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Off-Road or Sports Car - Why Not Both?

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     The two most popular hobbies for automotive enthusiasts are racing and off-roading. From high performance sports cars to highly capable 4x4 trucks, almost every popular modification you can find online revolves around enhancing these respective capabilities. Rally car racing bridges the gap between the two with high performance racing vehicles engineered to speed along tracks of dirt, snow, and gravel. The Mitsubishi Lancer and the Subaru Impreza are two of the most popular rally-inspired cars, but some auto enthusiasts are fabricating their own creations that redefine off-road performance.

     Rally cars are built to be rugged like an off-roading vehicle but have a high performance engine and driveline that allows them to compete in high-speed races. A popular trend, though, is to take the high performance engine and body of a sports car and simply modify it to be capable of driving you would see in the Dakar Rally or the World Rally Championship. An example of this can be seen on the British National Geographic program, Supercar Megabuild, where hosts customized a $177,000 Bentley Continental GT into an off-roading beast that retained Bentley’s level of interior luxury.

     The trend has extended to almost every size and shape of vehicle, as chronicled by the wonderful automotive internet community. In 2015, the Toyota booth at the SEMA, or Special Equipment Market Association, car show in Las Vegas welcomed a unique Toyota Sienna mini-van mounted on the suspension and driveline of a Tacoma truck. The Ultimate Utility Vehicle, or UUV, was built by Toyota North America as a ‘command center’ for the 110-day long North American leg of the Toyota Ever-Better Expedition. With the intention to gather data about driving conditions around the world, Toyota and the UUV set out to visit five different continents in hopes of understanding how well their line-up of cars handle all of Earth’s terrains. Conditions ranged from New York’s bustling downtown streets, to Australia’s arid and sandy outback, and up to the Arctic’s icy expanse.

     While Toyota personally made their UUV, Porsche and their famous 911 line have unintentionally fostered a rally-swapping culture of their own. The track-dominating 911 may be one of the most popular cars to rally swap with dozens of companies offering the service for anyone who can afford it. Searching Instagram for #porscherally, #rallyporsche, or #porschesafari will bring up over 10,000 images depicting the sought after end-product of these swaps and the terrains they can now traverse. A more in depth look can be found on the website of Luftgekuhlt, a Porsche enthusiast brand that have worked on a few 1985 Porsche 911 Carreras and, with plenty of help, have custom engineered the ‘Luftauto’ series. Another example are the ‘Safari 911s’ that are made to order by professional racing driver Leh Keen at his North Carolina home. Matt Farah of Road and Track test drove one of Keen’s creations and was so impressed by it that he had his own 1987 Porsche Carrera make the swap. Anyone with enough money can also check out Kelly-Moss Road and Race, a Wisconsin custom shop that, at the time this article is published, is selling two Safari Porsche 911s for $135,000 and $375,000, respectively.

     Another approach to rally-swapping cars can be seen in a viral video from early 2016 where a man named Marcus Meyer, or Madladyz33, and his friend Kevin Galvez, or KevinxGalvez, created an off-road Nissan 350z. Rather than swapping the chassis to achieve the desired lift, as Toyota’s UUV had done, Marcus and Kevin custom fabricated a lift kit for the ex-sports car. This swap was not without some issues though, as David Tracy of Jalopnik points out. Off-road vehicles, along with rally cars, are outfitted with four wheel drive or all-wheel drive for proper traction, with the former including low-range gear options to tackle steep terrain. While the previously mentioned UUV and Safari 911s tackled these problems in one way or another, the average 350z with a lift kit is stuck with an asphalt-designed transmission connected to a sporty rear-wheel drivetrain. Kevin Galvez commented on the choice of the 350z for this rally-swap, saying “the idea behind it was [Marcus] just wanted to be different and unique” – a sentiment that thousands of car enthusiasts can relate to. Kevin also stated that the off-road 350z is still running in its modified form, three years after the video debuted on YouTube.

     While this trend seems to be a mix of utilitarian and strange, with half truck/half van UUVs and safari sports cars, one could argue that the roots of the idea began decades ago with one of the most famous and popular car kits in history.

     In 1964, a man named Bruce Meyers turned his old Volkswagen Beetle into the first ‘Meyers Manx’ style dune buggy, affectionately named “Old Red”. Though plenty of beach-goers and automotive enthusiasts knew that a stripped-down Beetle was ideal for cruising in sandy terrain, Meyers was the first to create the look that is famous today. He designed the first single-piece fiberglass body that accommodated the engine, driveline, and various other mechanical bits borrowed from a Volkswagen Beetle. The kit was inexpensive and it was common to buy a cheap, wrecked Beetle from a scrap yard to act as the donor. Compared to the bulky, expensive V8 cars of the time, Dune Buggies were a cheap and easy way to have fun with a car you could make in your drive-way. Their popularity grew even more when Meyers began challenging motorcycles, cars, and trucks to races through the California desert, all of which “Old Red” won.

     This trend is even beginning to take hold in the modern main-stream market with more than just a ‘rally-inspiration’ behind it. Crossover sedans, as they could eventually be known, are sedans that have a mild lift and plastic guards to help them tackle off-road situations, along with increased headspace inside the car and optional roof racks. This idea can be found as far back as the mid-90s with Subaru’s ‘Outback’ edition Imprezas and Legacys, and as recently as Volvo’s ‘Cross Country’ trim for the S60 and V60. While not as aggressive looking as many of the aftermarket swaps, Subaru’s and Volvo’s vehicles are meant to be factory-designed choices for individuals reluctant to spend all the money and time on a custom job.

     Whether the intention is to stick out, like Marcus and Kevin with the 350z, or to achieve off-road ability while retaining luxury like the UUV and the Safari Bentley, rally-swapping your car is becoming a more and more popular idea. In time, rally-swaps could become one of the most popular modifications to do to a car, simply because of the practicality behind it.

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