James McCay

Jun 16, 2020

100 of the fastest cars over the last century

How have sports cars transformed over the last 100 years?

In our animation, the last 10 decades demonstrate that when it comes to the fastest production (road-legal) cars in history, brands have shifted gear. New developments in aerodynamic engineering, horsepower and manufacturing meant they could push performance further and faster over time.

We identified some of the fastest production cars of the last 100 years, and combined the three to five fastest cars released every five years to create a hybrid design, reflecting an ‘average shape’ of those sports cars. The horsepower and speed figures are also averaged based on each car that went into the hybrid design.

 

The cars that informed our animation include:

1920-1940
  • 1921 Stutz Series K
  • 1921 Bentley 3 Litre
  • 1923 Lancia Lambda Torpedo
  • 1923 Bugatti Type 23 Brescia
  • 1923 Amilcar CGS
  • 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom 1 Jonckheere Coupe
  • 1926 Bentley Speed Six
  • 1927 Lagonda 16/60 2 Litre Speed
  • 1928 Duesenberg Model J
  • 1929 Mercedes-Benz SSK
  • 1930 Cadillac V16
  • 1931 Bentley 8 Litre Gurney Nutting Sports Tourer
  • 1932 Duesenberg Model SJ
  • 1934 Bugatti Type 57
  • 1934 Packard Twelve Convertible Victoria
  • 1935 Mercedes-Benz 500k Special Roadster
  • 1937 Jaguar SS 100 3.5-litre Roadster
  • 1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton
  • 1937 Squire 1500 Corsica Roadster
  • 1939 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring Berlinetta
1940-1960
  • 1940 AAC Tipo 814
  • 1940 Audi 920
  • 1940 Aston Martin Atom
  • 1940 Delage D6-75
  • 1941 BMW 328 Berlin-Rome Roadster
  • 1946 Delahaye 145
  • 1947 Ferrari 125 Sport
  • 1948 Jaguar XK120
  • 1948 Tucker 48
  • 1949 Healy Silverstone
  • 1951 Pegaso Z-102
  • 1952 Alfa Romeo Disco Volante Spider
  • 1953 Austin Healy 100
  • 1954 Triumph TR2
  • 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupe
  • 1956 Chevrolet Corvette C1
  • 1957 BMW 507 Series II
  • 1957 Jaguar XKSS
  • 1959 Aston Martin DB4GT
  • 1959 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta SWB
1960-1980
  • 1960 Maserati 5000 GT
  • 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO
  • 1962 Studebaker Avanti
  • 1963 Shelby Cobra
  • 1964 Aston Martin DB5
  • 1966 Lamborghini Miura
  • 1967 Ford GT40 MK III
  • 1968 Ferrari 365 GTB4 Berlinetta Daytona
  • 1969 Maserati Ghibli Spyder
  • 1969 Chevrolet Corvette 427 Stingray
  • 1971 Maserati Bora
  • 1973 Lancia Stratos HF
  • 1973 De Tomaso Pantera
  • 1973 Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer
  • 1974 Lamborghini Countach
  • 1975 Bricklin SV-1
  • 1977 Aston Martin V8 Vantage
  • 1977 Porsche 911 Turbo
  • 1978 BMW M1
  • 1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z28
1980-2000
  • 1980 Audi Quattro
  • 1982 Porsche 944
  • 1984 Isdera Imperator 108i
  • 1984 Ford Mustang SVO
  • 1948 Ferrari 288 GTO
  • 1985 De Tomaso Pantera GT5-S
  • 1985 Lamborghini Countach LP5000 Quattrovalvole
  • 1986 Porsche 959
  • 1987 Ferrari F40
  • 1989 Lotus Esprit SE
  • 1990 Lamborghini Diablo
  • 1991 Bugatti EB 110 GT
  • 1992 Jaguar XJ220
  • 1992 McLaren F1
  • 1993 Dauer 962 Le Mans
  • 1995 Ferrari F50
  • 1997 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR
  • 1997 Lotus Elise GT1
  • 1997 Panoz Esperante GTR-1
  • 1998 Toyota GT-One TS020
2000-2020
  • 2000 Saleen S7
  • 2002 Ferrari Enzo
  • 2002 Koenigsegg CC8S
  • 2002 Pagani Zonda C12-S7.3
  • 2004 Lotec Sirius
  • 2005 Bugatti Veyron
  • 2006 Bristol Fighter T
  • 2006 Pagani Zonda Roadster F
  • 2006 SSC Ultimate Aero
  • 2009 Koenigsegg CCX
  • 2010 Zenvo ST1
  • 2012 Pagani Huayra
  • 2012 Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse
  • 2013 Koenigsegg Agera R
  • 2013 Hennessey Venom GT
  • 2016 Bugatti Chiron
  • 2018 Hennessey Venom F5
  • 2019 Koenigsegg Jesko
  • 2020 Aston Martin Valkyrie
  • 2020 McLaren Speedtail

By the time our video begins, the horse and carriage were already replaced. The sports cars of the day combined simplicity with elegance, creating their own unique, timeless, evocative style. Brands like Bentley, Stutz Motor Company, Duesenberg and Amilcar lit the path for faster supercars by producing sporting road cars capable of speeds over 100kph (60mzph), even with only 70 horsepower.

In the 1920s, fast road-legal production cars had between 50 and 70 horsepower.
Modern supercars have over 30 times that amount of power.

The supercars of today (the cream of which are known as hypercars) are designed to turn heads just as much as they’re made to burn treads. These cars demand to be appreciated (when they’re going slow enough for pedestrians to catch a glimpse) with aggressive lines, dynamic angles, and large amounts of framework cut away.

These bold forms aren’t just for looks, but to also make them as aerodynamic as possible.

Today, manufacturers like Aston Martin, McLaren, Koenigsegg and Bugatti carry the torch with some of the fastest and most powerful road cars in history.

So, how have we gone from the understated elegance of the Stutz Series K to the powerful and sleek form of the McLaren Speedtail? Let’s take a step through time.

A cruise through 100 years of motoring greatness

Our timeline begins with the ‘20s when sports cars were a statement in elegance. The hood opened up sideways rather than the front, unlike most modern cars. Seats were often stately, leather affairs mostly designed for multiple people to sit together, rather than the individual seats of today. Engines ranged from four to eight cylinders, with two or more valves per cylinder.

Thus, models like the Bentley 3 Litre, Duesenberg Model J or Rolls-Royce Phantom Jonckheere Coupe are timeless pieces of art as much as they are road cruising machines capable of speeds over 100kph (70mph).

The ‘30s saw a refinement of the stylings exhibited in the ‘20s, and gave the world timeless models like the Bugatti Type 57, Bentley 8 Litre Gurney Nutting Sports Tourer, Jaguar SS 100 and Mercedes-Benz 500K.

Interestingly, a unique run of Bugatti Type 57C Atlantics (produced in 1936), of which only four were made, saw one of them disappear in 1941, just before the height of World War II. To this day, no one knows where it is and what happened to it.

During and after World War II

The ‘40s saw speedy automobiles, such as the Aston Martin Atom, Jaguar XK120 and Healey Silverstone, become more curved with smoother fronts, shapes and lines to minimise wind drag. These cars’ bodies also sat lower to the road, and they grew wider to make room for larger, more powerful engines like the Jaguar’s 1970CC twin carburettor heart or the six cylinder dual overhead camshaft XK6 engine used on the Jaguar XK120.

Following this decade, the ‘50s continued the trend of smoothing out edges; it also saw the vertical grills of the past become wider to help cool the more powerful engines underneath so they could run further and faster, achieving speeds between 130kph and 220kph (80-130+mph).

The era of the muscle car

The ‘60s beckoned the golden age of American muscle cars, like the Chevrolet Corvette C1, the 427 Stingray and Shelby Cobra – long, powerful cars designed to go fast in a straight line.

European brands produced agile roadsters with sleeker angles than the muscle cars and headlights that retreated into the car’s framework, further reducing wind drag to help the fastest production cars of this decade reach speeds over 270kph (170+mph) or more.

This decade also saw the legendary motorsport battle between Ferrari and Ford. When Henry Ford II attempted to buy Ferrari, and Enzo Ferrari refused (as he would lose decision making power over Ferrari’s racing team), Ford decided to try and beat Ferrari at the Le Mans 24 hour race – which had been dominated by Ferrari’s racing team for years. After two years, the Ford GT40 MK II defeated the Italian stallion in 1966 – a legendary motorsport rivalry depicted on the silver screen in 2019.

The road-legal version of the Ford racer, the GT40 MK III, featured large vents in its hood to help air flow smoothly over the body to lower its aerodynamic drag co-efficient (the lower the drag co-efficient, the more the car ‘slips’ through the air).

Another motorsport rivalry from this decade includes Ferrari and Lamborghini. The story goes that Ferruccio Lamborghini, a talented Italian engineer who had established a successful tractor company, took his own Ferrari 250 GT to get serviced at Ferrari’s headquarters. He complained about the clutch to Ezno Ferrari himself.

Enzo Ferrari then dismissed Ferrucio Lamborghini, insulting his engineering skills. Ferrucio then began working on his own sports car, and in 1963, Automobili Lamborghini was born.

Another famous call out from this time period includes the Aston Martin DB5, which was made more popular by its appearance in the third James Bond film, Goldfinger, in 1964.

Fast sports cars of the ‘70s, like the De Tomaso Pantera and BMW 1M, were typified by large, long, sleek bonnets and short rear trunks. Their windscreens were also angled acutely to reduce aerodynamic drag. However, increasing emissions controls had a knock-on effect on the average top speed of some of the fastest cars in this decade, particularly muscle cars, causing another downwards turn in our animation.

An age of sci-fi

Some beastly supercars of the ‘80s, including the Isdera Imperator 108i, Ferrari F40, and the Lamborghini Countach LP5000 QV, resembled spaceships as much as road cars. This decade saw rear spoilers become fashionable not just for their sci-fi looks but also increased downforce – providing more grip so cars could travel faster around corners.

Rear ends grew larger on some models, and recessed side vents (also known as fender vents) became popular for their style and ability to relieve pressurised air, which improved stability.
The ‘80s spaceship design continued into the ‘90s, leading to eye-catching models, like the Lamborghini Diablo, Dauer 962 Le Mans, Jaguar XJ220, Ferrari F50 and Lotus Elise GT1, with the fastest of these reaching well over 300pkph (200mph).

Spoilers, vents, air intakes; if it could help make the car more aerodynamic, then supercar manufacturers were willing to give it a whirl. Some of the fastest road cars of this decade were so low to the ground there was barely any wheel arch left in the bodywork.

Stability was an issue in this decade. The Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR flipped over backwards at speeds of over 300kph (180mph) in 1999 on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans. The same model had also ‘taken off’ twice previously, including one instance involving Australian racer Mark Webber.


Fortunately, all three drivers survived.

So, in regards to the Mercedes-Benz, what caused a state-of-the-art race car from the world’s most experienced car maker to suddenly lift up and somersault through the air at three different times?

Adrian Feeney, Chairman and CEO of the Society of Automotive Engineers – Australasia (SAE-A), says most theories agree that the car lifted a little at the front when cresting a hill, causing a pressure build-up underneath the car as the Mercedes followed a Toyota GT-One’s slipstream. (The road-legal version of the Toyota is one of the models incorporated into the 1995 car shape in our animation.)

A ‘slipstream’ refers to the disturbed current of air behind a car. Driving in the slipstream can reduce drag, improve fuel efficiency, but it also affects lift and downforce.

Following the dramatic crashes – plus other similar events in racing during the late ‘90s – the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (International Federation of Automobiles) changed the rules, stating that race cars must have vents in the front bumper to relieve pressure build-up.

In 1999, The Ford Model T was declared the greatest car of the century, but nominations included the Mercedes 300SL, Audi Quattro, Jaguar XK120 and Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, all of which are included in the animation above.

Additionally, Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiara was named Car Designer of the Century. His handiwork includes the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Bertone and Lotus Esprit (which also made an appearance in a Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me) – cousins of the Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta SWB and Lotus Esprit SE respectively, included in the video above.

A new millennium, a new age of supercars

At the turn of the millennium, cars became wider at the rear and angled slightly downwards; this design helped them to maintain a neutral or negative pitch angle – i.e. the car’s nose was closer to the ground than its rear, helping reduce any air pressure build-up. A new century also saw new contenders enter the race, such as Koenigsegg, Zenvo and Shelby SuperCars (SSC).

Cars like the Bugatti Veyron (the first Bugatti in almost 20 years since the EB110), SSC Ultimate Aero, Zenvo ST1, Koenigsegg Agera R and Hennessey Venom GT all brought more than 1,000 horsepower to bear on the road. In the early 2000’s, the fastest supercars and hypercars were able to reach speeds just over 400kph (250mph). In the late 2010’s, the fastest hypercars were recording speeds over 480kph. In 2019 the Bugatti Chiron was the first to break the 300mph barrier (490kph).1

These mighty machines need a lot of power, as various systems beyond the engine also burn a lot of it. As an illustration, Feeney brings up the original 2005 Bugatti Veyron (one of the 2005 cars in our above animation). The car was listed as producing a thousand horsepower, but the engine actually produced 3,000 horsepower. The car’s cooling system used 1,000 horsepower, and its exhaust used another 1,000; this left the final thousand for the engine. For the past century, almost all high-performance cars were powered entirely by petrol engines.

The new millennium, however, saw more carmakers developing alternative engines. As technology advances and the world becomes more environmentally-conscious, green power has risen to meet the challenge.

A shift to greener power

While recent years have seen a growing number of supercars embrace hybrid and pure electric engines, electric cars aren’t actually anything new.

In 1899, Belgian inventor Camille Jenatzy created the first car to reach 100kph, La Jamais Contente (The Never Satisfied). It was a fully electric one-seater missile (literally shaped like a missile, with its cylindrical body and conical nose and tail) on four wheels.

Today, Jenatzy’s legacy lives on. Formula E, which began in 2014, was the first official fully electric motorsport championship. Back on the road, new electric and hybrid supercars, such as the McLaren Speedtail, Aston Martin Valkyrie, Czinger 21C, Porsche 918 Spyder, Ferrari LaFerrari, Koenigsegg Gemera and Rimac C2 can match the top speeds of their petrol-powered rivals.

Pininfarina’s CEO Michael Perschke said, ‘electrification unlocks the door to a new level of performance and a zero-emissions future, when he announced the Pininfarina Battista, a fully electric hypercar with 1,900 horsepower (released in 2020).2

‘Don’t be surprised if someone is already out there aiming to top 500kph, and don’t be too surprised if it turns out to be electric.’

Adrian Feeney, Chairman and CEO of SAE-A

Race cars vs supercars: What’s the difference?

 

With large spoilers, air intakes and dashboard computers that track g-force, you may see some similarities between supercars and race cars. Despite the speed and handling of high-performance production vehicles, they are still remarkably different to purpose-built race cars.

Road-legal cars are often more comfortable for the driver, as race car interiors are very Spartan – designed to save weight and lower their centre of gravity for battles on the tarmac instead of cruising down the highway. Lighter and stronger materials like carbon fibre are also highly expensive and aren’t necessary for regular road use.

Luxury supercars, on the other hand, typically have comfortable leather seats and gadgets, like satellite navigation, and are designed to steal the spotlight on Sunset Boulevard. They may include exotic materials like carbon fibre to deliver uncompromised performance, and also to just show off.

Fundamentally, the car’s intended purpose changes how the car itself is designed and made. Sriram Pakkam, Motorsports Aero Lead at Ford Performance, sums it up.

‘Race cars are designed entirely around what the tyres want. High-performance road cars, and supercars even, are designed around what the customer wants.’

Homologation specials: When a racer is let loose on the road

In the past, however, the distinction between road car and race car wasn’t always clear.

For example, there was almost no difference between the following ‘90s supercars and their racetrack counterparts:

  • the 1993 Dauer 962 Le Mans;
  • the 1997 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR;
  • the 1998 Toyota GT-One TS020;
  • the 1997 Panoz Esperante; and
  • the 1997 Lotus Elise GT1.

These supercars are examples of ‘homologation specials.’ They’re the product of the homologation rules, where if a manufacturer wanted to produce a new racing car for the professional circuits, they had to produce a road-legal version first.

This often led to manufacturers producing a racing car and then making it conform to legal codes (with just enough changes to make it road-legal) to create a road-worthy supercar, before going back to designing it purely for the race track.

Now that manufacturers have access to a wider range of parts, and technology and engineering have developed further, ‘homologation specials’ have fallen out of favour.

Another key difference between race cars and supercars is weight. Dedicated racing cars are designed to be as light as possible to increase acceleration speeds, but modern fast and powerful road cars are often just as heavy as any other car. While road-legal hypercars may actually have more horsepower than dedicated professional race cars, they have a worse power-to-weight ratio, which makes them slower to accelerate than race cars.

As Feeney explains, supercars need to withstand all the forces of high speeds.

‘They need big brakes, big engines, lots of cooling equipment; everything that adds up to weight,’ he says. Today, supercars and hypercars range in weight between one and two tonnes – one of the few similarities between supercars and everyday road cars.

Beyond that, standard production cars and supercars are worlds apart.

What’s next?

The race for faster supercars is always speeding up with carmakers pushing the limits of aerodynamics, power and style.

Looking to 2020, Hennessey Performance is working on a new carbon fibre chassis for their Venom F5 to help propel its car to speeds of over 490.85kph (305mph), according to one Hennessey Performance spokesperson.


Reaching 305mph (490.85kph) would make it faster than Bugatti’s Chiron, which was the first car to break the 300mph barrier.

Not wanting to miss out on the action, Pagani announced a new version of the Pagani Huayra, the Imola, in February 2020. The Imola production was limited to just five cars, with a cost of AUD$8.3 million (€5 million) each at the time of writing.3

Other planned luxury performance car debuts from the cancelled 2020 Geneva International Motor Show in March4 included:

  • all-new manufacturer, Czinger, and their Czinger 21C – a hybrid power hypercar;5
  • the new roadster version of the Aston Martin Vantage;6
  • a brand new Ferrari, the Ferrari Roma;7
  • Koenigsegg’s new four-seater hybrid hypercar the Gemera; and
  • the Koenigsegg Jesko Absolut, which could be capable of hitting speeds over 500kph – they have yet to test it at time of writing.8

Supercars and high-performance vehicles are designed to make a statement and grab your attention. They’re all about style, luxury, performance, and being bold.

Manufacturers will continue to push the capabilities of road-legal cars to see what’s possible with science and engineering; to break boundaries, and to earn a place in automotive history. Indeed, the race for the fastest production car may never end as luxury marques and performance brands chase racing glory – and at least right now, there are exciting things to come.

Sources

 

  1. Bugatti Breaks the 300 MPH Barrier. Tim Bravo, Bugatti. 2019.
  2. Pininfarina Battista – The World’s First Pure Electric Luxury Hyper GT Revealed. Automobili Pininfarina. 2019.
  3. Pagani Imola, a Powerhouse of Technology for the Racetrack and Road. Pagani Automobili. 2020.
  4. The Geneva International Motor Show is Cancelled! Geneva International Motor Show. 2020.
  5. Czinger: A Paradigm Shift. Geneva International Motor Show. 2020.
  6. Vantage Roadster: Uncompromising Performance Meets Pure Emotion. Aston Martin. 2020.
  7. Ferrari: La Dolce Vita in Rome. Geneva International Motor Show. 2020.
  8. The Show Must Go On – Koenigsegg #GIMS2020. Koenigsegg. 2020.