Racing is an essential component of many European auto manufacturer’s legacies. Drivers who want the fastest cars will naturally look toward the European manufacturers that perform at the highest level on the racetrack.
You can look at racing as a microcosm of the European automotive industry. European car manufacturers gearing up for races are participating in a team mechanical sport. Extensive testing is done to ensure these racing vehicles are at the top of their game regarding speed, aerodynamics, fuel efficiency, durability, and more. Racing wins instantly award a manufacturer with publicity that can translate to mainstream sales. European manufacturers were especially hungry for publicity in their early days since one key win could attract an array of investors and customers.
An examination of European auto history helps us remember forgotten racing events, examine heated rivalries, and highlight iconic vehicles. Let’s jump right into the European auto manufacturers that made themselves a household name with their exceptional racing history.
10.) How Did Bentley Help Form Competitive Automotive Racing?
Bentley has been in the racing game since 1919. The British manufacturer’s founder, W.O. Bentley, emphasized the importance of racing as he believed these events would define his company’s success. W.O. was right as Bentley’s early dominant racing performance helped refine the technology of vehicles for years to come.
Bentley’s drivers had the same tenacity toward the competition that W.O. held. This cohesive teamwork carried over into Bentley’s customer service practices. W.O. Bentley knew that his mainstream drivers were seeking thrills with every trip behind the wheel. The wins that Bentley secured throughout the 1920s and 1930s helped feed the testing and publicity process that solidified this manufacturer’s performance-driven image.
What Was Bentley’s First Significant Racing Win?
The Junior Sprint Handicap at the Brooklands racetrack marked Bentley’s first competitive racing win in 1921. This victory was especially impressive given the challenges that the Brooklands racetrack held. Even though smaller engine cars were given a head start, Bentley’s EXP2 finished well ahead of its competition.
What Does Bentley’s Le Mans History Look Like?
You might be shocked to learn that W.O. Bentley initially doubted the importance of the famed Le Mans racing event. W.O.’s skepticism revolved around his thinking that cars weren’t meant to operate for that long, especially in the context of a racing event. Bentley’s founder took a leap of faith and entered Le Mans in 1923 with a 3-liter model that finished fourth and set a new lap record. This British auto manufacturer would go on to secure multiple Le Mans victories from 1924-1934.
The most impressive Bentley Le Mans win occurred in 1927 when the racing 3-liter was damaged in a crash. Bentley’s team integrated last-minute repairs that allowed this 3-liter model to finish first. This historic decade-long Le Mans run can be attributed to Bentley’s engines that grew larger and more complex over time along with its teams professional pit procedures.
With racing stats like these, you might be wondering why Bentley sits at the number ten spot on our list. It’s essential to note that Bentley took decades off from competitive racing. We cut Bentley a break though as their return to racing included a third-place 2001 Le Mans finish in rainy weather and a 2014 Bentley Continental GT3 victory at the Blancpain G.T. Series Endurance Cup.
9.) Which Audi Racing Victories Stand Out?
Audi’s motorsport racing success acts as the foundation for the brand’s sporty persona. Take a glance at the Audi Sport Racing Department’s history, and you’re bound to be impressed. The Audi Sport Racing Department was formed in 1976 with bragworthy achievements that include 13 Le Mans wins and 12 DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Master) titles. Racing was important to the Audi brand long before this 1976 formation as motorsport helped the company promote their new union name after a 1932 merger of Audi, D.K.W., Horch, and Wanderer.
The initial Audi motor racing activities began in the latter half of the 1970s under the Audi Motorsport tagline. Audi changed this name to Audi Sport in 1980 before it entered into the World Rally Championship that began in 1980. This German manufacturer has always emphasized the importance of transferring technology between motorsport and series developments. Top-level motorsport competition entries gave Audi the challenge they needed to undergo this transfer which has ultimately led to widespread market success.
How Did the Quattro Help Establish Audi’s Racing Success?
Audi’s major racing success started with the Quattro. Two drivers’ titles and two manufacturer’s titles led to the Quattro attracting the public’s interest. These four titles were won during the World Rally Championship during 1982-1984. The Quattro’s dominance wasn’t limited to rallying. Audi’s 200 Quattro made a splash in circuit racing while 1996 consisted of the A4 Quattro clinching seven championships in seven countries.
What Did Audi’s Transition from the Quattro Look Like?
Modern-day racing fans are familiar with the powerhouse R8 as this vehicle is the most successful sports car in contemporary Le Mans history. Audi was forced to go all-in on the R8 after the Quattro was banned from touring racing. You can see an example of Audi transferring racing technology into production cars after the 2000-2002 debut of T.F.S.I. within R8’s. Audi’s R8 is well known for achieving 63 wins in 80 different sports racing events.
Adrenaline-seeking drivers got exactly what they were looking for when Audi developed the R8 L.M.S. in 2009. This model was the first R8 that was designed specifically for customers seeking a vehicle with racing capabilities. This customer racing-focused production effort was centered around growing the GT3 driving category.
From fire-spitting rallying to impressive modern Le Mans wins, Audi more than secures a spot within our top ten list of European auto manufacturers with the greatest racing histories.
8.) Who Was Bruce McLaren?
One of the coolest elements of McLaren’s racing history is the fact McLaren Automotive founder, Bruce McLaren, helped design and race many of the company’s F1 vehicles. Bruce McLaren was especially skilled at developing innovative race cars. The M1A was built in 1964 and stood as McLaren’s first true sports vehicle. This initial model quickly made an impression with its strong showings in European and North American sports car racing. 24 M1A examples were manufactured.
Bruce McLaren finished third in the Canadian American Challenge Cup Championship before officially entering the F1 game. McLaren’s M1B was the M1A’s speedy successor that made its way into the Canadian American Challenge Cup Championship. Massive V8 engines made the M1B faster than every other F1 car on the racetrack at this time.
The first McLaren F1 car was the M2B. This debut F1 model entered the Monaco GP and connected with the public due to its innovative design. While the M2B didn’t secure a win at the Monaco GP event, the McLaren racing team soon claimed victory at the 1968 Belgium G.P. with an M7A that featured the manufacturer’s now-iconic orange coloring.
How Did McLaren Operate after Bruce’s Death?
Bruce McLaren tragically died in a test crash during the Summer of 1970. Due to strong leadership, McLaren was able to soldier on with Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships in 1974 through three victories within the M23.
This British manufacturer’s racing success immediately bred mainstream market sales. Each new McLaren Can-Am racing car led to increased customer demand and a relationship with a production partner, Trojan. This business partnership led to around 250 customer racing vehicles during the 1965-1976 period.
While McLaren’s racing legacy took a hit during the late 1970s, the early 1980s led to this manufacturer merging and experiencing a rebirth with Ron Dennis’ Project 4 Racing team. Ron Dennis had been working on F1 cars since 1966. This collaboration led to McLaren gaining new levels of drive and ambition while John Barnard rejoined the team, bringing his design skills to the forefront. Barnard was instrumental in pioneering the use of carbon fiber in motor racing with the McLaren MP4/1. McLaren worked extensively with Honda throughout the late 80s and early 90s before teaming up with their current partner, Mercedes-Benz.
While the list of McLaren racing achievements can fill a book, the pioneering spirit of Bruce McLaren and Barnard’s use of carbon fiber are two standout points that highlight this manufacturer’s racing prowess.
7.) Which European Racing Team Is Known as an Underdog?
Saab is a racing underdog that you can’t help but root for. This Swedish manufacturer’s smooth road design is rooted in a storied motorsport history that began with a victory at Rally de Monte Carlo Coupe des Dammes in 1952. While there’s no denying Saab’s incredible racing achievements that include multiple victories across European Rallycross Championship and numerous international speed records set at Talladega in 1966, this car company came into its own during the late 80s and early 90s.
The well-known Abbott Brothers and Saab GT partnership kicked off with a 900 Turbo 8-Valve that was made specifically for the Mobil1 Saab Turbo Challenge event. Saab was able to elegantly demonstrate what makes their cars unique with the 900 Turbo 8-Valve. An atypical slanted turbocharged engine design and a solid front-wheel chassis helped the 900 Turbo 8-Valve remain competitive and secure a 1988 championship win. All you have to do is mention the Classic 900’s exhaust system to a Saab enthusiast, and you have the basis for an inspired conversation.
European racetracks witnessed the Saab 9000’s debut in 1989. Saab separated itself from the herd during 1989 by racing the 9000’s powerful front-wheel-drive configuration. The 9000 achieved wins in the Production Car Championships with its top-notch chassis and 260 horsepower design. Championship wins in its first year led to the public taking this car seriously. Front-wheel drive racing naysayers had little to say at this point.
What Made Saab’s 90s Racing Run So Special?
Saab turned many heads during the 1991 racing season with its 9000 2.3. This new 1991 model was able to beat faster rear-wheel-drive competitors like the Porsche 944. Saab’s ability to claim victory over more powerful cars continued in 1992 with the 9000 CS. The 9000 CS 2.3 went on to win the 1992 U.K. Production Cup Championship and the 1992 Snetterton circuit 24-hour racing event.
Noteworthy Saab 90s vehicles that followed the 9000 CS 2.3 include:
- 900 Turbo 2.0
- 900 Turbo 2.0 Normally Aspirated
- 9-3 2.0 Normally Aspirated
Saab’s sheer dominance of 1990s racing lands itself a respectable #7 spot on our list of the European auto manufacturers with the greatest racing histories.
6.) When Did Peugeot First Make Its Mark in the Racing Category?
Like the other manufacturers on our list, Peugeot’s racing success has played a crucial role in its commercial car sales. Peugeot has poured gasoline on the fire of European racing competition since the late 1800s. The world’s first timed auto race took place in 1895 and led to Peugeot’s Type 7 taking first place. Michelin’s first-ever inflatable tires helped Peugeot score this significant early racing victory.
How Did Peugeot First Fair at Le Mans?
Peugeot secured vital racing wins in the early 1900s with its L76 series and variations that won at the French Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 in 1913, 1916, and 1919. This French manufacturer didn’t fail to make a strong impression during Le Mans initial years. In 1938, the De Cortanze-Contet team took first place in Le Mans’ 2L category.
What Makes Peugeot’s Rallying Run Special?
Did you know that Peugeot made a name for itself in the world of rally racing as early as the 1960s? The Peugeot 404 managed to win first place in the East African Safari Rally five separate times between 1963-1968. This French manufacturer was able to claim ultimate rallying bragging rights with their 1985-1986 world rally championship resulting from the 205 T16’s incredible velocity.
If you want to fast-forward to more modern Peugeot rallying highlights, check out the video below of Sébastien Loeb setting a new Pikes Peak record of 8:13.878 in the 208 T16. Loeb continues to hold this groundbreaking Pikes Peak record time—and that’s a vital part of why Peugeot lands itself a strong #6 spot on our list.
5.) Which Key Auto Figure Did Alfa Romeo Inspire?
Did you know that Enzo Ferrari drove Alfa Romeo cars before he began his now-iconic vehicle empire? There’s no doubt that Alfa Romeo’s impressive racing statistics inspired Enzo Ferrari. A.L.F.A. came into the picture in 1910 with a focus on competitive driving. This newly created Italian car company entered its first two vehicles into races before manufacturing a more forward-thinking model that raced in the 1914 Grand Prix. Alfa Romeo’s racing achievements at a glance reveal the first world championship for Grand Prix vehicles in 1925, and two key Post WWII F1 championships in 1950 and 1951.
While WWI stalled Alfa Romeo’s work, the Italian manufacturer would make a global impression by accomplishing their first international victory in 1923 with the famous R.L. model. Alfa Romeo’s racing version of the R.L. featured seven main bearings along with dual carburetors. The now-trademark Alfa Romeo green cloverleaf was integrated into the company’s logo after the ultra-successful R.L. sported the icon.
Alfa Romeo took their first world title in 1925 with the help of the innovative and dependable G.P. Tipo P2. A straight-eight engine with a supercharger and two carburetors led to the P2 clocking an average speed of 98 mph during racing victories and a record-breaking top speed of 121 mph during its speed trial.
When Did Alfa Romeo Begin to Hit Its Racing Stride?
With its competition-crushing sports vehicles, this Italian car company began to steal the spotlight during the 20s and 30s. The early 30s included four Alfa Romeo Le Mans victories that were accomplished through the 8C 2300’s two four-cylinder blocks cast with the heads. This specific engine design helped the 8C 2300 lower its chances of experiencing head gasket failure.
Alfa Romeo made a strong post-WWII run by racking up 11 victories in 11 races with the Tipo 158. While this wasn’t the first time that Alfa Romeo had brought the Tipo 158 to racetracks, the post-WWII version contained 50% more horsepower than its prewar counterpart.
Look no further than the Alfa Romeo G.T.A. if you’re seeking one of the best-looking race cars in competition history. Alfa Romeo’s G.T.A. sported 170 horsepower levels through a 1.6-liter engine, while the car’s lightweight design instantly provided an edge over competitors.
While the Tipo 33 collected two world championships in ’75 and ’77 for Alfa Romeo, the 155 stands out amongst the herd. Take a look at the Alfa Romeo 155’s specs, and you’ll see that its 2.5-liter Busso V6 produced more than 400 horsepower. The 155 holds the record for the most DTM victories.
4.) When Did Mercedes-Benz First Begin Racing?
There’s no way that we were going to leave Mercedes-Benz off our list of European auto manufacturers with the greatest racing histories as this company has consistently competed at a high level since its first race in 1894. If this 1894 race sounds familiar, it’s because Peugeot was Mercedes-Benz’s only other competitor. Whether you’re discussing endurance racing, touring cars, or F1, Mercedes-Benz remains a household racing name.
1901 led to Mercedes-Benz (known at the time as Daimler) claiming victory in a race with a 35 P.S. that contained a 5.9-liter 35 horsepower four-cylinder engine. Races at this time didn’t necessarily revolve around who finished first. Instead, judges would access a vehicle’s reliability and performance over prolonged stretches. The 35 P.S. is considered the first modern car with its low center of gravity, wide-body, and steel chassis.
Before WWI, Mercedes created the Blitzen Benz that produced close to 200 horsepower. Like many other auto manufacturers, WWI postponed Mercedes’ racing plans for years.
If you think the Blitzen Benz’s horsepower levels are impressive, check out this list of post-WW1 Mercedes vehicles:
- SSK (300 horsepower)
- W 25 (487 horsepower)
- W 125 (591 horsepower)
The newly formed Audi company would soon become Mercedes’ primary rival during this time period.
Regulations were always forcing Mercedes to alter their design efforts. This pressure to conform naturally led to innovation.
What Did Mercedes-Benz Racing Accomplish after WWII?
Mercedes reformed its racing sector in 1950 before crushing the competition at Le Mans in 1952 with the 300 SL. This German manufacturer held off on entering F1 until 1954, so they could thrive within the newly introduced rule changes. The wait was well worth it as Mercedes created the W 196 R in 1954—a car with a top speed of 171 mph.
Most racing enthusiasts are aware of the tragic Le Mans disaster event. The Le Mans Disaster occurred in 1955 when an Austin Healey and Mercedes 300 SLR collided. This collision led to the Mercedes flying into the spectator stands. Eighty-three people lost their lives as a result of this 1955 Le Mans crash. Mercedes overcame the shadow that this event cast by winning the F1 championship the same year as the accident.
Mercedes took 30 years off from racing before forming fruitful partnerships with manufacturers like McLaren. The partnership between Mercedes and McLaren led to the German auto company offering its 3.0-liter V10 engine that allowed McLaren to win a Constructor’s Championship in 1996.
While Mercedes-Benz’s racing history is ultra-impressive, their lack of recent racing achievements lands the manufacturer just outside of our top three picks.
3.) How Did Lancia Separate Itself from Competitors Early on?
Lancia was created with the goal of supplying Italian racing enthusiasts with faster cars. Turin, Italy, was one of the Italian customer demographics that Lancia specifically targeted. Original Lancia models stood out with their lightweight and inexpensive designs. Lancia would soon become known for its innovative interiors and beautiful exteriors.
The first car that Lancia manufactured was the Tipo 51. This initial Lancia model was produced from 1907-1908 with a side-valve straight-4 engine at a top speed of 55 mph.
What Are Some Key Lancia Racing Innovations?
This Italian manufacturer stepped away from their former in-line engine design to create the 12-cylinder vee-type engine. While this engine was sound in its new design, a limited number were produced due to the time’s harsh economic climate. Lancia’s innovation continued with their desire to produce the shortest engine possible. This objective was accomplished when Lancia made an engine by staggering a pair of cylinders from another at a 13-degree angle.
This short design paved the way for more efficient cooling water circulation within the engine. Italian drivers further raised their driving performance with a post-WWII Lancia V6 engine that sported an atypical rear-mounted transmission and rear suspension. This atypical V6 engine design helped drivers achieve superior levels of handling.
One of the most successful cars in post-WWII history is the Alfa Romeo Aurelia. This touring car could hit top speeds of 110-115 thanks to its smooth functioning 5,000 rpm motor.
Most car enthusiasts know that Lancia has undergone multiple business changes since the 1960s. Lancia had to accept bids when its sky-high production standards led to financial instability. Fiat was the first to place a successful bid which led to Lancia having access to Ferrari technology. Lancia now no longer sells its cars outside of Italy.
The thought of Lancia’s exceptional racing heritage produces images of golden-era F1 achievements and flaming Group B rallies. This Italian manufacturer’s number three spot on our list is well deserved.
2.) When Did Ferrari Produce Its First Racing Vehicle?
Ferrari’s racing origins stretch back to the 1940s when they produced their first vehicle in 1947; the 125 S. It didn’t take long for Ferrari to make a name for itself in the racing world as the 125 S took first place in the Rome Grand Prix.
Bruce McLaren isn’t the only founder on our list that raced vehicles. Enzo Ferrari was a racecar driver before he set out to manufacture his own cars after 1925. Out of the total 47 races he entered, Enzo Ferrari won 13. Some say Enzo should’ve won more and that his desire to maintain his car’s engine got in the way of his track performance.
Claiming a Le Mans victory in 1949, the Ferrari name became world-famous by the 1950s. Things only got better for Ferrari from this point onward as an extensive list of wins led to the Scuderia Ferrari team becoming the most successful in F1’s history. These victories led to widespread public racing attention that helped Ferrari triple its commercial sales between 1950-1960.
What Does Ferrari’s Evolution Look Like on and off the Track?
Enzo knew that he needed to integrate certain business changes to create a well-organized company structure. These 1960s changes result in Ferrari becoming a limited company in 1960 and selling 50% of its shares to fellow Italian manufacturer fiat in 1969.
Ferrari was able to gain an F1 sponsor during the late 1960s. One of these sponsors was Shell, a company that still serves as a primary Ferrari sponsor today. After experiencing financial difficulties in the 80s and selling 90% of its remaining shares, Ferrari regained racing momentum between 2000-2010. This early 2000’s racing success consisted of Ferrari winning the 12 Hour of Sebring event three times and claiming a victory at 24 Hours of Daytona. This Italian car company’s F1 Scuderia won a stunning 13 world titles between 2000-2008. Positive racing results like these allowed Ferrari to open 30 additional retail outlets in key areas like New York, Miami, and Dubai.
More business changes came into the picture for Ferrari after 2010. Ferrari has continued to expand their market reach while F.C.A. put up 10% of its shares in the Italian manufacturer during a New York Stock Exchange Initial Public Offering.
Drivers will find that Ferrari is focusing on supplying their current car’s race-like performance with comfort and drivability. Ferrari’s racing legacy is a prime example of how success on the track can easily translate to worldwide commercial sales.
1.) Which Famous Racing Event Does Porsche Hold the Most Wins For?
We’ve reached our number one pick. Are you surprised that we selected Porsche? If you need some quick convincing, Porsche is a manufacturer that holds the most Le Mans wins in history and ties most of their commercial designs to their racing vehicles. Let’s examine the cars that cemented Porsche’s premier racing legacy.
Which 1970s Porsche Vehicle Collected 16 Race Wins?
The 1970 917 KH Coupé stands tall as the quickest and most powerful Porsche racer up until this point. Porsche was forced to assemble a vehicle for the under 5-liter racing class when new International Championship for Sports Cars racing rules were established in 1967. The result of this effort was the 917 that boasted 580 horsepower through a 12-cylinder air-cooled engine design. Porsche’s first victory with the 917 occurred at Le Mans. Fifteen other 917 wins followed this initial Le Mans victory.
What’s One of Porsche’s Most Innovative Race Cars?
One of Porsche’s most innovative racing vehicles is the 917 KH Coupé variation that contained a shark fin tail design. These fins gave the 917 KH Coupé reduced wind resistance by 11 percent. This extra edge perfectly complemented given the vehicle’s 600 horsepower levels. The 917 KH Coupé was Porsche’s first racing vehicle that utilized a magnesium tubular frame which resulted in a lower overall weight level. Porsche was able to achieve a 138.1 mph average speed during Le Mans with the 917 KH Coupé while keeping fuel consumption at award-winning levels.
Which Porsche Racing Vehicle Utilized an Aluminum Tubular Frame?
Check out the 1976 Porsche 936 Spyder to view one of the manufacturer’s most standout exterior designs. Porsche integrated an aluminum tubular frame into the 936 Spyder while covering the frame in an aerodynamic-boosting plastic body. Porsche continued its dominating presence at Le Mans with a 936 victory thanks to the engine’s 540 horsepower output and impressive top track speed of 223.
Which Porsche Race Car Introduced the Flat Nose Design?
911 fans will love the 935 racer that made its debut in 1977. This stylish 911 racing version took a World Sportscar Championship back to Germany with its 600 horsepower engine. You can separate the 935 from other 911s by looking at the vehicle’s distinct flat nose.
Do You Agree with Our Rankings?
If you’re to place money on any European manufacturer during a race, Porsche will always stand as a reliable bet. Do you agree with our list ranking the European manufacturers with the most impressive racing histories? Be sure to comment your thoughts within our social media feed.