Are the Traditional Supercar Manufacturers being Left Behind?

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll probably be aware of the shit storm that got kicked up over the past week or so, surrounding the two way average of 316mph and a peak of 331mph in a top speed record by the SSC Tuatara. The idea for this blog came from the belief that the record was legitimate and that such a huge increase in speed was an incredible feat by a small company. Shmee150, Robert Mitchell and Misha Charoudin have lead the way in analysing the video data and have really done the car world a huge service with their no bullshit journalism. The world now waits for a second attempt by SSC, which they promise will be accurately verified, with personnel from the data logging companies present to calibrate the kit properly. The fact the Koenigsegg Jesko still has to do a top speed run could still mean a small manufacturer takes the crown from VW backed Bugatti. This got me thinking, what happened to the days of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Jaguar, Porsche, Mercedes and the rest being undisputed kings of the hill with their huge budgets and massive resources?

Pagani

When I say kings of the hill, I’m not talking purely about top speed. I’m talking about all the things that make supercars super, exclusivity, power, style, sound etc. As far as I can remember the first outsider to ruffle the big guns feathers was Pagani. They burst on the scene in 1999 with the V12 powered Zonda and what set them apart was their attention to detail. Argentinian founder Horacio Pagani is often likened to a modern-day Leonardo Da Vinci, creating moving works of art that could quite easily be displayed in a gallery as much as they can be driven on the road.

Supercars aren’t just about outright performance, take the Lamborghini Countach for example (coincidentally a car that Horacio worked on). Yes, it was fast but it was how it looked that made people stop in their tracks. Looking at the later model with the big wing (that actually created lift, not downforce) by today’s standards, it’s silly but it’s that stylistic freedom that made it the poster car of its era. This is what Pagani have tapped into. The Zonda and later Huayra are fast, no doubt, but it’s the beauty, craftsmanship and how the car makes you feel that comes first. I believe this is being lost by the big manufacturers. 

With the integration of computers in how cars are drawn up and aerodynamics being a key part of modern car design, I feel the art of the skilled designer’s pen is being lost. I think the 1990s is the last time you could see freehand drawing in supercars. The Ferrari F50 with its huge swooping rear wing integrated into the bodywork or the flowing, elongated design of the Jaguar XJ220, both hugely capable cars even by today’s standards but there’s emotion in how they look that is lost in today’s cars.

On the subject of emotion, take the wing mirror of the Huayra. Most manufacturers today boast how they’ve designed it to aid airflow to the radiators or force air to an aerodynamic vent or wing. Not Pagani. In true Italian fashion, it’s been made to look like the eye of a beautiful woman. Tell me that’s not cooler than explaining how it provides 10kg of extra downforce at 150mph?

Koenigsegg

2004 saw the emergence of another small manufacturer, this time from the unlikely location of Sweden. While the company has been up and running since 1994, it was the record-breaking CCR that shot them into the big league. The 806bhp monster became the worlds fastest production car reaching 241mph taking the crown from the then, over a decade-old McLaren F1. But like Pagani, it wasn’t just sheer numbers that made their cars special.

Founder Christian Von Koenigsegg has one of the most fruitful minds in the industry, every detail of the car has been thought outside the box. Take the never before seen Dihedral synchro-helix doors that open upwards and outwards to create easy ingress and look fantastic doing so. Every car has a removable roof that can be stored away in the front compartment and thanks to its carbon fibre tub, the chassis loses no structural rigidity. This cleverly negates the need for the traditional process of making two separate chassis to cater for hard and soft top variants. 

Innovation has been a key selling point for the company, choosing to manufacture many components in house rather than buy them in. For the customer, this ensures a more bespoke experience, vital to separate them from the rest when you are charging seven-figure sums. Since the arrival of the Agera, Koenigsegg has used a 5.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 made in house and have annihilated the competition in the power stakes. 1603bhp is seen in the Jesko with rival Bugatti coming up short with 1577bhp in the Chiron supersport, despite having another 3 litres larger capacity and 2 more turbochargers.

Advancements in engine technology such as the camless or “free valve” system and transmission innovations like the Light Speed gearbox in the Jesko that has the shift speed of a twin-clutch box but the ability to shift into any gear at one time like a standard manual, have pushed Koenigsegg ahead of the pack and seemingly one step ahead of the big manufacturers who seem to be all reading the same blueprint.

Lap Records

With the constant jostling at the Nurburgring and other race tracks around the world for lap time superiority, it seems to me like some of the smaller manufacturers are being overlooked. With Porsche, Lamborghini and McLaren among others all claiming lap records at one point or another, they all seem to have forgotten about a Radical SR8 LM that was driven from England, across to the Nurburgring and set a lap time of 6.48 in 2005! There’s even a YouTube video of the lap. 

Why then in 2017 did Lamborghini announce a new production car record of 6.52? As far as I know, production car means a road-legal car you can buy and the Radical is exactly that. And let’s not forget about another small British manufacturer BAC, their one-seater road-legal track toy the Mono, running on road-legal Kumho tyres beat a track-only McLaren P1 GTR wearing slicks by a whole second around Anglesey circuit. 

Who remembers the crazy Caparo T1? That thing had a kerb weight under 500kg and a 575bhp naturally aspirated V8 with wild aero. I’m pretty sure if set up correctly that would destroy pretty much every supercar on the road. With these F1 and Le Mans prototype inspired and often forgotten cars blowing the traditional style supercars into the weeds, why is it the main players continue to make their race car for the road claims based on cars that are so heavily road-biased?

Daily Usability

As far as the supercar is concerned, there are two roads to go down. The first is the route of the Aston Martin Valkyrie. Build a car that rewrites the record books, breaks lap records and is built from the ground up for that sole purpose, not adapted from an existing platform. The second is Gordon Murray’s T.50. Make the driving experience your number one priority, let the power figures and lap times be a side note, once again designed on a fresh sheet of paper. It’s cars that hover in the middle that irritate me.

Ron Dennis claimed the P1 would beat any car around any track, but we already established how the track-only version on slicks couldn’t beat a car with a Ford Focus engine. I get it, the two examples I used in the Valkyrie and T.50, are ridiculously expensive but their philosophy can filter down to junior models, much like Aston Martin are going to do with the Valhalla and next Vanquish. They take what is learned from the big brother and apply it to a car with a more realistic price tag.

What annoys me with some supercars is this focus on daily usability. Why? Whoever is buying these sorts of cars is looking for a thrill, a work of art or a driving experience like no other. They most likely have many other cars in their collection to use for the supermarket run, so why do manufacturers insist on taming their million-pound monsters so they can happily trundle around an Asda car park? 

Porsche, on their GT cars, do my nut in with using fabric grab handles for the doors… placed right next to electric switches for the door mirrors. The McLaren Senna has soft close doors yet boasts about a weight saving of 33% thanks to some lightweight bolts. In my eyes, the Ferrari F40 got it right, stripped out the proper way with no fancy trim. I’ve never once heard anyone say the untidy green glue holding the carbon fibre together detracted from the driving experience.

Marketing and Design

I’m unsure who to point the finger of blame at the most here, marketing departments telling us their new car is a road-legal race car when it’s absolutely nothing of the sort or designers unsure of what the end product is supposed to be. The Mercedes SLR McLaren is an example of this. Mercedes were in the mindset of it being a super grand tourer but McLaren wanted it to be more track-focused. Gordon Murray who worked on it said the car doesn’t know what it wants to be and because of that, he doesn’t like it. 

At the price point of the cars we’re talking about, a car should have one purpose. Lap times, driving experience, long-distance touring, take your pick. Heck even create a new segment! When a manufacturer decides to build a halo car, do so with a focus on being the absolute best at one chosen attribute, not a Jack of all trades master of none.

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