Supercars then and now – a light-hearted look at supercars over the years from the 1920s till present. Join me on my journey in part I…
“I say boys, here comes George in his new Bentley,” enthused Arthur standing at the bar with gin and tonic in hand. The setting, the local polo ground near Windsor, in the royal county of Berkshire, circa 1929. “That will surely outgun Fred’s Lagonda,” replied a fellow socialite. All eyes turned to watch as George manoeuvred his large, gleaming new Bentley alongside the other thoroughbred sporting cars.
One can almost imagine the setting, with white umbrellas, tables neatly set out for an afternoon’s sport and entertainment on a fine summer’s day in tranquil, leafy England. The spectators, all decked out in their lace and finery, eyed each other up and down critically as they took their places according to their social standing. Their cars, too, lined up in a similar display of social superiority, reflecting their owners’ importance and breeding.
A Bentley 4.5 litre and a Speed 6 lined up beside a Riley Brooklands 9, MG, Sunbeam, Invicta, Lagonda, Napier, Alvis and Aston Martins. More affluent and well-travelled members of the group might bring their Bugatti Type 43, a Delage or perhaps an Alfa Romeo 8C just to add a touch of Continental flavour. During the day, as the champagne flowed, talk would most likely flitter between the recent racing at Ascot, the latest fashion on Oxford Street or their next overseas vacation aboard an ocean liner to some far off, distant colony.
Most of the cars in the car park at our polo game would be capable of sustaining speeds around the magical ‘ton’, as they certainly all had impressive sporting pedigrees and were manufactured in England or on the Continent. From across the Atlantic, however, the 1928 Duesenberg Model J represented the pinnacle of automotive prestige in America. The rolling chassis of a Model J could set you back $8500 whereas a suitable body could bring the total cost up to a staggering $18,000. With its 6.9-litre straight eight Lycoming engine, the Duessey had a top speed of 117mph, but true sports cars from the States were few and far between. High performance cars around this time, were found mostly in England and Europe as the American manufacturers had not yet felt the need for highly tuned and agile vehicles in such a vast land where sharp corners and narrow country roads were almost unheard of.
Shoot forward seventy years into the noughties and to a new setting, the car park of an upmarket health club. “Hey man, Ramon, how do you like my new wheels? I picked up this Ferrari 458 Italia last week, paid cash with my annual bonus. It really goes man, and it looks really sharp next to my partner’s Beemer convertible.” “Hey, Will, my man, that’s really cool. But whadaya think ‘bout my new Lambo? It’s the latest Gallardo Spyder, it cost a bomb, but what the heck, I did a good credit deal, s’pose I will probably change it before the year’s out.”
In both of the imaginary scenes portrayed above, the cars reflect the social standing of their owners, but the second scenario paints a very different picture from the first one. In the first scene, not only did the car represent the social standing of its owner, but it also demonstrated an appreciation for motoring in its finest form. However, in the second scene, the meaning of a supercar has almost been relegated to the status of a piece of merchandise, merely a fashion item with which to flaunt your social standing at the time and attract attention to your lifestyle.
So, what is a supercar?
Just to set the record straight so that we understand what we are talking about here, the word ‘super’ is described in the dictionary as – above, beyond, to an extreme degree – and when combined with the word car, well, it means that you’ve really got your hands full. A supercar is not a racing car but a road car, and although capable of extremely high speeds, it must be street legal. What constitutes a supercar will surely be debated and argued for decades to come, over countless gins and around a myriad of BBQ fires, but some of the essential ingredients would undoubtedly include speed and power, presence or the ‘Wow’ factor, a degree of impracticality, cost and, certainly, exclusivity.
Since the early days of motoring, the challenge of speed has always been irresistible to man. In the beginning, it was all to do with pride, man and machine, nation against nation on the racing circuits of the world. Victory here brought immense social prestige and honour. Today, it is more a matter of being able to claim that your steed can do 0-60 in under 4.0 seconds, regardless of whether you would actually ever attempt to test its limits.
But taking a few steps back through time, supercars have not always been understood in the same way that they are today. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, motoring was still in its infancy and the public was going through as much of a learning curve as the drivers were, in understanding the capabilities of the car. At this time, speeds of 100mph took average drivers into unchartered waters, while anything beyond that must have seemed about as far-fetched as flying to the moon.
In the 1920s, a Bentley, or similar car, was quite capable of unsettling your dentures at almost any speed. Originally, supercars were for those who wanted to use them for the sport of motoring and for the pure enjoyment of driving them, although you needed to be a driver of a certain standard in order to get the best out of the vehicle. Real supercars required real input to drive properly. Possessing forearms like tree trunks and wrestling sheep before breakfast could help to build strong arms and shoulders to provide enough stamina to keep you behind the wheel of a Bentley 4½-litre all day.
Moving into the early thirties, some smaller, more elegant sports cars emerged towards the end of that decade. The 1937 3½-litre Jaguar SS100 at £445 and BMW 328 at £695, offered stunning performance, were less intimidating to drive and were also more affordable. Understandably, with no developments in this field during the forties, the 1950s saw unprecedented growth in the vehicle industry around the world, and the result was a plethora of fast and beautifully sculptured vehicles. British high performers of this era included the Jaguar XK120, Aston Martin DB4 and AC Ace, while in Germany, the 1954 Mercedes 300SL Gull Wing, originally intended to be a road going race car, lifted the performance bar to a mighty 155mph (250km/h).
How can anyone forget the tragic events that surrounded the death of movie legend, James Dean, when his Porsche Spyder ploughed into an oncoming car on a deserted Californian motorway in September 1955? Although designed for the track, the Spyder was a road legal machine with a top speed of 135mph.
Hope you have enjoyed my light-hearted look at supercars then and now and be sure to look out for Part II, which will follow next week. I will explore the age of the modern supercar, from the late 1950s and 1960s onwards…
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale, Roland Harrison & Zoltan Papp