The scariest cars we've ever driven
The Auto Express team have cast their minds back to the scariest cars they’ve had to endure
Every year, Halloween brings out the most ghoulish, bone-chilling and downright terrifying creeps and creatures. But if you want a real fright, there’s nothing quite like a scary car.
A witch’s broomstick is mere child's play when it comes to terrifying transport, with the humble motorcar capable of taking the fright factor up several notches - often for unintended reasons. So, to celebrate Halloween 2022, we asked the Auto Express team to tell us all about their most fear-inducing moments behind the wheel and the cars that caused them.
What follows is a heart-stopping round-up of the scariest cars we've ever driven. Some scared us with their devastating performance, others with their ‘spook-tacular’ ineptitude and others just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Max Adams and the alarming…
Alfa Romeo Alfasud Ti
I had the opportunity to test an Alfa Romeo Alfasud Ti as part of a feature at a former publication. The idea was to write a hero piece about a significant car from history, and this Italian hot-hatch is a car that deserves deification.
I’d read many contemporary articles and spoken to colleagues who’d driven or had owned one. They all praised its buzzy engine and sweet handling but mentioned the horrendous ergonomics. I found all of those points to be true in the late model example I’d found to drive, even down to the pedals that were so far offset, you may as well have given your passenger the job of operating the clutch pedal.
Unfortunately, the car I was driving had only just come out of a complete restoration. While that meant it was rust-free, it also meant that it had a few – as people in the building trade might say – snagging issues. They were still waiting on replacement suspension bushes, so you’d get this horrible metallic rattle every time you drove over a bump, and the car felt pretty vague on the road. Plus, the battery was very weak, leading to an interesting push-start after we’d stopped to get some photographs.
I had a stressful time on the drive back, especially trying to keep it running in heavy traffic. And I felt a bit like David Mann in Duel as I looked down in horror at the temperature gauge to see the needle slowly climbing upwards.
Dean Gibson and the paranormal...
Being given custody of a classic sports car worth millions is pretty scary, and that's where I found myself a couple of years ago, when Jaguar extremely kindly offered Auto Express the chance to drive the C-Type from its Jaguar Heritage Trust collection. I tried not to think about how much it was worth. To be honest, there were plenty of other things going on to take my mind off of that.
Firstly, there was actually fitting into the thing. A 1950s sports car isn't designed for a six-foot lump like me, so there was next to no legroom in NDU 289, and my right thigh was wedged between the chassis and the huge steering wheel, making the heavy unassisted wheel even harder to steer than it should be.
Oh, and I was warned about the extremely heavy and grabby clutch just before I fired up the straight-six for the first time. Plus there was the ritual of the twin fuel pumps - turns out if you leave them both on, the Jag's as rough as old houses as it over-fuels, so the car coughed and spluttered on its way before I turned one off and had the motor running smoothly.
Then there was the location for my drive. It took place as part of Coventry's excellent MotorFest, so I was driving the C-Type around the closed Coventry Ring Road, in convoy with a group of other heritage Jags. This included the ear-splitting XJ12 touring car and Le Mans-winning XJR-9, driven by none other than sports car star Andy Wallace. So the onus was on not stopping - racing cars don't like stopping - and with these two behind me, among others, that played on my mind a bit...
I didn't stop, but getting used to the heavy controls, double declutch gearshift (no synchromesh) and initial rough running meant I did go slower than walking pace at one point. Then, once I got used to the car, it started raining. In an open-top sports car. With no windscreen to speak of. And I wear glasses, so visibility was dreadful. Plus there was a layer of rubber on the tarmac, courtesy of the drifting display from the day before - not great for grip, especially when the huge, wooden wheel was being gripped tighter by my right thigh than my wet hands.
I did five laps in total. By the end, the steering wheel had rubbed my thigh raw, my left leg ached from the heavyweight clutch and my upper body was numb from the wet and the effort of steering.
A nightmare drive? Yes. But also one of the best I've ever had.
Richard Ingram and the eerie...
Land Rover Series I
The scariest car I’ve ever driven was a 1949 Land Rover Series I. A car built almost exclusively for off-roading, the vague and heavy controls made it quite the handful to navigate from A to B.
And despite my short drive being restricted to the Land Rover’s Solihull off-road course, it was clear this car was built with one sole purpose. It took the steep inclines in its stride and managed to ford water I’d feel uncomfortable swimming in, but simply getting it going was a challenge in itself.
The clutch required legs of steel, while turning the steering wheel felt like the tyres were wading through treacle. The bouncy ride and thinly-covered seats didn’t make it particularly comfortable either – especially by today’s standards. The fact it was raining at the time, with the windows steaming up quicker than we could wipe them clean, was the icing on the cake.
Land Rover has come a long way since the original 4x4 launched 70 years ago, but that haunting experience will stay with me for some time to come…
Ivan Aistrop and the horrifying…
There’s nothing desperately scary about the McLaren 570S itself. Yes, it’s very fast, but its deft and precise flyweight handling makes that power easy to control. In the right hands, that is…
The first time I drove the 570S was on the international launch, which was held on a Balearic Island that had undergone violent gale-force winds the night before, leaving the entire island - the roads included - strewn with broken tree branches, runaway wheelie bins, and all manner of other wind-swept debris.
Now, on car launches like this, you usually get to choose your own driving partner, but on this occasion, McLaren had made that decision for us, and I found myself paired with a very nice chap I’d never met before, who said he worked for a website I’d not heard of. I drove first, and wary of the potential obstacles that lay before us - and the rain that was falling - I wasn’t going hell-for-leather, but I wasn’t hanging about, either.
During my hour-or-so at the wheel, I learned more and more about my new friend, including the information that, although he had held a driving licence for several years, he wasn’t a regular driver. By any stretch. Indeed, he’d only ever driven two cars before, a Vauxhall Corsa he’d once hired to move house, and his mum’s Kia. And here he was, about to take the wheel of a 562bhp supercar, on wet, debris-strewn roads, with me in it…
His hour at the wheel felt like one of the longest hours of my life. In fairness to him, he stayed sensible and drove within his means, but that took some coercion on my part. When he observed the fact that he wasn’t going as fast through the corners as I’d gone, and asked for advice on how to pick up the pace a bit, I have to admit to over-egging the virtues of going ‘slow-in-fast-out’. We made it back, with the car and ourselves intact, thankfully, but I certainly emerged from the experience jangled-of-nerve and white-of-knuckle.
Alastair Crooks and the hair-raising…
The fastest-accelerating car you can buy, the Rimac Nevera needs no introduction. Despite being a relatively new Croatian manufacturer, Rimac has certainly made a name for itself in the past decade thanks to pioneering EV technology and this record-breaking hypercar.
The Nevera’s predecessor, the Concept One, was perhaps most famous for flinging a well-known motoring journalist off the side of an alpine cliff and spectacularly bursting into flames. With this image etched into my mind, the Nevera awaited me - coincidentally also in the Alps.
At £2.4 million the Nevera is more than double the price of the Concept One and unbelievably more powerful with 815bhp more on tap - that’s 1,888bhp in total. Just south of the Matterhorn I’m on an incredibly twisty and tight mountain road and for good measure the fog has rolled in, resulting in a depth of visibility barely further than the nose of the car. To make things worse the local cyclists and cars are still careering down the mountain without their lights on.
Did I mention the Nevera I was driving was also the only one in Rimac’s collection? It was a nerve-wracking experience to say the least.
Steve Walker and the sickening…
"A new power in personal transport" was how Sir Clive Sinclair billed his Sinclair C5 when he launched it on an unsuspecting populace in 1985. What he neglected to mention was that this electrically-assisted three-wheeled pedal car is one of the scariest machines ever to appear on UK roads.
My heart-stopping 'drive' in the C5 came in 2005 or thereabouts when a colleague, who'd acquired several of the 'classic' machines on eBay in the firm belief that they would soon skyrocket in value, invited me to have a go in one. The two-mile lunchtime sandwich run to the local petrol station got off to a bad start when I realised what kind of power the C5 was packing. Modest uphill gradients that you'd normally need a spirit level to detect had its electric motor floundering badly and my legs forced to crank the pedals.
A two mile bike ride is one thing but a Sinclair C5 is no bike. There's one gear and you're obliged to adopt a weirdly uncomfortable seated position with your legs over the handlebars. On downhill stretches, 15mph is just about possible, on the flat you'd be lucky to see 8mph. It feels quicker than that because you're a centimetre off the tarmac but it's nowhere near quick enough to stop you feeling like a man crossing an international shipping lane on a lilo.
Traffic thundered past, most of it completely oblivious to my tiny plastic chariot creeping along in the gutter. I winced as each vehicle passed, bathing me in exhaust fumes and grit, convinced that next up in the traffic queue I'd created would be a panel van with my name on it. I made it to the garage without incident and I've never felt the urge to kiss a petrol station forecourt before or since but, if anything, the return trip was even more terrifying.
Pete Baiden and the bone-chilling…
I had a new SsangYong Korando on a long-term test for six months and it’s the only car that truly sent a chill down my spine. It wasn’t so much a case of the Korando scaring me when I was driving, but more a feeling of dread every time I left the house to try and go anywhere in it.
That’s because it was plagued with battery issues from the minute it arrived. One day I would go out and it would start without any problems, but as soon as I had to be somewhere important, it would refuse to move and warning lights would flash across the dash. Even a completely new battery didn’t exorcise its demons and the Korando continued to haunt me with the breakdown service being called on numerous occasions.
Eventually SsangYong replaced the car with a different one and the Korando slowly regained my trust, but I still get nightmares whenever I think back to that original SsangYong Korando sitting on my driveway, a feeling to which a lot of people with chronically unreliable cars will be able to relate.
Alex Ingram and the creepy...
Vauxhall Meriva Mk1
While I’ve never been truly terrified by a car, my one and only time behind the wheel of an original Vauxhall Meriva showed that it was scarily bad.
During a stint working in the motor trade in Edinburgh, I delivered a Meriva I’d sold to its new owner in Chester. It was the 23rd December, the handover had to be completed in a dealership and, pushed for time, I had to get a move on. And a hurried Meriva is one at its worst.
Sharing its platform with the 2000 Corsa - never lauded for sparkling handling itself - the Meriva gained plenty of weight, and most of it high up. As a result the Meriva lumbered from corner to corner, compounded by steering with all the life of a zombie and the gloopy feel of a rotten pumpkin.
It offered little in the way of comfort to compensate, and the 1.6-litre petrol engine was noisy and gutless, so it was just as nasty on the motorways as it was along the twisty roads of the 250-mile route.
I could’ve excused the Meriva if this was a tired example, but it wasn’t: it was six years old at the time, but the mileage was low and its condition was immaculate. It says a lot about it that the customer’s trade-in - a knackered Rover 25 diesel - felt infinitely more pleasant to drive.
Shane Wilkinson and the shocking…
When the opportunity arose to test some of the finest and fastest cars in the world on a hilly, alpine-style test track, I naturally made a beeline for this eighty-something year old war machine. While others set off in safety and comfort, I sat myself directly above the Jeep’s fuel tank and fired up this roofless, doorless, seatbeltless relic. Joined by my equally-brave colleague, Yousuf Ashraf, we then set off into the unknown.
About twenty seconds into the journey I had an even greater level of respect for anyone who had driven a Willys Jeep during the war. The suspension was nothing short of brutal; even a tiny pebble in the road would cause the Jeep to jolt so hard that I’d headbutt my own knees. My feet were also nearly at eye level thanks to the laughable driving position, and the steering was little more than a guessing game. Above all that, though, were the brakes...
As we headed down the first hill of the test track, I noticed that a sharp bend awaited us at the bottom. I pressed the middle pedal and soon realised that the drum brakes offered the same stopping-power of a freshly baked sponge cake. As we hurtled towards the corner at an unknown speed - the speedometer being broken - I watched my life flash before my eyes, turned the wheel and let fate decide the outcome.
Thankfully, after desperately trying to prevent both Yousuf and myself from being ejected, we made it round the bend - with a lot of protest from the rear tyres - eventually arriving on the other side in a state of delirium. The Willys Jeep is both terrifying and hilarious in equal measure and I hope I get to drive one again soon.
Fancy even more of a fright? Read our list of the worst cars ever made...