doc hudson

newman bug

A sleeper (called a Q-car in the UK) is a car that has high performance and an unassuming exterior. Sleeper cars are termed such because their exterior looks little or no different from a standard or economy-class car. In some cases the car appears worse due to seeming neglect on the owner’s part, typically referred to as ‘all go and no show.’ While appearing to be a standard or neglected car, internally they are modified to perform at higher performance levels. The American nomenclature comes from the term sleeper agent, while the British term derives from the Q-ships used by the Royal Navy.

American actor Paul Newman famously drove a 1963 VW Beetle convertible with a 300-horsepower engine, racing suspension and five-speed gearbox. The back seats were removed to make room for the 351-cubic-inch Ford engine.

The Chrysler 300 letter series began in 1955 with the Chrysler C-300. With a 331 cubic inch (5.4 L) V8, the engine was the first in a production passenger car to be rated at 300 hp, and was by a comfortable margin the most powerful in American cars of the time. These cars were among the first sleepers, marketed as high-end luxury cars from the traditional luxury marque Chrysler, but with a high-end racing engine.

The Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 was a powerful sedan with an intentionally subdued exterior, and a popular choice on the options list was a removal of the ‘450SEL 6.9’ badging from the car’s trunklid. Without this badge, the car is visually identical to any other period Mercedes saloon and belies extreme performance. However some performance brands have become so recognizable that they too lose out on their sleeper status such as an ‘AMG’ badged Mercedes-Benz or a ‘M’ badged BMW.

The Car which is most often credited as the start of the sleeper car trend is the Lotus Carlton/Omega; a car which started out as an Opel Omega/Vauxhall Carlton (which by public opinion, are considered to be non-high performance brands) but was handed over to Lotus Engineers to create a 177+ mph 4-door saloon (at its time of release it was the fastest 4-door saloon available to the public and it remained in that position ten years later) with the exact body of the car it was created from despite its Imperial Green color (British Racing colors), discrete Lotus badging, and flared body pieces.

This supercar rivalling speed was never advertised however due to both protests jointly by Mercedes-Benz and BMW (they just agreed to limit their cars to 155 mph; yet this car does 20 mph more easily) and by police who believed that it was a generally unsafe car and an invitation to speed. However the car was released at the oncoming of a recession so it never gained much popularity due to costs (insurance for example). The fact that its top speed was never advertised as well also lessened its potential sale figures helped to boost the car’s reputation as a sleeper.

Other vehicle owners create sleepers by swapping more powerful engines or other performance modifications like turbochargers, leaving the external appearance exactly the way it came from the factory. Sometimes hints of the car’s true nature show if one looks and listens carefully: wider tires, a lower stance, or a different engine tone or exhaust note. Gauges and instrumentation are often kept to a minimum. Some owners go as far as to use weight reduction techniques employed by other performance enthusiasts, such as removing items not fundamental to street racing, such as rear seats, interior trim, spare tire, air conditioner, power steering, or even the heater.

In some countries, customized sleeper vehicles (as with other heavily modified street cars) may be considered illegal for road use because the car’s level of performance is higher than intended by the vehicle manufacturer; if the owner has focused only on straight-line performance, the existing braking, steering, tires, and suspension systems may have been rendered inadequate. The emissions control system (such as intake and exhaust restrictions) is often bypassed or removed entirely in customized sleeper vehicles.

Owners sometimes reduce the evidence that their high-performance car is such by removing characteristic badging and trimmings. Sleeper cars often contain stock body work and wheels found on their less-capable brethren to better blend with other traffic and appear unassuming. Some owners simply like having performance without show, but a more predatory use of the sleeper is in street racing, where it is used to fool an opponent into underestimating a car’s performance for the purposes of hustling.

Some have even gone so far as to leave their cars’ exteriors banged up and rusting and sometimes even causing additional rusting with the use of battery acid. Often older cars from the 1930s to 1970’s could look like restored stockers but with uprated drivetrains, including suspension and brakes as well as engine swaps . These are closely related to hot rod subtypes:  ‘resto rods’ and ‘rat rods.’ Sometimes sleepers will be cheaper to insure when compared to an equally fast sports car, but some insurance companies may refuse insurance to owners of heavily modified vehicles. Successfully and intentionally performing this feat may be considered insurance fraud.

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