The Mid-Engine Supercar; Chasing Ultimate Performance—Part IV
As covered in our last blog entry, the late 1980s/early 1990s was a boom to performance, and mid-engine mania. It started with Ferrari’s 288 GTO, Lamborghini’s 4-valve Countach, and continued with offerings such as Ferrari’s F40, Lamborghini’s Diablo, Bugatti’s EB110 and more than one offering bearing a Jaguar nameplate. But the movement was now so great that others wanted in on the game—which would lead to two seminal benchmarks.
With all the Far East’s considerable mid-engine activity in the late 1980s, it only made sense that the one company that would make a huge impact had incredible innovation and Formula 1 racing in its history. Honda/Acura’s NSX saga began when Honda approached Pininfarina to design a concept car, and the slippery HP-X powered by 2-liter V6 debuted at 1984’s Turin Motor Show.
The NSX idea wasn’t to go after ultimate performance like the Europeans and failed Japanese efforts, but to make a more practical and reliable Ferrari 328 (and then 348) with a lower price tag. The engine soon grew to 2.7 liters, and cutting-edge technologies such as an extruded aluminum alloy frame and suspension pieces were incorporated into the all-aluminum semi-monocoque chassis and body. Famed Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna was instrumental in the junior supercar’s final development, and the production NSX went on sale to rave reviews.
“The near-exotic sports car universe will shift on its axis in early August when Acura delivers the first NSX,” Autoweek noted in their June 25, 1990 cover story. “(L)ike no other…, the NSX considers the driver’s comfort and sense of full control as important as its own mechanical needs in the quest for speed…(and) does everything its primary competitors can do, without the pain or the excuses.”
As noteworthy as all the aforementioned machines here and in our previous blog entries are, the 20th century performance high water mark was the McLaren F1. The storied constructor had three decades of building championship winning racecars (first for Can Am, then Formula 1), and took a competition-oriented approach in designing its road car. As engineer and the F1’s father Gordon Murray related in 1992, “it had to be a clean sheet (design), a quantum leap, or I wouldn’t be here now.”
The F1 was indeed that, and more. There was no forced induction (power came from a purpose-built 627 horsepower BMW V12), minimal to no electronic safety measures (the F1 let you know how good a driver you actually were), central steering with three abreast seating, and a lithe body designed by Peter
Stevens. Most importantly, it bucked the trend of “more is better” by having a small footprint and being lightweight (a curb weight of approximately 2,500 pounds).
Once tested by the magazines, the superlatives were laced with adjectives such as “ultimate” and “benchmark.” At a time when very fast was hitting 60 in 4 seconds or less, the F1 did it in 3.2, hit 100 in 6.3, 150 in 12.8, and had a top speed in excess of 230 mph. As Autocar noted in their road test, “The McLaren F1 is quite comprehensively the fastest road car any of us have driven…”
The Big Question now was: How would Ferrari respond? In a way that surprised many, and would ultimately prove very influential, Maranello abandoned its pursuit of ultimate top speed. Instead, it infused its F50 with technology and construction techniques straight from their 641/2 F1 car, resulting in arguably the greatest driver’s car Ferrari has ever made.
When the F50 debuted at Geneva in 1995, the exotic car market was replaying what happened two-plus decades earlier. A brutal recession had gripped the world, and speculators who scooped up many of these mid-engine machines as “investments” tried to unload in unison, causing prices to crash and demand to disappear. Smaller companies such as Cizeta went under, Artioli’s Bugatti concern was bought by the VW Group, and Lamborghini also found a new owner. McLaren had originally planned to make 300 F1s, but with a price tag of $1 million, just 106 were made.
But the downturn was short lived, and new manufacturers flooded the mid-engine space. Most focused on “the fastest” title, but one who did not was Argentinean Horacio Pagani. In the mid-1980s he went to Italy carrying a letter written by fellow countryman and five-time F1 champion Juan Manual Fangio, and was hired by Lamborghini. By the end of the decade he was making their composite body panels, and eventually became a composite manufacturer.
He long dreamed of making his own car, and at 1999’s Geneva Auto Show he displayed the Pagani Zonda C12. The lightweight Zonda was powered by a Mercedes AMG-built V12, and set a benchmark for detail and build quality. In its various guises the Pagani would win numerous awards, and the Zonda F remains this author’s best new car he has ever driven. Pagani’s latest is the Huayra, a jewel-like 220-mph missile with Mercedes V12 twin turbo power and 7-speed sequential gearbox.
If Switzerland was the most surprising place to find a supercar constructor in the 1960s and ’70s, today Sweden holds that title. In 1994 at age 22, Christian von Koenigsegg formed the company that bears his name, and since the marque’s public debut at 2000’s Paris Motor Show a number of bolides have emanated from the works in Margretetorp. One was the 806 horsepower CCR that, in February 2005, became the world’s fastest car when its top speed was recorded in excess of 240 mph. Even more extreme was the ultra exclusive (and blisteringly fast) One:1 that boasted a 1,360 horsepower twin turbo V8 in a package weighing 1,360 kilos—and thus the “one to one” name.
Three American companies vied to be the speed record holder. First up was Saleen in 2006 with their 240 mph S7 Twin Turbo, but SSC (Shelby Supercars, with no relation to Carroll Shelby) from Tri-Cities, Washington was a more viable alternative when they set a record at 257 mph the following year in their Ultimate Aero. John Hennessey’s concern out of Texas shoehorned a 1000+ horsepower twin-turbo 7-liter V8 into its Venom GT, and set several records including a top speed of 270.4 mph in 2014 and a Guinness World Record of 0 to186 mph in 13.61 seconds.