Automotive history

Big Men, Small Cars: The Vehicles of the World’s Strongest Man Competition

by Erin Brookins
17 June 2024 4 min read
Big Men, Small Cars: The Vehicles of the World’s Strongest Man Competition
Johan Els of South Africa participates in a car deadlift competition of the 2018 Worlds Strongest Man in Manila on May 5, 2018. (Photo: Getty Images/Noel Celis)

Man versus machine.The epic conflict is top of mind for many of us these days. Though AI’s inevitable takeover may have us humans feeling defeated, it’s comforting to consider that this battle has been raging for decades – and that we have a secret weapon up our sleeves.

Enter the World’s Strongest Man competition. For nearly 50 years, this series of spectacular events has been the recognised gold standard for finding, well, the world’s top strongman. When it comes to machines, these men mercilessly bend them, lift them, and throw them. As far as vehicular opponents go, these legendary titans have gone up against some equally legendary classics over the years:

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Car Lift

This event has a storied history in the strongman universe dating all the way back to the inaugural 1977 World’s Strongest Man competition, held at Universal Studios in California. Competitors had to wrap their bare hands under a car’s rear bumper and successfully complete a full deadlift of the vehicle, with nothing but a pair of basic Adidas sneakers and possibly a weightlifting belt to support them.

Among the cars was a 1977 Datsun B210 hatchback, though this proved too easy for the skilled giants (including Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk), and they inevitably had to add more weight.

Lou Ferrigno about to rip the bumper off a Datsun B210
Lou Ferrigno about to rip the bumper off a Datsun B210. (Photo: World’s Strongest Man/Universal Studios)

The following year, the competition was again held at Universal Studios, though the producers made a more concerted effort to embrace the spirit of their setting. Competitors lifted the late entertainer Jack Benny’s 1916 Maxwell Model 25 tourer, a Ford Model A coupe used in The Sting, and Columbo’s 1959 Peugeot 403 cabriolet (which the owner was looking to sell in 2022 for a mid-six-figure price), though this time with a slightly more ergonomic metal bar attached to the back end.

Bruce Wilhelm lifting Columbo’s 2340-pound Peugeot 403
Bruce Wilhelm lifting Columbo’s 2340-pound Peugeot 403. (Photo: World’s Strongest Man/Universal Studios)

Though the World’s Strongest Man seemed to take a break from the Car Lift in the 1980s in favour of other car-related challenges, the event made its triumphant return in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Highlights included a squat-off featuring a 70-series Toyota Land Cruiser in 2001, a classic deadlift of a Chrysler PT Cruiser in 2007, and, at the 2018 contest in Manilla, Hafþór Björnsson (“The Mountain” of Game of Thrones fame) took on the Filipino “King of the Road,” the Sarao Motors Jeepney. For those unfamiliar with Sarao, at one point the Jeepney outnumbered vehicles from other brands on the roads of Manilla by almost 7 to 1. It’s good to be the king.

Hafþór Björnsson lifting the Jeepney
Hafþór Björnsson lifting the Jeepney. He won the event with 12 reps. (Photo: YouTube/World’s Strongest Man)

Car Rolling

This next event gives the strongmen a chance to unleash their appetite for destruction (though sadly not in time for Mr. Ferrigno to show off his Hulk pedigree). While the rules of Car Rolling, occasionally referred to as the more benign “Car Turnover,” vary – sometimes it’s flipping one car a full 360 degrees, other times it’s flipping multiple cars 90 or 180 degrees – the discipline is always an entertaining bout of sanctioned rampaging.

What poor cars bore the brunt of this madness?

To start, French ones. At a lovely park in Nice in 1986, the strongmen had to berserk their way through a sequence consisting of a Renault 5, a Renault 3, and a Citroën 2CV. Considering the 2CV’s reputation as the great un-flippable wonder, it’s fair to say it made a worthy foe. This wouldn’t be the last time the pride of France gave the strongmen a good fight, either.

Nice 90s strongman car flipping competition
(Photo: YouTube/Gerlof Holkema)

By 1989, Jón Páll Sigmarsson (a.k.a. “The Viking,” and one of the sport’s most magnetic showmen) had developed a new technique to clear the course: grabbing the tyres. This time, the foes were a Fiat 127, a Renault 5, and finally a Renault 4.

Jón Páll Sigmarsson flipping a Renault 4
The great Jón Páll Sigmarsson flipping a Renault 4. (Photo: YouTube/Gerlof Holkema)

Moving forward all the way to 1996, the event consisted of just one Austin 1800 Mk III that had to be rolled a full 360 degrees. The winner, Gerrit Badenhorst of South Africa, managed to accomplish this feat and run to the finish line in just under 12 seconds.

Car Walk

Possibly one of the most adorable – and challenging – of all strongmen events, the Car Walk brings to life Fred Flintstone’s prehistoric means of transportation. In preparation for this event, a car is hollowed out to varying degrees, has its roof removed, and is fitted with enormous shoulder straps. The strongmen must then climb inside, lift the weight of the car onto their massive shoulders, and take their turns yabba-dabba-doo-ing down a course of varying lengths.

The first Car Walk, in 1993, featured all-time Icelandic great Magnús ver Magnússon hauling the strongman nemesis Citroën 2CV (engine still inside) almost 25 metres.

TONKA car walk
(Photo: YouTube/Gerlof Holkema)

The following year upped the ante, employing two 2CVs in a heated walk-off. The strongmen had to not only make it down the track, but now had to avoid any disastrous fender-benders with their meet-mate while doing so.

Nice 90s strongman car walk competition
(Photo: YouTube/Gerlof Holkema)

It should also be noted that this is the same year competitors also had to survive the so-called “Sampson’s Barrow,” a version of a wheelbarrow race in which the wheelbarrow was a Mitsubishi L300 flatbed truck with two kegs and a full-grown man as cargo.

wheelbarrow was a Mitsubishi L300 flatbed truck with two kegs and a full-grown man as cargo
(Photo: YouTube/Gerlof Holkema)

Unfortunately, for most of the remaining years when audiences were treated to the Car Walk, the models used were merely referred to as anonymous “saloons.” One announcer in 2006 went so far as to comment about the Citroën AX being hauled around that year: “Now, the only redeeming feature as far as I can tell with this car is the outstanding head room.” Ouch. 

Honourable Mentions

Beyond those impressive feats of strength, other automotive highlights of the World’s Strongest Man have included the time they made the strongmen push a Hummer H1 roughly 20 metres, the time competitors had to hold up a BMW E46 sedan for as long as humanly possible, and even some less-official Strongman content, where 2017 British champion and real-life Gears of War character Eddie Hall squeezed himself into a tiny Peel P50 replica and attempted to drive into a McDonald’s. Here’s to hoping that last one makes it to the main stage.

Eddie Hall squeezed into a Peel
I don’t think the Peel was built with 164kg Eddie Hall in mind. (Photo: YouTube/Eddie Hall)

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