Nine of History’s Most Bitter Car Rivalries

The knives are out.

Mercedes’ acclaimed new S-Class sedan (bottom), an Aladdin-like cave of treasures, has been locking up the big-boy luxury class, winning more than 40 percent of American buyers in 2014 and 2015. But if anything can challenge its supremacy, it’s that Munich mauler, the 7 Series, with its newly pressed attire and lightweight carbon fiber construction. BMW clearly hopes the 2016 7 Series can repeat the success of the Chris Bangle-designed version that debuted for 2002. Despite (or because of?) Bangle’s controversial styling, that 7 Series managed to outsell the Mercedes in 2002 and 2005, but the Benz has held the title ever since.
A half-century before muscle-car drivers traded stoplight taunts, Stutz and Mercer owners exchanged leather-gloved slaps. Straight outta Indianapolis, the 1912 Bearcat (bottom) was a racing sports car with one of the first multivalve engines, a 6-liter four, beneath its doghouse of a hood. The Mercer Raceabout was the Lotus of its era, brushing 100 mph via a relatively puny, 55-horsepower four and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang body. Stutz fans proclaimed “There’s nothing worser than a Mercer,” while Mercer boys rhymed, “You must be nuts to drive a Stutz.” (Lou Reed would give the Bearcat a shout-out in “Sweet Jane” over 50 years later.)  Heartwarming.Darin Schnabel, RM Sotheby's/RM Auctions
It’s the Thrilla in Vanilla: a match between America’s best-selling sedans, conducted at the pitch and politeness of a suburban croquet game. The Toyota Camry (top) has been America’s most popular family car for 14 of the past 15 years, a streak broken only by the Accord. Honda fires back that it’s often top-ranked in actual showroom sales, including in 2013-14, as Toyota plumps Camry numbers with sales to rental fleets. While these sedans won’t cause undue excitation, the likes of Ford, Chevrolet, Hyundai and Mazda must wish their own sedans could scale such showroom heights, year after freaking year.
Anyone with a hooligan attitude, a Playstation and a boxed set of Fast & Furious movies will shed a greasy tear for the Mitsubishi Evo (top), whose bow-out in 2015 marked the final chapter in its rally-fueled battle with the Subaru WRX STi. Both cars bottled a pocket-superhero formula, nerdy econoboxes transformed with power, all-wheel drive and rear wings like jaunty capes. The Japanese analog of the Camaro vs. Mustang battle produced great moments, even if Americans were denied most of a quarter-century fight, as it was contested just about everywhere but here.
Apocryphal or not, it’s too good an origin story to pass up: Ferruccio Lamborghini, who made his fortune building tractors, complained to Enzo Ferrari about a balky Ferrari (bottom) clutch, and was thus insulted: “Lamborghini, you may be able to drive a tractor, but you will never be able to handle a Ferrari properly.” Ferruccio answered by founding his own car company in 1963, and an Italian civil war began. The street fight is hotter than ever, with the Huracán not merely being the most beautiful Lamborghini in years, but the best all-around supercar in Lamborghini’s history—and a viable alternative to the Ferrari 488 GTB.
Rivalries can come in triangles, as in the memorable tussle between the Z, RX-7 and Supra (née Celica Supra). This Japanese trio started out blissfully affordable, with late-Seventies RX-7s and Celica Supras entering the fray to challenge the Datsun 280ZX in those pre-Nissan days. Each model found tens of thousands of fanatically loyal buyers every year. Iterations from the early Nineties, including an RX-7 with a sequential twin-turbo rotary engine, were like the Nissan GT-Rs of their day, combining big power with Porsche-fighting ambitions. The downside? Prices soared to $40,000 and more, sales withered and the rivalry lost its grip on mainstream enthusiasts.
The cultured Euro versus the blue-collar American underdog. German technology, tasteful design and an inline-six versus Yankee knowhow, brashness and a pushrod V-8. Insert your own clichés and choose a side, because there’s no safe DMZ between the Porsche and Corvette. The yawning price disparity between the cars only feeds the half-century rivalry, with Corvette fans attacking the Porsche as a snobby one-percenter and Porsche lovers dismissing the ‘Vette as a sports car for beer leagues and bowling night. Sigh. Can’t we all just get along?
Have any cars sparked more bar fights and Internet flames than the Camaro and Mustang? Detroit’s favorite pony cars have been kicking dirt at each other since 1966, when the Camaro arrived in the wake of a national love-in for the Mustang. And after some crap-plastic versions in the late Seventies and Eighties, and the Camaro’s emergence from a GM-induced coma, the Ford and Chevy are back at it. The brilliant new Mustang has set new standards for the class, and the redesigned 2016 Camaro is already spoiling to smack it down.
Ferrari’s founder made a powerful enemy when he offered to sell out to Ford in 1963, but then refused to sign a $10 million deal for a new business dubbed Ford-Ferrari. “Alright,” said Henry Ford II, or Hank the Deuce—as related in The Drive editor-at-large A.J. Baime’s book Go Like Hell. “We’ll beat his ass. We’re going to race him.” The result was a Detroit-based David, the GT40, sent to take on Ferrari’s Goliath at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the P3. A trio of GT40s swept the Le Mans podium in 1966, then finished first the next three years. The GT40’s enduring legend saw a retro Ford GT homage brought to life in 2002. Its successor, a 600-plus horsepower heathen, is heading to Le Mans in 2016. Your move, Ferrari.Grand Prix Photos/Getty Images

History loves a good beef: Hamilton-Burr. Edison-Tesla. Ali-Frazier. Apple-Microsoft. Bunny-Fudd.

A tastily bitter rivalry requires closely matched contestants with otherworldly skills and arrogance to match. Long-running feuds are best, leaving grudges to fester while fresh wounds pile up. Michigan and Ohio State have been going at it since 1897, one reason why theirs may be the greatest rivalry in American sports.

It’s no different for cars. The most respected machines—and their makers—are reliably spurred to greatness by having someone or something to beat the snot out of. Detroit and its cars went to hell in the Seventies and stayed there through most of the Nineties, largely because it stubbornly refused to see Japan as a legitimate rival.

From the industry’s quaint beginnings to the modern showroom, here are some mano a mano duels that shaped the cars we drive today.