June 24, 2024


Where Innovation Lives

‘Supercars’ Review: Powerful Playthings – WSJ

4 min read

The centerpieces of “Supercars,” the Petersen Automotive Museum’s new online video tour of an exhibit that can’t be viewed in person because of Covid-19, are the 1988 Lamborghini Countach 5000QV as well as a stable of Ferraris that defined the category from the 1950s to today. That’s as it should be. Those were the cars whose images adorned the bedroom walls of teenage boys starting in the 1960s and ’70s, usually with a bikini-clad supermodel splayed across the hood. But as this overview makes clear, covering some 30 automobiles spread across the entire 14,000 square feet of the museum’s third floor, there is much more to the history and development of so-called supercars.

Michael Bodell,

the museum’s deputy director, is our guide (the show was curated by Exhibitions Director

Bryan Stevens

), and he reminds us that these playthings of the uberwealthy and well-connected have a long history. We see the 1913 Mercer Type 35-J Raceabout, which competed in the first Indianapolis 500, and the 1923 Mercedes 28/95 Targa-Florio, its high hood-line hiding what was, at the time, Mercedes’s most powerful automotive engine, adapted from aircraft technology—a 7.2-liter, inline six-cylinder that produced about 95 horsepower. While these cars may not make us think of the Lamborghinis or Ferraris to come, most of America at that time was driving

Henry Ford’s

boxy Model T, early models of which had 2.9-liter, inline four-cylinder engines that produced only 20 horsepower.

The Art Deco period’s marriage of design and function is clearly evident in the next two vehicles in the virtual tour, the 1933 Duesenberg Model SJ, an ultra-luxurious long-nosed convertible coupe popular with Hollywood celebrities of the day that put out more than 300 horsepower and had a top speed of over 130 miles per hour. While someone may have driven this car that fast, that wasn’t the purpose of buying one. Rather, it was to be seen in it—leaving onlookers agog at the silver-wrapped exhaust manifolds, spoke wheels and the distinctive flying-goddess hood ornament.

Art Deco’s influence is even more evident in the 1938 Delahaye 145 with a custom body by French coachbuilder

Henri Chapron.

One of four Delahaye Grand Prix cars, it’s really a race car whose bodywork makes it road-worthy and head-turning, with rounded, sculpted fenders, streamlined hood and sloping tail, all in an elegant blue and purple two-tone finish.

Where we really get into modern-day supercars is the 1952 Ferrari 212/225 Inter Spyder Barchetta, originally owned by

Henry Ford II

; he took it to his designers, who were inspired to create the 1950s Thunderbirds. One of the few all-original cars in the museum’s collection, it has a staid black finish with white interior and whitewall tires. Its sleek, rounded edges and open cockpit are so far removed from the top-selling American car of 1952, the Buick Roadmaster, that the two shouldn’t be discussed in the same sentence.

From there we jump to the 1968 Lamborghini Miura P400, an attempt to go one better than Ferrari that resulted in decades of bad blood between the two auto makers. The Miura, Mr. Bodell says, was the design inspiration for the Countach, and to modern eyes it is what we’ve come to know as a supercar. What followed are what I like to call flying wedges, with a low-slung body, space-age design cues and a rear-mounted V12 engine that puts out some 350 horsepower and a top speed of about 170 mph. The wedge would come to define supercars, albeit with increasing horsepower and higher top speeds with each new iteration.

Among the rarer supercars on display here is a 1981 BMW M1—developed by Lamborghini, scrapped, and then picked up by the German auto maker, which produced it in only limited numbers from 1978 to 1981, making it a very rare mid-engined BMW, and a supercar with a 3.5-liter inline six-cylinder engine with a top speed approaching 200 mph. The Germans are also represented well by a 1988 Porsche 959S, the street version of the auto maker’s entry in the Paris-Dakar Rally. A sequential turbocharger under the hood let it go from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds, with a top speed of 210 mph.

Other notable cars include the 1985 Maserati MC12 Corsa, largely a reskinned

Enzo Ferrari.

The model here is the only black MC12, with custom, flowing, sculpted bodywork that features a dorsal fin scoop on the roof that slopes back to a fat, full-width wing across the trunk. And we see three Ferraris that define the modern-day supercar: the 288 GTO, the F40 and the Enzo, which the museum describes accurately as the “most superlative Ferraris from the last few decades.” There’s also a 1956 Jaguar XKSS, once owned by the actor

Steve McQueen,

that could do zero to 60 mph in under 6 seconds, as well as the 1967 AC/Shelby Cobra 427, an American supercar that topped out at about 185 mph.

The exhibit ends in 2005 when Bugatti released the Veyron, thus creating a new category: the hypercar, which the museum defines as a vehicle that has at least 1,000 horsepower, goes over 250 mph, and comes with a seven- or eight-digit price tag. It’s aimed at the category of car buyer who has always clamored for more of everything.

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