- 10 Min Read
- By: Christian Schaefer
5 Of The Most Notable European Tuning House Conversions
Companies like Scaglietti, Giugiaro, Pininfarina, Baur, and Reutter, became household names by building and designing some fantastic machinery. Smaller tuning houses generally don't have that ability, but more than a few have been able to buck the trend and modify a model so significantly that it dons a new name. Some removed the roof, while others added extra roofing, occasionally with additional wheels, too. Their peak popularity in the eighties was something we likely won't ever see again, but the conversions will live on in the automotive space as wild reminders of what once was. While we can’t bring you all of those hand-made conversions, here are some of the most interesting.
DP Motorsport 944 Cargo
DP Motorsport began its exploits in the early seventies, making Formula-V cars. A decade later, founder Ekkehard Zimmerman had built himself a following in the Porsche world thanks to his success racing 911s and his production of 935-style body panels for 911 street variants. Yet, the arguably the coolest classic DP Motorsports project has nothing to do with Porsche’s revered Supercar killer. Instead, it featured a lowly entry-level model.
The Porsche 924 and 944 were sensible approaches to the everyday sports car. Designed initially for Volkswagen before being adopted by Porsche, the Swabian company fitted the budget models with a myriad of inline-four cylinders over the years that provided grunt and good gas mileage. A wedge-inspired hatchback design provided a sizeable trunk and a near 50/50 weight distribution for a killer ability to haul both things and light amounts of ass. It was a practical Porsche, but DP Motorsports had grander ideas for more storage.
The goal was to transform the 944 from a hatchback to a wagon without building the roof from scratch. Research of potential solutions ended with the 2nd generation Passat wagon as the lucky doner, thanks to similar sizing. DP chopped off everything above the lower window line behind the B-pillar on the 944 and the Passat, preserving the latter’s tailgate. Merging the tailgate was another challenge, but the finished product looked factory.
The 944’s hatch was all glass and opened strictly above the taillights. Leaving the taillights and license plate panel in place meant sacrificing a significant amount of functionality. Luckily the similarities between the 944 and Passat taillights meant that many significant modifications weren’t necessary. Inside the newly formed trunk, custom interior panels and rear side windows were made to fit seamlessly with the factory upholstery. That meant, in the end, the converted 944s, later named the DP Motorsports Cargo, looked as if they came directly from the minds and engineers in Stuttgart.
Production numbers are a little fuzzy, but around ten have hit the road. Allegedly, there are enough parts for another ten cars in storage—or at least there was about a decade ago. In theory, you can still call the German tuner and order the kit to have the shooting brake Porsche of your dreams, as long as it’s built upon a 924 or 944. Of the cars made, only one was built on the 924 chassis. The rest featured the wider and more powerful 944 platform, including at least one turbo model.
These days, the DP Motorsports Cargo gets very little recognition, but that’s likely because of their rarity. The 924/944 aren’t the most popular Porsches by any stretch of the imagination either, and the low production volume and lack of coverage all but resigned the shooting brake to the minds of millennial enthusiasts. With all the recent love for the rapidly disappearing wagon, the Cargo deserves some love for its quirkiness.
The shooting brake is a classic body construction most closely associated with England. Their origins and use as horse-drawn carriages designed for hunting evaporated quickly with the advent of the internal combustion engine, so coachbuilders took their expertise into the exploding automobile market. The second world war hampered a decade or so of shooting brake popularity, and after it, automotive manufacturers were too focused on providing for the people to engineer a new hunting wagon. Luckily, the body style never left the minds of enthusiasts, and it became up to them to continue its legacy.
Arden, a German-based tuner with a love for all things British, began churning out tweaked and tuned Jaguars starting in 1982. Their takes on Britain’s sportiest were focused on complete packages for the XJ series III; new interiors, exterior panels, wheels, suspension, and engine components were all a part of their AJ series. However, the most extreme models featured body modification. After creating the first convertible Jag since the original E-Type, Arden went the other way with the AJ3.
Starting with a 1984 XJS model, the long coupe was already perfectly suited to the job. Arden removed the roof beyond the rear seats and pushed the C-pillar to the rear of the body. New C-pillars were fashioned at a more extreme angle, but they fit perfectly with the overall styling. A large rear window sits in the tailgate at the very rear, which retains part of the original trunk. It’s a long car, but the AJ3-specific side windows emphasize just how well the XJS works proportionately as a wagon. Overall, the AJ3 is stunning due partly to the XJS’s natural shape but also to the Arden-designed exterior modifications.
Shared with the AJ2 and other XJS-based models, the front bumper valence, side skirts, and rear spats are sporty without major aggression yet functional thanks to wind tunnel testing during design. A striking blend of sporting purpose and European sophistication, the revised styling only adds to the overall package. Wheel options weren’t specific to the AJ3, and most wear Arden’s three-piece, five-spoke wheels. Painted spokes and a deep, polished lip are always a good recipe, and they’re right at home on this German Jag.
The rest of the car shares the attention to detail. Each example sported Connolly Leather and suede upholstery over the front Recaro seats and custom trunk panels. Mechanical improvements included a sports exhaust, specialized lowering springs, and ABS. Buyers could even spec a 5-speed manual. As you can imagine, this conversion was expensive even without the cost of the donor XJS, so not many were made. However, the shooting-brake XJS was also available as the Eventer from Lynx Motors. While not as modified as the Arden, they’re still a fantastic representation of the long-roof Jag.
Baur BMW TC1
Between the sixties and seventies, there was a small revolution in automotive safety. Fears of poor rollover protection stoked by Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe At Any Speed” a federal discussion on the safety of new convertible models for the American market. Porsche was the first to work around the potential open-top demise with their Targa models, but others had similar ideas. Baur Karosserie, a German Coachbuilder, was already under contract with BMW to produce a convertible 2002. Their creation was very similar to the Porsche Targa and spawned what would become Baur’s signature work.
For the 2002’s successor, the E21 3-series, BMW offered Baur-modified examples as an aftermarket option available through dealerships. Simply put, BMW wanted no part in designing a convertible but allowed buyers to have their cars transported to Baur in Stuttgart for a conversion backed up by a warranty. Like the 2002, the converted E21s were a success for Baur and BMW. Over four years of production between ‘77 and ‘81, Baur crafted nearly 4600 examples of their pseudo-convertible for customers worldwide.
Fears of convertible bans were strong enough to send automotive designers back to the drawing board to incorporate a roll-over structure that would save occupants but provide the open-top experience of a convertible. What Baur came back with was a two-piece system that used a removable panel above the forward occupants' heads and a fold-down rear roof section that opened up the car completely behind the B-pillar. When covering occupants, the removable roof sections seal against the window frame and the strengthened B-pillar. In its fully open configuration, the window frames remained in place.
With the unconventional roof setup, Baur was able to retain most of the chassis's sporty handling characteristics, too. The strengthened B-pillar was further reinforced with a crossing brace that acted as a roll hoop. The entire system worked well for everyone involved, and customers ate them up. The converted models were finished off with black fabric covering the B-pillar, roof sections, and the top of the windshield frame.
All E21s were built as an aftermarket option, and their conversions weren’t technically part of the BMW lineup anymore, so each example became a “TC1.” Porsche owned the rights to the “Targa” name, so Top Cabriolet became the designation of choice. Following the success of the TC1, Baur would go on to produce the TC2 based on the E30 and the TC4 based on an E36. However, the writing was on the wall for the coachbuilder. Secondary contracts assembling BMW’s M1 and Porsche’s 959 weren’t enough to keep the company afloat. Even after designing and building the E30’s convertible system used by BMW, Baur shuttered its doors in 2002.
Range Rover 6-Wheelers
In recent decades, the Range Rover has become synonymous with success. The ultra-luxury utility vehicle can be found all over the globe, parked outside of nightclubs and in executives' driveways. Even the aftermarket has had its hands all over the British all-rounder, fitting them with massive wheels, dark tints, and outlandish body kits. But it wasn’t always like that. In the days of the original Range Rover Classic, the big Brit was chopped, extended, and modified to fit many roles.
The original Range Rover became the ideal all-around vehicle that Rover designed it to be from the moment it reached the public. It was capable off-road, like the Land Rover, but carried a stylish appearance, comfortable ride, and some luxury-like upholstery to deliver a blend of comfort and convenience to farmers all over Britain. Within a few years, the new 4x4 was a go-to choice for many, including those with commercial purposes. The selection of V8s and turbo-diesel engines available for the Range Rover made it capable of hauling excess weight, while the sturdy chassis and proven 4WD system helped the Rover be as reliable as anything else on the road.
The only potential negative to the Range Rover was its relatively short wheelbase. Its use as an emergency service vehicle or transport was hindered, but the aftermarket was determined to fix that. To do so, technicians removed the body from the frame, lopped off the frame behind the rear wheels, and added another drive axle to form a six-wheel chassis. Depending on the application, the body was then stretched and filled with luxury appointments, or heavy equipment was fitted for commercial service. The majority of the six-wheelers went into emergency services, with Rovers converted to ambulances, fire engines, and others of the like.
Arguably the most connected name to the XL Range Rovers is Carmichael & Sons Ltd. Their first six-wheeled Rover came just a year after the Classic reached the public in 1971, and they’d go on to build around 400 examples in all sorts of configurations. Known as the Carmichael Commando, the utility versions had all sorts of variants, options, and accessories for whatever service the Rover was built for. The Commando was also available alongside the Highlander and Clansman, Carmichael's street-oriented luxury tank variants. Buyers could fit them, in the early seventies, with a chest refrigerator, an automatic alarm, air horns, and another pair of doors, ten years before Land Rover would debut their own four-door.
Of course, just about every other British coachbuilder had their hand in six-wheel conversions, too. Chameleon and Wood & Picket were responsible for filling the Range Rover with some outrageous modifications, including full-length sunroofs, TVs, and even a bar. They were designed to be the pinnacle of what money could buy, and they delivered. Other companies, including Glenfrome and Panther Westwinds, prepared their six-wheelers for hunting duty with weapon racks and a rear roof structure that transformed into a pseudo hunting blind. The versatility of the Classic couldn’t be overstated then, providing a suitable platform for all sorts of tasks.
Nowadays, no one chops up a Range Rover and adds another axle; they’re already gigantic and full of every luxury appointment one might need. Range Rover has evolved; with it, the flagship SUV has become less of a farmhouse fixture and more of a luxury cocoon. Whenever we did get to see a six-wheeler, it's a rare, fun, and unique look back at what the original meant to the British automotive industry and how it set in motion the evolution of the brand.
Not much of the European luxury car segment was left untouched by the aftermarket in the ‘80s, and Mercedes was arguably the most popular recipient. Their sedans and coupes were all class leaders, and the brand was deeply intertwined with pop culture of the day, so anyone who was someone had a Merc. Of course, merely owning a Mercedes wasn’t enough, though. Wanting to stand out further, you had a vast offering of tuners to choose from. Most focused on improving performance and styling by tacking on wings, flares, fins, and strakes. Others had more refined tastes, attempting to add class instead. Carrosserie Caruna, a Swiss firm, was one of those latter companies offering a product fit for royalty.
The biggest Mercedes available at the time was the W126 S-class. The flagship four-door was offered in two wheelbases, the standard SE trim, and the extended SEL. Both could be found carting executives and the elite around in every major city in the world. But what you likely wouldn’t see is that same SE or SEL rolling around without a roof. Mercedes didn’t make a convertible S-class at the time, but there were more than a few looking for one, so Caruna made it happen. Between 1984 and 1987, anyone could send their W126 over to the Swiss coachbuilder and have the fixed steel roof exchanged with a folding fabric top featuring a heated-glass rear window. Cars were subject to other modifications, too, with custom interiors and other luxury-type upgrades offered.
The Caruna conversions are set apart by the rear deck and door treatment. The roof on both wheelbases sits atop a small hump behind the seats. While smaller on the SEL, the hump helps house the top and prevents it from removing the W126’s clean lines. A chrome trim strip edged the top of the hump and carried down to a coke-bottle-like extension on the rear door’s upper edge. Barring those changes, though, the W126 by Caruna retains a near-factory stock appearance. Perhaps that’s what caught the eye of the Dutch.
In 1984, the Dutch government placed an order with Caruna for a convertible SEL built for Princess Juliana. Restored in 2009, her car wears its original two-tone color scheme of a rich blue over grey, with grey leather upholstery and a black top. Specialized stitching, trunk-mounted royal flag mounts, and a personalized plaque emphasize this example's uniqueness. The only other S-class variant, the SEC coupe, wasn’t without Caruna’s touch either. Dubbed the “Open Air,” it was given T-tops. Very little information exists on that car, with only a magazine paragraph in German detailing some of its features. That’s unfortunate; I think one would look perfect in AMG guise. Following the success of the W126 conversions, Caruna more or less fell off the tuning and coachbuilding map. It remained an official company until its 2010 disbanding.
Like all but the DP Cargo, a convertible W126 S-class was available from several aftermarket companies, including ABC-Exclusive, Straman, and Styling Garage, but few offered conversions for the SE and SEL. The Caruna conversions are your only real source of roofless, four-door, eighties opulence, as long as you’re lucky enough to find one. Several have found their way to the states, but you're far more likely to see something like an F40 before the Swiss-built Merc.
Altogether, you aren't likely to see any of these models, not just the Merc. Each is a seldom-seen product of a small industry that hardly exists today. For that reason alone, you have to enjoy or respect their existence. We're all passionate, and the coachbuilders took theirs just a bit further than anyone else to create unique cars that a select few could and wanted to enjoy. Of course, there were plenty more than these five. If you know of another wild creation built around a European machine, let us know in the comments below! As always, subscribe to our YouTube channel and keep up with the DIY blog for more great content.
Owner of a flat-six swapped 1998 Impreza 2.5RS and a 1973 Porsche 914. Horizontally opposed views, only.