manipulated illustrations, we lack both the time and talent to create satisfactory artwork, so you’re going to have to look at similar models that did make it to production while using that thing that’s all the rage among preschool and kindergarten aged kids called “imagination” instead.
Buick Rainier GS
The corpse of Oldsmobile was still warm when, in 2004, General Motors shifted its variant of the GMT360 mid-size SUV platform, the Bravada (which went down in history as the last new Olds introduced), over to Buick as the renamed and restyled Rainier. For all four of the model years it was produced (’04 to ’07), the Rainier was offered with two engines: The nifty 4.2L DOHC inline-six that wasn’t installed in anything other than the myriad GMT360 clones, or an optional 5.3L LS series V8.
But in 2006, Chevrolet developed a hot rod version of its GMT360, the TrailBlazer SS. Offered with rear- or all-wheel-drive, upgraded suspension and brakes, heavy-duty 4-speed automatic transmission and a 390 horsepower version of the 6.0L LS2 V8 found in contemporary Corvettes, Cadillac CTS-Vs and Pontiac GTOs, the TrailBlazer SS was a legit muscle SUV that, in 2008, got a mechanical twin in the form of the Saab 9-7x Aero. Yes, a Corvette-powered, body-on-frame super sport ute from Saab. But what if GM had picked a brand that made, you know, sense to receive the Super Sport sibling? A potent-but-h Rainier Gran Sport (“Rainier GS” to its friends) in the mold of the steroidal Skylarks, Wildcats and Rivieras of the ‘60s and early ‘70s would have been exactly the sort of “iron fist in a velvet glove” to bring some mojo to late-aughts Buick showrooms.
Dodge Avenger GTS
While the first generation Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring coupes were largely forgettable (aside from the former forming the basis for the International Race of Champions car of the mid-‘90s), they harbor a dirty – in the sexy sense of the word – little secret: They were essentially lengthened, notchback versions of the second generation DSM twins, the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Eagle Talon. And the DSM twins, as anyone who grew up on a steady diet of fart can mufflers and clear lens taillights knows, were available with Mitsu’s fabled 4G63T 2.0L turbocharged inline-four and all-wheel-drive.
With that information in mind, we find ourselves wishing Chrysler, in its heart of hearts, had decided to offer a hot DSM for grown-ups. Our hypothetical Avenger GTS (that suffix serving as a nod to the enclosed Viper introduced in 1996) would have incorporated some more menacing styling cues, upgraded suspension and brakes, the aforementioned 4G63T (tuned to yield a bit more power than the Eclipse and Talon’s 227 horsepower, like 250 to 270-ish) and AWD. Such a machine could have been “the missing link” between the turbocharged, front-drive muscle Mopars of the ‘80s and early ‘90s and the Gen 3 Hemi powered rear-drive machines from the mid 2000s onward.
Toyota Camry XRS
The Camry is very much a good news/bad news proposition for Toyota: The good news is it’s a perennial best-seller and has become the go-to car for people who go through life saying, “I dunno…I just want something roomy and reliable and I’ve got between $25,000 and $35,000 to spend on it…” The bad news is…it’s the go-to car for people who go through life saying, “I dunno…I just want something roomy and reliable and I’ve got between $25,000 and $35,000 to spend on it…” It doesn’t inspire much passion one way or the other, even though the SE and XSE trim levels have some legit sport sedan hardware and, as a result, noticeably snappier dynamics. But there exists an opportunity for a legitimately hot Camry.
Starting under the hood, the 268 horsepower 3.5L V6 gets the boot in favor of the 400 horsepower supercharged version of the same that’s installed behind the cockpit of the Lotus Evora 400. An even more aggressive suspension, brake and tire package would help keep our conceptual Camry XRS planted, as would a sport-tuned version of the all-wheel-drive system from the Cam-a-lam-a-ding-dong’s crossover cousin Highlander, because no matter how much you play with steering geometry, suspension geometry, halfshaft lengths or whatever, there’s no way that many ponies passing through only the front wheels isn’t going to be at least a bit unruly. And while we’d love to say there’d be a 6-speed stick acting as intermediary between engine and wheels, the Evora’s tuned “Intelligent Precision Shift” 6-speed automatic would be the more likely gearbox nominee. Still, a 400 horse AWD Camry would go a very, very long way toward exorcising the model’s soul-sucking vanilla transportation appliance reputation.
Ford Thunderbird Sports Roadster
For all the hype and praise that was heaped upon the last generation Ford Thunderbird during its gestation and arrival on the market *cough*Motor Trend Car of the Year*cough*, it turned out to be a bit of a dud. The rather floppy rear-drive DEW98 platform was shared with the Jaguar S-Type and Lincoln LS sedans, while the latter also donated its dashboard (albeit with accents to match each particular T-bird’s exterior color) to this otherwise retro-to-a-fault boulevard cruiser. And cruiser it was, because although the Jag derived 3.9L DOHC V8 was more muscular than the SOHC 16-valve 4.6L Modular V8 offered in a whole flock of Blue Oval wares (the retro-‘Bird’s MN12-body predecessor among them) on paper, you wouldn’t guess it from behind the wheel.
But hold on a sec: Wasn’t the Jaguar S-Type offered in R specification, with the 400 horsepower supercharged 4.2L AJ33S V8 under the bonnet? Why yes…yes it was. And didn’t Ford in the early 1960s try to recapture some of the magic of the first-gen 2-seat T-birds by offering a racing style faired tonneau cover that fit over the back seats on the Thunderbird Sports Roadster? That, too, is affirmative. So what if Ford (specifically SVT) took the bigger, blown-er Jag engine, cooked up a sportier suspension and brake package, maybe a few strategically placed chassis reinforcements and the aforementioned throwback tonneau cover to create a TSR for the Aughts? No, it still wouldn’t have threatened the Corvette or Viper for American performance roadster supremacy, but it would have gone a long way toward building some goodwill with the enthusiast community. And who knows? Maybe such a car would have helped the nameplate survive beyond its 2005 golden anniversary.
Chevrolet Chevette SS
By 1985, the Chevrolet Chevette (and its Pontiac Clone, the 1000) was well and truly a living fossil, existing only as a profit generator, the cost of its rear-drive T-body tooling having long since been amortized thanks to its utilization throughout GM’s global empire. However, 1985 was also the year that another T-body derivative – the Isuzu Impulse – rolled out its turbocharged version in the U.S. market. That 2.0L SOHC inline-four (known by the codename 4ZC1-T) was rated at 140 horsepower, which would have turned the 2,000-ish lbs. Chevette into a stout straight line performer. And the upgraded suspension setups for the Impulse (and its JDM counterpart, the Piazza) developed by Irmscher and Lotus would have given the Chevette SS (Because why wouldn’t Chevy have taken the opportunity to use that moniker?) the agility needed to make it one of the most fearsome hot hatches of the decade.
Mercury Cougar Eliminator
By the mid 1990s, the number of people looking to buy a Ford Thunderbird was rapidly diminishing, and things were even worse for its Mercury Cougar cousin which, by this time, was little more than a nearasdammit vertical back window and a couple additional standard features away from its avian-badged analogue. And that was a shame, since Ford had actually benchmarked no less than the E24 BMW 6 Series when developing the all-independently-suspended MN12 architecture that underpinned the personal luxury car twosome that arrived for 1989 (as well as the Lincoln Mark VIII that landed three years later). But what if the suits in Dearborn had tried to inject some ferociousness back into its frumpy feline?
Starting with an even sharper version of the chassis setup found on the Thunderbird Super Coupe and early Cougar XR7s (which used the same Roots supercharged Essex V6), the Cougar Eliminator package (a callback to the late ‘60s/early ‘70s hot version of the Cougar, back when it was a bigger, her Mustang) would add a choice of vivacious exterior colors, a subdued rear wing, racy looking 5-spoke alloy wheels, and a proper high-flow dual exhaust setup with polished tips poking out below the rear bumper. From those pipes would come the rumbles, snarls and pops of the ‘96 Mustang SVT Cobra’s handbuilt 4.6L DOHC 32-valve Modular V8. That engine’s 305 horsepower and 300 lb.-ft of torque are dainty by modern standards, but keep in mind that that was five horsepower more than the contemporary base Corvette C4’s LT1, and 30 more than the Camaro Z28’s LT1. Back it up with the SVT Cobra’s Tremec 5-speed manual and you would have muscle car fans who felt they were too grown up for a Mustang shopping under (what used to be) the Sign of the Cat.
It might seem hard to fathom now, but there was a time when General Motors controlled about half of the American new vehicle market, and it was during those heady days that the company’s U.S. divisions were allowed to compete with each other in areas like price point, performance and design. This wasn’t entirely the case with Oldsmobile in the mid- to late-1950s, however, as both its model series – the 88 and slightly longer and more luxurious 98 – used the B-body architecture shared with the two junior series of Buick, the Special and Century, while Buick also had access to the bigger C-body (shared with Cadillac) for its two senior model series, the Super and Roadmaster. But what if the engineering-focused folks based in Lansing had had the opportunity to step on even more of the toes of their colleagues in Flint?
Let’s say that for model year 1957, as part of the celebration of the marque’s 60th anniversary, Oldsmobile revives the Limited name – first used on a house-sized (and house-priced) ultra-luxury model family between 1910 and ‘12 – for a blinged out four-door-hardtop C-body featuring exclusive exterior touches like an anodized gold grille insert and brushed stainless steel side trim. The interior appointments would make an entry-level Caddy blush and, because it’s an Olds, there are multiple cutting-edge mechanical features like cast aluminum wheels, front disc brakes, a Limited-only fuel injected version of the 371 cubic-inch (6.1L) Rocket V8 rated at about 340 horsepower (compared to the triple-carburetor “J2” version’s 300) and, in an unheard-of-in-those-days instance of GM swallowing its pride and buying another manufacturer’s tech, a built-under-license heavy duty version of Citroën’s amazing-to-this-day hydropneumatic suspension system.
Such an automobile would have likely been priced deep into Cadillac territory, and would have taken at least some of the shine off that nameplate’s also-new-for-’57 super-fancy four-door, the Eldorado Brougham. With Buick and Cadillac management throwing fits about the Limited to the corporate overlords, it would have been a one-year-only affair…until Buick poached the name for its new flagship the very next year, which actually did happen.
Mercedes-Benz 500 TE
Though not as hardcore as BMW’s E34 M5, Mercedes-Benz’s W124 500 E (later E 500) was nevertheless one of the premiere super sedans of the early 1990s. Of course, the 124-chassis wasn’t just produced as a four-door sedan; it was also offered in station wagon, hardtop coupe and, eventually, convertible forms. Alas, the mega-motor model – which Mercedes-Benz co-assembled with Porsche in a process that took 18 days and involved partially completed cars making multiple truck trips back and forth across Stuttgart – was strictly limited to the 4-door body.
However, in our alternate automotive history timeline, the suits in Untertürkheim went even more wahnsinnig and commissioned their sports car specialist neighbors to help them build a wagon version: The 500 TE! It would have had the same flared front fenders, wider wheels and tires, lower front valence, Recaro front seats, 322 horsepower 5.0L M119 V8 and sport tuned 4-speed automatic transmission, unique side skirts, rear bumper, quarter panels, and maybe a super-duper subtle spoiler atop the tailgate. Oh, and the standard S124 wagon’s split folding second row bench seat and rear-facing fold-flat third row, since fitting a 2+2 layout similar to the sedan would kinda defeat the purpose of the wagon body. Would Mercedes have bothered selling it here in the U.S.? Probably not, but hey, this is our fantasy, so let’s say they did, okay?
In 1991, GMC went off the deep end and introduced a turbocharged, AWD version of its regular cab Sonoma pickup called the Syclone (Annoyed grammarians can thank Mercury for not surrendering the rights to the correct spelling.). One year later, it was replaced by the Typhoon, a vehicle based on the Sonoma’s two-door SUV brother, the Jimmy. But what if the General’s truck-centric division decided to go even crazier with the “SyTy” twins’ 280 horsepower 4.3L turbo V6 and on-road performance tuned AWD system? The body-on frame Safari mid-size van (and its Chevy doppelganger, the Astro) used a plethora of S-10/Sonoma bits under the surface, so it probably wouldn’t have been a super tall order to transplant the turbo trucklets’ drivetrain beneath the mid-size mommy-mobile (Packaging the turbo, intercooler and their associated plumbing under that stubby hood and farther forward and higher firewall might have presented an issue, but whatever.). Throw on a SyTy-ish body kit, alloy wheels, a murdered-out interior with body hugging bucket seats in the front and middle rows, and a storm-centric name to match with its brethren –Hurricane would probably work, especially since GM had already trademarked it for a Holden concept car decades earlier – and you’d have the second most maniacal OEM-developed van to ever turn a wheel (the title of most maniacal being retained, of course, by the Renault Espace F1).
Plymouth Road Runner
After a brief, disastrous attempt at bringing Hillman Avengers over as Plymouth Crickets in the early 1970s, Chrysler decided to throw in the towel on importing products of its British subsidiary to the U.S. and instead began selling Plymouth badged versions of the Mitsubishi-made Dodge Colt. This practice continued right up until the late 1994 launch of the two brands’ cutesy new homegrown compact, the Neon. But what if Chrysler had released a special high performance version of the Mitsubishi Mirage/Lancer under the Plymouth nameplate shortly before then to go with the lonesome Eclipse/Talon-based Laser? After all, Dodge had a whole herd of sporting models circa 1992 (Daytona, Stealth, Spirit R/T and the Viper).
Globally, the Mirage/Lancer platform on which the last generation Colt was based was home to a variety of inline-four engines, with the 2.0L turbo 4G63T mentioned above being the most potent of the bunch (The 1.6L version of the pipsqueak 6A-series V6 that, in 2.0L form, propelled the FTO was offered in Japan and other Far East markets but, since no member of that engine family was ever certified by the EPA, we’ll assume that the beancounters would have rendered it a non-starter.). We would have liked to see this car use the Colt coupe body style, with a no-frills interior and exterior (i.e. no standard radio, crank windows, unpainted plastic bumpers, steel wheels, etc.), but with the 4G63T, an LSD, 5-speed manual, summer tires, and upgraded suspension and brakes. And it would be called…Road Runner! Sure, purists would scream bloody murder between projectile vomiting fits but, hey, the basic concept – a car long on performance hardware but short on mod-cons and, consequently, price – would be pretty true to the original, especially if the Warner Brothers cartoon bird was on the flanks and the purple “MEEP-MEEP” horn was under the hood.