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SuperCars: Origins, Evolutions

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It’s difficult to describe what exactly a supercar is or is not. It’s really no more than a combination of two words to describe something that is both an automobile and one that outdoes others in its performance and design. That said, describing a supercar is just not that simple. While some automobiles are instantly identifiable as supercars, there is no concrete definition of the term, and it is an issue that is always open for debate. Some argue that a supercar has to adhere to certain criteria, and to a certain extent it does, but those criteria are always changing with the evolution of technology, style and even the law. And for every supposed rule or guideline in the supercar genre, there are always plenty of exceptions. “Supercar” is indeed a fluid term, and one that car enthusiasts can and have argued about ad nauseam. In essence, though, it is an uncompromising performance car that combines cutting-edge technology and high speed with style and exclusivity. As for the word itself, it hasn’t been around forever, but the concept of a supercar arguably goes back almost to the very beginning. Before the term supercar appeared, cars with superior horsepower, engines, and design took the world by storm, setting record after record and proving their power. It is often said that the first automobile race happened as soon as the second car was built, and it quickly became apparent that the motorcar would be a primary avenue in man’s quest for speed. Therefore, there have almost always been uncompromising cars with performance as the main focus in their design. As soon as one record was set or one lap time achieved, it just had to be beaten, and so motorcars emerged to do one thing: compete.

The first instance of the actual term supercar seems to date back to 1920. An advertisement in London’s The Times proclaims that “If you are interested in a supercar, you cannot afford to ignore the claims of the Ensign 6.” The car itself was apparently forgettable, and the word itself didn’t quite catch on, but the concept of uncompromising motorcars with superior performance persisted just as it had before. The 1930s were an especially fertile time for car design and performance. Forced induction and streamlined bodies as well as 8-, 12- and even 16-cylinder engines were major developments, and racing continued to breed the kind of automobiles that sat at the top of the pyramid as Duesenberg, Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz and others built automobiles that far eclipsed what other cars on the road were capable of. After the Second World War, automotive ingenuity exploded once again as the engineers and designers who had been distracted by years of wartime needs could finally turn their attention back to making cars and innovating. It was during the 1950s in particular that many new technologies made their way to exotic cars through motorsports. The 1950s saw road-going machinery from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Ferrari that combined cutting-edge competition-bred technology with visually arresting bodywork and staggering performance figures for their day. These cars were also very expensive. Cutting-edge design almost always is. As a result, such cars have always been some of the most exclusive automobiles on the road. Sometimes they are so advanced and so seldom seen that they seem to come from another time and place, which in part explains why the word “exotic” has become synonymous with the supercar. It actually wasn’t until the 1970s that supercar as a term came into regular usage. The Miura from Lamborghini, which debuted in 1966, was the car that established the basic supercar formula as we know it today. Designed by Lamborghini engineers in their spare time, the Miura had a large, powerful, and complicated 12-cylinder engine located behind the driver rather than in front. It was low to the ground and purposeful-looking, not to mention beautiful, and it was often finished in a very bright color. The automobile was both highly expensive and exclusive with less than 1,000 built, and it was highly impractical as well. Maximum performance was the only real goal in its design, and it came at the cost of many other functions of a normal car. It was just a car to drive, and drive faster than everybody else on the road while also looking better. In a 1970 test of the Miura for the British magazine Car, journalist L.J.K. Setright repurposed an old term to categorize this new breed of Italian exotic, calling it a supercar. The word stuck, and so did the design philosophy behind the Miura. There were other high-performance automobiles to come before, of course, as well as other very expensive ones, but the Miura hit on something that resonated with the public that other manufacturers caught on to, establishing a trend that would eventually morph into a separate genre of automobile called the supercar. As the 1970s wore on, other manufacturers like Ferrari, De Tomaso, Lotus, Maserati, Porsche and more created their own take on the supercar. The 1980s, a decade of excess, was even more perfect for the supercar as large wings, huge scoops, turbo decals wide wheels took the loud visual element of the supercar to the next level and made their way to posters on bedroom walls all over the world. The public fascination with these cars underscored yet another distinction among supercars in that they were something that many desire but few can obtain.

Supercars have endured fuel crises, economic downturns and government regulations, all the while being refined and improved as designers and engineers constantly redefine what is possible for street-legal performance. From the 1980s and beyond, space age materials and computerization have further improved the breed, and the current crop of supercars and hypercars has fully embraced the power of electricity and gas-electric hybrid technology. The idea of a supercar continues to change as it always has, from a one-off advertisement almost a century ago to today, where “supercar” has become a household word. It can’t be strictly defined, but there are certain things that a supercar must do and be. To put it very simply, a supercar needs to be, well, super. Its design needs to sacrifice practicalities and convenience in the name of performance to make it quicker than just about everything else on the road. Those sacrifices aren’t just in the design itself, but also in the cost. While normal sports cars are products sold to customers by a company to make a profit, supercars are pieces of modern engineering and tend to avoid the cost-cutting and compromise that comes with normal production cars. As such, while supercars are always very expensive to buy, they have never been particularly profitable for the people who build them. A supercar also needs to have pushed the envelope to some degree in its design. It needs to have something or do something rarely or never seen in a road car before it. Possibly the most important thing, though, is that it needs to stop people in their tracks when they see it and raise the driver’s pulse when they put their foot down.