Supercar. It's an incredibly powerful word in the world of car enthusiasts that conjures great feelings. Feelings of lust, greed, pride, jealousy, and certainly the other 7 deadly sins excluding sloth. Among the very many feelings a super car bring, one is almost always of.... strong opinions. Judging what is and isn't a supercar can get heated, especially when you are speaking to a group of enthusiasts that will staunchly defend their car of choice to the death.
918 I found at Rennsport Reunion
Let's think about Porsche for a moment. They make wonderful driver's cars. Porsche is also a company that flirts around the sportscar-supercar line depending on your options list. They make something like the Boxster which is undeniably a good sportscar, but not a supercar. They also make the 918, which some say reaches a new class of car called hypercar. That leaves their bread and butter - the 911 - in a weird area. I think you'd be hard pressed to call the 911 carrera a supercar. But I think you'd also be unable to call the 911 GT2 RS simply a sportscar. Somehow, Porsche managed to take their excellent sportscar to another hierarchy with some options. When checking the options boxes, when exactly did the 911 get to be a supercar? This is the question I'll be diving into in this article. We will see how this goes, but it may turn out that the car just about everyone considers 'genesis' - the Miura - may not actually be so.
Richard Hammond once took the Miura out for a drive on some show we've likely never seen, and had some strong words:
You may have noticed some choice words used at the 35 second mark. "The beginning of the modern supercar as we know it". Now, I will respect the great Hamster in that he likely knows more about cars than I do. He also mentions later the Miura got the transverse engine from the Mini, but Saab and even DKW before them used it first.
But is it really true? Is the Miura really the supercar that set the standard? First we should think about what makes the Miura "super". Easiest thing we notice is the shape. That wedge is impeccable. It's purposeful and makes us think of how easily it cuts through the air. A wedge though, a supercar does not make (*cough* DeLorean *cough*). It must also have the numbers to match. The Miura also handled well, and had that V12 that enabled it to go very very fast. And something special it had was that engine in the middle, behind the seats.
You see, just about every other fast sportscar of the day had the engine in the front. But does that mean the Miura became super because it put its engine in the middle? It certainly wasn't the fastest car of its day, so something set it apart. If that's the case, then the grandaddy of mid-engined cars would surely be this, the Zundapp Janus made in the mid-50's.
Source: RM Sotheby's
Wait. No, surely that can't be it. That bizarre dual-Isetta-looking family car? I think it's safe to say that being mid-engined didn't create the first supercar. It had to be more than that. Maybe something that was mid-engined but also a sportscar? Well maybe there was a sportscar before the Miura that was also mid-engined?
Taken at RRVI
Well how about the Porsche 906? It debuted the same year as the Miura, but beat it by some months. It was even street legal! I mean look at those wing mirrors! Well it turns out it had a brother that was before even it...
Also at RRVI
The Porsche 904. It has that wedgey-look. This high-strung car is likely a supercar. Produced in 1964, this beats the Miura and 906 a full 2 years. Now even though this only had a 4-cylinder, the 904 did come in 4th place at the 1965 LeMans, so it wasn't exactly slow. But can we go even further back in time with Porsche?
Source: Unknown. James Dean and his 550 Spyder
The Porsche 550 Spyder. One of the first cars to really set Porsche apart. It was very successful in just about everything it attempted. Now the 550 brings up something we haven't really discussed yet. The star-effect. This car was so good, it had a famous actor pining over it. James Dean. Now when a car is so good that it's race history is second to a person owning it, you know you've made the big time. Unfortunately the 550 is known for 'killing' James Dean. Was it too much car for him to handle on the street? Sadly, this is also a good characteristic for a supercar. Something that can easily send you into a ditch, or a tree if you aren't capable of controlling it. A race car for the road if you will. Now this might upset some people, but I'm not considering the 550 for 'first supercar'. It's a bit pedantic, but I'm going to follow the Top Gear "can't get over a speed hump" mantra: the Porsche 550 may have been able to be road legal, but Porsche never designed it to be. It just so happened the race regulations it was designed for meant it could also be on the road. Now some of you may also be saying "but what about the 904 and 906! They were also race cars!" Yes. You are correct. Except those were specifically designed to meet street-regulations so they could race, not the other way around. So boo.
Now quit whining and let's go forward in time again then.
Oooohhhh. There's one sexy and swoopy mid-engined sportscar. Oh wait, sorry, we went forward in time too far. This car, the De Tomaso Vallelunga, actually came out after the car I'm looking for in 1964. Let's go back a couple years.
Here we go. This is a good contender. Sleek and pretty. Mid-engined. Attracts a crowd. Driven by a famous person. Designed for the street. Yes, this car, given to first human in space Yuri Gagarin, is the Matra Djet. This ladies and gentleman, is the first mid-engined sportscar ever made. It's quite amazing it took this long for a sportscar to become mid-engined with how many great race cars had their engines behind the drivers, but here we are. The year is 1962. The designer is Renet Bonnet. He had just left his previous company of Deutsche-Bonnet which had been producing racing cars for the last 24 years and even some road cars - but the company was always focused on racing. It seemed no different when Renet split off to design and build his special Djet. So spelled because he thought the French would have a difficult time pronouncing it correctly if it only had a 'J' in the name.
Source: RM Sotheby's
Unfortunately Renet's business did not fair well and it was purchased by Matra in 1964, where the Djet would survive for another 3 years. It's at this point where I also inform you, dear reader, that despite being a car born from racing, despite it being mid-engined, despite it being attractive to stars and crowds and certainly despite it having the looks; the Djet is not a supercar. No, the Djet simply doesn't have the power for it. Think of it as the grandfather to the Fiero and the MR2 and the Elise. Fun and well balanced. Brings a feeling of a supercar to the common man, even though of course at the time, Gagarin was certainly the only one in the USSR to have one. He ended up giving it away since he felt it was improper. And like Gagarin, even the USA astronauts were famously given (mostly) cars in the form of the Corvette Stingray. But just like the Stingray of yore, the Djet is also not a supercar. It simply doesn't have the performance.
Well crap. Now what? Have I been analyzing this all wrong? Maybe it really was a front-engined car that was first? Maybe the 300SL should be the first supercar? It sure took the world by storm and had the looks to prove it. Being from the 50's it was a full decade ahead too. Plus, doors! It was certainly the first to set the trend of supercars with funny doors.
Source: DuPont Registry
But if we start going down the front-engined road of impeccable cars, then I'm not sure we will be able to actually find an answer. Through the history of the car there have always been jumps in performance that blew the norm out of the water. From putting in what were effectively aircraft engines, to massive behemoths propelling tin cans to speeds well over 100mph, there's always been that lust for speed. In that case, the first supercar would have to be from near when it all started in the first place. We have to go back much further for that one.
The Blitzen Benz. Even in the early 1900s we had figured out that a lot more displacement will make us go much faster. 21.5 liters. That's 3 Ford GT40s. More than 4 of the new GT500s. Shoot, it's almost 11 Miatas worth of displacement. All to make 200hp. But look at this image. The year is 1909. You have 200hp, large bicycle tires, and a body that's primarily designed to enclose an engine. It's terrifying. Hitting just over 140 mph (again... look at it and imagine going 140mph over what was likely a dirt surface), it held the speed record for 10 years. There are a lot of modern cars I wouldn't want to hit 140mph in, let alone this coffin on wheels.
But that's what might just make the Blitzen Benz the first supercar. It took what was known about cars, and turned it up as high as it could. It made things truly super.
Now it may be a bit cheat-ey that this is considered a supercar as car regulations weren't exactly a thing yet, but that could also be its best argument. Supercars have always been about trying to get the common people into a race-car for the street. Back in 1909 nothing was refined. Race cars were just as rough as the street cars. Safety wasn't a concern. Wheel and tire technology was just as good on the road cars. The only difference was how deep your pocket book was and how thick the iron on your car's chassis was for as big an engine you could make. If anything, that's what making a supercar is all about. Pushing the limits of what a car is and can be. It was people making things like the Blitzen Benz back in the day paving the way for the 300SL, Matra Djet, and Miura. Without us realizing our love for pushing the boundaries all that time ago, we may not see the incredible feats of engineering seen in the Chiron SS 300+ or Jesko. Either way, we can all agree the world is a better place with these incredibly inspirational vehicles prodding at our emotions and fantasies.
So, was I wrong? Is it all a scam and there is no such thing as a supercar? Was I also wrong that the 550 spyder was the first? It seems that supercars may have always been ever since the first person turned up the power on an automobile, but what we see in them changes over time. As cars progress and we with them, the standards for supercars have also changed (as well as safety and road regulations). Sure the Miura was again another turning point in the supercar evolution, but it wasn't alone. Shoot, the late 60s seemed like everyone was putting out a mid-engined supercar with the 904/906, GT40, Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, Ferrari 250LM, De Tomaso Pantera, and many many others. Maybe the Miura was just wild enough in that bright green to get the attention of people when the industry was already moving that direction.
With all of that said, what do you think was the first supercar?