12 Unbelievable Car Stories

Simon Heptinstall 2 March 2022

From losing 30 inch fingernails in a car crash to someone veering into a river moments after passing a driving test, here are the craziest car stories around 

The more nerdy car-spotters among you may be dismayed to know that the most interesting thing about a car is not its horsepower nor the cubic capacity of its boot. 

It’s not the top speed either. Nor is it the price or the colour. 

After years of professionally writing about cars I’ve discovered that the most interesting thing about cars is none of those dry specifications. It’s their drivers.

For example, while enthusiasts drooled about the Ultimate Aero supercar setting a new world production car speed record of 256mph (412kph) in 2006—I was more excited that the driver was an unheard of 71-year-old pensioner roped in as a test pilot.

And when motoring historians carefully record the date of the world’s first parking meter in Oklahoma in 1935, I’d rather hear about the first driver arrested for non-payment shortly after it was installed… it was the local pastor, Rev C H North.

The most fascinating fact about BMW? Nothing to do with "the ultimate driving machines." For me it’s that around 53,000 British people google what BMW stands for every year (It’s Bayerische Motoren Werke). 

So in between writing the usual roadtests, new car reports and mechanical specifications for publications like Autocar and Top Gear, I’ve privately collected a massive archive of weird and wonderful human stories lurking behind the cars. 

I’ve started writing this treasure trove of extraordinary automotive anecdotes into books (see end of article) but the collection grows faster than I can churn them out.  Am I the only one to think the motorists make better stories than their motors? Here’s a chance to make your own mind up—with 12 favourite stories from my collection:

1) In 1896 the great inventive engineer Henry Ford finished building his first car, called The Quadricycle, in a small shed behind his Detroit house. He was to become one of the world’s most successful businessmen—but this time he had badly miscalculated.

The completed Quadricycle wouldn’t fit out through the workshop door. He’d built it bigger than the width of the door. Henry had to resort to using an axe and brute force to chop out the workshop’s doorframe and knock out the bricks around the door to make the opening wider. Then at last he could get his pioneering creation out for its first ever drive.

2) Millionaire rock star Noel Gallagher forgot he’d bought a pristine classic car for £110,000. The former Oasis guitarist was puzzled when a beautifully restored 1967 Jaguar Mark II arrived at his house on a delivery truck. It turned out he had ordered it spontaneously two years previously.

Since then a specialist company had been painstakingly restoring it for him. At the time he ordered it he had hoped to learn to drive—but never got round it. He forgot the whole thing. So he has never driven the classic car he forgot he bought… and it still sits unused in his garage.

3) Bowler-hatted businessman and inventor Elwood Haynes astonished one of his earliest customers by delivering a pioneering horseless carriage personally in 1898. Elwood drove the spartan open-topped car all the way from his Indiana workshop to the wealthy doctor’s home in New York City.

It was the first 1,000-mile car journey ever completed in the United States… and it took over a month (the car he delivered became known as "The Pioneer". It was later donated to the Smithsonian museum and appeared on a US postage stamp in 1995).

4) German racing driver Ernst Loof holds a Formula One record that is unlikely to be ever broken. He had a career as a successful car and bike designer. His racing career was less triumphant however. Loof competed in just one F1 race: the 1953 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring.

Loof lined up on the grid with all the other contestants in a Veritas racing car that he had helped to design. When the race started all the cars pulled away but Loof’s car immediately suffered a fuel pump failure. The car stopped after just six feet (two meters) scoring no points at all… giving Loof the world’s shortest-and-least-successful-ever F1 career.

5) According to the Guinness Book of Records the world’s hairiest car is a Fiat 500 owned by Maria Mugno of Salerno in Italy. The Italian hairdresser has spent hundreds of hours importing bags of human hair from India, because she claims the hair is stronger from the sub-continent than Europe.

She then glues and stitches the locks onto every surface of the car, inside and out, including the steering wheel, dashboard and doors. Her furry Fiat is still road-legal however and is a familiar sight as she drives it around Salerno.

6) In the inaugural Indy 500 race of 1911, all but one of the 40 entrants carried a driver plus an observer, whose job was to warn the driver about other cars coming up behind. It was the normal arrangement in races of that era.

But in the 40th car was Ray Harroun, who took the outrageously risky decision to drive alone. Harroun drove a bright yellow car he had built himself and experimented with an eight-by-three-inch mirror on a stand fixed to his dashboard instead of an observer. It is believed to be the first use of a rear-view mirror. Being one person lighter and more aerodynamic, Harroun’s car easily won the race by more than half a mile.

Ray Harroun

7) In 2020 Nigel Wright was fined £100 for stopping (for 35 seconds) outside East Midlands airport car park while he put a token in the machine and waited for the barrier to rise to let him in. Officials claimed that the 34-year-old English teacher was in a "no stopping zone." 

East Midlands Airport

8) The driver of a Citroen Saxo who smashed into a parked car at full speed… while trying to catch a spider running around inside his car. Both cars were written off but the driver escaped injury in the smash on the A50 in Derbyshire. He did get reported for driving without due care and attention. The spider’s fate is unknown.

9) At the end of an epic 100-mile two-car racing duel at Brooklands in 1924, swashbuckling gentleman racer Captain John Duff had not only lost the race—but his brakes failed. His Blitzen Benz—with an enormous 21-litre engine—crossed the finish line at over 100mph with Duff desperately trying everything he could to slow down. He managed to continue steering at full speed but careered right off the circuit. The Benz hurtled over the surrounding grass embankments.

Captain Duff (in drivers seat)

Duff crashed through trees trying to slow his momentum. He then burst out in the open road beyond the circuit. Eventually he stopped—by running into telegraph pole far from the racetrack. Duff was unhurt… and later went on to become a Hollywood stunt double for Gary Cooper.

10) Unlucky van driver Ben Baron from Lancashire slowly drove past the speed camera where he had been previously snapped over the limit. That incident had resulted in a fixed penalty fine. Ben was determined he wasn’t going to get caught again and he carefully kept under the speed limit.

As he passed the camera, however, he couldn’t stop himself making a rude gesture at the hated device… with both hands. Unfortunately for Ben, this hands-off-the-wheel gesture was caught on film by the same camera. Within days he received another prosecution by post, this time for “failing to keep proper control of his van”.

11) A young Chinese driver accidentally drove onto a narrow pier and swerved off the side into an icy river less than two minutes after passing his driving test. The incident was caught on camera and the video (perhaps unfortunately for the driver) was posted on YouTube.

The driver was saved but suffered a dislocated shoulder. The car was fished out by crane. Later the young "Mr Zhang" from Guizhou province told police he was distracted by texts from friends asking whether he’d passed.

12) Lee Redmond of Salt Lake City, Utah, USA held the Guinness World Record for the longest fingernails. Over 30 years they grew to a curly 30 inches (76cm) long. Sadly in 2009 she had a minor traffic accident, fell out of her car… and all the nails broke off.

Simon Heptinstall’s latest collection, The BIG Book of Car Trivia is available from all major book retailers now

Read more: 7 Documentaries to watch in 2022

Read more: 9 Best animated films for adults

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter