As far as hobbies go, driving cars—especially when you do it quickly—tends to be on the more dangerous side of things. Yo-yoing enthusiasts, musicians, and bakers can all practice their hobbies in the comfort of their homes. They risk little more than a sore finger, an off-key note, or a lackluster tray of brownies. They don’t run the risk of slinging themselves into a ditch at 100mph in a hunk of metal carrying a 15-gallon tank of flammable liquid.
However, this scenario is just the baseline inherent danger in driving; any old econobox can get dangerous really quickly if you drive it incorrectly. Above this baseline though, there’s a caliber of car that ups the ante: the widowmakers. Widowmakers are the cars that don’t think that the inherent risks of driving are quite dangerous enough—so they make it harder, in various ways, to make it home safely after the drive.
The common misconception is that widowmaker cars are trying to kill you, but they’re not. They just make it a lot easier for you to kill yourself while driving them. Widowmakers leave it all up to the driver and their ability to tame the car, whereas most cars will save you before things get too sketchy. Cars of this ilk are rare, but they’ve accrued a reputation over the years. Here are the most infamous widowmakers, in no particular order.
1. Porsche 930 Turbo
To anyone familiar with the idea of a widowmaker car, finding a Porsche 930 Turbo on a list of them will come as no surprise. The 930 Turbo is often hailed as the original widowmaker, and for good reason. It was a dangerous car to drive, even for the most seasoned pilots.
To start, the 930 Turbo has the classic Porsche 911 layout: rear-engine, rear-wheel drive. In many ways, this layout is what built the 911’s reputation as one of the best sports cars in the world. The rear-engine layout is extremely efficient when it comes to transmitting power from the engine to the road. It also allows the car to rotate more easily through corners.
However, this latter attribute is both a blessing and a curse. The car rotates easily, which can be good for handling, but if you don’t know how to control it, it can be extremely dangerous; the rear-end can come around when a novice driver isn’t expecting it. This is actually true of most all early Porsche 911s. The 930 Turbo added in the element of turbo charging. Early turbochargers operated with exponential turbo lag, so when you pressed the throttle, you didn’t get the engine’s full power for a second or two.
The lag made the power delivery extremely unpredictable; it was like firing a gun that could go off any time after you pulled the trigger, forcing you to point it downrange at all times. Well, when you’re carving up a mountain pass in your vintage Porsche, downrange isn’t always an option, and for this reason, the 930 Turbo is often lauded as the original widowmaker.
2. Porsche Carrera GT
The Porsche CGT is one of the most highly regarded supercars of all time. Its reputation for being a widowmaker only really took hold after the tragic death of Paul Walker, who died when riding shotgun in a CGT back in 2013. His death shook the car community to its core, and looking for someone to blame, the community pointed their fingers at the car, and not without reason. The CGT has a screaming V10, a manual transmission, and, importantly, no stability control. This means that it takes a special kind of skill to drive it quickly.
Adding to this reputation is the fact that the CGT was a limited production car. So those who own them often keep them as collector’s items rather than daily drivers. This lack of frequent use means that many CGT’s are riding around on 10-year-old tires. Their rubber has degraded to the point of having the traction properties of a Little Tikes car’s plastic wheels. These old tires paired with the CGT’s sheer power make it a difficult car to control at speed.
3. Porsche 997 911 GT2
Another Porsche, you say? Yes, another Porsche. This time it’s the 997 GT2, which was an ultra-high performance 911 produced from 2007-2012. It’s the newest car on this list, and is perhaps the last true widowmaker to ever be produced. The 997 GT2 follows the same basic formula as the original 930 Turbo, but it’s dangerous for different reasons.
Unlike the 930 Turbo, which wasn’t all that fast by modern standards, the 997 GT2 has 530 horsepower, coming from its turbocharged flat 6. This is a lot of power in a car that barely weighs 3,000 pounds. It also has a manual transmission, which passes the burden of control even more to the driver. And the cherry on top is that it has one of Porsche’s most primitive traction control systems. Some might say the traction control system is a safety feature, but in the context of this GT2, it wasn’t all that effective. In fact, the traction control system was a detriment to the car’s safety, as it made drivers think they had a safety net that wasn’t actually there: it inspired ill-placed confidence.
The traction control system in the 997 GT2 was, as mentioned before, far less advanced than Porsche’s modern traction control systems which tend to work quite well. This not-so-great traction control, paired with the rear engine layout, a manual transmission, and an extremely potent power-to-weight ratio made the 997 GT2 more than a handful to drive.
4. First-Gen Dodge Viper
Finally moving away from Porsches (jeez, Porsche!), we can talk about some classically American death traps. Let’s start with the first-gen Viper. When you look at its specs on paper, it becomes readily apparent why the original Viper was so dangerous. It had a hilariously large 8.0L V10 with 465lb-ft of torque, no traction control, no stability control, no anti-lock brakes, and no air bags. Need I say more?
Earlier in this piece I said that no car is actively trying to kill its driver, they’re just harder to drive than normal cars. However, the Viper might be an exception. In fact, the Viper was such a basic, no-concern-for-its-passengers car that it didn’t even have features that most people would consider necessary. For example, the earliest Vipers had no exterior door handles. If you wanted to get in your viper, you had to reach inside and pull the interior door handle. The Viper also had no windows. It did offer plastic contraptions that you could install yourself if you insisted on having windows, but in its basic form, the Viper didn’t even have windows. So, not only was it a widowmaker, it was barely even a fully built car.
5. 427 Shelby Cobra
The 427 Shelby Cobra is dangerous for all of the same reasons as the Viper, just on a greater scale. The Shelby Cobra was built in the 1960s. Back then, things like chassis stiffness and airbags were considered superfluous luxury items. If it didn’t help the car go fast, Shelby didn’t want it put into his cars. The 427 Cobra was the culmination of this ideology. It had Ford’s 7.0L V8 that produced an astounding (for the time) 450hp, and basically nothing else. You got a thumping V8, seats, pedals, a steering wheel and a shifter, and it was up to you make it do what you wanted it to. This was the 60’s, so of course there was no electronic stability control, or ABS etc. The Cobra was as bare bones as it gets, and this made it an unwieldy beast to handle.
If there’s one thing to conclude from this article, it’s that Porsche is trying to kill its customers. Just kidding. It’s that widowmaker cars almost always include the dangerous pairing of a lot of power with not a lot of safety features. This means that it’s not the cars that are out to get you; it’s your own over-confidence in thinking that you can handle them that can get you in trouble. So, if you’re ever lucky enough to to drive any of these cars, don’t push that luck—take it very, very, easy.