The legendary Enzo Ferrari once said: “Race cars are neither beautiful nor ugly. They become beautiful when they win.” We feel that some racing cars would still be considered beautiful even if they hadn’t proven themselves on track, or even turned a wheel in anger.
We’ve rounded up 10 of the coolest and most beautiful classic race cars, from disciplines as wide-ranging as Formula One, endurance racing and the World Rally Championship, and while success is a common factor among most of them, it isn’t guaranteed.
Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ2
- Endurance racing
It wouldn’t have been difficult to fill this entire list solely with racing cars from the stables of Alfa Romeo and Zagato. Possibly three of the greatest and most beautiful touring cars of all time – Giulia 2000 GTAm, 155 DTM and the 156 Super Touring – all hail from Milan, while Zagato has teamed up with Abarth, Aston Martin and many other brands to produce some of the most jaw-dropping creations to hit the track. The TZ2 is the spectacular result of a collaboration between Alfa Romeo and Zagato. The featherweight 620kg TZ2 used a 127kW 1.6-litre twin-cam four-cylinder engine to record class wins at Monza, the Nürburgring, Sebring and the Targa Florio in 1965.
Aston Martin V8 Vantage GTE
- Endurance racing
With ever-increasing aerodynamic demands on modern racers, finding a car that’s traditionally beautiful becomes ever harder. But when the starting point is the glorious Aston Martin V8 Vantage, a set of wings, splitters and diffusers just add to its presence. Adapted from the previous GT2 regulations, the Vantage was first entered into the GTE categories of the World Endurance Championship in 2012. Across its six seasons, it won a Pro class championship plus two Pro Am titles, including a pair of class wins at the Le Mans 24 Hours. It was replaced by the second-generation Vantage GTE in 2018, which has achieved further WEC triumphs.
An F1 car so low it looks like it’s succumbing to the pressures of its own downforce, the dramatic Brabham BT55 comes from a time when Formula One cars reached their most fearsome, turbocharged zenith. The work of legendary designer Gordon Murray, the BT55 was the first F1 car to use a fully composite monocoque, which was thrust along the road by a four-cylinder turbocharged BMW engine. The BT55 never had significant on-track success, securing just two points at the hands of Riccardo Patrese in the 1986 season, but it set the template for Murray’s most famous, and similarly beautiful, racing creation: the McLaren MP4/4, which dominated the 1988 F1 season.
Ferrari 330 P4
- Endurance racing
It’s well documented that the Ford GT40 was built in response to Enzo Ferrari’s snubbing of Henry Ford; a famous victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1966 was a suitable way for the American team to exact revenge. What’s less well known is that Ferrari arguably had the last laugh: the following year, the Prancing Horse went to Ford’s backyard in Daytona, and scooped a 1-2-3 at America’s leading 24-hour endurance event. Its cars lined up for a fitting photo finish that mimicked that of Ford’s Le Mans win less than 12 months earlier. The top two places were filled by the glorious 330 P4, the almost impossibly curvy exterior of which houses a 335kW V12 engine. The P4 also took overall victory at the 1,000km of Monza race in the same year.
Is this the most beautiful Formula One car of all time? Built during an era that was a high point for F1 aesthetics, the 641’s thin nose, simple aerodynamics, and clean sweep of its engine cover make Ferrari’s finest stand out. The Italian machine had a noise to match its stunning looks, too; while other engine constructors were making the switch to V10 and V8 power, drivers Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell had a 3.5-litre V12 motor that revved to almost 13,000rpm to play with. Unfortunately, the car’s looks didn’t translate into championship success; the 1990 title was decided in the final round at Suzuka, when Ayrton Senna and his McLaren chose to go for a gap that was no longer there. The resulting collision during the Japanese GP eliminated Prost on the spot and confined the Frenchman to the runner-up spot in the standings behind Senna.
- Endurance racing
The fifties was a golden era of endurance racing for Jaguar. Victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1951 for the XK120C was followed two years later by a victory for the C-Type, but it was the D-Type that earned the most spoils for the British manufacturer. Its voluptuous curves, fat tyres and that famous vertical fin became a Le Mans legend, taking victory three years running from 1955 to 1957. In that final year, the D-Type occupied five of the first six finishing spots, making the race one of the most dominant for a single car to this day, all the more amazing due to the fact that every example was privately entered, with only minimal factory backing.
Lancia has enjoyed enormous success in rallying throughout its history, and few cars in the sport could be considered more iconic than an Alitalia-liveried Stratos. The first Lancia to be penned by legendary design house Bertone, the Stratos was a supercar designed solely for bossing the World Rally Championship. Those jaw-dropping looks served a purpose, too: the wedge shape was perfect for housing Ferrari’s mid-mounted Dino V6 engine, while a short wheelbase gave the Stratos exceptional agility. It proved to be a huge success, with the Lancia wrapping up three consecutive World Rally titles from 1974 to 1976.
Formula One cars of the sixties are undeniably pretty, and the simplicity and elegance of the Lotus 49 make it among the most distinctive of the time. The British racing green livery enveloped one of Colin Chapman’s famously dainty chassis designs, while Cosworth’s well known DFV engine was mounted behind the driver’s head and formed a structural part of the car. It won on its debut in 1967 at the Dutch Grand Prix with Jim Clark at the wheel, while Lotus took the runner-up spot in the championship thanks to Clark and Graham Hill. It became the first F1 car to pioneer aerodynamics and tobacco sponsorship; while both arguably took the shine off its beauty, the 49 went on to take two driver’s world championships with Hill and the sport’s only posthumous champion, Jochen Rindt.
The McLarens of the mid-noughties era of F1 fought an uphill battle against the dominance of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. Though fast at times, the silver cars proved to be fragile – none more so than the MP4-19. Already adapted from the stillborn MP4-18, the 19 struggled with reliability early on in the season, with Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard chalking up eight retirements between them in the first five races. However, a significant mid-season update refined its aerodynamics further, while keeping a beautifully delicate nose design, which allowed Raikkonen to chalk up a victory at a chaotic Belgian Grand Prix.
- Endurance racing
Few cars on this list can claim to have the historical significance as the Porsche 550. This tiny mid-engined roadster was the Stuttgart brand’s first purpose-built race car, kicking off an inseparable tie with motorsport that has taken in Formula One, rallying and, most recently, Formula E. It has been endurance racing where Porsche has enjoyed its greatest success, however. Its 19 victories at the Le Mans 24 Hours are more than any manufacturer in the event’s history, and it was long-distance racing in which the 550 competed. It won on its first competitive outing at the Nürburgring, while a class win at its Le Mans debut, and another at the gruelling Carrera Panamericana road race in Mexico, earned it the nickname ‘The Giant Killer’.