We all love the idea of so-called ‘skunkworks’ projects. There’s a romantic notion of the personal project making series production, largely because it runs counter to the popular image of dead-eyed, bean-counting Big Auto.
Most of the time, these stories stem from dead-eyed public relations departments who then wheel out camera-shy engineer to claim credit and fluff the script, but every now and again a genuine after-hours special makes the roster. Here are ten of the best.
BMW 3 Series Touring
Max Reisböck didn’t want for much. Just a BMW 3 Series that could take his family on holiday, but back in the 1980s you had the choice of a sedan or a coupe and that was your lot.
The BMW engineer decided to take matters into his own hands and started chopping away at the shell of a 3 Series that had suffered a shunt up the clacker.
Working in a friend’s garage, Reisböck had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve, but it took six months seized over an arc welder to realise his vision, using pre-cast parts - including repurposing the rear pillar of the E30 sedan to form the rear pillar of the new wagon.
Presented first to his company friends and then escalated to board level, the car was scheduled for production. It was still hardly a fast track though, the first 3 Series Touring appearing in dealers in 1987, three years later. There’s a salutary lesson there; If you want to build something quickly, do it yourself.
Yep, the world’s best-selling roadster was the pet project of one man. You might have heard that it was Bob Hall, a former Wheels journo, who convinced Mazda to put the car into series production, but he places much of the credit with program manager for ‘P729’, Toshihiko Hirai, who was responsible for battling through the Hiroshima company’s bureaucratic structures and keeping Hall’s vision as pure as possible.
Mazda tried three different prototypes, a front-engined front-wheel drive, a mid-engined rear-wheel drive and Hall’s favourite, the front-engined rear-wheel drive design. The decision to go with the FR version was due to a preference for a classic rear-drive layout and the fact that putting the engine at the front afforded better balance and reduced the complications in engineering a soft top.
The first computer-designed Holden - the Monaro - was designed, engineered and manufactured in a far tighter timeframe than usual. With a $60 million project budget, all of the crash and durability development was modelled virtually before production tooling was cast and pre-production cars went straight into the validation stage.
The total time taken from the styling department’s freeze to the first cars rolling off the lines was a mere 22 months, with a skunkworks team of 12 dedicated engineers squirrelled away in a separate office.
The Monaro really was a pioneer for Holden’s design processes. The engineers used GM's UniGraphics package but all of the Monaro-specific components were rendered as solid models, rather than the industry standard of merely using surfaces. It may have been old-school in its appeal but there was nothing traditional about the big coupe’s design.
Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL 6.3
Mercedes engineer Erich Waxenberger wasn’t short of an impressive resume. With the chassis engineering for three of Stuttgart’s most glamorous cars – the 190 SL, the 300 SL in its gullwing version, and the 300 SL Roadster – under his belt, his star was in the ascendant.
In 1966, he had the idea of dropping the 6.3-litre lump from Mercedes' 600-series limousine into the pointy end of a 280 S-Class. A few quick measurements confirmed it would just about fit, resulting in a 300hp monster. While he was at it, Waxenberger also appropriated the 600’s fiendishly complicated self-levelling air suspension.
Waxenberger’s boss, Mercedes racing director Rudolf Uhlenhaut, greased the wheels at board level and the 300 SEL appeared on showroom floors in early 1968.
Quick enough to keep pace with most Latin exotics, the sedan could get to 100km/h in 6.0 seconds and would go through the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds. Mercedes built 6526 6.3's between December 1967 and September 1972.
Even madder is Waxenberger’s 230SL Pagoda with the same engine. Unfortunately, this was a step too far for the famously conservative Mercedes board, the SL showing some spirited handling characteristics due to high front axle loads coupled with the relatively crude single-pivot swing axle out back. Nevertheless one brave test driver clocked a 10:30 lap of the Nurburgring in the test mule.
Haruhiko Tanahashi, the developer of the Toyota Celica ST165 GT-Four, is clearly a guy with a bit of 98RON in his veins. While perambulating around Lexus’ huge Shibetsu proving ground on the north island of Japan, he marvelled at the pristine high-speed bowl, mile straights and high-tech timing systems and came to the conclusion that all of this investment would be a bit of a waste if it weren’t put to good use developing a supercar.
Over lunch, he proposed the idea to a few of his colleagues, who started sketching on napkins. Recruiting a series of ever more influential champions for the project, the car eventually became the pet project of Akio Toyoda, a member of the family controlling Toyota. Akio sampled rival supercars from Europe and attempted to understand their charisma.
“The more I trained, the more I learned, and I began to understand where the vision could fit within Lexus,” Akio said.
Rather than try to get the car to espouse conservative Lexus brand values, Akio had the vision to appreciate that a halo car could instead act as an influencer for the marque, pushing it out of its to date pipe and slippers comfort zone.
“Perhaps it could be the secret sauce – the secret sauce that flavours every car,” he laughed. The project eventually got the green light, a production run of 500 cars was scheduled and the LFA is now a car that merits comparison with the supercar elite. The best-sounding supercar of all time? The screaming V10 Lexus has to be in the running somewhere.
Check back for the second part of our Skunkworks Specials next week.