Certain models seem to prompt Internet Car Experts to froth at the mouth over how either (A) that car will utterly dominate 24 Hours of Lemons or (B) how their existence in Lemons is a tragedy unto itself. The Merkur XR4Ti remains one of these great examples and as Midwestern team Placebo Racing found out, Internet Car Experts’ opinions and reality seldom line up.
Quick history lesson: European Roadkill readers may recognize Merkur (pronounced “MARE-Coor,” by the way) as a slightly modified Ford Sierra XR4i. In the 1980s, Ford wanted a new badge to compete with the burgeoning sales of European sport sedans. So they rebadged a couple of European Ford Sierras as the XR4Ti coupe and the Scorpio sport sedan.
When Placebo began racing Lemons, the team—mostly a family from Chicago’s far Northwest Suburbs—showed up with their XR4Ti sporting the only engine options offered in the car: the turbocharged 2.3-liter Ford “Lima” four-cylinder engine. This was the same engine used in the Ford Mustang SVO and Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, although the Merkur originally lacked the intercooler (which this team had later added…above the engine). All in all, it made 14 pounds of boost that translated to 175 horsepower. In 24 Hours of Lemons measurements, that’s a reasonable amount.
OK, enough history lesson. At their first race at Gingerman Raceway in 2013, Placebo Racing—then called Wreckto Gizmo—had no idea what they were getting into. They’d scored the car for cheap without knowing a ton about them. And they looked nervous when Lemons judges asked if they had a spare engine.
Predictably, things did not go well and the Pepto Bismol-parody theme seemed appropriate. If it wasn’t overheating, then the turbo setup caused problems. While a new 175-horsepower engine seems like a good idea, a turbocharged engine from the ‘80s with 200,000 miles and decades of neglect? That’s where this whole equation breaks down.
Wreckto Gizmo recognized this after the car’s second race and like so many Merkur teams, they threw away the turbo-four setup for the third race. In its place went a Ford 5.0-liter V8. At that engine’s Road America debut in 2013, however, the transmission ate itself.
What followed was a mere 2-½ years of fixing everything else on the car and a retheme from Wreckto Gizmo into Placebo Racing, since a Merkur looks vaguely pill-shaped. Through it all, the team was usually found in the paddock smiling while they replaced cooked wheel bearings or waited for the tow truck to return with a wayward wheel.
Once they had a car capable of staying on the track, the team all started to improve their driving into decently respectable shape. In 2016, Placebo Racing showed their hands as a competitive team. At Gingerman in 2016, they finished second place in Class B and ninth overall. The mighty sword-bearer of Internet Car Guys was beaten soundly by a stock Volkswagen Jetta with a 110-horsepower 2.0-liter “ABA” engine.
Still, the Placebo Merkur persisted and has been in the Class B hunt. Why Class B for a performance car with a 5.0-liter Ford V8? Because Lemons seldom are the sum of their parts. To date, they’ve been foiled twice by wheels falling off while leading Class B. They’ll be back at Gingerman Raceway next weekend. We don’t like to pick favorites, but we might be rooting for them a little bit.
Want to learn more about hella sweet 24 Hours of Lemons cars? You can find Lemons content for days on Roadkill right here. And be sure to check out the 2018 schedule so you can plan a race to attend in person or as a racer.