Last updated on March 23rd, 2018 at 11:09 pm
What makes a supercar? Car manufacturers, motoring magazines and TV shows commonly use phrases like ‘supercar’ and ‘hypercar’. Nevertheless, what do these phrases mean? This article cuts through blurb and explains what makes a supercar, where it came from and what it means today.
What is a Supercar?
Put simply, a supercar is a car a cut above the rest. Most supercars are legal on the roads like any other car, the similarities end there. The everyday car most people drive sits at the bottom of the food chain. A functional, practical vehicle, it does shopping and excels at ferrying ungrateful relatives. It is not a Supercar
Sports cars represent the next stage up, lighter, faster, more focused on driving enjoyment. These look good, drive quickly and handle well. However, they still contain elements of reality built into them; people have to drive them every day.
The Supercar and Hypercar sit at the top of the motoring food chain, some of the fastest and most powerful machines on four wheels. These go faster and look good while doing it.
Supercars & Hypercars boast performance, looks and price tags to match.
Sports Cars – The Birth of Performance
The origins of supercars started after the 2nd World War. Carmakers went back to making cars and not tanks or aircraft. Engineers, who designed 350 mph fighter aircraft, found themselves designing sports cars.
As it turns out, making a fast car has a lot in common with making fighter aircraft.
- First, you want a powerful engine. You want it to go faster than anything else does on the road.
- You want it to handle well, preferably to round corners without depositing driver and passengers into the nearest ditch at 100 mph.
- The sleeker the car is the better, to cut through the air at high-speed. Unlike a fighter aircraft, it also needs to look brilliant, an object of desire among every mortal who claps eyes on it.
Various companies in the 1950s and 60s designed cars such as the Jaguar E-Type, Mercedes 300SL and Chevrolet Corvette. Fast for their time, they navigated without much fuss and looked good; but we cannot call them true ‘supercars’. For that, the world needed Italians.
Italian Super Cars
Ferrari vs Lamborghini Super Cars
Amongst humans, the ‘supercar gene’ appears to concentrate in Italy. There are theories about this; a quick search offers suggestions such as artistic history, collective genetic links to Leonardo Da Vinci and even high olive-oil consumption.
None of them explains the Italian national pastime of creating supercars that the rest of the world lusts after.
Ferrari is the most famous of Italian car companies, headed up by the Godfather-like figure, Enzo Ferrari. Ferrari has created sports cars for road and racetrack for decades; by the 1960s, they held the monopoly on producing fast and desirable cars. A man who built tractors for a living would upset this.
Farruccio was the owner of a tractor-building firm and a paying Ferrari customer. He didn’t think much of the cars he bought or the customer service he got, and he didn’t really like Enzo Ferrari either.
Farruccio decided to start making some sports cars of his own to compete with Ferrari. He named the new car company after his surname, Lamborghini.
The Muira – The Supercar is Born
In 1966, Lamborghini released the Muira, the first ‘supercar’ as we know it. This had a 350 horsepower V12 that sent the car from zero to 60 in 7 seconds. If the driver held their nerve and kept his/her right foot planted into the carpet, the car would hit 170 mph. Powerful engine? Check.
Lamborghini mounted the engine/gearbox in the middle of the car behind the driver, this improved handling. The mid-engine layout would be a common feature on most supercars that followed. Jet-fighter handling? Done.
Finally, the car looked fantastic. It had sleek styling and was available in dazzling colours such as lime-green and sunshine-yellow. People accustomed to seeing small Fiat 500s doddering along Italian countryside, were aghast as this fire-spitting monster roared past them. Good looks? Definitely.
The Lamborghini Muira displayed all the ingredients of a supercar and set the benchmark from then on. It made for a giant poke in the eye for the established Ferrari brand and triggered a supercar building rivalry that lives on to this day.
Ferrari Fights Back
In 1971, Ferrari hit back with the Berlinetta Boxer. This too had a powerful 12-cylinder engine that cackled loudly. It could reach the exciting side of 170 mph and hit 0-60 in 5.6 seconds. A mid-engine layout gave it good handling, and in Rosso Red, it looked the part. Ferrari felt this would settle the dispute and send the tractor company packing.
Lamborghini released the Countach three years later, a car that looked so radical, that even today the sight of one makes people stop and gape. The Countach’s V12 delivered more power and ear-splitting noise; 0-60 came in under 6 seconds.
Later models had a massive rear wing, along with vents and air-scoops that made it look like a spacecraft. People liked that a lot in the 70s.
Ferrari and Lamborghini then began a tit-for-tat game where they released faster and crazier cars to compete with each other. Ferrari developed beautiful vehicles such as the Testarossa, F40 and F50.
Lamborghini unveiled the Diablo that took the mad Countach design and added more speed. By now, the supercar genie was out of the bottle.It wasn’t just Italians cooking up supercars, either.
Aston Martin released the V8 Vantage in 1977. It followed the classic supercar recipe; a brutish V8 engine at the front combined with good handling and great looks. It was a Bond car in the Living Daylights – although Lada-slicing lasers and self-destruct mechanisms were not available as optional extras for everyday customers.
The Porsche 911 Turbo came along in 1975 – this potent mix of turbo-charging and snappy handling sent many owners backwards into hedgerows throughout Europe. Porsche upgraded the speed and agility of this model as time went on. The advanced Porsche 959 would take the position of the fastest road-car in 1986 with a top speed of 197 mph, showing that the Germans could make a world-beating supercar if they felt like it.
In the early 90s, Honda released the NSX – what this lacked in outright speed it made up with intelligent technology. If cars like the Aston Martin V8 were the brawn of the supercar world, the NSX represented the brains. It was crafted from aircraft-grade aluminium to make it lighter and nimbler than cars made from steel. Honda’s NSX gave the world a taste of the cars we could expect from Japan in the future.
By the late 1980s, supercars looked gorgeous, sounded great, went like the clappers and the kind of thing that people dreamt of owning when they won the lottery. It couldn’t get any better, could it?
View SuperCar Infographic Here
Enter the Hypercar
The phrase ‘hypercar’ began to enter circulation around this time. This would be faster, rarer and more outlandish than a regular supercar. If supercars bordered on the realms of insanity by the late 1980s – hypercars would show the world what automotive lunacy looked like.
The Mclaren F1
In 1991 the British firm McLaren released the F1. This smashed the speed record for a production car with a top speed of 243 mph. However, this hypercar offered more than just facts and figures.
Each McLaren included a modem (remember those?) allowing the factory to connect to the car’s systems remotely. Remember that this was in 1991 – when the idea of the internet was just a curious novelty and unlikely to catch on….
Every F1 has around 16 grams of gold wrapped around its engine compartment. Why gold? It is an excellent heat reflective material, gold foil lines the engine bay to absorb vast amounts of heat generated at top speed.
The F1 is designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. The underside sucks the car down like a limpet. An F1 car has no need for a big spoiler or wing on the back, the entire body acted as a giant wing.
Carbon fibre is used in the main structure; an incredibly strong yet light manmade material. This space-age technology offers the strength of steel with the lightness of plastic.The stuff of dreams for automotive engineers.
The F1 was a milestone. It proved hypercars were not just about sporting the biggest engines possible. Clever design and technological expertise could also allow drivers to do the impossible.
Hypercars come at a cost, they command prices that would make millionaires do a double-take. A new Mclaren F1 cost £635,000 in 1991. Today those same cars fetch a couple of million each.
Not long after the F1, a new Italian company Pagani released Zonda in 1999. A barking and snarling Mercedes V12 propels this machine to manic speeds. Zonda has distinctive quad exhaust pipes and bodywork apparently inspired by the figure of Mr Pagani’s wife, a maniacal vehicle that went every bit as fast as it looked.
Volkswagen would produce the next hypercar. To be more precise, it would be one of the brands owned by the enormous VW-Audi group – Bugatti.
Veyron – King of the HyperCar
To understand the difference between a supercar and hypercar, we need to look at the fastest car. The Bugatti Veyron burst on to the world stage in 2005, it is a perfect lesson in what makes the greatest hypercar. It remains the fastest production car as of 2016 with a top speed of 267 mph.
Bugatti engineers ignored the common wisdom of the time, exceeding 250 mph in a car with a tax disc was considered impossible. Making a two-tonne road vehicle go faster than a Formula 1 car didn’t seem believable, for many years it looked like critics had a point.
Bugatti designers had to rewrite the rulebook and develop a few new rules of their own. To beat the laws of physics, VW engineers had to cheat.
The result did not make any sense economically or practically but blew everyone’s socks off nonetheless. Practicalities such as fuel economy or boot space were forgotten altogether. Who cared when a car went that fast and looked this good?
A W16 forms the Veyron’s beating heart, two turbocharged V8 engines linked together side-by-side producing 1001 horsepower. A turbo V8 is one of the most powerful engines around today.
Making an engine equal to two of these that didn’t shake to bits or burst into flames, was nothing short of an engineering miracle.
The power is needed to punch a car-shaped hole through the air, air resistance is a major obstacle at high speeds. The Bugatti physically lowers itself at high-speed to stick to the road and the body-shell cuts through the air.
An everyday car will have one or two radiators. The Veyron has ten radiators, for cooling that massive engine, the four turbochargers and the various other systems that keep the car on the ground.
The Veyron sits on unique specially designed tyres. These have to cope with a rubber-killing combination of extreme heat and spinning thousands of times a minute while transmitting 1000 HP to the ground. Four of these hypercar tyres will set you back £25,000.
A new Veyron costs £1,065,000, marking it out as one of the most exclusive cars on the road. It is unlikely to be knocked off its’ perch as the world’s fastest road-legal car until Bugatti release their next big hypercar, the Chiron.
The Supercar & HyperCar today
Modern high-performance cars are faster and easier to use than the old-school machines of the 60s and 70s. Old supercars could be hard to drive, often punishing a driver’s mistakes with a high-velocity crash.
The ride was terrible, the visibility when driving was minimal and they were unreliable. Refinement and comfort were not high on the agenda. A modern supercar can be driven to the shops or waft along a motorway at 70 mph like every other vehicle without traumatising occupants.
They are less likely to kill their owners’ thanks to better safety equipment and technology such as stability control, ABS, traction control, active aerodynamics and so on. These have all the luxury comforts that you would expect given the price tag. The supercar or hypercar of 2016 is sensible when it the situation calls for it.
Hybrid Supercar Breed
Now is an interesting time for supercars and hypercars, thanks to technology that car makers apply to them. Many innovations developed for supercars filter down to the everyday cars.
Consider hybrid cars, for example, using an efficient combination of a petrol engine and electric batteries/motors. For most people this is all about saving fuel, paying no congestion charges and cheap road tax.
However hybrid technology also enables quick cars to go even faster. Ferrari, Porsche and McLaren have used it to release a trio of the most advanced hypercars yet.
The Ferrari La Ferrari sticks with the Italian weapon of choice, a V12 combined with fighter-jet aerodynamics and an energy recovery system. Various body flaps and wings adjust when cornering at high-speed. Since a new one comes at a cost of £1,000,000, this is just as well.
The Porsche 918 uses three engines working together, a V8 and two electric motors take it from 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds. This ranks as the world’s fastest accelerating production car.
It can reach 120 mph in the same time that it took the Muira to reach 60 mph. This comes for a mere snip of £625,000.
Finally, we have the McLaren P1, successor to the legendary F1. This has a dual V8/electric system producing 904 horsepower. Like the F1, it employs cutting-edge technology designed to wring every ounce of power and speed out of the car. The price? £866,000.
Crucially, these cars stick to the original supercar formula. They remain among the fastest cars on the planet. They still offer a driving experience second to none. They all look as fast as they go.