Few vehicles stir the imagination quite like the fighter planes of World War II. The aerodynamic shapes, fearless pilots, roaring engines, and screaming guns provide a unique blend of art, technology, and heroism. Whether one was bouncing a con from out of the Sun or trying to shake the bogie on your six, those pilots so close to death must have felt more alive than any of us on the ground. What does this have to do with cars? Nothing, nothing at all…
I slide through the roll cage and into the cockpit. It’s a snug fit. I pull the shoulder straps over my arms and start to assemble the 5 point harness. I’m a little clumsy with my heavy fire suit and gloves. But other hands are helping, plugging in my helmet radio and pulling the harness belts impossibly tight. It’s not exactly comfortable, but it’s comforting.
I press the ignition and the engine complains only a little before settling in. I add a little throttle and it revs quickly. The new engine sounds good. I make a quick survey of the controls. Mirrors are fine. Gauges read normally (the ones that work anyway). Pedals are poorly placed. I’ve only had a couple hours in this car, but it’s familiar enough. They’re signaling me to leave the pit. Time to be a hero.
I approach the track with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I’m the first driver. I want to be fast but also safe. The team needs laps, no black flags, and a car that runs all day. My ego needs to be fast. Worst case scenario, I crash the car. Second-worst case, my lap times suck. The track steward makes a quick check over the car and yanks on my harness before giving me the thumbs up. It’s simultaneously ages and seconds since I was last on track…
I blend into T1 check my six and find myself surrounded by bogies. My tires are a little cold at the outset and I fight to keep her aloft. I watch one fighter fall, its pilot found wanting. The separation between thought and action have become minuscule. The mixture of danger and precision is… delicious. My tires chatter like machine guns as inferior pilots are addressed and quickly forgotten. But there ahead, an enemy Ace on the horizon… this is our moment, let us delight in it…
WWII planes had such wonderful variety both externally and internally. The angular and ungainly look of a Ju-87 Stuka contrasts sharply with the sleek and aquatic lines of a P-51 Mustang or the portly and cute F4F Wildcat. The outset of WW2 included biplanes and by the end of the war there were radical designs such as flying wings, canards, jets, and even manned rockets. All of this development took place over just 5 years. During this time, the nature of air to air combat changed drastically as air speeds and altitudes climbed higher and higher. In 1939, a plane with a top speed of 200 mph sporting a pair of rifle caliber machine guns was plenty. But by 1945, a fighter needed 400 mph and cannons.
The innovative years of WW2 are mirrored by many different eras in the highly competitive automotive industry. For example, right now we’re in the midst of a technology revolution as more and more of the vehicle becomes computer controlled. Cars are becoming jets. While this is good for economy, safety, and performance, I’d rather blip and shift myself. And if I had the resources, I’d rather fly WW2 planes than modern jets. As my mind mashes together the images of WW2 planes and production sports cars, a mapping from one to the other begins to emerge. The era is the 70s to 90s, where most crapcan race cars come from. What exactly is crapcan racing? It’s spending the absolute minimum (or some would say the maximum you can get away with) to build a race car and then driving it in the 24 Hours of LeMons or another budget racing series (e.g. Lucky Dog, ChumpCar, World Racing League, American Endurance Racing). It’s as close to dogfighting as I’ll ever get and a lot safer.
Onward to the vehicles.
The UK was once a major manufacturer of sports cars, but the industry died in the mid 70s as the gas crisis called for more practical cars. For this reason, most of the car in the UK list come from the 60s and 70s.
The Gladiator was out-dated even at the start of the WWII. With its closed canopy it looked a bit more modern than a WWI biplane, but it had just as many wings. It handled well enough, but was terribly slow and carried little armament. If you’re looking for a car with similar features, look no farther than an MGB (or Triumph Spitfire if you prefer). Most cars are going faster, but is anyone having more fun?
The Hurricane featured old-school construction such as canvas stretched over wood and steel. It was like a biplane without a high wing. At the start of the War, in the Battle of Britain, it proved itself to be reliable, predictable, and solid gun platform, accounting for more kills than the more famous Spitfire. But as the air war went higher and faster, the Hurricane adopted a new role as a fearsome ground attack plane. Many boys became men in the Hawker Hurricane. And many men become boys in its automobile equivalent, the Austin Mini.
The Spitfire was the iconic plane of the RAF. It’s smooth lines and elliptical wings made it one of the most beautiful planes ever built. It was continually developed throughout the war by fitting increasingly larger engines. It balanced speed, handling, armament, and grace. Pilots loved it, except if they were on the wrong side of its guns. This lethal beauty has the greatest affinity with Jaguars. If you’re lucky enough to be driving an E-type, you’ve got a Merlin Spit (e.g. Mark I, Mark V, Mark IX). The XJ-S is the Griffin-engined Mark XIV.
Hawker Typhoon / Tempest
The Typhoon was meant to replace the Hurricane, but it was a little disappointing in performance. It was later upgraded to become the Tempest, which was a true late war plane that could even tangle with the Me262. The Typhoon and Tempest shared a massive air scoop that when paired with their bristling armament gave them a very aggressive look. Speaking of aggressive looks, the TR7 (Typhoon) and TR8 (Tempest) have that locked up.
The Meteor was the only jet in service by the Allies. Since the Brits didn’t want the Meteor falling into enemy hands, its use was limited to chasing down V-1 flying bombs at the end of the war. The Meteor was fast and futuristic looking, but looks a little odd today. Sort of like the Lotus Europa.
Germany made a lot of very interesting planes, but only a few that were made in large numbers. That’s too bad because it leaves a lot of cars without mates. As a result, a variety of cars get lumped into a few planes.
Junkers Ju-87 Stuka
The Stuka was a fearsome dive bomber with cranked wings and a rear gunner. Screaming as it dropped from the sky (it had whistles to create its intimidating sound), it was a lethal dive-bomber and ground attack plane. Hans Rudel amassed over 2000 kills which included tanks, planes, trains, ships, etc. Its distinctive looks and historical significance match it with the VW Beetle. The Stuka isn’t a fighter, and the Beetle isn’t a sports car, but you’ll find many Beetles embarrassing more modern cars in crapcan racing.
The Bf109 was made in larger numbers than any other plane in history. It was small, sleek, powerful, and even featured leading edge slats. It was therefore equally at home in fast or slow speed fights. It could dogfight with Spitfires or chase down B-17s. It carried a bewildering array of armaments from cowl-mounted machine guns to hub firing cannons to wing mounted ordnance of all kinds. The top fighter ace of all time, Erich Hartmann, who recorded a mind-boggling 352 kills, flew 109 variants exclusively. The ubiquity of this plane is matched by the 3/5-series BMW. More specifically, 109E = E21, 109F = E30, 109G = E28/E34, 109K = E36.
The Me110 was designed as a fast and heavily armed destroyer for the Blitzkrieg. Despite being a 2-seater, it was a fighter aircraft capable of dogfighting. At the outset of the war, it was instrumental in the battles for Poland, France, and the UK. Later, it found another important role attacking Allied bombers. If you’re driving a German wagon, you’re in a 110.
Focke Wolfe 190A
Although not quite as famous as the 109, the 190 was also produced in large numbers and played an equally import role in the Luftwaffe. It was very heavily armed with cowl-mounted machine guns and 20 mm cannons in the wings. It had tremendous acceleration from its massive radial engine, and a high roll rate from its hydraulic ailerons. Despite its power, it wasn’t a large aircraft. Pulling a nimble frame around with a powerful engine sounds like a hot hatch. So the Fw190 is the VW Golf.
Focke-Wolfe 190D / Ta152H
The 190D (and later Ta152H) were based on the 190A but included an even more powerful inline engine. The long noses of these planes gave them a distinctive look. These were fast, high-altitude air-superiority fighters. Their car equivalent is the Porsche 944.
Messerschmitt 262 Swalbe
The most lethal aircraft of WWII was the Me262. It had a shark-like shape, jet engines, swept wings, and four 30 mm cannons. Considering that 3-4 shells was sufficient to take down a heavy bomber, the plane was feared by all. It was also nearly uncatchable. Flying a jet in the age of propellor planes is cheating, and so is bringing a Porsche 911 to crapcan racing (unless you make it a diesel).
The USA offers a bounty of planes and budget race cars. There was a lot of variety in airframe and engines, but the armament was mostly 0.50 calibers in the wings.
Almost barrel-like in shape with wheels that retracted into the fuselage, the F4F didn’t look fast, and it wasn’t. But it was durable and maneuvered well enough that it was used throughout the war. The F4F was the plane that pioneered the Thach Weave, which was a successful tactic that used the durability from a pair of Wildcats to survive against the faster and more nimble Zero. The upgraded FM-2 was used by the UK, who called it the Martlet. The car equivalent is any FWD econobox like a Ford Escort.
The Warhawk didn’t see much service in the European theatre because of its poor high altitude performance. But it dove extremely well, was durable, and fast at low altitudes. It was used most famously before the US officially entered the war by the Flying Tigers in the defense of China. P-40 pilots refused to turn with the more nimble Japanese planes and instead used their superior speed to dictate the terms of the engagement. While the shark mouth of the P-40 is an American icon, the plane found its true niche in the hands of the Russians, who purchased thousands of the aircraft. The P-40 was at home in the low altitude fights over the ground war in Russia, and some of highest scoring allied aces were Russians flying P-40s. This mass-produced hot-rod is best exemplified by the Pony cars (Camaro, TransAm, Firebird). P-40B/C = 1970s, P-40E = 1980s, P-40M/N = 1990s.
The P-39 was a strange plane by US standards. It’s rear mounted engine and tricycle landing gear were as unusual as its 37mm hub-firing cannon. Like the P-40, the P-39 was loved by the Russians rather than the Americans. Apparently they used the cannon against planes instead of its intended role against tanks. The P-39 was later upgraded to the P-63 King Cobra and was as good as anything else on paper. Almost all of these were purchased and hoarded by the Russians for the defense of Moscow. Rumor has it that the Russians loved the Pontiac Fiero, especially when they swapped V8s in them (okay, so I made that up, but it fits).
Lockheed P-38 Lightning
Even more unusual than the P-39 was the P-38. Featuring two engines in a twin-boom design and a cluster of 4 .50 cal machine guns and a 20 mm cannon in the nose, it’s no wonder the Germans named it the “forked tail devil”. Despite its size and unusual shape, it was fast and maneuverable. The top two US aces achieved their kills in the P-38 hunting Japanese planes in the Pacific. Patrolling the skies in this brute looking for bad guys is probably how cops feel in their Crown Vics.
The most iconic plane of the US Army Air Force was the P-51D. You can tell just by looking at its sleek lines and bubble canopy that it’s fast. The P-51 actually began life as the humble A-36 Apache, which was designed as a ground attack aircraft. But once fitted with the Merlin engine from the Spitfire, the plane was transformed into a long-range interceptor that could fly all the way to Berlin and best even the late model 109s and 190s. Matching the P-51 Mustang with the Ford Mustang isn’t a perfect fit, except by name, but once you think about all the engine mods the Mustang people do, it starts to make sense. P-51B is V6, P-51D is V8.
Vought F4U Corsair
What do you get when you take the most powerful engine available (Pratt & Whitney 2800 wasp) and stuff it into the smallest chassis you can? If it’s a plane in 1941, it’s the Corsair. It’s bent wings were stylish, but they weren’t for show. It needed stout legs to land on carriers but also enough clearance for its huge prop. So they bent the wings to get them closer to the ground. The Japanese called it “whistling death”. The unique styling, massive engine, excellent handling, and long hood are reminiscent of the Chevrolet Corvette.
The P-47 was big and brutish. Most US fighters carried 4 or 6 0.50 caliber machine guns. But the P-47 carried 8, as well as bombs and rockets. It’s high speed and great durability made it equally effective protecting bombers or doing its own ground attack. It didn’t really turn, but a plane this fast decides where and when it wants to fight. The P-47 featured an advanced turbocharging system, so if you have an American car with forced induction, you’ve got yourself a P-47.
Grumman F6F Hellcat
The F6F used the same big engine as the Corsair and Thunderbolt, but the design was more pedestrian and reminiscent of the Wildcat. It was the mainstay of the Navy in later years and racked up a huge number of kills against its lightly armored Japanese opponents. If you have a FWD American car with more than 150 HP (e.g. Ford Probe), you’re in a Hellcat.
The Japanese Army and Navy were completely independent entities that did not share resources like engines or armament. They ended up making a lot different planes, which is fortunate because there are a lot of Japanese cars.
The A5M was the Japanese Navy’s primary fighter at the start of the war. It featured an open cockpit, 2 rifle caliber machine guns, and no pilot protection. Despite these biplane-ish features, it was fast, maneuverable, and successful. More importantly it was the predecessor to the famous Zero. The car equivalent is a Datsun Fairlady, or other early convertible.
This early monoplane was the mainstay of the Japanese Army at the start of the war. It was highly successful against the Chinese and Russian fighters, but was outclassed by the P-40s of the Flying Tigers a couple years later. It was lightly armed and armored but featured great maneuverability. If you’re driving an 1970s Japanese car, like a Datsun B210, this is your equivalent.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
The Zero was produced in greater numbers than any other Japanese plane. At the start of the era, it outclassed everything the Allies had, and pilots were instructed not to dogfight with it. Throughout the war, it was upgraded with larger engines, but this traded speed for agility. By the end of the war, it was considered too slow and fragile, but in the right hands it could still hold its own against any adversary. Saburo Sakai once fought 18 Hellcats to a stalemate by himself, and both he and Hiroyoshi Nishizawa probably scored over 100 kills each in the Zero (history books have a way of being edited by the victors). Don’t underestimate an expertly flown Zero or an expertly driven Miata.
Nakajima Ki-43 Hyabusa
At the start of the war, Japanese planes were designed to out-turn their opponents, and nothing turned better than the nimble Ki-43. It was lightly armed with just a pair of classic cowl-mounted machine guns, but it was still lethal. It is thought that Bong, the highest scoring US ace was shot down in a one-to-one duel by a Ki-43. How can something so simple be so good? One probably asks the same thing about the Honda Civic CRX. These terrors of the autocross track are also popular in budget racing. The various models of Civic are the later model Ki-43 II.
Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate
One of the best all around Japanese planes was the ‘Frank’. This looked like the Ki-43’s big brother. It’s powerful engine and armament made it the equal of any Allied planes. The natural car mate is the Acura Integra (also Nissan Sentra and other FWD 4-seaters).
Kawasaki Ki-45 Toryu
The success of the Me110 in the early European theatre inspired the Japanese Army to build their own twin-engined two-seat fighter. And like the 110, the Toryu was not very good in the fighter role, but more suited to bomber interception. It’s slow, not very powerful, but sort of useful. When you throw your spares in the back of a Subaru wagon, you’re getting a similar experience.
Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki
The Shoki (Devil) was designed to be a fast and stable gun platform. It was a fine plane but slightly undergunned. It wasn’t made in large numbers, and therefore had little impact on the war. Sounds a bit like the Isuzu Impulse.
The Ki-61 is unusual among Japanese planes because it used an inline inverted vee rather than a radial engine. This caused some Allied pilots to confuse it with the German 109 (the Ki-61 used a licensed copy of the same engine). It was an excellent all around fighter and mainstay of the Japanese Army. The German-inspired engine pairs this with the Mazda RX-7.
Late in the war, the Ki-61 was given a more typical Japanese radial engine and rebranded the Ki-100. Although it looked unassuming, the post-war analysis showed that it was as good or better than anything the Allies had. Toyota Celica/Supra all the way.
The J2M Raiden was light and fast, but plagued by engine problems. Although it was not made in large numbers its high rate of climb and heavy cannons made it especially capable of intercepting bombers. If you’re driving an MR2, you know how easy it is to intercept big cars in the corners (and you also pray the engine doesn’t break). Mk1 is J2M3, Mk2 is J2M5.
N1K1 Shiden / N1K2 Shiden Kai
Although originally developed as a float plane, the N1K1 and later N1K2 represented one of the best planes in the Japanese Navy. It was well armed and armored, and featured four 20 mm cannons. 280Z and earlier are the N1K1. 300ZX and later are N1K2.
Italy made a surprising number of fighter planes but not huge numbers of them. There are similarly a variety of Italian cars in crapcan racing, but again, not so many.
Fiat CR.42 Falco
The biplane Falco was Italy’s answer to the Gladiator (which didn’t require an answer) and was introduced even later in the war. The open cockpit meant you didn’t fly very high or fast. Still, it must have been glorious cruising around the Mediterranean in such a well-behaved (if slow) bird. One probably gets a similar feeling in a Fiat 124 Spider.
Fiat G.50 Freccia
The G.50 was unusual in that it was an open cockpit monoplane. Italians apparently loved convertible planes as well as cars. The G.50 was slow and had only two machine guns. It was very maneuverable, however, and Furio Lauri somehow managed to score 11 kills in it. The G.50 has a very distinctive look. With hair blowing in the breeze and a “Ciao Bella!” on the lips, your car mate is a Alfa Romeo Spider.
Macchi C.200 Saetta, C.202 Folgore, C.205 Veltro
The C.200 was the first in a line of great Macchi fighter planes that saw improvements in performance and armament as it evolved into the C.202 and C.205. The C.205 was a true late war fighter that was the equal of anything in the sky. This is matched most closely by the Alfa Romeo Alfetta, GTV, and GTV6.
Reggiane 2005 Saggitario
One of the last fighter planes to be built in Italy, the Saggitario was flown only at the end of the war, and not by the Italians, but by the Germans who had inherited the machines. Like other late war Axis planes, it featured half inch machine guns and 20 mm cannons. The last Alfa Romeo model, the Milano, fits here.
Fiat G.55 Centauro
This thoroughbred plane was fast, maneuverable, and heavily armed. Like the Veltro, Saggitario, and 109G, it used the DB605 inverted vee engine. It arrived too late in the war to make an impact, but it was well liked by the Italian pilots and respected by the Allies. The car equivalent is the Fiat X1/9.
France was overtaken early in the war, so it did not have an opportunity to develop many fighter aircraft. French cars are comparatively rare in crapcan racing too.
Curtis P-36 Hawk
The Hawk was built by the USA, but saw most of its service in France and Finland. If you didn’t know, Finland fought against Russia, meaning that the Hawk fought on both sides of the war. The Hawk was durable, maneuverable, but lightly armed. Despite being an early design, it was a capable fighter. The French recorded 230 kills to 29 losses, and the Fins had an even better ratio: 190 to 15. The French-American connection links the Hawk with the Renault Alliance.
The D.520 was France’s best plane. It was maneuverable, reasonably fast, and well armed with a 20 mm cannon firing through the propellor hub and small wing guns with a high rate of fire. Unfortunately, the D.520 was manufactured too late to be of much use by the French. However, Germany captured over 200 of them and they were used by its allies throughout the war. The remarkable longevity of the plane matches well with the Peugeot 504/505.
For an early war plane, the M.S.406 was reasonably well armed and armored, but its speed and climb were poor. It therefore did not perform well in the Battle of France. Slow and steady doesn’t win in armed combat, but it can sometimes work in crapcan racing. Renault Le Car.
Citroen and that’s all I’m saying.
Russia produced some of the greatest WWII planes, but it isn’t exactly famous for sports cars. On the other hand, Sweden is known for its cars, but not its WWII fighters. What the hell, this is my fantasy, so I can match them if I want to (at least the are geographically sort of close).
The LaGG-3 was one of the first modern fighters from Russia. Aside from its heavy firepower, it was not a good plane, lacking speed and maneuverability. Russian Ace Grigor’yev somehow recorded 15 (or more) victories in this death trap (Russian pilots often gave their kills to pilots who fell in battle so their families would be given money). It’s sort of a cool looking plane though, much in the same way that a Volvo P1800 is a cool car.
It looks aggressive and pretty cool with its long nose, but this early Russian fighter was not very good at anything except being a target. Saab Sonnet.
Yak-9 / Yak-3
The Yak-9 was the most highly produced Russian fighter. It was fast, maneuverable, and had great visibility from its bubble canopy. Its only weakness was slightly light armament, but both the single machine gun and cannon both fired through the propeller arc, making aiming easier. This Russian workhorse has great affinity with the Volvo 240. Turbo models are the Yak-3, which was as fine a plane as any in WWII.
Lavochkin La-5 / La-7
Unlike it’s horrible predecessor the LaGG-3, the La-5 was fast and maneuverable. It also sported two cowl-mounted cannons, giving it lethality and accuracy. It was the equal of its opponents in the mid-war, especially at medium altitudes. Later, it grew into the La-7 with more speed and more firepower. Saab 900 is La-5 and 9000 is La-7