“What is that thing? It looks kinda like a Ferrari that Mercedes built.” We heard variations of this over and over during the 24 Hours of Lemons’ Sears Pointless Confusingly Presented by Yokohama Tire at Sonoma Raceway. This is, in fact, Hella Shitty Racing’s Bitter SC. And “What is that?” is the one question that most often followed the small-production-run German luxury coupe during its heyday. And that question still rang true of the Bitter Lemon.
But what is it?
To give a little background: German race car driver Erich Bitter decided in the 1970s that most exotic cars were too impractical or too unreliable for regular use. So he set out to build a high-end car with common components. Bitter based his first car, the grand-touring Bitter CD (above), on an Opel platform with a Small-Block Chevy V8. Say, a Small-Block Chevy in a 1970s exotic car…
Anyway, Bitter designed the company’s second car on the Opel Senator, calling it the SC (Senator Coupe). Described by MotorWeek at the time as looking “like a four-place Ferrari with a big grin,” the SC was kind of a revelation for a 1980s luxury coupe. Sure, the standard 3.0-liter inline-six came from the plebeian Opel, but the car was reasonably well assembled (for an exotic car) with a fantastic interior and common parts availability…in Europe. It also came with four-wheel independent suspension and a limited-slip differential. An optional 210-horsepower, 3.9-liter version of the engine was available.
Of course, such fantastic performance and luxury in the mid 1980s cost a pretty penny. The base-model SC started at $47,000 and the bigger engine pushed it well over $50,000. Unlike its rivals from Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar, however, the Bitter’s “dealer” network was virtually non-existent. In other words: Once the Bitter resold from its wealthy first owner, its second owner in the U.S. was totally screwed for finding parts when it—like a normal Opel Senator—needed some minor replacement. Curiously, this exact scenario turned up in a 2018 episode of TV Sitcom The Goldbergs.
A Bitter Build
This same scenario likely is how the Bitter Lemon came to its own fate. Hella Shitty Racing’s Philipp von Weitershausen had become kind of an accidental Bitter SC collector when he came across this one that had been parked in Southern Illinois for more than a decade. He purchased the derelict car to add to one Bitter he’d bought from Bring a Trailer and another he’d found in Southern California. The story on the Illinois Bitter—number 243 of 461 Bitter SC Coupes built—was something of a mystery but no doubt followed the “subsequent owners’ lament” tale.
The parked Bitter had accrued substantial rust and rodent tenants. He shipped the car to Hella Shitty’s Bay Area shop and set to work repairing the myriad problems of a long-sitting car. It turns out that the Bosch fuel-injection setup used for American export was the same as that used in some contemporary BMW engines. Many other BMW parts interchanged, so the Bitter Lemon team swapped on easier-to-find BMW replacements and sold the original Bitter parts to the small cadre of Bitter enthusiasts.
Those enthusiasts were of the rare type who were excited for their rare car to turn up in Lemons. Despite the company’s beginnings, Bitters had never actually raced. Hella Shitty Racing, then, were about to run the first-ever Bitter race car. Theirs featured the base 3.0-liter Opel engine and a three-speed automatic transmission. While the engine was rev-happy—which Erich Bitter told the team (Yes, they’d conversed with the Bitter family) was the better racing mill—the team kept it under 4,500 RPM for its race debut.
The Bitter community, small as it may be, provided ample help. They offered a few parts to keep it together, while the team also modified some discarded BMW suspension pieces to fit. They also cut new holes in the strut towers to improve negative camber. Crucially for any old car that’s been sitting, they thoroughly cleaned out the fuel tank. Those tend to collect gunk that clogs everything the first time a car is run in earnest.
World Racing Debut
With the car’s testing largely parking-lot related, Hella Shitty Racing loaded up the Bitter Lemon. Sonoma Raceway—a rainy Sonoma Raceway—awaited. And despite the ringing questions of its nature, the Bitter SC offered very little drama all weekend. Even with BMW 7-Series power and weight measurements, the Bitter stuck in the bottom 15 quickest lap times.
Quick, it was not. However, it ran nearly all weekend without any major issues. The two biggest problems they had were (1) water splashing up through rust holes in the floor and (2) engine-management computer issues late in the race, probably related to (1). However, the wonky computer didn’t park the Bitter. Rather, it instead sliced off a good chunk of the 170(ish) horsepower.
In the end, another Opel—Black Iron Racing’s Kadett—edged out the Bitter SC for Lemons’ top prize, the Index of Effluency. However, the Bitter Lemon made good on its race car roots with the Organizer’s Choice trophy. That award falls into the upper echelons of Lemons achievement. Well done, Hella Shitty Racing!
We look forward to seeing the Bitter Lemon back at the race track. Hopefully, the team will give it a few more revs next time out. You can see more awesome Lemons cars at our next races:
- NOLA Motorsports Park (March 30-31 in New Orleans, LA)
- Autobahn Country Club (April 6-7 in Joliet, IL)
- Pittsburgh International Race Complex (April 13-14 in Wampum, PA)
Check out the full 24 Hours of Lemons schedule here.