Living in London for five months will spoil you. You’ll start to believe that rip-snorting E90 M3s are as commonplace as Camrys, and you’ll fail to bat an eye when a Lamborghini Huracan thunders by. The city is a hub for expensive and rare cars—a car spotter’s nirvana.
Coming back to reality—the United States—was certainly an adjustment. I had to reprogram my brain to get excited over AMGs and 911s, but over time I managed to recalibrate my standards. My car spotting senses are no longer trained to only seek out exotica.
While my time in the U.S. in 2019 failed to provide with any spots on the caliber of those in London, I still stumbled upon some pretty cool rides.
Not surprisingly, London is lacking in classic, chrome-dipped Americana like this 1959 Pontiac Bonneville coupe. Also available as a sedan, wagon, convertible, and four-door hardtop, the Bonneville, with a flashy design stretching more than 17 feet long, was positioned at the top of Pontiac’s lineup. The Bonneville introduced a split grille which would later become a hallmark of Pontiac design language, and the way the Pontiac badge stretches up the hood creates the impression of speed. Like most ’50s designs, space age references abound: streamlined fender ornaments, tail fins which extend like wings, and oval taillights mimicking the look of jet engines. The thin chrome roof pillars wouldn’t meet safety standards today, but give the greenhouse an elegant, airy feel. While the V8 lugging the over 4,000 pounds of decadence probably returns atrocious fuel economy, such matters would become trivialities behind the wheel of a boulevard cruiser like the Pontiac Bonneville.
On the streets of central London, where another supercar is just around the corner, a Brabus-tuned Mercedes G-Class doesn’t exactly stand out. But on the Subaru and Volkswagen-lined streets of Park Slope, Brooklyn, this blacked-out Brabus G800 makes a serious statement. The boxy, combative look of the G-Class has been exaggerated by Brabus with a beefier front bumper and a hood vent, while the wide wheel arches grant the G800 a planted, substantial appearance. Under the hood, Brabus upgraded the 6.0-liter V12 from 621 hp to, as the name suggests, 800 horses. While all that power is of little use on crowded city streets, the Brabus G800’s assertive demeanor lets you know it’s packing serious heat.
Owning a 20 year-old S-Class unfortunately leads to frequent visits to my local Mercedes service center, but the financial pain is eased slightly by the fact that this achingly cool 1965 Mercedes-Benz Unimog resides next door. The Unimog is an off-road icon and has been produced in a variety of forms since 1948, but the camo-clad example here is an Unimog 404, built from 1955 to 1980. Over those two-and-a-half decades more than 60,000 were built, making it the most popular variant of this durable truck. With all-wheel-drive and a payload of 1,500 kg (3,307 lbs), many Unimogs were used for military purposes or as fire engines. This Unimog 404.1 Cabrio was likely the former, and although it has certainly seen better days, the rust and dust creates a sort of industrial panache, making this Unimog a sight to behold.
Just as London was starting to become a distant, dreamy memory, this Rolls-Royce Wraith by SPOFEC brought it all rushing back. Featuring a “£” on its rear fender and a license plate reading “Mayfair,” a London neighborhood known for wild supercars, this Wraith with SPOFEC’s widebody kit made me forget for a second that I was on Pittsburgh’s homey Walnut Street and not chasing Ferraris and Lamborghinis in central London. With five inches of width tacked on by SPOFEC’s carbon fiber body panels, the Wraith has been transformed into a menacing hunk of metal. The twin-turbo 6.6-liter V12 has also been tinkered with, with power up 85 horses to 717 hp and torque boosted to 728 lb-ft from 590. Thankfully, carbon ceramic brakes have been added to help the hefty Rolls-Royce come to a stop.
Winter-time in the Northeast is dismal—gray skies beget rain and snow, and salt turns the roads a shade of dusty white, keeping most cars worth spotting in a state of hibernation. But as the sun emerges in the summer months, so do exquisite cars like this 1967 Plymouth Barracuda convertible. 1967 was the first year of the second generation ‘Cuda, when the pony car was still closely related to the Plymouth Valiant sedan and not yet a brawny Dodge Challenger twin. The ‘Cuda’s lines are simple and clean, with a squared-off face and slab-sided bodywork. Chrome detailing abounds, while a stylized Barracuda emblem adorns the front fender. While the Barracuda isn’t as flashy or muscular as the more famous generation that followed it, the crisp design and retractable roof would make this a joy to drive in the sunny summer weather.
Sitting at a stoplight in Pittsburgh, the last thing I expected to pull up next to me was a Lamborghini Aventador S Roadster. Although I’ve seen my fair share of Aventadors since sales began in 2011, sitting in my car next to one gave me a new appreciation for just how low the driver sits. The brief moment where our cars were side-by-side also illustrated the dramatic rake angle of the Aventador’s vast windshield, while the Lambo’s 20-inch front wheels made my Mercedes’ 16-inchers feel like dinner plates by comparison. While the Aventador S Roadster was not my most unique spot of the year, it’s always a pleasure to see one of these V12-powered 730 hp beasts on the road, especially this close.
The Willys Jeep may be the most iconic vehicle to emerge from World War II, but every American automaker supplied vehicles to the war effort, and Studebaker’s main contribution was the M-Series truck. First developed in the late 1930s, the M-Series started production in 1940 as the US6, a version adapted for military use. The majority of these US6s were sent to the Soviet Union under the United States’ Lend-Lease program to tow artillery and transport troops, their durability and ability to use poor-quality fuel making them suitable to harsh Russian climates. After the conclusion of the war, the M-Series was offered for civilians with the more streamlined bodywork of this green M5 (half-ton) example. The design may be simple, but the M5’s towering cab and broad stance gives it major presence on the roads today.
Lotus’ founder Colin Chapman obsessed over lightness in both his pursuit of driving enjoyment with his sports cars and his pursuit of trophies with his Formula 1 cars. Chapman passed away over two decades before the release of the Exige Series 2, but this featherweight perfectly carried on Chapman’s vision. Weighing just 2,000 lbs, the Exige was the track-focused coupe companion to Lotus’ Elise roadster, gaining a front splitter and a rear wing to boost downforce and slash seconds off of lap times. The fiberglass roof not only saved weight, but integrated a scoop to feed extra air to the Toyota-supplied 1.8-liter inline-four. The 192 hp that this engine produced is not a lot, but with so little weight to transport the Exige still dashed to 62 in 5.2 seconds. Coupled with a 6-speed manual transmission, I can only imagine the excitement that my neighbor has when blasting around in this awesome toy.
The Jeep Forward Control is one of Jeep’s lesser known models, but certainly one of the coolest. First introduced in 1956, the FC was based on the CJ-5, making this pickup truck incredibly tiny: at 147.5 inches long, it’s about ten inches shorter than modern “subcompact” cars like the Honda Fit. However, the cab over engine design meant that the bed was still a versatile 6.5 feet long. The stubby front end and two circular headlights make this one of the cutest trucks I can think of, and although this example, seen in New Mexico, is completely orange, many featured a trendy two-tone paint job. These tough little pickups were popular for commercial, municipal, and military use, and many companies supplied Jeep-approved specialized bodies, converting them to fire engines or dump trucks. This FC is looking a bit ratty, but I’d bet it’s still soldiering on just the same.
The R35 generation of the iconic Nissan GT-R has been on sale since 2008. Since then, I’ve seen more R35s than I could possibly count, but the NISMO variant, which arrived in 2014, has remained relatively elusive. I’ve only seen a handful over the years, including this white example which blasted through my Brooklyn neighborhood in last year. For an extra hundred grand, give or take, Nissan’s in-house tuner NISMO takes the already brutally quick GT-R and turns the dial up to 11. The NISMO swipes larger turbochargers from the GT-R GT3 race car, and cranks an extra 55 hp and 18 lb-ft of torque out of the 3.8-liter V6, for a total of 600 horses and 481 lb-ft. NISMO also made the track-focused GT-R look the part, with a mean front splitter, a colossal rear diffuser, and a rear wing that looks sharp enough to cut diamonds. The red accents and black aero elements look especially great when paired with the white paint seen here.
Honorable Mention: While I didn’t spot these behemoths on the street, I thought they deserved a quick word for their utter silliness. The hot-dog shaped Oscar Mayer Wienermobile is the more famous of the pair, but the Planters NUTmobile tagged along for a scouting event on my college campus. The Wienermobile has gone through many iterations since Carl Mayer’s original hit the road in 1936, but the promotional vehicle currently rides on a GMC W-Series chassis and is powered by a 300 hp Vortec V8. While I couldn’t track down what chassis underpins the NUTmobile, it is likely also based on the W-Series, considering it uses the same V8 engine. But these vehicles aren’t about the specs, so just drink in the ridiculous bodywork and chuckle about the fact that the official title for the people who drive these rigs are Hotdoggers and Peanutters.