Identifying the world’s first supercar is harder than it sounds. The problem—to me at least—is that there’s no universally agreed-upon definition of what a supercar actually is. If you’d asked me yesterday I’d have probably said Lamborghini—when it introduced the Miura in 1966.
Its body was dramatically styled by Gandini, writing checks that the mid-mounted V12 could definitely cash, sending notice to establishment names like Ferrari that the game had been changed forever. But my answer might be 50 years too late, according to a new exhibit at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.
It’s called Supercars: A Century of Spectacle and Speed, and our friends at the museum—which was just named Museum of the year by The Historic Motoring Awards—were kind enough to send over photos of some of the cars in the new exhibit. And that’s as much excuse as I need to put together a gallery to give people something to click through this fine November Saturday.
The Miura might have been the first production sports car to mount its V12 between the driver and the rear wheels, but the idea of a powerful engine, sleek body, and just two seats is almost as old as the automobile itself. Take the 1913 Mercer Raceabout, which even to these Generation X-eyes looks like an Edwardian equivalent to a McLaren. With 34hp (25kW) from its 4.9L engine the Raceabout could see the other side of 100mph (160km/h), which I have to imagine required a lot more bravery than it would in something made in 2013.
Or how about the Ferrari 212/224 Inter? It’s one of the first Ferrari road cars, and the 1952 example on display was once owned by the Ford Motor Company, bought as research during development of the original Ford Thunderbird. The 1950s was a time when there was little difference between a supercar and a top-level race car. For example, after dominating Le Mans in 1956 with the D-Type, Jaguar slapped on a windshield and a luggage rack to create the XKSS. Jaguar only planned to build 25 and built even fewer after a fire at its factory destroyed nine of the chassis. The green one you see here was even owned by an actor called Steve McQueen for some time.
Joining the Miura are a couple of mid-engined ’60s supercars that, like the XKSS, also began life as race cars first. The Ford GT40 Mk III—a road-legal version of the Le Mans winner—is probably easily recognized. The McLaren M6GT may be less so, as the road car project was derailed by the untimely death of team founder Bruce McLaren in 1970.
The ’70s are represented by vehicles like the Lancia Stratos, another racer gone legal, and the BMW M1, a car that was supposed to be built for the Germans by Lamborghini until Lamborghini went broke.
As a product of my age, it’s the cars from the 1980s onwards where I really start to get interested. And I can’t really quibble with any of the cars the Petersen has included that came from the final decades of the 20th century, nor the handful from the new millennium.
There are the early 1980s Group B homologation twins, the Ferrari 288 GTO and Porsche 959. Late ’80s yuppiedom is represented in the shape of a Lamborghini Countach and a Ferrari Testarossa. Honda’s pioneering NSX deserves its place here, for proving you could build a car that looked like a Ferrari and was quick like a Ferrari but without being unreliable like a Ferrari. And then my personal favorites and harbingers of early ’90s excess: the Jaguar XJ220 and McLaren F1.