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4 Weird High Performance Cars Detroit Almost Built (And What We Got Instead)

Most of the concept cars that grace the auto show circuit never end up seeing an assembly line. Either way out-there in terms of performance, prohibitively expensive to build, or featuring styling designed to grab eyeballs rather than move metal, these vehicles live too short a season before they discarded for the next flavor of the moment.

Some of the strangest sports car prototypes might have been forgotten, even by their own design teams, but we still can't shake them out of our memories so many years later. Here are 4 of the weirdest high performance cars Detroit almost built—and what we got instead.

1. Ford SHOstar

What Was It?

In the mid-90s, the people mover market was at a crossroads. SUVs were just beginning their ascent to the heights of the industry, but minivans continued to dominate sales charts among families seeking extra space. Intending to spruce up the boring image of its flagship minivan, Ford elected to stuff a 220hp 3.0L V6 under the short hood of the Windstar.

Ford SHOstar front view

The motor, which had been tuned by Yamaha specifically for use in the Ford Taurus SHO, was a 24-valve wonder that significantly boosted the vehicle's straight-line speed and gave it the SHOstar name.

Why Was It Never Built?

There were compelling arguments for bringing the SHOstar to the market. Given that the Windstar was based on the Taurus platform, the cost of installing the hotted-up SHO V6 were minimal. Despite the 1995 concept featuring a five-speed manual, an automatic transmission would have been just as easy to hook up behind the motor.

Ford SHOstar rear view

Aside from the questionable market case for performance minivans in general, there were also two major factors working against the SHOstar making it into dealerships. The first was the engine itself. With the second generation Taurus SHO on its way the Blue Oval had already decided to install a V8 instead of the Yamaha V6, which meant there was no longer any reason to prioritize parts sharing. Then there was the upcoming 3.8L V6 upgrade coming to the standard Windstar platform that would boost output from 150 to 200 horses and obviate the need for the Yamaha unit to stay on the order sheet.

What Did We Get Instead?

By the time the second-generation Windstar hit the streets in 1998 (the most likely on-sale date for any SHOstar variants) the writing was already on the wall for minivans.

Ford SHOstar side view

A name-change later, and Ford was out of the segment entirely, focusing on vehicles like the Explorer, the Escape, and the Expedition designed to profit from families of every size.

2. Dodge Copperhead

What Was It?

Dodge had struck gold with the Viper at the beginning of the '90s, but the low-volume vehicle wasn't exactly generating much cash for Chrysler at a time when the corporate piggybank needed a boost. Eager to leverage the Viper's technology, Dodge began to experiment with more affordable sports cars based on the same platform. Of these, 1997's Copperhead was the most prominent.

Dodge Copperhead front view

The Copperhead Roadster featured a longer wheelbase than the Viper for a smoother, more stable driving experience, but most notably it seriously undercut its sibling in terms of power. Gone was the roaring V10 and in its place was a modest V6 good for 220hp and 188 lb-ft of torque.

Why Was It Never Built?

From a business case perspective, the Dodge Copperhead was doomed by Chrysler's 'merger of equals' with Daimler, a corporate twinning that would cancel numerous projects or recast them to include a share of the Mercedes-Benz parts bin.

Dodge Copperhead in red

Technologically, the Copperhead was also a bit of a dog's breakfast, borrowing items like its engine, suspension, and transmission from sources as diverse as the Eagle Talon and the Dodge Dakota, with whispers of Chrysler's 'cloud car' sedan project and even the Dodge Neon sprinkled throughout as well. The financial restrictions that forced the company to cobble together a car like this spoke volumes about why the Daimler takeover had to happen.

Finally, Chrysler already had one slow-selling roadster sitting in showrooms—the Plymouth Prowler—and wasn't quite sure it wanted to dilute those weak sales any further.

What Did We Get Instead?

Most of the money that would have been spent on the Dodge Copperhead was diverted to the surging crossover and SUV market, so it's tempting to say that the roadster was in fact replaced by vehicles like the Jeep Liberty and the PT Cruiser.

Dodge Copperhead on display

Chrysler wouldn't field another affordable roadster until five years later when the Crossfire appeared on the scene.

3. Ford Forty-Nine 

What Was It?

Ford was all-in on the retro styling craze sweeping the auto industry at the end of the 1990s, and with the also-old school Thunderbird roadster set to debut as a 2002 model, the company tagged in designer Chip Foose to keep customers intrigued with 2001's Ford Forty-Nine concept.

Ford Firty-Nine at gas station

The Forty-Nine doubled down on the Thunderbird's Boomer love letter looks but enclosed them in a sleek hardtop with slab sides and a more aggressive performance bend. A 3.9L V8 motivated the Forty-Nine (itself shared with the Thunderbird, the Lincoln LS, and the Jaguar S-Type), and the car featured a 'Powered By Thunderbird' fender badge.

Why Was It Never Built?

It's always awkward to heavily associate one product with another if the original is tainted by the whiff of failure. The retro-Bird never caught on with buyers who were most likely sick of the '50's styling revival by the time it made it into showrooms, and as such it only enjoyed a handful of years on the market.

Ford Forty-Nine top-down view

In the face of consumer apathy, Ford wasn't about to take a chance on a similar-looking coupe without the Thunderbird's built-in heritage to help prop it up.

What Did We Get Instead?

Ford wasn't completely finished mining its past to define its future in the early 2000s.

Ford Forty-Nine rear view

The S197 Mustang redesign was just around the corner, and its fresher take on the car's iconic design history proved to be a massive hit among muscle car fans.

4. Dodge M4S

What Was It?

Chrysler wasn't just K-cars in the '80s. An enterprising group of engineers were also working on hard on perfecting turbocharged, fuel-injected four-cylinder motors that offered stout performance to go with the promise of reasonable fuel efficiency.

Dodge M4S PPG Pace Car

Eager to show off their acumen, four Dodge M4S concepts were built in partnership with PPG Industries to give the turbo tech an otherworldly, ultra-futuristic body shape and the kind of aerodynamics that delivered a top speed of 195 mph. The entire shell sat over a heavily massaged Pontiac Fiero IMSA tube frame, making this perhaps the coolest, and weirdest, 'kit car' ever. 

Why Was It Never Built?

The Dodge M4S was outfitted with a 2.2L engine that featured a Cosworth-designed head. Capable of 440hp, the mid-mounted engine shifted through a five-speed transaxle. It was a stunning achievement in an era where the Aries and the Caravan were the high points of the Pentastar's line-up.

Dodge M4S doors and cowls open

It was also clearly never intended for the masses. In 1983 when the concept was being assembled, Chrysler simply didn't have the clientele to sell even limited numbers of the M4S, and PPG wasn't set up to produce more than a handful of prototypes. The engine was stout but gearboxes and other bits and bobs proved less than reliable, which made the car difficult to operate outside a very controlled environment. Like the windswept Dodge Turbo Charger Pace Car that came before it, the M4S ended up at the front of the Indycar pack for the duration of the 1985 season (as well as starring in 'The Wraith,' a bizarre street race murder sci-fi movie featuring a young Charlie Sheen).

What Did We Get Instead?

Chrysler learned a lot about turbochargers during the design and construction of the M4S, and this lead to a series of increasingly powerful Lasers, Shadows, Shelbys, and Spirits towards the end of the '80s and into the beginning of the '90s.

Dodge M4S dramatic in the desert

Although these were all front-wheel drive models, they shared the same general engine layout as the Dodge supercar prototype, and they proved that cheap and cheerful could also equal deadly at the drag strip.

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