Almost throughout automotive history there has been the specter of the unattainable dream car. A vehicle so pure, so powerful, so fast, that it would endow its owner with seemingly super powers, either to foil a rival or to attract a date. Usually many dates. In fact, the dates might be the whole point of all of these. Regardless, they are each, in their own decades, the ultimate wheeled fantasy, and the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles has corralled over 25 of them, from the ancient and spindly 1913 Mercer to the McLaren F1. Click on and be amazed at what once was. Then get thee to the Petersen’s third floor, where all 25 (or 26) cars are on display. Or will be as soon as the museum reopens, which should be soon, they tell us. Actual opening date depends on government regulations, so keep an eyeball on www.petersen.org.
The supercar class didn’t begin with the Lamborghini Countach, ya know. There were supercars more than 100 years ago. This 1913 Mercer Type 35-J Raceabout ruled the road in the Brass Era. It was the fastest sports car of its day, and still a heckuva a lot of fun to drive, according to those who have driven it. Before this one came to the Petersen’s collection it belonged to the great Phil Hill.
The American Mercedes Company of New York built this car to celebrate the company’s Targa Florio win in 1921, according to the Petersen’s archives. It was powered by a massive, even by today’s standards, 94-hp 7.2-liter straight six. Its secret weapon was that it had drum brakes on all four wheels, a rarity in 1923.
Imagine a road car in 1933 that could go 150 mph. Imagine a 400-hp road car in 1933. Tell me Duesenbergs weren’t supercars. This Duesenberg was powered by a supercharged 7.0-liter straight eight that had double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. All this in 1933! The car was so fast that the Duesenberg ads claimed it could only be passed “…if the owner let it be passed.” Like all Dueseys, the body was coach-built, this one by Murphy in Pasadena, Calif.
Like many cars on our supercar list, this Delahaye was based on a race car, the V12-powered Type 145 that raced in Grands Prix across Europe. This one was one of four ordered by pioneering female racer and pre-war Grand Prix team owner Lucy Schell. Schell’s 145s not only won the Prix du Million driven by Rene Dreyfus, but beat the German Mercedes team at other races. After its racing career, this car was rebodied by Chapron and spent a glorious retirement that continues to this day, at the Petersen.
The Inter was one of the earliest Ferraris ever made, coming just four years after the birth of the company. It was powered by a 2.7-liter V12 making 210 hp and was raced successfully throughout Europe. This particular model was ordered by no less an industry luminary than Henry Ford II, who parked it in the Ford Styling Dome to inspire the Thunderbird designers. It worked, as you can see in the T-Bird’s egg-crate grille, hood scoop and overall proportions. Plus, Hank the Deuce got to drive it around Dearborn and Grosse Point, possibly inspiring his actions in Ford v Ferrari. Who knows?
The 1954-57 Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing is one of the all-time great classic cars even today, but when it was new, it was also the fastest car in the world, able to hit a top speed of 163 mph. Not a lot of cars can go that fast even today. The Gullwing’s 3.0-liter straight six made 220 hp thanks to a single overhead cam and fuel injection from a Messerschmidt 109. Originally designed for road racing, among its famous runs was La Carrera Panamericana, the SL in the name stands for super leicht, or super light.
If you want to trace the history of the modern supercar, you would likely end right here, with the 1966 introduction of the Lamborghini Miura. It was remarkable not only for the Marcello Gandini-designed body, but for the amazing feat of cramming a V12 engine and transmission sideways behind the two seats. As such, it was the first successful mass-produced supercar, and the world has never been the same.
If the Miura pioneered the mid-engine supercar, the Lancia Stratos took it on the road and won races. And it didn’t even need pavement. The Stratos won the World Rally Championship in 1974, ’75 and ’76, among other victories. The key was another transverse-mounted engine in another Marcello Gandini-designed body. Gandini did this one between penning the Miura and the Countach. Instead of a V12, the Stratos used the 2.4-liter V6 from the Ferrari Dino. Then Sandro Munari went out and won everything he entered. The car was competitive even into the ’80s in the hands of privateers.
The M1 was supposed to be BMW’s ultimate racing machine, but the rules for the class it was to enter changed, the car didn’t really race, and now it sits as the thing people point to during bar arguments to say, “The the late-’70s/early ’80s weren’t all bad, you had the M1!’ Designed by Giugiaro, the M1 was to be built by Lamborghini. But Lamborghini had more trouble than it could handle so the job was turned over to a complex line of builders and, well, the whole thing turned into a kerfuffel. Only 430 were ever made. Too bad, the M1 coulda been something, maybe, who knows?
The Testarossa debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 1984, the glorious flat-12-successor to the 512BBi, and the world went nuts. This was even before the car appeared on Miami Vice. The 4.9-liter engine was not only the most powerful production powerplant in the world at the time, but the first Ferrari to feature four valves per cylinder. It made 385 hp and went 180 mph, more than enough to be the alpha dog of its day.
The 959 was revolutionary not because of its engine power – 444 hp – or aerodynamics – 0.31 cD – but because it sent varying amounts of torque to all four wheels via a semi-complex torque-biasing all-wheel-drive system. That system would be seen in a million Porsches down the road and eventually become almost commonplace, but for 1986 it was otherwordly.
This was once not only the fastest car in the world, achieving over 200 mph. But in hitting that speed it surpassed the then-revolutionary Porsche 959, which had gone 198. Alois Ruf, in his relatively small shop and with limited resources, retuned the five-speed transmission, lightened his car and redesigned the aerodynamics, the result being a remarkable 213 mph on Italy’s Nardo test track. It was the first production-based car to break 200 mph. RUF still makes cars and they still go very fast.
The Acura NSX is remembered not just for being the first Japanese supercar, but for also being remarkably fun and easy to drive fast. The V6-powered NSX was aimed at beating the performance and handling of the Ferrari 328, the top dog in the class. The steering feel was the most amazing thing about the car, it felt, as one great writer said at the time, like you were sitting on the front axle with a tie rod in each hand.
In the late-’80s Tom Walkinshaw Racing was winning Group C sports car races across Europe. So Jag decided to capitalize off that by having TWR build this. Jaguar made 282 of these long beautiful coupes between 1992 and 1994, and you could argue that at the time it was the fastest production supercar ever made. Not only did it hit 212 mph on the Nardo test track, but it lapped the Nurburgring in 7:46. Remember, this was before Nurburgring lap times for production cars were really a thing, but still, that was pretty good for almost 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the early-’90s recession dried up demand for the car and production ended in 1994.
Brilliantly fast around a race track, the Saleen S7 was less satisfying on regular roads. The concept was good, a mid-engine V8 in a steel and aluminum frame wrapped in carbon fiber body panels. The S7 saw success in various racing series around the world.
The limited-edition Maserati MC12 marked the company’s return to racing after 37 years away. It rode on the same chassis as the Ferrari Enzo, and was powered by the Enzo’s 6.0-liter V12 making 624 hp. Top speed was 205 mph. Only 50 road cars were ever produced, all for homologation purposes, while 12 race cars were made. The last time one sold at auction appears to be 2016, when it hammered at $1,430,000. So they would have been a good investment, especially if you drove them occasionally.
Another great race car that had to be offered for sale to the public for homologation purposes. For it to race in the FIA Groupe B category, Maranello had to produce 200 street versions of the 288 GTO. Unfortunately, Group B was cancelled, so the car never got a chance to race. Ferrari sold the customer cars anyway. They were powered by a 400-hp V8 mounted longitudinally instead of transversely. Doors, trunk and deck lid were aluminum, while glass reinforced plastic and carbon composites make up the rest of the body, a pre-cursor to the carbon fiber to come in car design.
The F40 was the ultimate poster boy supercar when it came out in 1987. With a twin-turbo V8 making 478 hp in a Pininfarina-designed body, the whole thing weighed just 3000 lbs. It was Enzo’s last car, too, so he wanted it to be speciale. Indeed it was, distinct in every way from the 288 GTO before it and from the F50 that came after. Sure there was turbo lag, but all you had to do was keep the revs up. While the original sticker was $400,000, they almost always clear a million, sometimes two, at auctions.
This was McLaren’s first attempt to take its tremendous success on the track and transfer it to the street. Bruce McLaren’s goal with the M6GT was nothing less than to have the fastest and quickest road car in the world. He already had the best race cars. Top speed was going to be 165 mph and 0-100 was going to take eight seconds. Then, sadly, Bruce McLaren was killed in a testing accident at Goodwood in 1970 and the project was shelved. It wasn’t until 25 years later, when Gordon Murray, working for McLaren, penned the F1, and 13 years after that when we got the MP4-12C, which launched the string of McLaren road cars we all enjoy today.
Why did the Lamborghini Countach drive everybody crazy with lust for the 25 years of its production run? It wasn’t because it was a great driver. Heck, you could barely see out of the thing. And it wasn’t a great handler. Not that any of the lusters would ever know. It was just that the Countach seemed to represent something none of us would ever have: power, prestige, &%$$^! The ultimate poster car, the Countach was Marcelo Gandini’s most-revered design for many years. Even now it can conjure great memories of la dolce vida we all imagined.
Another race car for the street, the Ford GT40 was built for one purpose and one purpose only, to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. And the GT40 did it, as anyone who saw that movie now knows. The first GT40 started life as a Lola, then went on to meld into what you see here, which is a later development of the original race car. That big V8 engine right behind your head makes you think of Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt at Le Mans, or Bruce McLaren, or pick your favorite driver from that era, chances are he will have driven a GT40 at some point. This model was a rare street version of the MkIII, once owned by the great conductor Herbert von Karajan. Now, with Ford GTs practically flooding the marketplace, anyone with a half a million bucks can afford to play Le Mans racer, and have terrific fun doing it.
Speaking of legends, is there any character more beloved by Autoweek readers than Carroll Shelby? Sure, he was no saint, but you could forgive some sinners if they were as charming as old Shel’… and if they won. The Cobra was a brilliant idea by Shelby, put a big American V8 into a tiny AC British sports car and voila, you’re winning your class at Le Mans. The Cobra is not a delicate handler, light to the touch and perfectly balanced. It is a brute at full throttle, and goes from understeer to oversteer faster than you can make a deal with the gods of lateral acceleration. But it remains wildly popular among owners and lusters alike. You can even get a continuation car for what may be a reasonable price.
This prototype was built to bridge the gap between the Tour de France models and the coming and far more famous SWB, or Short Wheel Base, 250s. With 240 hp from a 3.0-liter V12, it had a top speed of 157 mph.
While anything touched by Steve McQueen is immediately made cool, imagine how cool it would be to drive this XKSS once owned by The King of Cool himself? The Petersen Museum has had this car for several years, and staff members can even be seen exercising it on city streets around the museum. All of the original XKSS started life as racing D-Types that were converted to street use with minimal changes. So while this car’s provenance is unmatched, its performance is equally pure. Only 25 of these were ever made, including nine made in recent years to replace models lost in a fire at the factory. It remains one of the great supercars of the 20th century.
It was the late-80s/early ’90s and Bugatti was back, baby! The storied marque was revived by Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli, who seemed to do it on the strength of his personality alone. When the EB110 debuted at Versailles and Paris in 1991 it had a massive, 60-valve V12 with four, count ’em, four turbochargers. It made 553 hp and was said to be a superb driver. Derek Hill even piloted one at Daytona in 1996. But Artioli overreached when he sought to acquire Lotus and that, combined with a recession, sent the Bugatti name back on on hiatus after only 139 EB110s were made.
Then in 1998, under the iron glove of megalomaniac VW ceo Ferdinand Piech, Bugatti came back and has since stayed back. The Veyron was its first product and the Veyron 16.4 was its supercar among supercars. The Veyron 16.4 was the fastest production car in the world when it came out, hitting 253 mph. It’s 8.0-liter W16 engine made an absurd 986 hp, which is 1000 metric hp. Only 450 were ever built. But they’re still making versions of the Veyron’s successor, the Chiron, so buy all you want, they’ll make more. Just bring $3 million dollars. Financing available.
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