The Top 10 Coolest Racing Driver Edition Cars of All Time
A few years ago, we took a look at 10 of the most prominent racing video games to wear the names of professional racecar drivers. The idea behind such games is, of course, having a real pro involved should ensure maximum accuracy and realism; this wasn’t always the case in practice but, hey, that’s life. If nothing else, having a pro put his name on the game would get it noticed on store shelves.
Of course, if using a pro driver to sell racing games works well, shouldn’t it also work well for selling actual cars? That’s been the thinking behind driver edition cars, special edition models bearing the name and signature (and occasionally the actual autograph) of drivers who compete for automaker. Such models are usually based on the road-going versions of the cars the pilot in question drives or, if he’s a single-seater or prototype shoe, a sporty model from the company in question’s model lineup. What follows, in no particular order, are 10 of the most distinctive and desirable street legal rides ever to wear a motorsports hero’s moniker.
Acura NSX Alex Zanardi Edition
Considering how closely he’s associated with its development, you’d think the late Ayrton Senna would have had his own special edition Honda/Acura NSX, right? Well, you’d be wrong, just like you would be wrong about Satoru Nakajima and Bobby Rahal (the other two racers that did the early development driving) having their own branded versions of Honda’s aluminum bowl of awesomesauce. No, the only racing driver to get an NSX named for him is Alessandro “Alex” Zanardi, who won the 1997 and ’98 CART Champ Car titles driving Chip Ganassi’s Honda-powered, Target-sponsored Reynards.
The Acura NSX Alex Zanardi Edition was produced only for the 1999 model year and only 51 were built, all of which were sold here in the U.S. The Zanardi NSX featured, in addition to the expected plaque bearing the serial number and Alex’s signature, leather and suede seats with red stitching, a lightweight battery, lighter rear wing, lightweight BBS alloy wheels, and manual steering instead of the regular model’s electrically-assisted system. Truly a terrific tribute to a guy who was an inspiration for his winning record and, following the horrific 2001 crash in which he lost his legs (and very nearly his life), his never-give-up, never-feel-sorry-for-himself attitude.
Mercury Cougar XR7-G
While the idea of pitting the original Mercury Cougar against its blue collar platform donor (the Ford Mustang) in the SCCA Trans-Am series might seem rather silly today, Lincoln-Mercury Division high performance and motorsports czar Fran Hernandez and NASCAR team owner/decorated World War II hero Bud Moore weren’t joking around when they took the classy coupe racing in its debut model year of 1967.
The lead driver for the factory Cougar clique was America’s global motorsports golden boy, Dan Gurney. By 1967 he had given the Porsche and Brabham F1 teams their first wins, dominated the NASCAR races at his home track (Riverside International Raceway) on an annual basis and, one year earlier, became an F1 and Indy car chassis constructor. To commemorate the lanky SoCal shoe’s involvement with the program, Mercury released a Cougar Dan Gurney Special for the 1967 model year, which was basically a stickers-and-stripes job. The following year, however, the company cooked up something truly special: The Cougar XR7-G (The “G” naturally standing for Gurney), even though the Dan Gurney Special package was still available (albeit with far fewer special parts)!
The XR7-G package (which retailed for $666.95 on top of a regular Cougar XR7) included leather upholstery, a unique center console, fog lights, Rader wheels (at least on early examples) and a stylish fiberglass hoodscoop that was actually functional (at least on the top-spec 428 Cobra Jet powered models, of which just 14 were built). Gurney himself didn’t have any input on the styling or equipment changes made on the car, which isn’t that unusual when it comes to such tribute cars; what is unusual is releasing such tribute cars after you’ve withdrawn from the series in which the driver in question campaigned that model, which is what Mercury did by quitting Trans-Am at the end of ’67, leaving Ford to carry all of Dearborn’s pony car road racing hopes.
BMW M3 Cecotto
Long before Pastor Maldonado and EJ Viso began prompting investors in carbon fiber futures to kiss their financial planners, and before Milka Duno brought the “slotless” slot car concept of the jam car to real racing, Venezuelan motorsports fans had Alberto “Johnny” Cecotto for whom to root. After getting his start in motorcycle road racing, the Caracas native made his move to cars in 1980. He tied his teammate for the most points scored in the 1982 Formula Two championship (but lost the title on the tiebreaker), which was enough to get him a seat with the Theodore F1 team the following year. That team folded with two races left in the season, but Cecotto was able to sign with the Toleman team for 1984, where he’d be paired with another promising young South American (Ayrton something-or-other…).
Unfortunately, Cecotto had a massive shunt in qualifying for the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, smashing both his legs and ending his single-seater career. However, he did recover to the point where he was able to have a pretty successful career in touring cars, much of which was spent with BMW. BMW subsequently released a limited run of first generation (read: E30) M3s that paid homage to him. They featured a high-output version of the 2.3L S14 inline-four (rated at 215 horsepower instead of 195) with a body-colored valve cover, Evolution II body kit, 16” wheels with metallic black centers, chrome tailpipes, and a dashboard plaque bearing Cecotto’s signature. A total of 480 Cecotto M3s ( 25 similar ones saluting Johnny’s Italian teammate Roberto Ravaglia that were exclusively right-hand-drive and offered in the U.K. in place of the Cecotto) were made, and only for model year 1989.
Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Ron Fellows Championship Edition
Even though the Chevrolet Corvette has been around for 61 years, there’s only been one driver edition Vette built by Chevrolet thus far in the model’s history (which is unfortunate, because who wouldn’t want a Dr. Dick Thompson Edition C2 Sting Ray with a serialized, color-coordinated toothbrush?). And that lone driver-edition version of “America’s Sports Car” wasn’t even dedicated to an American, but that’s entirely forgivable because the non-U.S. pilot in question is Canadian road racing hero Ron Fellows.
All 399 Corvette Z06 Ron Fellows Championship Editions produced for the 2007 model year (the only year it was offered) were Arctic White (a color previously unavailable on the C6 Z06) with red Grand Sport style stripes on the front fenders (the driver side ones incorporating a maple leaf motif, Ron’s name and the years in which Corvette won the American Le Mans Series GT1 manufacturers championship), a “CORVETTE” windshield banner and full-width rear spoiler. Inside, there was a mixture of red and black, with Fellows’ autograph and the number of that particular car adorning the underside of the center armrest/console lid. No, it wasn’t any faster than the regular Z06, but with 505 horsepower from the 7.0L LS7 V8 underhood, did it really have to be?
AMC Javelin Mark Donohue
After running away with the 1969 SCCA Trans-Am championship with their now-iconic Sunoco blue Chevrolet Camaro Z/28s, team owner Roger Penske and his ace driver/technical director Mark Donohue shocked the American racing scene by taking over American Motors’ Javelin Trans-Am program the following year. And in an attempt to improve the Javelin’s on-track performance, Donohue designed a new, more effective rear spoiler to be installed on the stock trunk lid. However, SCCA rules dictated the car would have to be re-homologated with the aero-appendage in place, meaning AMC would have to build at least 2,500 road-going Javelins with the new spoiler. The Wisconsin-based company duly produced 2,501 such vehicles for the 1970 model year, applying Donohue’s signature in decal form to the wing.
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition
If you were to go out and win three consecutive WRC drivers championships with the same manufacturer (as well as a manufacturers title for that nameplate), there’s a good chance that manufacturer would do a special salute-to-you edition of the street version of the car you used for all that success. No guarantee they would, obviously, but a pretty good chance. Well, that’s exactly what Mitsubishi did with the 1999 introduction of the Lancer Evolution VI and the limited production Tommi Mäkinen Edition thereof.
As with other Evo VIs, the TME (as it quickly became known) was powered by a turbocharged 2.0L inline-four rated at 276 horsepower *wink*wink* and driving all four wheels through a 5-speed manual transmission. But those four wheels, incidentally, were special 17” Enkei alloys finished in white, there was a Momo steering wheel (with matching shift knob) and embroidered seats inside. Other revisions included a different front bumper, a lower ride height, a front strut tower brace, a quicker steering ratio, a titanium turbine inside the turbocharger for faster spool-up, and the option of body-side accent stripes based on the ones applied to Mäkinen’s rally car.
Was the availability of this car the sole reason Tommi won his fourth-straight WRC title in ’99? Of course not. But it certainly wasn’t a hindrance, either…
Nissan Skyline Paul Newman Version
We know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t it a stretch to include a car named for Paul Newman – whose day job wasn’t driving race cars – in this group?” Perhaps, but by that logic Bruce Dickinson should be ineligible for any celebration of airline pilots because flying commercial passenger jets is a side gig to his primary source of income. And really, do you want to live in that world? No. No you do not.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. When Nissan decided to do a special edition version of the R30-generation Skyline, it asked Newman (who had by that time won a pair of SCCA National Championships and was driving Datsuns in SCCA and IMSA competition) to lend his name to it, as well as be the celebrity pitchman for the Skyline range. Essentially, the Skyline Paul Newman Version was a GT-ES Turbo Coupe (powered by the L20ET turbocharged SOHC 2.0L inline-six) with the azure-eyed thespian’s signature emblazoned on the hood and rocker panels in decal form, the rear fascia in badge form, and embroidered on the front seatbacks. And while by no means the hottest version of the R30 (that honor went to the friggin’ sweet twin-cam RS “Tekkamen” coupes), the 138 horsepower Newman was arguably the coolest version. One might even call it…terrific.
Alfa Romeo Spider Niki Lauda Edition
Despite having just won his second world championship in three years at the wheel of a Ferrari, Niki Lauda abruptly quit the team with two races remaining in the 1977 Formula 1 season as a result of disagreements on how the Scuderia was being run (Hardly an uncommon occurrence when Enzo was alive, it must be noted.). Come 1978, the Austrian was with the Brabham team, whose cars were powered by Alfa Romeo’s 3.0L flat-12 engine. And to celebrate his joining the family, the Italian company cooked up a special Niki Lauda Edition Spider that same year.
Offered exclusively here in the U.S. and only in red, the Lauda Spider was mechanically identical to the regular U.S.-spec Spider Veloce, meaning it had a 2.0L twin-cam inline-four under the hood, a 5-speed manual transmission…and a tumor-esque black-plastic-clad 5 mph bumper at each end. But it also had a set of white-outlined dark blue stripes adorning the nose and rear deck to provide a visual link to the Brabham BT46’s livery, special medallions on the front fenders, twist-to-adjust Tornado exterior mirrors, a 3” tall ducktail rear spoiler, and a chrome tailpipe. Oh, and of course there was a serialized dash plaque denoting where in the sequence of the 350 examples Alfa Romeo made that particular car fell. Yeah, it was a bit tacky, and more-than-a-bit slow (particularly by today’s standards), but on a sunny day on the right twisting road, you could almost picture yourself chasing down the likes of Andretti, Peterson, Scheckter, Watson and Reutemann, engine wailing away as you snatch another gear…
Opel Calibra Keke Rosberg Edition
Upon its introduction in 1989, the Opel Calibra – a handsome two-door coupe with a well-camouflaged hatchback – was the most aerodynamic production car yet built, with a drag coefficient of 0.26. Naturally, the slippery shape lent itself to competition use, which Opel began with the 1994 DTM season. And one of the Calibra drivers that year was 1982 Formula 1 World Champion Keke Rosberg. The mustachioed Finn may not have scored any wins for GM’s German outpost, but as the most prominent member of the marque’s driver roster, it seemed only natural that he would be the one getting a signature edition roadgoing Calibra.
The Calibra Keke Rosberg Edition (made only in 1995) was offered exclusively in white (except in Switzerland, where it was only available in black) with white BBS wheels, lowering springs from respected Opel tuner Irmscher, leather-wrapped steering wheel, white-face gauges, special badging and a “(number) of 997” plaque that also bore Rosberg’s autograph. We happen to think it’s a pretty cool car, though we’re pretty certain any special model Mercedes-Benz releases if/when his son Nico wins this year’s F1 title will put it in the shade. After all, he’s already beaten his old man’s pole and grand prix win career tallies.
Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Stirling Moss
Although he never managed to win neither the Formula 1 World Championship nor the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Sir Stirling Moss still had a pretty spectacular career. And the dapper Englishman (whose father Alfred and sister Pat also raced professionally) is still a beloved ambassador for the sport at age 84. So when Mercedes-Benz and McLaren decided to produce a special edition SLR McLaren, it was only natural that it would be a celebration of the man who, in 1955, drove a 300 SLR to victory in the Mille Miglia at an average speed of just under 100 mph.
Unlike most of the driver edition specials we’ve mentioned, which are distinguished primarily by simple things like decals, badges and embroidered seats, the 640 horsepower SLR McLaren Stirling Moss featured bodywork that was dramatically different to that of the standard SLR McLaren Roadster. What’s more, there was no roof of any sort, and instead of an actual windshield, there were just small clear screens for the driver and passenger. The lack of a windshield means the Moss isn’t actually street legal here in the U.S., though since only 75 were built and they were only available to people who already owned an SLR McLaren, that’s pretty close to being a moot point.