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 explains what makes a supercar, where it came from and what it means today.
Table of contents
- What is a Supercar?
- Are Sports Cars Super Cars?
- British Supercars
- German Supercars
- Japanese Supercars
- The Supercar & HyperCar today
What is a Supercar?
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. But, on the other hand, the everyday car most people drive sits at the bottom of the food chain. It is a functional, practical vehicle that does the shopping and excels at ferrying ungrateful relatives. But, unfortunately, it is not a Supercar.
Are Sports Cars Super Cars?
Sports cars represent the next stage, lighter, faster, and more focused on driving enjoyment. These look good, move quickly and handle well. However, they still contain elements of reality built into them; people have to use them daily.
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 developing sports cars.
As it turns out, making a fast car has much 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.
In the 1950s and 60s, cars such as the Jaguar E-Type, Mercedes 300SL and Chevrolet Corvette got designed. Fast for their time, they navigated without much fuss and looked good; but we cannot call them ‘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 art history, standard genetic links to Leonardo Da Vinci, and 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 Italian car company, headed by the Godfather-like figure, Enzo Ferrari. For decades, Ferrari has created sports cars for road and racetracks; by the 1960s, they held the monopoly on producing fast and desirable vehicles.
A man who built tractors for a living would upset this. Mr 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, and he didn’t like Enzo Ferrari either.
Mr Farruccio decided to start making some sports cars of his own to compete with Ferrari. So 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. It had a 350-horsepower V12 that sent the car from zero to 60 in 7 seconds.
If the driver held their nerve and kept their 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, improving handling. The mid-engine layout would be a standard feature on most supercars that followed. Jet-fighter handling? 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 the Italian countryside were shocked at this fire-spitting monster roaring past them. Good looks? Definitely.
The Lamborghini Muira displayed all the ingredients of a supercar and set the benchmark from then on. Moreover, it made for a giant poke in the eye of 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. It, 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 excellent handling, and it looked like the part in Rosso Red. 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, vents, and air scoops, making them 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. As a result, 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 ferocious V8 engine at the front combined with excellent handling and looks. Although Lada-slicing lasers and self-destruct mechanisms were not available as optional extras for everyday customers, it was a Bond car in the Living Daylights.
The Porsche 911 Turbo came along in 1975 – this potent mix of turbocharging 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 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, made up for it 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 vehicles we could expect from Japan in the future.
By the late 1980s, supercars looked gorgeous, sounded great, went like the clappers and were the kind of thing people dreamt of owning when they won the lottery. But, of course, it couldn’t get any better, could it?
Enter the Hypercar
The phrase ‘hypercar’ began to enter circulation around this time. It 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 was.
The Mclaren F1
In 1991 the British firm McLaren released the F1. It 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, this was 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 gets designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. The underside sucks the car down like a limpet. An F1 car does not need a big spoiler or wing on the back; the entire body acts as a giant wing.
Carbon fibre gets used in the primary structure, a powerful yet light manufactured 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 most significant engines possible. Innovative 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. For example, 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 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. More precisely, it would be one of the brands owned by the VW-Audi group – Bugatti.
Veyron – King of the Hyper Cars
We need to look at the fastest car to understand the difference between a supercar and a hypercar. The Bugatti Veyron burst onto the world stage in 2005. It is a perfect lesson in what makes the most incredible hypercar. It remains the fastest production car as of 2016, with a top speed of 267 mph.
Bugatti engineers ignored the 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. Then, 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. Practicalities such as fuel economy and boot space got forgotten altogether. Who cared when a car went that fast and looked this good?
A W16 is the Veyron’s beating heart. Two turbocharged V8 engines are linked together, 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. However, air resistance is an obstacle at high speeds. So 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 its massive engine, four turbochargers and the various other systems that keep the car on the ground.
The Veyron sits on 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 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 supercars were unreliable. Refinement and comfort were not high on the agenda. A modern supercar can go to the shops or waft along a motorway at 70 mph like every 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, etc. Given the price tag, these have all the luxury comforts you would expect. So the supercar or hypercar of 2016 is sensible when the situation calls for it.
Hybrid Supercar Breed
Now is an exciting time for supercars and hypercars, thanks to the technology that car makers apply. So many innovations developed for supercars filter down to everyday cars.
Consider hybrid cars, for example, using an efficient combination of a petrol engine and electric batteries/motors. Again, this is about saving fuel, paying no congestion charges, and cheap road tax for most people.
However, hybrid technology also enables fast 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. As a result, various body flaps and wings adjust when cornering at high speed. Since a new one comes at the 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. It ranks as the world’s fastest accelerating production car. It can reach 120 mph when it takes the Muira to reach 60 mph. It comes in at a mere snip of £625,000.
Finally, we have the McLaren P1, successor to the legendary F1. It 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.