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What is a supercar? The Oxford Dictionary describes it as a “high-performance sports car.” That doesn’t really do justice to this class of vehicle. Any further definition is hard to pin down, as speed, style, price, and build quality all come into the calculus of what makes a supercar. All that can be said is, you know one when you see it.
Trying to define the supercar is exactly what the expert staff at Brookline’s Larz Anderson Auto Museum hopes to achieve with a new exhibit, “Supercars: Origins and Evolution.” The show, which runs through April 2018, explores the core supercars, but digs so much deeper. You might expect to see a Lamborghini Mirua, Mercedes-Benz SL Gullwing, or Porsche Carrera GT when discussing supercars, but how many supercar exhibits have a Stanley Steamer?
It’s an eclectic mix of cars—something that often defines an exhibit at Larz Anderson. And while you don’t automatically see the connection, Executive Director Sheldon Steel has gone to great lengths to create a cohesive ethos for the display.
“We’ve got a bracketed exhibit of ancient and exotic supercars,” explains Steel. “Though the epicenter of the supercar was the Lamborghini Mirua, the early cars that could be interpreted as supercars started with the dawn of the motor age.”
Hence, cars like a 1907 Fiat Tipo 50/60, 1907 Packard Model 30, and 1908 Stanley Steamer Model K fit the bill.
“So this Steamer here,” explains Sheldon, “was a 100-mile-an-hour car, and is a direct descendent of a Steamer called a Wogglebug that set a speed record of 127 miles per hour in 1907.”
Many debates on the first-ever supercar may center around the SL Gullwing or the Lamborghini Miura, but it is important to remember that these cars did not simply appear out of the ether—there was a long march in performance that led to their creation.
Sometimes the evolution was slow, but other times there were quantum leaps achieved. This exhibit takes time to explore the world of automotive performance before the well-known supercar names. As Sheldon says, “Our mission is to extend that concept, so that people can understand this pursuit of performance has been a constant since the beginning of the automobile.”
And who in their right mind would drive a car in 1907 capable of these speeds? Not simply a wealthy person, but a wealthy person with a passion for driving and flair for the dramatic.
“The driver is the essential piece,” says Sheldon. “The same person who would have that need for speed in the early years of the automobile is the same type of person who would drive a Gullwing Mercedes or a Porsche Carrera GT today.”
One of the traits of a supercar is that you do not have to own one to appreciate it. In fact, the desire people have for these machines helps create the mystique. Sheldon admits that many of these cars “reflect either things people have never seen, or perhaps cars people have envied and desired all of their lives.”
The cars themselves are achievements of engineering, and when you look at their elegant shapes, it’s evident that their style is largely a result of function. There was no computer-aided design (CAD) when the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing 300 SL was designed, but engineers knew how to make a slippery shape speed through the wind. The SL was essentially a road-going version of the W194 race car and the combination of form and function is part of its attraction. The result is one of the most painfully beautiful cars of all time.
And that beauty attracts more than the average motorhead. Anyone who has turned a wrench probably knows the SL, but so do many more who have never even checked their dipstick. The mere idea of speed, and the style necessary to achieve it, results in eye-catching designs that bring people to these cars like moths to a porch light.
I can remember as a child, seeing a 1997 Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR supercar. It was a race car for the street so that Mercedes-Benz could field a track car of the same name. I distinctly recall how it looked like nothing else on the road. Its design was familiar as a Mercedes-Benz, but stretched to the extreme.
That same idea of familiar styling but stretched-to-its-max design can be found in the Porsche Carrera GT. It is familiar as a Porsche, but in a whole new way. And beneath the unbelievable styling is a throwback, hardcore supercar. Its roots can be traced back to the 911 GT1, a car that competed against the CLK-GTR that I fell in love with. The Carrera GT is powered by a V10 that was secretly built by Porsche engineers, but later shelved.
What inspired my pursuit of all things automotive in the CLK-GT1. I hope others can find the same inspiration in cars like the Mercedes-Benz SL, Lamborghini Miura, or even the 1933 Auburn V-12 Boat Tail Speedster. Whether you are impressed by the timeless style or the mechanical elements beneath it, there should be something for everyone in this priceless collection of automotive superstardom.
George Kennedy is a freelance automotive journalist. He can be reached at George.H.Kennedy.iii@Gmail.com or on Twitter @GKenns101.