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Supercar: Evolution and Extinction
In a decade-by-decade look at the supercar we wonder if its evolution is at its end
Supercars were once all about pure performance.
Gentleman racers of the 40s and 50s wanted the kinds of cars in which you could streak from Paris to the Amalfi coast overnight in an aether of oil fumes and Aqua Di Parma. Back in those halcyon days you never worried about terminal surveillance. It was all about terminal velocity. All that mattered was the roar of the engine and the patina of the hide. So when the commendatore released the 250 Gran Tourismo Omologato so it could be raced at Le Mans, he really started something.
Through the seventies and eighties, of course, the supercar became all about The Wedge. Futuristic design was welded to V12 engines and super-low-profile shapes; angular surfaces with scoops, louvres and symmetrical bumps as if designed by black belts in origami. The relative broadening of wealth in the global economy in this period meant that these cars were more accessible than ever before and became emblematic of opulence and an unreconstructed laddishness at the heart of a growing self-conscious car culture.
Soon, the nineties had Britain cashing in on its heritage as purveyors of stylishly quick automobiles and the top-end speeds pushed through the double ton for the first time. With the new millennium, Freakonomics became the leitmotif in the high-end automotive industry, with Bugatti releasing the ultimate loss-leader in the Veyron, which sold for a couple of million but cost the group that created it a couple of fistfuls of millions to create.
With the turn of the millennium the gap between haves and have-nots grew wider than ever – and the average price of a stone cold, full production supercar like the Murcielago and the Ferrari 430 pushed out toward the £200K mark and beyond. But the gravy days had to take a turn some time, and with the 2007/2008 collapse in global markets, it took a while for the image of the supercar to reconstruct itself. Right here, right now, with ridiculously hi-tech, hybrid-driven hypercars like La Ferrari, McLaren’s P1 and the Porsche 918 – even if you could buy one, you wouldn’t be buying an evolutionary wonder – and you’d have to be part of a select club of invitees.
In a sense, now the real evolution of hi-end car culture moves in the direction of the one-off, the bespoke. The sort of technology that drives cars like these has led to a convergence. The McLaren P1 and the La Ferrari look remarkably similar, are constructed and designed with the same software, and produce mostly the same conclusions. This inaccessible sort of non-trickle down economics has meant that the mass of wealthy men and women are more interested these days in tweaking the production versions of your workaday supercar – and that brands like Noble, Pagani and motorbike brands are increasingly turning back to analogue tech to give their products appeal.
It may be that we are seeing the end of our conventional view of automotive evolution. With ridiculously intrusive driver aids and driverless tech absorbing the energy that used to be directed at balls-out mechanics, soon the most desirable cars will be the simplest.
1960s Homologato (mostly)
Ferrari’s GTO remains the essence of a supercar – and is, of course, more valuable than ever. At its heart was its qualification for endurance racing. This homologation impulse set the tone from mid-century to the end of the decade. The GT40 was conceived right from the start as the Ferrari slayer. It remains a brutal reminder of how dangerous supercars of the sixties really were.
1970s Muscle Wedges (mostly)
Lamborghini’s Countach was an immediate break from the homologation impulse. Never properly raced, this Bertone designed masterwork employed outrageous visual elements and harnessed the era’s obsession with futurism. Porsche’s 911 Turbo, on the other hand, represented a pragmatic take on stratospheric performance and pioneered forced induction in a tried-and-tested platform that was perfect for the still-relevant Grand Tour.
1980s Pastel and Louvres (mostly)
The eighties may have been the decade that taste forgot, but at least there was the Ferrari F40. Forced induction doesn’t fit for Ferrari in many people’s view, but this stripped down celebration of all things Maranello remains our ideal raw supercar. It looks as badass as it is on track. Porsche’s supermodel-slick four-wheel drive was a pioneer in many ways and also emblematic of that decade, but in the opposite direction. Funnily enough, the 959 here makes the F40 look positively retro.
1990s Terminal Velocities (mostly)
A good era for the Brits, this. And not because of Britpop, the advent of Tony Blair or ‘Cool Brittania’. The XJ220 is probably the strangest Jag ever created, channeling Le Mans prototypes and rounding off and scalloping the trad-supercar’s perennial wedge design. Mechanically problematic and probably not really good for 220MPH apart from in the rarest of trims, we still love the 220’s anachronistic aspect. McLaren’s first road project, on the other hand, is commonly regarded as being one of the greatest vehicles ever to grace the roads. If you’ve ever been up close to one when it is snarling and firing away you’ll get it. It is devoid of driver aids but full of racing heritage.
2000s Oligarchy (mostly)
The Veyron and the Murcielago are very different designs – but bring together the twin concerns of the era’s supercars nicely. The Bugatti, of course, is an almost absurd exercise in over-engineering. It goes very quickly, packs ludicrous amounts of horsepower – but is ultimately designed to be instantly irrelevant. Those mock-retro lines are foolish, in our opinion. The Murcielago, oh the other hand is the height of Lambo badness. It set the tone for the company’s new owners nicely and defined its subsequent success.
20-Teens Bespoke (mostly)
The head-to-head confrontation of Ferrari and McLaren has for us resulted in a supercar singularity that has swallowed itself. We reckon these cars represent the ultimate progression of supercars – both in terms of technology and aesthetics. We long for the moment that both these brands bring back a mechanicals-only monster that strips all the digital technology out and produces something we can all aspire to once again.
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