- Oct 1, 2016
The Story of the American Supercar
Red-Hot, White-Knuckle, and Blue-Blooded
When you think of supercars – the real unbridled, purpose-built exotics – you tend to think of cars made in Italy, Germany, and the UK. Some hail from other countries, but they're almost invariably located in Europe: Bugatti in France, Koenigsegg in Sweden, Spyker in the Netherlands.... The Japanese have kicked in a few exotic notables as well, like the Acura NSX and Lexus LFA. But these United States have contributed more than their fare share.
There are the usual suspects, of course, produced by the Big Three in Detroit. Several iterations of the Chevrolet Corvette – like the previous ZR1 and the latest Z06 – have proven themselves capable of keeping pace with the best that Europe has to offer. The Dodge Viper, with its enormous V10 engine, has shown us that Chrysler has had some serious gearheads at the helm. And the Ford GT continuously revives the spirit that set out decades ago to beat Ferrari at its own game. But several of America's greatest supercars have been the products of independent startups.
Some have been one-trick ponies that most have never even heard of, but others have become household names. Join us for a pictorial blitz down memory lane as we revisit some of the little-known supercars that have embodied in the most boisterous of style the same American spirit of ingenuity that put a man on the moon.
Vector W8 Twin Turbo
The story of the American supercar begins in earnest with Vector. The company was founded in California by Jerry Wiegert in 1971, but it wasn't until 1989 that the Vector W8 began production. It looked like something out of a sci-fi movie and was powered by a modified Chevy small-block that was bored out to 6.0 liters and fitted with a pair of turbochargers to produce 625 horsepower. Despite a three-speed automatic transmission that would be laughable by today's standards, the W8 could run from 0-60 in 4.2 seconds and hit speeds over 220 miles per hour.
Buying a W8 cost some $450,000 at the time, which would amount to nearly $825k in today's money – or about the price of two Lamborghini Aventadors. But that's not the only connection Vector had to Lamborghini. Both supercar manufacturers were taken over by Indonesian outfit Megatech in the early 90s, which replaced the W8 with the M12 – based on (and powered by) the Diablo. Another 17 examples of the Vector M12 were made before Megatech sold Lamborghini to Audi and Vector went bust. Wiegert tried on at least two occasions to resuscitate the company, but ultimately Vector was consigned – like so many other supercar startups – to the dustbin of history.
Like Vector, Mosler was also based in Florida, but its designs took a far more businesslike approach. The company started out as Consulier, but subsequently took the name of its founder Warren Mosler. But more importantly, it produced some of the finest supercars ever made in America.
The Consulier GTP that emerged in 1985 was rebranded as the Mosler Intruder and Raptor and stayed in production – first with a Chrysler-sourced turbo four and then with a GM small-block V8 – until 2000 when it was replaced by the Mosler MT900. That machine was built around a carbon-fiber chassis and placed a GM V8 in the middle. With its low curb weight of 2,590 pounds, all it took was 350 horsepower to reach 60 in 3.5 seconds and cover the quarter-mile in 12.0 seconds flat – bolstered by the 1.02 g it pulled on the skidpad and its low 0.25 drag coefficient.
A more potent MT900S emerged in 2003 with 435 hp, further augmented to 600 hp to hit 60 in 3.1 seconds and the quarter mile in just 11. Numerous racing versions competed in a variety of racing series, but all told Mosler only made a few dozen supercars before it folded in 2013.
Shelby Series I
The legendary Carroll Shelby was responsible for some of America's most outstanding performance machinery. The legacy he left could be seen in the Shelby Cobra and Daytona Coupe, the Ford GT40, Dodge Viper, and more muscle cars than you could shake a shifter at. But we can't forget the Series 1.
Envisioned as a spiritual successor of sorts to the iconic Cobra, the Series 1 emerged in the late 1990s. After having buddied up with Ford and Chrysler over the years, the Series 1 was packed with General Motors equipment. The 4.0-liter V8 engine came from the Oldsmobile Aurora, the instruments from Pontiac, and the audio system from Buick.
The form, however, was pure Shelby: a two-seat, front-engine, rear-drive roadster. It only had 320 horsepower, but weighing just 2,650 pounds – or little more than a Miata despite packing twice the engine – it could hit 60 in a respectable 4.4 seconds and top out at 170 miles per hour. Only 249 examples were made before the rights changed hands, with a handful more produced later as kit cars in true continuation Shelby style.
Not unlike Shelby, Saleen's business is built principally around tuning Mustangs. But that's not where the similarity between the two ends. Saleen also once built its own supercar, but it was a very different machine to the Series 1.
The Saleen S7 was a proper mid-engined supercar, said to produce enough downforce to drive upside down in a tunnel at 160 miles per hour – though we doubt anyone ever tried. Power came suitably enough from Ford small-block V8 bored out to 427 cubic inches to produce 550 horsepower. That was enough to propel the carbon-bodied, butterfly-doored exotic to 60 in a scant 3.3 seconds, covering the quarter-mile in 11.3, and topping out at 220 miles per hour.
As if that weren't enough, Saleen subsequently made a twin-turbocharged version good for 750 hp that blew those initial numbers out of the water. 0-60 was quoted in 2.8 seconds, the quarter-mile in 10.5, and top speed approaching 250 mph. There were even some that produced as much as 1,000 horsepower.
Production ran from 2000 through 2006 and on to 2009 for the turbo model. The company showcased a followup concept called the S5S Raptor in 2008, but sadly never put it on the road.
One of the most oddball American supercars on this list was also, sadly, the shortest-lived. The Devon GTX was revealed in 2009 based on the second-generation Dodge Viper, but was so thoroughly reworked that it could be considered its own machine – if things have only turned out a little differently.
With classic proportions but unusual details, the design was enough to catch our attention. Underneath the carbon-fiber bodywork lay the beating heart of an 8.4-liter V10, good for 650 roaring horsepower. The idea was to produce 36 examples each year, priced at half a million dollars. But those plans were put in jeopardy when Chrysler set about discontinuing the Viper in 2010. Devon put in an offer to take over the operation wholesale, but it wasn't enough – and so we lost not only the Viper (until 2013 when the third generation emerged), but the Devon GTX as well. In the end only two prototypes were made, one of which sold for $200,000 at Barrett-Jackson a few years ago.
The Rossion Q1 didn't start out as an American supercar, but that's where it ended up. Oh, it's a supercar alright, even if it's only powered by a 3.0-liter V6. But it wasn't always American. It started life as the Noble M400 as designed by legendary British chassis guru Lee Noble, and produced in South Africa since 2004 at the same factory that builds Superformance's continuation Daytona Coupes and GT40s as well as the Perana Z-One. But in 2007, US-based Rossion Automotive acquired the rights, then bought the aforementioned brand Mosler, and moved production to Florida.
The Ford-sourced V6 sits amidships, and with the help of a single turbocharger, drives 508 horsepower to the rear wheels through a Getrag six-speed manual and a Quaife differential. Because the whole package – with its carbon-kevlar bodywork – weighs less than 2,300 pounds, the Q1 is said to rocket to 60 in 2.8 seconds and top out at 195. Those are supercar figures if we've ever seen them, and while it may have been designed in the UK and initially built in South Africa, it does America proud.
Showing that there's more than one way to skin a cat – and quickly – Shelby SuperCars set out a decade ago to beat the Bugatti Veyron at its own game. But instead of the complex engineering that Bugatti undertook, SSC went about it in a far simpler way.
The Washington State-based startup designed a mid-engined supercar that could easily have been mistaken for one of the hundred others that have come and gone over the years, funded by wealthy enthusiasts who fancy themselves the next Ferruccio Lamborghini. But it packed a punch – Lord Almighty, did it pack a punch. Power came from a Chevy small-block V8 that was incrementally enlarged and retuned over the course of the Aero's lifetime: Where the first version released in 2004 displaced 6.2 liters and produced an impressive 782 supercharged horsepower, the final Ultimate Aero XT that arrived in 2013 used twin-turbochargers, displaced 6.9 liters and cranked out a massive 1,300 horsepower.
SSC and the Ultimate Aero traded jabs back and forth with Bugatti for years. After the Veyron set the record in 2005 at 253.81 miles per hour, the American supercar raised the bar to 256.18 mph in 2007, prompting the Europeans to develop the Veyron Super Sport that took the record back at 257.87 mph. Jerod Shelby (of no relation to Carroll) planned to return with the more advanced Tuatara, but we haven't heard anything about it in the years since it was unveiled. Fortunately another American supercar has since arisen to take its place and pick up its mantle.
Hennessey Venom GT Spyder
We couldn't tell the story of the American supercar without including the Hennessey Venom GT – arguably the fastest car ever made. Though based on the Lotus Exige (as you can tell just by looking at it), the Venom GT has been extensively modified to accommodate good old-fashioned American muscle: a 7.0-liter twin-turbo V8 initially produced 1,244 horsepower, and has since been augmented to an even crazier 1,451 hp.
That much power unburdened with such little weight puts Hennessey's creation in prime position to set record speeds – and indeed it has. It was clocked in 2014 reaching a top speed of 270.49 miles per hour, with the open-top Venom GT Spyder reaching speeds of 265.6 mph to wear the crown as the fastest convertible ever made. Those speeds haven't counted towards an official record due to their single-direction timing and the vehicle's low production volumes, but Guinness certified the Venom GT in 2013 as the fastest to reach 186 mph from a standstill, achieved in a scarcely believable 13.63 seconds.
We won't be surprised to see Hennessey set even faster records in the future, but more than that, you can bet there will be even faster supercars to come – and come from America. Such is the nature of American ingenuity and the thirst for speed. So watch this space, because the story of the American supercar is far from over.