A supercar is a super car. You all know what they are, they’re the cars we sketched in the back of our maths textbooks, radical wedges covered in guns built for picking up women and blasting through the streets of Saint Tropez; They appeal to our natural attraction to ‘cool’. But which car was the original supercar? That’s a tricky question, and one for you to answer yourself, because what defines the supercar differs person to person, so here are four super cars, one of which is the first ‘supercar’.
Bugatti Type 35
If you wanted to go fast in 1924, what you needed was a Bugatti Type 35, cause at the wheel of one of these, nothing could catch you. No road car, no race car, no police car; nothing. How that must have been in rural France where most are used to a horse and cart is beyond me.
One of Bugatti’s first major successes, the Type 35 was stratospherically ahead of its time in the mid 20’s, the first car to feature alloy wheels and the first to employ the engine as a stressed member of the chassis, it’s almost unbelievable to how far ahead Ettore Bugatti was in 1924 to create a car which fails to feel antiquated over 90 years later. Power courtesy of an absolute jewel of an engine, Bugatti’s own supercharged 2-litre inline-8 producing nearly 140 horsepower for the T-35B’s, more than enough on super skinny tyres and cable operated brakes. Unsurprisingly, the Type 35 was unbelievably successful on track, winning the Targa Florio 5 times running, the Grand Prix World Championship and over 1,000 other races.
Outside of being a mechanical masterpiece, the Type 35 is also extraordinarily pretty. Crowned by Bugatti’s quintessential horseshoe grille, the tiny body tapering down to a gorgeous boat tail. Its design is elegant in its simplicity, yet somewhat understated. When viewing the car in profile it dramatic features are hidden, it’s only when looking at it from a 3 quarter angle can you really appreciate the shape, the design; only then do you realise the proportions are near perfect that of a Rembrandt.
Coming from the ultimate era of the car when the lines were blurred between road and race car, Type 35’s weren’t simply chained to the track, but thrashed on public roads; the equivalent today of driving a Formula 1 car down to the shops.
Mercedes 300 SL
The Mercedes-Benz 300SL is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. To the casual observer you wouldn’t know you’re looking at something unbelievably special; until the doors open.
The 300SL is often characterised by its signature Gullwing doors, but this car is so much more. Based off Mercedes’ 24 Hours of Le Man’s winning W194 racer, the concept of producing a toned down street version of Fangio and Moss’ Grand Prix monster was suggested by Merc’s US distributer. The man, Max Hoffman, got his wish and 1,400 Gullwing’s were born.
Possibly one of the prettiest cars ever made, credit to the Gullwing’s near perfect proportions goes to Rudolf Uhlenhaut. Merc’s chief engineer, Uhlenhaut’s responsible for penning each 300 from the W194 to the Mille Miglia winning SLR, possibly peaking from a design perspective with the 300SL Gullwing. Flanked by exaggerated flared wheel arches sheltering egg carton grilles, the 300’s covered with instantly identifiable design signatures, though none are as iconic as the Gullwing doors. Originally fitted to the W194, the car was based on a tubular spaceframe chassis enveloping the cockpit, high doorsills made normal doors impractical. Grand Prix rules of the time stated doors had to open, though they didn’t say how, leading to Uhlenhaut engineering the innovative Gullwing doors, a design trait carried over to the road car.
Naturally, being based on the W194, the 300SL was never going to be slow. Despite so, road going Gullwing’s were actually more powerful than the racers, throwing 250 horsepower at the rear wheels, nearly 50 more than the racer. Power courtesy of Mercedes’ direct fuel injected 3-litre inline-6, the fuel injector the culprit of the massive power increase over its racing brother. the 300’s performance figures just go on and on. Let alone the first ever fuel injected car, Gullwing’s topped out at around 152mph, making it far and a long way the fastest car ever made.
0-60 in 5.2 seconds. faster than a Ferrari 250 GTO. In 1956. If that’s not super, I don’t know what is. A close cousin to Jag’s Le Mans winning D-Type, the XK-Super Sport was born from the idea on what to do with leftover D-Type’s; the answer, convert them into road cars.
Jaguar projected 25 XK-SS’ to be made with only 16 hitting the road, the 9 remaining D-Type’s were destroyed mid conversion in Jaguar’s infamous Browns Lane fire, the damage so bad Queen Elizabeth II telegrammed Sir William Lyon’s personally to wish him her condolences. In order to bridge the difference between road and race car Jaguar somewhat modified the XK-SS’ to be more usable than the unshackled D-Type. Jaguar dropped the D-Type’s famous fin, replacing it with a rather rudimentary folding roof for emergencies, XK-SS’ were also fitted with a passenger door and an aluminium lined windscreen taking the place of its racing brothers wraparound Perspex screen. Despite these amenities, Jag’s creation was still very much a bare bones racer, just one let loose on public roads. Retaining the D-Types fixed seats, racing wheels, side exhaust and slide in rear tyre, XK-SS’ even lacked a glove box, though what remained was what sat up front, a 3.4-litre straight-6 cantilevered to lower the centre of gravity, throwing 250 horsepower to the rear wheels. Despite modifications the XK-SS was still very much built for straight-line speed, much like the D-Type built to tackle the Mulsanne Straight of Circuit de la Sarthe, the XK-SS was still mightily quick, topping out at 149mph, not far behind its racing brother.
By taking an engine and drivetrain built exclusively to race and building a road going body around it Jaguar created something very special, and really a concept of performance car unheard of up until this time; In plainest terms a British hot-rod. Built specifically for the US market, surprisingly Jaguar had immense difficulty selling the 16 XK-SS’ made due to their highly specific nature, though one such owner elevated the XK-SS as one of the coolest cars ever, and how could it not have been with Steve McQueen thrashing one around California.
The Superlative of ‘prettiest car in the world’ is thrown around far too frequently, though for Marcello Gandini’s masterpiece, the title is rightly fitting. Considered by many to be the quintessence of the supercar, it’s easy to see why the Miura garnered such a reputation. Just look at it.
It’s fair to say the Miura modernised the concept of the supercar, no car before embodying the traits of the supercar to such an extent. The first mid-engined road car, the Miura’s 345 horsepower 3.9-litre V-12 was mounted transversely, like a Mini, right behind the driver’s seat, this cacophony of noise and power wrapped in Gandini’s drop dead gorgeous body, enough to propel the Miura into motoring history, cementing Ferruccio Lamborghini’s cars as true forces to be reckoned with, in its day becoming ubiquitous as a status symbol with the Hollywood elite. Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart, Twiggy, Dean Martin, Miles Davis, Jay Kay, Elton John, Sammy Davis Jr, Jay Leno; at one point or another Lamborghini Miura’s have occupied a space in every one of their garages.
Though putting aside the Miura’s historical importance, they’re far from the easiest cars to drive. As you would expect from a large, heavy Italian 60’s rocket ship, changing gears through the heavy clutch and 5-speed gated manual is far from easy, though more worryingly the Miura was prone to front end lift above. Due to the lift the body generates, the front wheels would lift above 120-130 miles an hour at which point the Miura’s walking around, probably not the best thing to do. The fastest car in the world in 1966, the Miura was slowly tweaked and updated throughout its life to improve speed and usability, culminating in the SV of 1971. Sporting a power increase of 15 more horsepower, the major mechanical change being a split sump.
Though that doesn’t matter, because the Miura comes from an era where design triumphed all. After the US constricted pure design with headlight height regulations in the late 60’s designers could no longer draw something and put it on the roads; the Miura caught the tail end of the unshackled Italian automotive renaissance with quite simply breathtaking results.