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How the shape of sports cars has changed over a century

5 min read
9 Oct 2020

When it comes to the fastest production (road-legal) cars in history, the last 10 decades have demonstrated how brands have really shifted gear to push performance faster and faster over time.

Comparethemarket.com.au created a video animation to visualise the evolution of the fastest production car of each decade, spanning the last 100 years. As well as providing an average horsepower and top speed figure, the video shows how the shapes of these speed machines has changed over time.

The roaring ‘20s: Old fashioned speed machines

Car shapes throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Sports cars during this decade were a statement in elegance, but that didn’t stop them from paving the way for faster supercars in years to come. With an average horsepower between 50 and 70, engines ranged from four to eight cylinders and the fastest of the lot reached speeds over 100kph. Adorned with stately leather seats and hoods that opened sideways, models like the Bentley 3 Litre or Rolls-Royce Phantom Jonckheere Coupe are timeless pieces of art as much as they are road cruising machines.

During and after World War II

Car shapes throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

The ‘40s saw speedy automobiles, such as the Aston Martin Atom and Jaguar XK120 become more curved with smoother 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. World War II caused a bit of a dip in the average top speed in our animation, as some car manufacturers turned their efforts into creating engines for their nation’s war machines.

The era of the muscle car

Car shapes throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

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 and headlights that retreated into the car’s framework, further reducing wind drag to help the fastest cars of this decade reach speeds over 270kph.

This decade also saw the legendary battle between Ferrari and Ford, as well as Ferrari and Lamborghini.

An age of sci-fi

Car shapes throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Beastly supercars of the ‘80s saw rear spoilers become fashionable not just for their sci-fi looks but also increased downforce – providing grip around fast corners. Rear ends grew larger and recessed side vents (fender vents) became popular for their style and ability to relieve pressurised air, improving stability.

Leading into the ‘90s, stability became an issue. The Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR flipped over backwards at speeds of over 300kph in 1999 on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans. The same model had also become airborne twice previously, including one instance involving Australian racer Mark Webber.

A new millennium, a new age of supercars

Car shapes throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

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, 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, SSC Ultimate Aero, Zenvo ST1, Koenigsegg Agera R and Hennessey Venom GT all brought more than 1,000 horsepower to the road. In the early 2000’s, the fastest supercars and hypercars were able to reach speeds just over 400kph. In the late 2010’s, the fastest hypercars were recording speeds over 480kph. In 2019 the Bugatti Chiron was the first to break 300mph (490kph).[1]

A shift to green power

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

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]

What’s next?

The race for 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, according to one Hennessey Performance spokesperson. Indeed, the competition may never end as luxury marques and performance brands chase racing glory – and at least right now, there are exciting things to come.

Visit comparethemarket.com.au to see the full list of fast cars from the 1920s until now, including a detailed video incorporating the best elements of past vehicles into hybrid designs.

Sources

[1] Bugatti – Bugatti Breaks the 300 MPH Barrier: https://www.bugatti.com/media/news/2019/bugatti-breaks-the-300-mph-barrier/

[2] Mahindra Rise – The World’s First Pure Electric Luxury Hyper GT Revealed: https://www.mahindra.com/news-room/press-release/pininifarina-battista-the-world-s-first-pure-electric-luxury-hyper-gt-revealed

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Written by Hannah Norton

Hannah is the Digital PR Coordinator at Compare the Market and is a fan of all things that challenge the mind; be it jigsaw puzzles, reading as many novels as she can fit into a day, or trying to beat her existing personal best for solving a Rubik's Cube. As well as enjoying nature hikes and other outdoor activities, Hannah is a passionate animal lover and you can almost always find her down at the beach with her furry, four-legged friends.

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