When we see the word supercar, we typically imagine a low-slung, mid-engined car with a body that's shaped by the wind. We also call them exotic cars for rather obvious reasons. These cars aren't the kind we see every day, and they're usually as extreme as they come.
But how exactly did the term supercar come about? And what exactly is the origin of the supercar? Let's go for a history lesson, shall we? Spoiler alert, there are a lot of Italians here.
Who are the OGs?
It isn't known when the term was first used, but there are two cars considered that started it all. These are the Jaguar XK120 and the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. It might not look like it, but these cars were record smashers. The Jaguar was the fastest production car at the time with a top speed of 120 mph or 192 km/h, and it went even faster with the windshield off.
It doesn't sound too impressive these days, but you were lucky to get 140 km/h out of a family car from that era. But when the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL arrived in 1954, it smashed the Jaguar's record by doing 263 km/h. That makes it a fast car even by today's standards, more so in the mid-'50s.
Defining the breed
But to find the car that defined the breed, you have to go to Italy, specifically, in Sant'Agata Bolognese. That place in Italy is significant as it is the home of none other than Lamborghini. By now, some of you already know the story of Lamborghini, but let's do a quick recap.
Founder Ferruccio Lamborghini didn't have nice things to say about the Ferrari he had at the time, a 250. He told the folks at Ferrari that the clutch was too heavy, and Enzo didn't take that criticism kindly. Legend has it that Ferruccio was told by Ferrari to stick to tractors. We all know what happened after that.
Lamborghini rolled out his first car, the 350GT, but he wasn't quite done yet. Out to prove he's no one-hit-wonder, his company presented the Miura concept in 1965 and premiered the prototype a year after. The reception towards the car was positive, to say the least. With that, production soon commenced.
But how did the Miura define the modern supercar? The formula was simple. Stick in a V12 engine in the middle of a car and wrap it in a body that will turn heads. Not only that, make the interior as well-appointed as possible to make it more extravagant.
The Lamborghini Miura laid down the supercar essentials with its low-slung body and high-performance engine. Several automakers would follow suit, such as Maserati, De Tomaso, Alfa Romeo, and Bizzarini, just to name a few. Even Ferrari came up with several mid-engined models after Lamborghini rolled out the Miura.
But it would be Lamborghini (again) who would bring the supercar to the next level. That would be with the Countach. Its wedgy shape was way ahead of its time and, in some ways, out of this world. Its design aged so well that it still looked futuristic over a decade after it was launched. It can even be said that it's the definitive supercar of the '70s.
Analog vs. digital
By the '80s, there were two schools of thought in the supercar world: analog and digital. Sure, there were unforgettable models such as the Ferrari Testarossa, but it was Porsche who would turn this segment into a technical showcase with the 959. It had electronically adjustable suspension, an adjustable differential, computer-controlled wastegates, and sequential turbochargers. These features wouldn't be out of place in a modern performance car, either. However, there was one car that waved the flag for the analog supercar, the Ferrari F40.
The F40 was nothing like its prime competitor from Germany. It was rear-wheel drive only, offered no creature comforts, and zero electronic assists. It didn't even have power steering and you're guaranteed to break a sweat in there because air-conditioning wasn't offered, too. Did it have a radio? Forget about it. The F40 was the antithesis of the 959 and, according to contemporary road testers, delivered a pure and raw driving experience.
In the end, it was the F40 that came out on top in terms of performance with a top speed of 321 km/h. The high-tech Porsche had to settle for “just” 317 km/h. Nonetheless, these two supercars kicked off the top speed wars of the early '90s.
With the Ferrari F40 becoming the first car to break the 320 km/h barrier, several rose to the challenge. One of the first to do that was Ferrari's rivals from across town, Lamborghini. They did it with the Diablo with a top speed of 325 km/h. What made that feat more impressive is the fact that it had a luxurious interior, creature comforts, and a heavy all-wheel-drive system.
Over in England, Jaguar wanted to get into the history books with their XJ220. Their goal was to surpass the Diablo's record with a target of 220 mph or 354 km/h. However, they fell short during their first attempt, but they still smashed it, nonetheless. It managed 341 km/h, 16 km/h more than the Lamborghini.
But not long after that, Bugatti rose from the dead to challenge the Diablo's top speed claim. The result was the EB110 and it surpassed the Jaguar's record by pulling 342 km/h. Jaguar then responded by taking the XJ220 out for another run and it managed 349 km/h. Jaguar's triumph would be short-lived, though. That's because the McLaren F1 blew them all out of the water by doing 386 km/h, a record it would hold for almost a decade.
Race cars for the road
If some manufacturers weren't busy chasing top speeds, they were ripping it out on the world's race tracks. What they lacked in terminal velocity, they made up for in handling and downforce. Some of the most memorable models include the Toyota GT-One, Nissan R390, Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR, and the Porsche 911 GT1.
Among the ones mentioned, the most successful was the Porsche as it claimed the overall victory in 1998. That said, the Toyota managed two class wins with a certain drift king behind the wheel. Yes, Keiichi Tsuchiya is a Le Mans winner.
But aside from their track exploits, these endurance racers were also sold as road cars, albeit as extremely limited and exclusive models. But the road-going versions wouldn't exist if it wasn't for homologation purposes. The automakers were required to make production models of their race cars to compete in the series. Thanks to that rule, these Le Mans racers with license plates exist.
It's also worth mentioning the Ferrari F50 in this story. While it was never intended for competition, it was essentially a Formula 1 car with a body. Granted, it didn't give the driver the full experience, but it had loads of Formula 1 technologies built within it.
The daily supercars
While some manufacturers were chasing the top speed record for production cars, there was another interesting development in the world of supercars. Instead of going for the fastest, there were those who wanted to make these cars friendlier and more accessible. These were BMW, Nissan, and Honda.
We have to go back to the late-'70s for the origins of the daily-friendly supercar. During that time, BMW wanted to build a race car to compete against the Porsche 911 in the world's circuits. The result was the BMW M1, and it blended what one would expect from a BMW on the inside wrapped in a sleek and wedgy body. However, the M1 wasn't a commercial success, but its proof of concept would live on thanks to Honda.
In the '80s, Nissan presented the MID-II concept and it had all the ingredients of a high-tech supercar. It had a turbocharged V6 engine, nearly 300 PS, computer-controlled systems, and an all-wheel-drive system. However, they decided not to put it into production. Honda, on the other hand, was also in the middle of developing a mid-engined supercar. While it didn't have a V8 or a V12 engine, it had a singing naturally-aspirated V6 inspired by Formula 1. The result is the NSX, and the rest, they say, is history.
If you look at the current crop of supercars, they're much better appointed and less compromised than before. In some ways, the current crop of supercars (Audi R8, Lamborghini Huracan, Ferrari F8) carry the baton carried by the BMW M1 and Honda NSX as daily-friendly exotics.
From super to hyper
There are those who will argue that the modern supercar is no longer the most extreme example of the automobile. With that, enter the hypercar.
The mid-2000s saw the birth of these models, and it could be said that the Bugatti Veyron kicked it off. However, there was one car that might have set the precedent for its creation, the Koenigsegg CCR. It broke the McLaren F1's production car speed record by 1 km/h (387 km/h), setting off the decade's top speed wars.
With that, the folks at Bugatti aimed for an ambitious target: 400 km/h. Not only did they achieve that goal, they even surpassed it with a recorded run of 408 km/h. Bugatti later pushed that record to 431 km/h with the Veyron Super Sport. Koenigsegg fought back with the Agera RS pulling a record run of 447 km/h. However, Bugatti reclaimed the title with the Chiron Super Sport by topping out at 490 km/h.
It could be said that the current peak of the supercar (and hypercar) can be found in the Ferrari LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918. While these aren't as fast in a straight line as the current record holder, these cars present the best of what current technologies have to offer. Not only that, they even make use of hybrid power to boost performance. With the way things are going, we can expect more hybridized supercars down the line.
However, there is another revolution happening, not just in the supercar class, but in the automotive industry. Some independent automakers are exploring the potential of electric power, and the results have been, well, electrifying. They're not quite the top speed monsters just yet, but the performance is on a different level.
Take the Rimac Concept One. It can do the 0 to 100 km/h sprint in just 2.6 seconds, and it tops out at 356 km/h. If that's not enough, the Rimac Nevera ups the ante by getting to 100 km/h in less than two seconds and a top speed of 412 km/h.
Another manufacturer making waves is NIO with their EP9. While it's not as fast as the Rimac, it's not what anyone would call slow, either. It can catapult itself from 0 to 100 km/h in 2.7 seconds and hit a top speed of 350 km/h. With the pace of electric vehicle development, future electric supercars (and hypercars) will go even faster. Who knows, with the way things are going, we might even smash the 500 km/h barrier within a decade.