What Is the Best Race Car of all Time?

Story by Myles Kornblatt • Photos as credited

There is a certain kind of smile reserved for the moment when someone is ready to do something devilish. You know the one: It hints at a good-natured evil that will be fun to watch as long as you’re not on the receiving end.

That was the look on our faces when we posed this question to our accomplished friends: What’s the best race car of all time?

It’s a question that gives birth to many more. What does it really mean? The fastest? The most wins? The most influential? A real brain-twister of a question. And that’s why we were grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

The answers we harvested from a select group of legends of the motorsports world were not conditional on age or race series. These guys had to think about the cars they drove as well as the ones they wished they had driven. They had to weigh their best experiences against a time when these heroes had heroes.

We went looking for the vehicles that went beyond the winners circle–the best engineering, the best story, the biggest hearts. To be fair, we even staked a claim to our favorite competition machine–and for those who were paying attention, we counted your insights, too.

Mercedes-Benz W196

“The W196 was a winner from the start, unlike the Porsche 917 and Ford GT40. Name another race car that dominated a season right out of the box in two disciplines.” –Bill Warner, Chairman of the Board, Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance

Mercedes-Benz had been looking forward to 1954: They had skipped all racing activities the previous year so they could plan for their first post-WWII grand prix appearance. In accordance with the new Formula 1 rules, Mercedes decided to build an all-new 2497cc, fuel-injected eight-cylinder engine to take on the world. Wrapped within a new lightweight body, this 256-horsepower racer could hit 170 mph. It was known internally as the W196 R.

Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling drove the car to a 1-2 finish in its first outing at the French Grand Prix. Fangio captured three of the remaining five races in his Mercedes and clinched the 1954 championship.

The next year, Mercedes set their sights even higher. Engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut and race team manager Alfred Neubauer not only wanted to conquer F1, but also prove their endurance with the World Sportscar Championship. So for 1955, they added a full body to the W196 and upped engine output to 310 horsepower. The new car was better known as the 300 SLR.

Along with the added race series, Mercedes picked up some new drivers, including Stirling Moss. His first outing was the 1955 Mille Miglia with the now-famous car No. 722. Moss and navigator Denis Jenkinson were not only victorious, but their record-setting run also beat the solo-driving Fangio’s second-place SLR by over 30 minutes.

Fangio had better luck in the F1 series, where the W196 R–now upgraded to 290 horsepower–brought him home first in four of the seven races, which was enough to claim the driver’s champion title for the second year. Moss was competitive all year, including leading a 1-2-3-4 victory for Mercedes in front of his home crowd at the British Grand Prix.

The F1 season was shortened that year because of the tragedy at Le Mans involving Mercedes. Thanks to poor race course setup, a heated rivalry between the German manufacturer and Jaguar ended with Pierre Levegh’s SLR launching into the crowd, killing the driver and 82 spectators. Mercedes withdrew from the race out of respect.

The 300 SLR would return to the track to claim the season’s final two victories in Britain and Italy, which was enough to win the overall title. It was a victorious season with a dark cloud, however, and Mercedes, deciding it had accomplished its goals, withdrew from racing to focus on passenger cars.

Over its short career, the W196 proved to be a supremely adaptable racer. It was available in streamlined bodies and open-wheeled variants, and there were long-, medium- and short-wheelbase versions with nearly 8 inches of difference between the three.

Gulf/Mirage Ford GT40

“I drove a lot–and I mean a lot–of cars over my 30 years behind the wheel, so it is not an easy choice. This was a great long-distance racer with very few faults.” –David Hobbs, longtime pro racer, F1 commentator

Perseverance is an obvious key to endurance racing. But beyond the iron will of the driver, there is a team of people who must have faith that the components can put in the world’s longest and most stressful workday. Engineer and team manager John Wyer had the kind of resolve that eventually led to the winner’s circle.

After a successful stint as team manager for Aston Martin, Wyer left to help Ford Advanced Vehicles (FAV) develop the Lola GT into the Ford GT40. The car had some teething problems in its inaugural 1964 and 1965 seasons, but Wyer knew its potential. Although Ford found greater success when it enlisted Carroll Shelby for the MkII version, Wyer was part of a group that purchased FAV and, as JW Automotive, continued to support the first-generation cars.

But the JW Automotive team did more than just keep the MkI GT40 alive. They rebuilt it to be lighter, faster and more powerful. Gulf Oil stepped in with significant sponsorship, and a new competitive car hit the track wearing the now famous light blue and orange livery. The cars closely resembled the GT40s, but enough improvements were made to warrant a new name, Mirage M1.

When JW Automotive wanted to go racing in the 1968 World Sportscar Championship, the rules stated that cars with a production run of 50 or more qualified for the Group 4 class, which accommodated engines up to 5.0 liters. The Mirage M1 was too far removed from the original GT40 to qualify under this new rule, but the company’s experience improving the Ford gave them an interesting edge.

JW Automotive reengineered a MkI GT40 using a Mirage chassis, and although many of the M1’s improvements disappeared in the process, enough remained to make this the best MkI to ever hit the track. The Gulf/Mirage Ford GT40 was more reliable than the racing giants who were sorting out the prototype class, and it won the overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1968 and 1969.

David Hobbs came second in class behind his teammates Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver for the car’s second appearance at the Circuit de la Sarthe, and he remembers this GT40 well: “Obviously it had no downforce. We added small deflectors on the front fenders and a small spoiler for the back as the two seasons unfurled, but it was slippery.

“At the end of the Mulsanne straight we were pulling about 205 mph with 385 horsepower–now it takes over 600 horsepower to pull that speed.”

Porsche 917/30

“All I have is a picture in my head of Mark Donohue’s 917 going up the hill at Road America.” –Lisa Noble, President, Sports Car Club of America

The same rule that allowed JW Automotive to be competitive with the older GT40 also opened the door for Porsche. Competition Director Ferdinand Piëch didn’t share his grandfather’s surname, but he certainly had the moxie to bet the family business on a new race car.

To meet the homologation rules for the 1969 race season, a car with an engine over 3.0 liters had to be one of at least 25 examples produced. This was to encourage competition among the less specialized machines, but Porsche decided to jump to the head of the line.

Cars built purely for competition are expensive to manufacture and tend to have a short shelf life, so they’re typically only handcrafted by the handful. That’s why it felt like a declaration of war when Piëch debuted an unprecedented and costly run of 25 new 917s–all fully assembled and ready to race–in the spring of 1969.

These cars had a mixed rookie season, but once JW Automotive joined Porsche in this endeavor, the car became unstoppable. With better aerodynamics for 1970, the 917K won every race but Sebring and the Nürburgring. More improvements for 1971 kept the car dominant, winning seven of 11 races.

Porsche captured the International Championship for Makes two years in a row, but a new set of FIA rules in 1972 meant the 917’s 5.0-liter flat-12 would have to lose 40 percent of its power. Instead of adding the new restrictions, Porsche decided to further develop the 917 for North America’s Can-Am series, where the only limit to horsepower was imagination.

Jo Siffert had found moderate success running modified 917s in Can-Am since the car was first available in 1969, but now Porsche was throwing its corporate weight across the Atlantic. McLarens were crowding the winner’s circle, and that didn’t sit well with Porsche–its largest market was North America.

The specially developed 917/30 evolved the Spyder body style for a slightly longer wheelbase, improved front aerodynamics, and a large tail spoiler. The 12-cylinder engine had Bosch mechanical fuel injection and twin KKK turbochargers. The engine could now be dialed in for 1100 to 1500 horsepower.

This kind of muscle made it one of the first cars to ever grab the attention of Lisa Noble, longtime racer and current president of the Sports Car Club of America.

Noble is not alone in remembering this icon. Donohue’s famous Sunoco blue Penske car was the feature of 1973, winning 75 percent of all the Can-Am races that season. The only thing that stopped this juggernaut was new fuel economy regulations on the thirsty turbocharged flat-12.

Choosing the 240-mph Porsche as the “best” was a tough decision for Noble, but eventually it all came down to this: “The sound,” she says. “If you were ever around one, you know.”

Lola T330/332s

“This car won three F5000 championships in the U.S. for me–and it would have been four if I hadn’t had to miss two races in 1973 due to driving for Ferrari in Europe.” –Brian Redman, longtime pro racer

The endless rule changes by motorsport sanctioning bodies often turn last year’s hero into this year’s outlaw or dinosaur–but what happens if a great car is allowed to stay?

The Formula 5000 championship was a way to get drivers into high-horsepower cars without breaking the budget. While these cars ran a purpose-built chassis, the 5.0-liter engine that most teams ran had origins with Detroit’s Big Three. This made some parts more common, and in turn, made the entry costs more manageable than many of the other racing series. In fact, it became so popular that four different continents each had their own version of F5000, including one sanctioned by the SCCA.

Affordable did not mean a reduction in talent. The U.S. Formula 5000 attracted drivers like Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Sam Posey. Competition was fierce and featured purpose-built cars by McLaren and Gurney Eagle, but by the early 1970s there was one car that was almost guaranteed to be in the winner’s circle.

The Lola T330 struck just the right balance of horsepower and reliability. Chevrolet’s 5.0-liter was the powerplant of choice in these cars, especially when prepared by the engineering wizards at Chaparral.

Brian Redman won five of the nine F5000 races in 1973 behind the wheel of his Lola T330. The car was updated the next year and renamed the T332, and from the first race in 1974 until the summer of 1976, the Chevrolet-powered T332 never left the winner’s circle. The T332 cars were still the dominant force in 1976, winning five of the seven races.

Although F5000 would transform into a new Can-Am series for 1977, much of the T332 had carried over into a new closed-wheel design. This transition set up a Lola-Chevrolet dominance in the new series for years to come.

It was this kind of supremacy that sticks in Brian Redman’s memory. He has had success racing plenty of interesting champion vehicles, including the Ferrari 312 PB, Chevron B16/S and BMW 3.0 CSL, but his top car is the Lola.

It is not just the personal victories that made it his top choice, Redman says: “Lola built two models, the T400 and the T430, to supersede the T332, but neither were as good, so the T330/332 was in production from Frank Gardner's 1971 prototype through the ‘new’ Can-Am cars introduced in 1977.”

Porsche 956/962

“If you look at the Porsche that had the longest history of being competitive, it had to be the 962.” –Hurley Haywood, Porsche factory driver

Lola wasn’t the only one to have a longstanding winning platform. Where the Porsche 917 was the car that snuck onto the track to declare war, the brand’s 956 and subsequent 962 models proved the company could dig in for the long battle and dominate with its army of troops.

In 1982 Porsche had nearly perfected a gem of a racing engine. The twin-turbocharged, 2.7-liter flat-six was a great base to provide the power and fuel economy needed to compete in the World Sportscar Championship’s Group C racing class. Porsche needed to build the best car they could around that engine for this new prototype series.

The result was a lightweight aluminum monocoque chassis, a dual-clutch five-speed transmission, and a body that paid special attention to airflow. Longtime Porsche driver Hurley Haywood remembers how it changed the endurance landscape: “It was the first time we had been introduced to ground effects.”

It’s not hard to see why Haywood chose this car as his favorite: When the 956 went to its first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1982, the downforce from air channeled under the car gave it a noticeable competitive edge. Haywood was part of a Porsche team that brought the cars in for a historic 1-2-3 finish, a feat Porsche repeated for five years straight with the 956/962 in factory-backed and private race team efforts.

Le Mans best explains the heart of this car. The 956 raced at other tracks, but the Porsche engineers were focused on the kind of reliability needed to run hard for 24 hours straight. It combined intense grit and new technology into a car that was not developed for a rulebook loophole. This set the stage for a long competitive life in multiple race divisions.

The 956 received some safety and engine modifications in 1984 so it could be sent to the U.S., where it raced in the IMSA GTP Championship as the 962. The improvements eventually led Porsche to use the 962 internationally the following year.

The cars were competitive in the U.S. and Europe throughout the 1980s. They were a fixture at the Le Mans podium until rule changes in 1991 made the turbo flat-six fall out of favor.

Even then, there were those who didn’t want to give up on the 962. A loophole in the 1994 rules allowed the 962 to return to Le Mans in the GT class. A private attempt with factory assistance not only dominated the class, but also won the whole thing. Haywood was once again behind the wheel for this final victory.

He’s not alone in thinking this is more than the ultimate Porsche, but the ultimate racer. Bobby Rahal, when asked his opinion for the best race car of all time, answered, “In my experience as a driver, I would probably have to say the Porsche 956/962 given how many types of endurance races it won.”

McLaren F1 GTR

“Not because it was a ‘successful’ race car, but because it was probably the best-designed car of its time–and still tops my list as one of the greatest cars ever. No compromises!” –Peter Brock, automotive designer and team owner

The best sports cars have often sprung from race car technology, but here’s one that happened the other way around. The McLaren F1 was a true sensation when it hit the streets in 1993. Its center-seat driving position, carbon-fiber monocoque body shell, and lightweight titanium and magnesium components were all drawn from the racing world.

Still, despite the F1’s name, it was initially intended only for road use. Along with all of the high-tech hardware, the McLaren F1 also featured an emissions-legal 6.0-liter BMW V12, air conditioning and passenger seats–one on each side of the driver. Plus, the heat insulation used enough gold to earn you $1000 today if you stripped it out.

Gordon Murray, McLaren’s head of design, had only one goal: He wanted to build the ultimate road car. The F1 quickly established that reputation by setting a new speed record for production vehicles at 231 mph.

It was this kind of prowess that made the car irresistible to racers. The GT racing classes were heating up in the mid 1990s, and another race-inspired road car, the Jaguar XJ220, had been modified for success on the track. The McLaren F1 snatched the title of world’s fastest car from the Jag, so it seemed like the right car to also beat it on the track.

The F1 was such a well-engineered customer car that the procedure to modify it for the track recalled the days of moonshiners building NASCAR racers–just strip out the comforts and add a roll cage. Other changes included a large fixed rear wing for downforce, and additional vents for engine cooling. The BMW engine was actually restricted to less power on the race track, but the new McLaren F1 GTR was now quicker than its road-going counterpart thanks to all the weight savings.

The car that was built to dominate the road also ruled the BPR Global GT series, winning the overall championship both years the trophy was awarded. When the F1 GTR showed up at Le Mans in 1995, it beat out the specialty prototype cars to take a remarkable first, third, fourth and fifth place overall. It’s this kind of all-around ability that drew the respect of Peter Brock: “Few ever made it to the race track, but most are still being enjoyed by those who were intelligent and rich enough to buy one when they were available.”

Editor's Choice: Mini Cooper

People have long rooted for the underdog, whether it was David felling Goliath with a well-placed stone or Rocky Balboa rising from the shadows to challenge the established champion. When it comes to motorsports, one underdog stands out: the Mini Cooper.

While the Mini’s impact on motorsports is legendary, that wasn’t quite the original intent. Sir Alec Issigonis’s main goal for the car was much more practical: He wanted minimize the disruptive effects of the 1956 Suez Crisis on his fellow British citizens. His new car had to be efficient at every step.

The front-wheel-drive layout wasn’t the only measure taken to maximize passenger and luggage space. Issigonis also replaced the suspension’s traditional coil springs with rubber cones sourced from Moulton Developments Limited.

These rubber cones helped give the Mini another advantage: excellent handing. BMC management wished to see the car raced, but their works teams initially didn’t see any promise.

Formula car builder John Cooper helped change that notion when he replaced the Mini’s original 850cc engine with a 948cc variant already found elsewhere in the BMC model line. Suddenly the Mini had enough moxie to be competitive, and Cooper convinced BMC management to put a homologation model into production–with a royalty attached, of course.

The Mini Cooper arrived in both Austin and Morris dealerships for the 1961 model year, with the more powerful Cooper S following two years later. The Mini didn’t waste much time before becoming a winner, no matter what the racing surface.

On pavement John Love drove a Mini to the 1962 British Saloon Car Championship, besting larger cars like the Jaguar Mk II, Ford Galaxie and Ford Cortina GT. The Mini’s next title in that series would wait until 1969, but through the bulk of the ’60s it proved a worthy adversary against the rest of the field (which consisted primarily of more machines from Ford, as the Galaxie was eventually joined by the Anglia and the Mustang).

The Mini really made its mark in rally. Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Ambrose drove a Mini Cooper to third in the 1963 Monte Carlo rally; after that, Minis finished first in 1964, 1965 and 1966, besting machines like the Porsche 911, Lotus-Cortina and Saab 96. What about 1967? Minis crossed the line in first, second and third before they were famously disqualified for a headlight infraction–yes, a headlight infraction.

The Minis faded from top-tier international competition as the ’70s came around, but the cars never left our hearts. Head to any British car event or vintage race and you’ll be reminded how this one-liter rocket once defeated some of the world’s best.

Mechanic's Choice: Audi R8 LMP

The Audi R8 LMP flat-out dominated professional endurance racing during its production run. The Audi reigned supreme upon hallowed ground like Sebring and Le Mans from its 2000 debut until 2005, while cars backed by BMW, Cadillac, Panoz and others were left to fight for the scraps.

What eventually knocked the R8 from its lofty pedestal? The R10 TDI, Audi’s updated endurance monster. And to this day, Audi has continued to dominate Circuit de la Sarthe, most recently finishing first and second at the summertime classic.

Since the arrival of the updated R10 TDI, the R8 has entered private hands and can be found at today’s historic races. While still formidable, the cars are no longer shielded from view when they come off the track. Now, finally, the public can inspect them up close.

GMT Racing has prepped a wide range of vintage race cars, from prewar classics up to late-model Le Mans racers. Despite such an amazing pedigree, the shop’s J.R. Mitchell heaps high praise upon the Audi wondercar. “It’s surprisingly simple to work on,” he says, noting that the R8 LMP passed through six variations and the story is always the same.

“It’s so well thought out,” Mitchell continues. “It was built to a standard, not a price.” That standard? Beating the world’s best. The R8 LMP is easy to drive, easy to work on. How easy to fix? During a Le Mans pit stop, the Joest crew once famously swapped out transaxles in a tick more than 3 minutes.

Today, Mitchell notes, Audi factory race technicians look fondly upon the R8. “Those were the good, old days,” he recalls them saying.

If the Audi takes the prize among the latest racers, what does J.R. Mitchell like from an earlier generation? The Ralt RT1, a single-seater produced from 1975 through 1978. It was built for the day’s Formula 2, Formula 3, Formula Atlantic and Super Vee contests, and championship drivers included names like Nelson Piquet and Geoff Brabham.

“It’s as strong as a brick shithouse,” Mitchell says. The tub is well built and, like the Audi, maintenance is easy. It’s head and shoulders above anything else of that ilk, he says. “The RT1 set the standard.”

What about the Porsche 962, a car so loved by our drivers? “Worst car I have ever worked on,” Mitchell says. “You have to take half the car apart to make a minor, simple change.”

People's Choice

We asked our message board community the same question that we gave our experts: What is the greatest race car of all time?

Dropping that kind of query on the Internet is like walking into a den of wolves wearing your favorite meat suit, but luckily for us, our forums are usually quite civil. Between a few personal insults, the answers that came back ranged from Germany’s pre-WWII Mercedes Silver Arrows to a decade-old F1 Ferrari. There was a strong argument for the Porsche 911, which makes sense: The car has been on race tracks for nearly half a century.

Of course, the other side of that reasoning is that, other than a bathtub shape and engine location, there is little shared between the first Carrera RS and today’s 911 RSR. Even Hurley Haywood noted that his second choice would have been the Porsche 911, but for a similar problem: “Hard to pick one model. They have all been successful.”

Then there are Porsche’s other prototypes, including the 910. The factory only campaigned that car for a year, finding success on tight, twisty courses like Targa Florio as well as the day’s hillclimbs.
And if our readers are to be believed, this list might be overlooking an engineering achievement from Colin Chapman. The Lotus 72 was a three-time F1 constructor’s champion that notably added lightness by making the engine part of the car’s structure. The Lotus Seven has been providing the budget-friendly motorsport experience for over half a century.

Another car that needs to be mentioned is Jaguar’s amazing D-Type, a three-time Le Mans winner. And we can’t forget the Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite, an SCCA champ for decades. Finally, some posters argued that at least one piece of Carroll Shelby’s legacy should be considered. His work on the Ford GT40 MkII helped that car to a 1-2-3 Le Mans victory in 1966, while the Cobra gave privateer racers a real contender by combining European lightness with American muscle.

Peter Brock’s Shelby Daytona Coupe took it a step further by wrapping the Cobra’s parts in a slipstream body. Those cars captured nearly every major GT trophy in World Sportscar Championship at least once during their brief 1964-’65 career. Plus, after its retirement, the Daytona Coupe still set a few speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

No matter who you ask and how many temperatures you take, there will be people left throwing their arms up in frustration that their favorites could have been missed. What about the innovative cars that were illegal before they had the chance to prove their worth, like the air-sucking Chaparral J2? Doesn’t something wild from rally’s Group B earn a spot?

Of course there are plenty of worthy cars not named here. Racing is about the passion of the engineers, the mechanics, the drivers and even the spectators. We’ve only scratched the surface of a topic that has many justifiable answers, but it is great fun following people down memory lane with their favorites.

So if the car that stirs your soul isn’t here, be sure to tell us about it. This is a topic, and a discussion, that we never tire of hearing.

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Taber10 New Reader
6/22/18 3:13 p.m.

You've put together an absolutely fantastic list, and for lots and lots of the right reasons.  I take great satisfaction in seeing--abeit only under "People's Choice"--two of the all-time favorite Lotus race cars.  I would point out that unlike the VAST MAJORITY of the cars listed, the Lotus 7--in the Caterham embodiment of said car--is within reach of many, many more of us.

stuart in mn
stuart in mn UltimaDork
6/22/18 5:48 p.m.

It's hard to argue with the choices.  I would have included the Lotus 49, but that's the thing about these 'best ever' lists - everyone has their own ideas.   

vermontdane New Reader
6/22/18 6:47 p.m.

Jim Hall's Chaparrals were outside the box thinking on a shoestring budget.  Domenance of the McLaren CanAm cars was laudable as well.  Enginnering breakthroughs might be the best criteria.  Amazing how rule changes were made to stop innovations many times.

6/23/18 5:50 p.m.

My vote would be for either the Lotus 49 or, my favorite, the Alfa Romeo Alfetta 158/9.  The Alfetta was competitive on the international Grand Prix circuit for 15 years (although a small event called WWII intevened...).  The main drivers of these cars, Jim Clark and Juan Manual Fangio are also #1 and 2 in my book.

Tom1200 HalfDork
6/24/18 7:24 p.m.

The answer isn't now but it will be Miata.........because like FV and Formula Ford it put lots of people on track who otherwise wouldn't ever have raced.

So for the same reason my pick is also 956/962 because loads of privateers got chance in a car that could actually win.

alfadriver MegaDork
6/24/18 7:47 p.m.

I'm no P car fan, but this is easy- 911.  It's won SO many races in SO many different classes and configurations, it's not even funny.  Let alone for the 50 years it's been racing- no-  winning races.  

Not many other cars can claim multiple 24 hour race wins along with a Trans Am championship, plus some rally wins- oh, and it's own specific series,....  

Yea, best race car ever.  

Gary SuperDork
6/24/18 8:40 p.m.


racerdave600 UltraDork
6/25/18 5:42 p.m.

I've been fortunate to see many race cars over the years, but none left an impression the way the 917-30 did.  I have yet to see any other race car look as fast down the back straight at Road Atlanta, including 962s and Nissan GTPs in the '80's. 

Even in a field of other fast cars, the 917-30 was in a class all by itself.  And not many cars can lay claim to killing off an entire series. wink  After all these years, it is still my definition of a race car.  

miles_wilson New Reader
6/26/18 10:19 a.m.

You guys need to chime in on our first annual Classies Readers Choice Awards:

Most of those nominations are on there already too! As a staffmember who reviews nominations, I am curious to see who will take the cake for "Best Race Car of All Time."

The question for me is: will the 911 win based on raw numbers alone? There are so SO many good choices...

RussMyers New Reader
6/27/18 8:09 p.m.

McLaren M8B. 11 out of 11. 8 were 1-2. one was 1-2-3.

Anthony545 New Reader
6/30/18 11:13 a.m.

You laid out great options here and I would have to agree that one of the most exceptionally well-engineered cars is the McLaren F1 GTR. Such respect!

jstein77 UltraDork
7/2/18 3:17 p.m.

If you're talking about the most dominant car in their venue, my vote would have to be the 1987 Trans Am Audi 200.  It won 8 out of 13 races.

TedFlorida New Reader
7/9/18 2:19 a.m.

Mazda RX8 

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