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Supercar History - The Birth of the Supercar


Mercedes 300SL GullwingSports cars started to appear in the late 40's with the introduction of 'sporting' road cars from now famous marques such as Ferrari, Jaguar, Lotus and Porsche. In those days, the ethos of the sports car was a car designed not only for the road but for motorsport  competition aswell.

Through the 50's and early 60's sports car performance progressed. 1954 saw the arrival of one of the all time classics the Mercedes 300SL 'Gull Wing'. It's fuel injected  3 litre produced over 240bhp giving a claimed top speed of 165mph. Also, as far back as 1957, the Chevrolet Corvette was capable of hitting 60mph in under 6 seconds, while the Z102 from little known manufacturer Pegaso was rumoured to be good for 160mph!

Jaguar E-typeAs the 60's dawned Aston Martin and Ferrari both offered 150mph plus vehicles in the shape of the DB4GT Zagato and 400 Superamerica models respectively, but it was Jaguar that stunned the world with the introduction in 1961 of the legendary E-type. Ferrari then created a limited number of what is now the world's most valuable classic,Ferrari 250GTO the timeless 160mph 250 GTO. Lamborghini entered the fray in 1964 with the 350GT, joined by Iso with the Grifo and TVR with the original Griffith. But it was to be Ford who would change the face of sports cars with what many people believe to be the first supercar, the GT40.

Ford GT40Ford wanted racing success and to that end tried to buy Ferrari in the early 60's. Ferrari said no! Ford didn't take kindly to this and so vowed to out-do Ferrari with their own racing car, so in 1965 the GT40 was born. To meet regulations Ford had to make a number of 'road legal' versions of the GT40, hence its inclusion here as the first supercar for the road. In the late 60's Ford went on to make seven Mark III GT40's - 'softened' for road use (with a mere 310bhp!).

AC Cobra 4271965 saw another candidate for the title world's first supercar, the brutal AC Cobra 427. American racer Caroll Shelby decided to shoe-horn a 427 cu in (hence the name) Ford V8 into a lightweight British sports car, the AC Ace. The result was a car of astounding performance -  160mph, 0-60mph in 4.2 sec and 0-100mph in 10 (record acceleration figures that would stand for over 20 years).

1966 was an eventful year with the introduction of the 165mph Ferrari 275GTB, the 7 litre Corvette Sting Ray and the first 4-wheel drive road car, the Jensen FF. However, overshadowing all these was, in my opinion, the first  true supercar for the road, the Lamborghini Miura gorgeous Lamborghini Miura. The Miura was the first production car to feature  a mid-mounted engine and so its appearance was radically different to any road car that had come before. Performance from the V12 was equally radical, over 170mph was possible for those brave enough to try it!

Just a few months after the launch of the Miura, Maserati introduced the Ghibli. More  Gran Turismo that supercar, the Ghibli offered 160mph performance but coupled with a luxurious environment (it even had air con, rare at the time). This same year saw another Giugiaro styled Italian supercar, the De Tomaso Mangusta along with the Swiss made Monteverdi 375.

Ferrari Daytona1968 saw the birth of a legend. Lamborghini had moved the goalposts with the Miura so Ferrari hit back with their first entry into the supercar league, the 365 GTB 'Daytona'. Although it still used the 'old-style' front engine layout, with 175mph and 60mph in 5.5 sec the Daytona was a performance match for its Modena rival.

Four years after the Mangusta, De Tomaso launched what was to be their biggest selling car by far, the Pantera. A purposeful Italian body housed the ubiquitous Ford V8. The Pantera typified the 'wedge' style that was to become the trademark look of the supercar throughout the 70's, bought to the fore by leading Porsche 911 2.7RSstylists such as Bertone's Gandini and Ital Design's Giugiaro and echoed in the Maserati Bora of 1971. Porsche proved to be the exception to this rule with their much sought after lightweight 911 2.7 RS of 1972.

In the early 70's the supercar was sent reeling by the oil crisis. With petrol prices quadrupling, gas guzzling performance cars were suddenly not an attractive proposition - even more so when in a knee-jerk reaction the US established a ridiculous 55mph speed limit! Thankfully there were still enough people out there who couldn't do without the thrill of a powerful engine, so the performance car was safe.

Ferrai 365BBIronically, in the face of the fuel crisis, 1974 saw the introduction of two of the most powerful and significant supercars to date, the beautiful Ferrari 365 BB and the 'King of Supercars' the astounding Lamborghini Countach LP400. Following the new supercar trend, Ferrari decided that the BB should be mid-engined (a first for the Ferrari flagship). Performance was on a par with the outgoing Daytona, 175mph and 60mph in 5.5sec,Lamborghini Countach LP400 but handling was vastly improved. The BB's perennial rival the Countach could be accurately described as the most stunning shape to ever hit the road. Bertone's lines encompassed a mighty V12 giving 170mph plus performance. The Countach would go on, in all its incarnations, to be the definitive supercar for another 15 years.

1975 was another important year in the supercar world with the introduction of the original Porsche 911 Turbo. Although BMW gave us the first Turbo road car two years earlier with the 2002, it was Porsche who would become known for pioneering the technology. Porsche 911 TurboThe 12 year old design of the 911 was augmented in the turbo by the use of aerodynamic spoilers, the first road car to feature these now common styling features.

The 1977 Panther 6 was undoubtedly one of the most bizarre entrants in the supercar hall of fame. Panther 6 Whether it can be classed as a production car is debatable as only two were made, nevertheless this 8.2 litre twin-turbo charged 6-wheeler may well have been the first road car to be capable of 200mph (although this was never proven).

As the 70's drew to a close we were greeted by two new supercars from established names, both offering a different approach to high performance. The Aston Martin V8 Vantage used the time proven big engine, big power route. At 170mph it had a good claim for the title of world's fastest production car. Meanwhile BMW's M1 went the technology route. Designed to be the most efficient supercar of it's day, it remains BMW's only mid-engined road car. As a footnote, 1979 may have seen the world's first 200mph road car in the form of the Koenig Ferrari Boxer. Not a production car in the  strictest sense but a significant milestone nevertheless.

Lotus Turbo EspritThe 1980's began with Lotus' entry into the premier league with the Turbo Esprit. Although top speed was respectable at around 150mph, it was acceleration and handling that defined it as a supercar. The early 80's also saw one of the most astonishing cars ever to come out of Britain, the outrageous 192mph Aston Martin Bulldog. Although only one was ever made, for it's looks and performance alone it deserves it's place in supercar history. The mid 80's also saw new competitors for the Ferrari Testarossa ongoing battle for supremacy between Ferrari and Lamborghini with the introduction of the 180mph Testarossa and the 455bhp upgrade of the Lamborghini Countach QV.

The 80's, however, would be remembered for two things - the financial boom that sent elite car values soaring and, probably as a consequence of this, the birth of the hypercar! It all started with the emergence of the Group B racing class. To be eligible to compete, manufacturers had to produce at least 200 road going version of their competition cars. While short lived it may have been, Group B provided us with a selection of awesome road cars that moved performance onto a new plane, the first of which was the sublime Ferrari 288 GTO.

 

Click here to see the rest of the supercar story, Part 2 - The Hypercar.