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The Original Hybrids: 16 Best European Cars with American Engines

Vukasin HerbezJune 25, 2018

In today’s car industry, the term, “hybrid,” marks a vehicle that comes with a gasoline and electric motor. It could be a Prius-esque green car that is environmentally friendly and gets impressive gas mileage. In most cases, hybrid relates to uninteresting, dull cars for suburban drivers with a strong sense of ecology, but it wasn’t always like this.

Before electric cars revolutionized the car industry, the word, “hybrid,” described European cars with American engines. Back in the days and even during the 90’s, installing an American V8 in a sleek, elegant European body was a winning combination for most manufacturers. The logic was simple. European car brands mostly produced smaller, four-cylinder engines. And if you wanted to independently build a fast, sports car, you needed a big, powerful and affordable American engine.

So, for decades, various European brands manufactured many U.S.-powered models, which were often better and faster than Ferraris or Porsches. American-built engines from GM, Ford and Chrysler with European designs seemed to be a durable and powerful combination. They won many races, proving that U.S. power can make any car great. This list includes the 16 best EU-USA hybrids that are sought-after classics, as well as interesting collector cars.

  1. Facel -Vega

Just after the Second World War, France was left without luxury manufacturers. All of their car industry concentrated on economy cars with small engine displacement. The Facel founder, Jean Daninos, realized that there was a gap in the market. So, in 1954 he started producing the Facel Vega FVS. It was a big luxury coupe that came with a 275 V8 from Chrysler’s De Soto brand.

Although postwar Europe wasn’t ready for such an expensive vehicle, Daninos managed to sell enough of them to fund more models and expand the lineup. In just a few years, the Facel Vega presented the gorgeous HK500, as well as the Facel Vega II. However, their real gem was the exclusive and over luxurious Facel Vega Excellence. It was a big, four door hardtop sedan and they produced around 100 of them. All those cars used big Chrysler V8s.

They closed the company in 1964 and for 10 short years, the Facel Vega was the best example of EU-American hybrids. The unique combination of continental style and U.S. power made it a favorite with the celebrities of the era. Dean Martin and Ava Gardner owned several examples.

  1. Allard

Established in London in 1945 by Sydney Allard, the Allard Motor Company Limited was one of the first internationally successful car companies featuring cars with American engines. The majority of Allard models featured different U.S.-built powerplants from Ford, Cadillac and Chrysler.

Allard’s concept was simple but innovative for the times. Sydney wanted his cars as light as possible and as powerful as possible. With the addition of a big V8 in the front, his cars were fast for the day, winning numerous racing events.

The company closed its doors in 1958, but car fans will always remember Allard as one of the fastest cars of the era. It was also one of the most influential models since Carroll Shelby. In fact, Zora Arkus Duntov drove them and later developed models featuring the same design philosophy.

  1. Sunbeam Tiger

In 1959, Sunbeam presented the Alpine, a nice-looking roadster with dependable and conventional mechanicals. It also came with a small 1.5 or 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine. But, the company soon realized it needed much more than four cylinders to be competitive in the sports car market. So, they asked the legendary Carroll Shelby to turn the docile Alpine into a performance car.

Shelby designed the Sunbeam Tiger as a muscle car version of the Alpine by installing a Ford 260 and later a 289 V8 engine. They also redesigned the suspension and steering. It was the first British roadster with a proper V8 rumble and impressive performance. Finally, Sunbeam had a sports car. The Tiger was fast and powerful for the standards of the day.

Most of the cars they produced went to U.S. buyers. When they ended its production in 1968, Sunbeam built around 7,000 Tigers.

  1. Opel Diplomat V8 Coupe

For those who don’t know, the German car manufacturer, Opel, was one of the biggest GM companies outside the U.S. For almost 90 years, between 1929 and 2017, GM owned Opel and influenced the design of its models. One of the most famous American cars they produced in Europe is the glorious Opel Diplomat V8 Coupe, which they built from 1965 to 1967.

The Diplomat was Opel’s luxury model. While the base versions got 2.8-liter six-cylinder, the top of the line Diplomat Coupe got Chevrolet’s 327 V8 engine. The overall design was reminiscent of Chevrolet’s mid-size and full-size models of the moment. It came with a standard Powerglide automatic transmission.

It was easy to mistake the Diplomat V8 Coupe for an American model. However, since Opel was always an economy car manufacturer and Diplomat Coupe V8 was expensive, it was produced in only 347 examples.

  1. Intermeccanica Italia Spyder

The late 1960’s was an interesting time for the car industry, especially small companies in northern Italy like Intermeccanica. After years of restoring and manufacturing cars and components for other brands, in 1969, they introduced the Italia. It was an elegant sports car with Ford or Chevrolet power plants.

Intermeccanica built around 500 Italias, both in convertible and coupe form. The model lasted until 1975 when the company moved to America and entered the replica car business. However, the Italia Spider remains one of the rarest, most elegant European cars with U.S. engines.

  1. Monteverdi

Monteverdi was a Swiss luxury car brand active from 1967 until 1984. Over the years, Monteverdi produced many premium models they marketed as cars with “German quality, Italian design and American power.” This was a winning combination. Monteverdi cars featured a Chrysler engine to produce an effortless performance. It also had the speed and raw power many European manufacturers of the period lacked.

The most extreme Monteverdi model was the Hai 450 from 1970. It featured a new chassis and body, as well as the famous Hemi 426 V8 engine. Monteverdi wanted the most powerful engine Mopar had to offer so in 1970, that was the mighty Hemi. The car was called “Hai,” which is a German word for a shark. The 0 to 60 mph acceleration time took only 4.5 seconds, making it the quickest car of the era.

After that, owner Peter Monteverdi went even further, introducing a series of cars fully they based on American models. The Monteverdi Sierra was actually a Plymouth Volare with a distinctive front end.

  1. Bitter CD

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s marked the boom of those independent small car manufacturers. They offered interesting creations and powerful cars that could rival industry giants like Ferrari, Maserati and Jaguar. And one of those models was the German Bitter CD. They built it on the Opel Diplomat sedan chassis.

The Bitter was an elegant Gran Turismo coupe with bespoke styling and a powerful Chevrolet 327 V8. Frua designed the body in Italy and when they introduced it at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1969, it received a positive reaction from potential buyers. They presented the production version in 1973 and although they got many orders, the oil crisis and recession limited sales. They built the last Bitter CD was in 1979 after making just 395 cars.

  1. AC 428 Frua

The British AC company is known for their part in the Cobra legend as a provider of bodies for early Shelby cars. They also continued producing the best 289 and 427 Cobras after Shelby ceased production in 1967. However, the company introduced another interesting European-American hybrid in 1965. They called it the AC 428 Frua.

It was a refined Gran Turismo coupe or convertible that the Frua design studio in Italy designed and assembled. They built the basic mechanics in England and then sent the cars to Turin where the final fabrication took place. Under the hood were American-made engines like Ford’s 428 V8 with 345 HP. The car was a fast cruiser with updated equipment, but it was also expensive. AC built only 81 Fruas before they ceased production in 1973.

  1. De Tomaso Pantera

Although not as well-known as Ferrari or Lamborghini, De Tomaso is another legend of the Italian sports car scene from the 60’s. Argentinean, Alejandro De Tomaso, started the company as a racing car outfit but he soon moved to the sports car market. He introduced a lineup of successful modes featuring Ford’s small block engines, a five-speed transaxle gearbox and an aggressive design.

The first car was the De Tomaso Mangusta which they introduced in 1967. However, the Pantera, which they introduced in 1969 proved to be far more successful and popular, even though it shared a lot with the Mangusta. The key to Pantera’s success was that Alejandro DeTomaso got a deal with the Ford Motor Company. This meant they could sell De Tomaso products officially in America through the Lincoln-Mercury dealership network.

Ford provided the engines and De Tomaso did the rest, making the Pantera a success for this small company. When production ended in 1989, De Tomaso built over 7,000 Panteras. Even the legendary rocker, Elvis Presley owned one.

  1. Jensen Interceptor FF

One of the best British Gran Turismo cars was the Jensen Interceptor. With its Italian styling by Vignale, massive size, great comfort and powerful Chrysler 383 or 440 V8 engine in the front, this four-seater coupe was one of the fastest, most comfortable cars for crossing continents in late 60’s and early 70’s.

All Interceptors feature Chrysler`s engine, but the best, most influential version was the Interceptor FF. The latter part of the name came from the Ferguson Formula, which meant this model came with all-wheel drive and an early form of ABS brakes. In 1966, this was space age technology. The power came from a 383 V8, although there were coupe prototypes with the 426 Hemi.

The Interceptor FF was expensive, so Jensen only managed to sell 320 of them. However, regular Interceptors in coupe and convertible form were much more successful, so they built over 6,400 of them until 1976.

  1. Iso Grifo

Iso sports cars were the brainchild of Italian industrialist, Renzo Rivolta. After successful ventures in other forms of vehicle production, Rivolta decided to produce a sports car with a powerful U.S.-built engine and homegrown Italian body. The first car was the elegant Iso Rivolta in 1962 featuring a Chevrolet 350 V8.

However, the best Iso model was the sublime Grifo, an elegant and dramatically styled coupe they introduced in 1964. It immediately became one of the fastest, most advanced and desirable sports coupes on the market. This was a bold claim since in the middle of the 60’s, there was serious competition in Italy from heavy hitters like Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini. But the Iso Grifo was more beautiful and quicker than anything else.

The base engine was 350 V8 but people could tune it to produce more than 350 HP. After a couple of years, Iso switched to the 427 V8 with 400 HP. They also produced one series of the Grifo with a Ford V8 engine. Unfortunately, in the mid-70’s, the company went out of business.

  1. Bizzarini GT5300 Strada

Giotto Bizzarini is one of the greatest names in the history of automotive engineering. As a person who worked for Ferrari, Lamborghini and Iso, he helped create some of the finest sports cars of the 60’s, including the mythical Ferrari 250 GTO. In the mid-60’s, Giotto decided to produce his own sports car. By using an Iso Grifo base, he introduced the Bizzarini GT5300 Strada. This was a semi-racing model he transformed into a road going coupe.

Under the hood was 5.3-liter Chevrolet V8; hence, the name GT 5300. He tuned the engine to produce higher HP ratings, moving it as far back as possible for the best weight distribution. They built the car from aluminum, so it was light. This made it fast, even by today’s standards, so it was a serious race car. Bizzarini entered the GT 5300 in several races, winning some, but the lack of funding and competition from much stronger names made him retire from the car making business.

  1. Gordon Keeble GK1

The GK1 should have been a big success, but today, most people have forgotten this great sports car from the mid-60’s. The GK1 was advanced for its time with a fiberglass body, an adjustable independent suspension and a Chevy 350 V8 engine. The initial reviews were positive since the car was attractive and performed better than their competitors.

It also handled much better than anything else on the road. However, there was one problem – the price. A new Gordon Keeble GK1 was almost twice the price of a Jaguar E-Type. It was closer to the price of an Aston Martin, which had sealed its fate. They only made 99 GK1s, all of which still survive today.

  1. Qvale Mangusta

The late 1990’s brought Qvale as a new player on the international sports car scene. The project started as a De Tomaso concept, but they continued as a Qvale, since De Tomaso went out of business. Under the sleek and modern design, there were quite a few Ford Mustang parts, including a 4.6-liter V8 engine and dashboard.

The most interesting feature of this car was the roof. Each Mangusta was also a coupe and a convertible thanks to ab interesting retractable hardtop system that allowed for several positions. Unfortunately, consumers didn’t receive the car well, so they discontinued it in 2002 after producing just 284 of them.

  1. Koenigsegg CCR

Even though Koenigsegg is a well-known hypercar manufacturer today, in the early 2000’s, the company had just started to make a name for itself. One of the first cars Koenigsegg ever produced was the CCR, which they introduced in 2004. The CCR proved to be an important model in the company’s history since they sold 14 of them

The CCR managed to break a few speed records and showed the car world that Koenigsegg was a force to be reckoned with. However, under the hood of the CCR was an American heart, in the form of a Ford modular 4.6-liter V8 engine. Koenigsegg’s experts thoroughly tuned and supercharged it to produce 817 HP.

  1. Ultima Evolution Coupe

Ultima Cars were never the mainstream supercar people buy just to show off. Ultimas were extreme road-going machines for supercar purists. They were also for people who were brave enough to tackle a superfast car without any help from electronic systems. So, the latest offering in the form of the Evolution Coupe is exactly what you want if you have an automotive suicide wish.

The basic specs are scary, because under the hood is a Chevrolet LS2 V8 engine they supercharged and tuned to produce 1020 HP. The power goes to the rear wheels over a six-speed manual transmission. In addition, there are no safety systems or traction control.

These cars are the original hybrids – best European cars with American engines. They prove how much car manufacturers can accomplish when they share designs, parts and motors. Each of these vehicles is a big part of global car history.

 

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