By Joseph Moss – International Banker
Duesenberg started it all back in 1936, and now the supercar has evolved so much that it has spawned an even wilder type of a car: the hypercar.
The term supercar wasn’t really in widespread use until the mid-1980s. And then, according to that cool Google tool Google Books Ngram Viewer, use of the word supercar spiked hard. Why? The answer comes from Germany and Italy. In 1986 Porsche released the 959, and in 1987 Ferrari gave us the F40—arguably the first supercars we actually called supercars. But the story about the supercar evolution is much more profound than that.
First, let’s try and establish what is a supercar! There is no official definition of the word, but we may say that the supercar is a racecar-inspired street machine with a dramatically more powerful engine compared to the sports car, and with enough luxurious features to make driving on the road possible. In essence, you won’t smash your kidneys and get disc herniation if you go for an exciting ride in the mountains, aiming to be the fastest thing that ever crossed the path.
If we administer this definition to cars produced prior to the 959 and the F40, some unique results emerge. We can go as far back as the 1930s to find our first supercar: the 400-horse-power Duesenberg SSJ from 1935. It was, more or less, the swan song for the company at that point, but it was also twice as powerful and twice as fast as any other car on the streets. With only two produced, the Duesenberg SSJ Speedster introduced us to the unknown possibilities of the car engine. With the supercharger, it was the first production car to go that far in the exotic direction. A sub-eight-second, 60-miles-per-hour run certainly gave it supercar cred. The supercharger system was actually used earlier on the racing Duesenberg cars, and it was only a reworked version of the one from the race cars.
One car was owned by Gary Cooper, and the other was loaned to Clark Gable. Stories exist that they used to race them over Hollywood Boulevard. One cannot go more supercar than that.
At least not until after World War II.
And then, in 1954, the next big thing happened: the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. Possibly the best-known Mercedes-Benz, the one that put the company back on the throne and showed the world where the car industry was headed. Glorious is the only word that describes its looks. Especially with opening gull-wing doors. As Duesenberg showed the possibilities of superchargers and extreme power in road cars, the 300SL demonstrated the advantages of lightweight construction, fuel injection (first production car with the system) and aerodynamic shape. With 215 horse power from its directly fuel-injected three-liter engine, the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing was the next step in supercar evolution. It was the fastest car of the time, with a top speed of 161 miles per hour. Fast even by today’s standards.
As the first true post-war supercar, the 300SL Gullwing marked the revitalization of the whole segment. The Jaguar E-type followed, the Ferrari GTO dominated for some time, but then in 1966…the Lamborghini Miura.
Arguably, the best-looking car of all time, the Miura introduced us to a mid-engine layout with a V12. It was fast; it basically introduced us to the form and shape that would define supercars up to this day, and it did create an ethos for a brand. See, while branding was important, Lamborghini, which had started as a company only three years prior, showcased how much companies have to invest into maintaining their brand. Lambo became a household name in a year, with the rich and famous choosing it before even the Ferrari.
This is probably the only instance in the car world that the supercar emerged without having any ties with racing. And it did pave the way for the next big thing: again, a Lamborghini. In 1974, when the whole world was in awe of the oil crisis, Lamborghini unveiled the Countach, the next-gen supercar. Its name is a peculiar one in the auto industry: “The expression is from a local Piemontese dialect that seems difficult to translate without offending someone. It is the sort of thing a northern Italian male might say to express appreciation of a particularly attractive female.”
And the Countach became the wallpaper for generations to come. It was extreme in every sense. And, most importantly, it marked the next big evolution—the adding of really wide wheels and wings in order to achieve better traction and stability. It was a gorgeous piece of supercar that was produced from 1974 until 1990, with power ranging from 350 to 455 horse power.
And then, the big ones: the Porsche 959 and the Ferrari F40. Both emerged from the rich racing and sports-car histories that the companies had cherished for years. The 959 and the F40 employed turbocharged engines, but were not direct counterparts. While Porsche employed the all-wheel-drive system to its machine, the Ferrari F40 went extremely lightweight, had a massive rear wing and rear-wheel drive. These two marked a real evolution over anything seen before. After all, with them carbon-fiber construction became a “thing”. And it has continued to this day. We may even say that the turbocharging frenzy of the 1980s concluded with the fabulous Bugatti EB 110 SS, with its engine developing 612 horse power.
But we cannot just jump into the latest supercar train with the Ferrari 488 GTB, McLaren and even Audi. The 1990s, despite the quite shy supercar development, brought us the McLaren F1—possibly the most “supercar” car of all cars. Developed by real petrolheads Gordon Murray and Ron Dennis, the McLaren F1 took the idea of the lightweight, high-powered machine to the extremes. In numbers, it looks like this:
The BMW V12 with 618 horse power can accelerate 2,509 pounds of car to 60 miles per hour in 3.2 seconds. The top end has been measured many times, but we cannot really put it all to rest, as some claim that the car can do 240.1 miles per hour. It probably can, taking into account its fantastically low weight, really aerodynamic body and BMW engine sitting under a gold-plated engine cover. As far as supercars go, the three-seat McLaren F1 may well be the blueprint for it all.
And now we reach the modern world, in which supercars are not at the top end of the food chain. Hypercars took that place with the mesmerizing Koenigseggs, Bugattis (Veyron and Chiron) and the trio that emerged as a spiritual successor to the 959, the F40 and the F1: the Porsche 918 Spyder, the Ferrari LaFerrari and the McLaren P1. We do live in a golden age of supercars. The age in which the supercar is in second place amongst the most outrageous machines out there.