A sporty, aggressive and macho look. Mmmmm… we like that! And probably the easiest way to achieve it, is by simply tacking on a set of wide wheel arches. Presto! You’ve got yourself a virtual race car for the street. Or alternatively – while it sometimes seems the less popular option – you could also leave the bodywork as it was originally designed with ordinary narrow wheel arches, and thereby instead retain an element of restrained elegance and purity.
It’s a concept and a trend which has interested me for a long time now. I was last reminded a couple of weeks back when I chose an early Mitsubishi Starion Turbo as our Prime Find of the Week. Being an early car, it was of course a narrowbody – just the way I best like a Starion. But it would seem I’m in the minority here, as confirmed by our very own Mr. Ebberfeld who immediately chirped in that he would want his Starion with broad hips.
Needless to say, it all started with motorsport. In a quest for more traction, i.e. wider rubber, race cars based on road cars suddenly started to spawn wider wheel arches from the late 1960s onwards. There are plenty of examples of this, but think Porsche 911, BMW CSL, Ford Capri, Alpine A110, Ford Escort mk1 and not least the BMW 2002’s which I so adore. Initially all of this had nothing to do with looks. It was merely necessary to accommodate bigger wheels and wider tyres. The extra traction obviously led to higher speeds through the corners, and every split-second which could be won over their opponents was worthwhile.
Because just about every gearhead in the world has at least some passion for motorsport, it wasn’t long before those wide wheel arches found their way onto low-production specials and tuner cars intended for the road. Yup, they were sporty, aggressive, and they were macho!
Personally though, I’m on the fence. Yes, there’s most certainly a part of me that loves the motorsport-inspired look. Having been around 02’s for more than a quarter of a century now, I can’t possibly count the number of times I have fantasised about installing the so-called Schweinebacke wheel arches on one of my BMW’s. On one occasion, I even got so close that I went and purchased a complete set of fibreglass arches. They subsequently lay in my shed for seven or eight years until I finally sold the set to another 02-enthusiast, so that his 02 got butchered rather than mine.
But it’s really not a clear-cut case. I’m torn! Up through the 1980s, the craze for those wide arches erupted resulting in several rather iconic widebody road cars – some of which I frankly adore! The utterly fabulous Opel Manta 400 immediately springs to mind. It’ll be a matter of opinion of course, but to me, this has to be the most potent looking widebody road car of them all. The normally somewhat slab-sided Manta B just looks so right with those shapely arches defining all of its brutal manhood. And did I just use the word iconic in the second line of this paragraph? Yes I did – que: the ground-breaking Audi Quattro. The ur-Quattro might not have been first with those square-cut arch extensions, but it might well have been the car which made them popular among the masses. Besides, while the regular Audi 80 Coupé upon which the Quattro was based is a clean and tidy design, it’s dare I say it… perhaps a tad boring to look at.
Heh!! On the topic of iconic wheel arches, look no further than the entirely bonkers Renault 5 Turbo. Grafting wheel arches which are just about bigger than the remainder of the car onto the diminutive R5 is such a ludicrous idea that one simply has to love and admire the crazy mid-engined concept. Truth be told, I’ve always had a bit of a hankering for the early Alpine R5 (or R5 Gordini as it was marketed here in the UK), but given the choice and money-no-object, of course I would rather park the wild 5 Turbo in my garage. And with arch extensions of such gigantic proportions, I’ll allow myself the liberty of ignoring all those tiny plastic lip extensions which adorned every single GTi hatchback up through the 70s and 80s. Really, what’s the point?
The widebody versions of those three examples will forever remind me that just like everyone else, I too can appreciate sporty, aggressive and macho. But then there are all the others. The ones which leave me eternally undecided. One day I’ll be sat there dreaming about the butch stance of a Ford Capri X-pack – and the very next day, the unadorned purity of a bread and butter Capri II will have me convinced that there really is no substitute for simple elegance. We all know that the Lancia Delta Integrale is menacing and purposeful, right? Or is it? Look at it again… On some days it almost looks more like a silly caricature to me? The Porsche 944 looks chiselled and distinct. But perhaps a real man with real confidence doesn’t need all that make-up. He might actually value the simplicity and purity of the original 924 more?
Indeed there are certain cars which I resolutely prefer with their stock arches retained. As mentioned already, the Mitsubishi Starion is one. But if the decision was based purely on looks, I would also choose a Vauxhall Chevette HS over the widebodied Chevette HSR any day of the week. A significant part of the appeal with the Chevette HS is that it still looks relatively unassuming. Unless presented in full rally livery where the wide arches suddenly seem appropriate, the wide hipped HSR just comes across to me as if it’s trying a little too hard to prove something…
In some cases, there’s also the question of preserving originality. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to factory built cars like the Audi Quattro, BMW M3 and Porsche 944. But there are also tons of lesser models which have been modified later in life to look like their bigger and more brutal brothers. A Manta GSi owner converting his pride and joy into the Manta 400 which it never was. A regular Porsche 914 pretending to be a 916 GT, and so on… If the average classic car shows which I attend each summer are anything to go by, I’ll argue that the world now has more bubble-arched Mk1 Escorts than it does stock family Escorts. It’s actually a real pleasure to occasionally witness a Mk1 Escort which is still sporting absolutely stock narrow wheel arches.
It’s complex though. Because there are other times where it’s not about the looks at all. After all, if you want the sharpest of all BMW 3-series; the one which set the standard for what could be achieved handlingwise with a three-box saloon; then you simply have to love – or at least accept – wide wheel arches. There’s no two ways about that. But which one looks the best? That’s still up for debate…
But what say you dear ViaRETRO reader. Even if there’s nothing in it for performance – such as the case for the Mitsubishi Starion – and we choose to judge purely on design and image, which would you opt for? Do you find yourself drawn to wide and bulging hips or do you prefer a more elegant and subtle look?
My confession: Maybe – just MAYBE – my ramblings here were not only inspired by Mr. Ebberfeld’s widebody comment about the Prime Find Mitsubishi Starion. My Green Devil – the hillclimb/sprint BMW 2002 – is still residing in a bodyshop awaiting its turn. Among plenty of other welding, it requires a new left front wing. If it’s ever to be equipped with a set of Schweinebacke, now is the time! In fact, I even have a lovely set of period 7×13” Ronal Kleeblatt alloys which could beautifully fill those bulging wheel arches. But is that really the look I want? Do I even want all that extra grip, or am I having more fun with the lesser traction provided by narrow tyres? Argh… I’m still sat firmly on that fence…