Fierce and Forlorn - The Supercars You Forgot Existed
Countless hours of development, design and construction. Exacting details wrought in boardboardrooms and wind tunnels. Exotic materials, experimental engine designs, hand crafted bodies. The goal?
Simple. Make the fastest car in the world.
But even if a designer or firm achieves that goal, they don’t necessarily have a winner on their hands. Even when the facts and figures support one supercar design over another, intangibles often decide which one will be a success.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some superlative automobiles over a few decades and see how fate played out.
ATS 2500 GT
Conventional wisdom would have it that the Lamborghini Miura was the first mid-engine supercar, but that legendary Bull came a half decade after the ATS 2500GT. Now, ATS (Automobili Turismo e Sport) probably isn’t a name you’ve heard of, but the cast of characters that formed the company in the early 1960s were cast-offs from Ferrari. Probably the best known is Giotto Bizzarrini, who not only was the chief engineer on projects like the Ferrari 250 GTO, but would later work for Lamborghini and finally make his own cars (which we’ll see in a moment!).
The ATS 2500 GT was fairly revolutionary then, featuring a mid-mounted 2.5 (later, 3.0) liter V8 pumping out north of 200 horsepower in a lightweight aluminum body — making the ATS a potent package. Unfortunately, the company succumb to bankruptcy after only 12 units of the 2500 GT were produced, but the achingly beautiful design predicted many aspects of the Ferrari Dino in the next decade.
Following his departure from ATS (and then again from Lamborghini, after developing their 400 hp 3.5 -liter V12 for the 350 GT), Bizzarrini formed the Società Autostar company, which was in turn commissioned by Iso Autoveicoli S.p.A. to follow-up on their Chevrolet V8-powered Rivolta.
The result was the Giugiaro penned, Chevrolet-powered Iso Grifo in 1965. Over the next few years everything from a 327 to a 454 was stuck under the sleek hood, and the claimed 390 to 435 hp in a 2,200-pound package resulted in Ferrari-killing performance, with better reliability and cheaper maintenance. Bizzarrini and Iso founder Renzo Rivolta parted just after Grifo production started, resulting in our next creation.
Bizzarrini 5300 GT
To race the Ferraris he helped design, Bizzarrini took some Grifos and modified them to race under his name as the A3/C. When Rivolta and Bizzarrini parted ways, the latter then took the A3/C and turned it back into a road car. The result was the incredible 5300 GT.
Long, low and sleek, the 5300 GT was available with similar specifications to the Grifo, but the styling came from Bertone and not Giugiaro. While not as famous as some other mega-GT cars from the 60s like the Ferrari 250 or Cobra, the Bizzarrini was ( and continues to be) the equal of the prancing horse and snakes on track. In total, 133 race and street versions of the Bizzarrini 5300 would be made.
Monteverdi 375 High Speed
The name Monteverdi won’t be known even to most enthusiasts, but even more surprising might be where the company originated from — Switzerland. Yet in the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Italian-designed, American-powered Monteverdi gave the traditional GT crowd something to fear.
Styling by Frua resulted in a body that looked a lot like the Aston Martin DBS, Ferrari 500 Superfast and Maserati Ghibli. But power under the hood came from Chrysler in the form of the 440, which cranked out around 375 horsepower. The result was that the 375 High Speed lived up to its name, capable of nearly hitting 170 mph flat out. Reports vary on how many 375 models were produced, but less than 100 seems a safe bet.
But aside from being fast, it was also pretty heavy, so in 1970 Monteverdi produced two prototype Hai 450 models. With a Hemi 426 V8 mounted in the middle and a much more compact, lightweight design, the 450 promised to perform on par with the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the day. Alas, production of that super design never got underway. Monteverdi wasn’t done, though, and after a stint owning a Formula 1 team in the 1980s, the “Hai” moniker came back in the form of the 1992 Hai 650 GT. It took a Formula 1 chassis and 3.5-liter DFR V8 and lightly disguised them with a supercar body that looked a lot like the Jaguar XJR-15. Like the 450, it never made it to production, though these cars can still be viewed at the Swiss firm’s museum.
Lamborghini 400GT Jarama
It’s hard to forget any Lamborghini, but sandwiched between the iconic Miura and Countach models, it is understandable why the Jarama got lost. Not helping matters is its somewhat oddball look of angles and curves; this was really the last throes of the front-engine supercar.
Yet the Jarama wasn’t lacking in performance, thanks to the 350 hp (later, 365 in S specification) 3.9-liter V12. Though it looked little like his other aforementioned creations, the style still came from Marcello Gandini at Bertone. A little over 300 ( 151 GT, 177 GTS) of these front-engine dinosaurs were quietly sold through 1975, struggling to be noticed in the shadow cast by the more spectacular, leading Countach and Urraco mid-engine models. Lamborghini referred to the Jarama’s reception in the marketplace as “frankly quite disappointing.”
Isdera Imperator 108i
Last week’s Wedge Era article covered the late 1960s Mercedes-Benz C111 — a technology test bed and record setter. While Mercedes-Benz failed to deliver a production variant of that design, an independent did their best to recreate it.
As with Bizzarrini earlier, an ex-Mercedes-Benz engineer named Eberhard Schulz left to create his own company, but was allowed to develop some of the Stuttgart designs he had overseen – specifically, the C111 and later mid-engine variants. The result, bowing in 1984, was the tubular frame, fiberglass body, gullwinged Imperator 108i. With power derived from a M117 Mercedes-Benz 5.0-liter V8 tuned up to 390 horsepower, performance was on par with supercars of the day. Tests revealed 0-60 times hovering around five seconds and a top speed of over 175 mph. But the sharp performance and Mercedes-Benz association wasn’t enough to make this car a sales success, and only a claimed 30 units were built.
In 1993, Schulz announced the successor to the 108i with the Commendatore 112i. Now powered by a 400 hp 6.0-liter Mercedes-Benz V12, the lengthened and rounded 112i looked like a cross between a Porsche 997 in front and a Noble M600 in back and profile — well before either was made. Unfortunately, the 112i was never produced outside of the concept.
Isdera wasn’t the only company to make a mid-mounted supercar out of a production engine from a major firm in the 1980s. Much more famous than the German attempts were the constructions of Warren Mosler. Yet there was no screaming V12 or bellowing V8 in what would become the Consulier GTP; instead, Mosler borrowed Chrysler’s turbocharged inline-four (which we looked at back in October).
Though the output of the Turbo II first used was rather modest relative to the Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis of the period, Mosler took Colin Chapman’s philosophy of “add lightness” to heart. The innovative monocoque chassis was draped in a Group C-looking Kevlar and carbon fiber composite body — mind, you, this was in 1985. Though horsepower was never more than 200, it didn’t need more, as the car weighed in at only about 2,000 lbs. That was good enough to best most reputable sports cars of the day.
Mosler managed to sell about 70 of the turbocharged variants over an eight-year span before revising the chassis into the Mosler Intruder (and later, Raptor), which featured a more supercar-ish Corvette LT1 V8.
While the Consulier nipped at traditional benchmark sports cars heels like an annoying (and very angular) Scottish Terrier, the Vector W8 promised to eviscerate them with its no-compromise, technology and power heavy design. But it didn’t get there quickly; the design evolved over a nearly 20 year period before finally coming into series production in the early 1990s. Its designer/promoter, Gerald Wiegert, spent the best part of the 80s making claims about how powerful and fast the Vector would be.
When they finally rolled out of the factory, they didn’t disappoint. The all-aluminum 6.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8 cranked out an impressive 625 hp. The results were 0-60 in 4.2 seconds and a 12 second, 124 mph quarter mile time as tested by Road & Track. While the Vector looked much like the 1968 Gandini design for the Alfa Romeo Carabo we looked at last week, the technology incorporated to build it and performance was ahead of its time.
However, the recipe didn’t prove to be a success, with just 19 examples reportedly constructed before the company was taken over by the Indonesian firm Megatech, who briefly owned Lamborghini. The result was a successor to the W8 called the M12, which was effectively just a Diablo in drag. They sold even less of those!
Wiegert wrestled the company back in the 2000s and has produced some prototype cars, including what he claims is a 2000 hp, 275 mph WX8.
Not to be outdone by Isdera, the German tuning firm Lotec launched a stunner of a concept in 1990 with the C1000. The design looked much more modern than its contemporaries, and it was a lot more powerful, too. The C1000 utilized the firm’s history in Group C racing to make a road-going monster.
With a two Garrett turbochargers strapped to a M117 Mercedes-Benz 5.6-liter V8, the Lotec produced a staggering 850 hp. What was perhaps more amazing was that it was bought, registered and driven — and recently put on sale! Only one of these amazing machines was produced, but the recipe (and, arguably the look) was later adopted by the Pagani Zonda.
Straight from the “wait, that’s not a Lamborghini Diablo?” files comes the Cizeta V16T. You’d be forgiven for believing the company had just ripped off Lamborghini; however, the company employed the same Diablo-designing Gandini, and the V16T launched before the more famous Bull made it to market.
Even more impressive is the underpinnings if the V16T. True to its name, the car had a transversly-mounted 6.0-liter V16 that claimed 560 hp in a tubular chassis that weighed about the same as a 3 Series BMW today. Performance was as outrageous as the double pop-up headlights with a 4.4 second 0-60 time, but so was the price, and ultimately only 11 V16Ts made it to market — far short of the over 1,600 Diablos Lamborghini produced.
Aixam Mega Track
In what may have been the most unlikely birthplace of a supercar came an also equally unlikely recipe. Aixam, a French manufacturer of small, electric vehicles, decided to produce a supercar unlike any other. What resulted was the Mega Track. With 20-inch wheels and an adjustable, 13-inch jacked-up ride height, this was a modern interpretation of the pioneering AMC Eagle SX4.
But while the Mega Track was all-wheel drive in similar fashion to the SX4, power for this coupe came from a Mercedes-Benz 6.0-liter, 4-cam, 48-valve V12 capable of 390 horsepower. While the spec sheet of the Mega sounded outrageous enough to be a show stopper, what was perhaps more impressive was that five of these cars traded hands. Mega wasn’t done, as it briefly produced yet another supercar in the late 1990s called the Monte Carlo — itself a rehash of another forgotten supercar, the Lamborghini-powered, Monaco-based MCA Centenaire from 1990.
France wasn’t done with supercars (barring Italian ex-pat Bugatti, of course), and so when a company created in the mid-1980s became associated with Formula 1 through former French racer Gérard Larrousse, Venturi decided to capitalize on the success (hey, they scored one point in the 1992 season!). The result was the mid-engine Atlantique, a development of earlier concepts. Power came from a twin-Garrett turbocharged Peugeot V6.
The initial model, the 300GT, seemed to borrow heavily from the styling of the Ferrari 456, but the more notable model was the F40-inspired 400GT. It even took the car racing at Le Mans. Built to celebrate the one-marque Venturi “Gentlemen Driver Trophy,” the 400GT was a luxury-lined alternative to the established Ferrari and Porsche norm that never caught on, selling only in very small numbers. However, the company is still alive and kicking, producing a small sporty roadster (likely to be forgotten in the future) and competing in Formula E.
Honorable Mention: Porsche 962
The Porsche 962 was a purebred, Le Mans-winning Group C car. However, at the height of the supercar craze in the early 1990s and over (theoretically, at least) its winning ways with the end of Group C, several different companies took the basic and proven 962 form and sold them as road-going conquerors. That was a byproduct of how the 962 competed — many different companies built up 956 and 962 Group C racers from Porsche parts.
Part of that plan to head to the road was to homologate the cars with the FIA so, ironically, they could head back to the track.
There was the Dauer 962, which was probably the most successful, as the company managed to provide one road copy — enough to re-enter the car in the GT1 category and win Le Mans again. As a thinly veiled racer, it should come as no surprise that the car was potent, with a claimed 730 hp from the twin-turbocharged flat-six. The sticker price was an eye-watering 1.2 million dollars — in 1994.
Ex-factory racer and Le Mans winner Vern Schuppan built a more road-friendly version of the 962, dubbed the 962CR. Detuned to “only” 600 hp and with a complete rebody, the 962CR was still plenty potent and expensive, reportedly stickering for an even more staggering 1.9 million dollars. Only five were claimed to be built.
Not to be left out, ex-factory racer (and Le Mans-winning) Derek Bell added his name to the 962 with the Fabcar-built “Derek Bell Signature Edition.” The company used a Dyson Racing chassis number to create a brand new 962, but configured it to run on the road. The crash of the supercar market meant the program never materialized. Only one was completed, though it was for sale recently (after trading hands many times) for $500,000.
Koenig Specials and DP Motorsport — the former most notable for attempting to slap Testarossa-style slats onto every car in the 1980s, and the latter for creating the “slantnose” DP935 Porsche trends, also had a go at creating road-going variants. Neither were produced in great numbers.
[Images: RM Auctions, Gooding and Company, Isdera.de, MoslerAuto, Road and Track, Lotec GmbH, Aixam-Mega]
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The W8 was perhaps ahead of its time in the power and interior departments, the later making the interior horrible dated, but the transmission was anything but up to date with an old automatic doing the shifting. Didn't some version delivered - or at least was supposed to be, the claims surrounding the car and what was actually delivered didn't always match up - with two gearboxes, a three speed automatic coupled to a two speed giving the car six gears.
The Consulier GTP is one of my favorites. I saw one of these at Lime Rock this year on Labor Day. It is a very odd looking car. Yet, it destroyed a lot of high end machinery on the race track. The Consulier GTP was banned from competition because it won too much. It is another Chrysler engined car that was legislated out of competition for winning too much.