We take a look at 75 years of the worlds fastest cars.
Since the mid-21st century and the refinement of everyday travel, car manufactures have been speed obsessed. Despite its not-so-practical nature, having a jaw-dropping top speed remains the dream of many boardrooms and in many workshops across the world; you only have to look at Bugatti’s recent efforts to understand that, but more on that later.
Starting in 1950, we take a look at the production cars that have *officially held the fastest top speed in the world.
The battle continues
1945 signified the end of World War II, and the battle in the skies between the British Spitfire and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109. Keen to bury the hatchet after years of harrowing warfare, the more innocent mechanical battle resumed in the shape of grounded horsepower, and the quest to achieve the highest top speed.
Britain struck first in 1949, with the Jaguar XK120. Considered Jaguar’s most beautiful creation alongside the E-type, the XK120 could match its looks with a top speed of 124.6mph- a world record for any production car of the period. It was mumoured by many that the 160bhp Straight-six clad car would actually top 130mph, however that was never ratified.
Six years later, the Germans responded with the Mercedes-Benz 300SL. Like the XK120, it was pretty, and as time has gone on it has perhaps gone down as a classic instead because of its gullwing doors. Nonetheless, in 1955 it did 140mph, partially thanks to the inline 6-cylinder engine mounted in the front of the 300SL, which comfortably pumped out 212bhp.
The 300SL’s reign lasted only three years, because in 1958, the Aston Martin DB4 came along and top trumped the Merc by a single 1mph. Not convinced by the perilous position of its record, the DB4 GT came along in 1959 as a lighter, slippier, more powerful alternative. It took production cars past the 150mph barrier, a significant milestone at the time that drew no response from Germany, but instead a reply from elsewhere on the continent…
Short-skirts and Speed freaks
In a decade dominated by style, it’s perhaps no wonder that Italy came to the fore in ‘60s speed race. That said, the nations first record breaker, the Iso Rivolta Grifo A3/L 327, wasn’t as Italian as it both sounded and looked. The GT car made use of a small-block Chevrolet Corvette V8, capable of producing 435bhp, to smash the record held by the DB4 GT with a top speed of 161mph recorded in 1963. Had they broken more records and less so the bank, Iso Rivolta might not have gone bust just ten years later.
1965 saw the AC Cobra steal the mantle, with the MkIII going 4mph better than the Grifo to record 165mph at full chat. Sleek bodywork from AC and an iron-fisted V8 courtesy of Ford were to the Cobra’s advantage, and helped America reach the top of the timesheets for the only time to date, if only for two years…
…The Italians soon struck back. In 1967 the Lamborghini Miura P400 topped 170mph, to consolidate the Miura not only as one of the best-looking cars of all-time, but also the fastest.
Italy had seen off America. However, a civil war was brewing, with Ferrari striking while the iron was hot one year on with the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona. Dazzling looks, ferocious V12 grunt and a top speed of 174mph made it not only the fastest production car in the world but arguably the most desirable, which to many, is still relevant today.
Porsche vs Ferrari
The ‘70s brought about a lull in the speed race, and the Daytona ruled the roost for over a decade as a result. By the time the ‘80s came around, new, money-laden markets in the Middle East and America meant that high-end clientele exercised their right to demand more for their money, particularly a fine balance between painstaking beauty and quality, and all-out performance.
Ferrari got on with the job at hand and bettered their own record with the 288 GTO. Crippled with the pressure of adorning the GTO badge, the 288 excelled– 400bhp sent the GTO to 189mph (a production world record at the time) courtesy of the twin-turbocharged V8 that would form the heart of the forthcoming F40.
Before the F40 could get its foot in the door, Porsche launched the groundbreaking 959. A symphony in technological advancement, the 959 was everything a car could be– a true game-changer. Flat-out the 959 would do 195mph, however the 959 Sport went 2mph better, however only six were built, hence the exemption.
Ferrari’s F40 was a much more focused beast compared to the 959. It was the last-word in outright performance, and let nothing (i.e luxury) get in the way. No carpets, radio or electric windows helped it break the holy 200mph barrier for the first time in production car history. It was the last car ever signed-off by Enzo Ferrari himself, and one would presume such an achievement pleased him greatly.
Battle of the ultimate supercars
The early ‘90s took off from where the ‘80s finished, with the Bugatti EB110 the first to snatch the title as fastest production car in the world from the F40. The like-it-or-hate-it EB110 GT reached 209mph at the Nardo test track in 1991, although strictly speaking it wasn’t a road-legal vehicle, thanks to a pair of wing mirrors absent for the sake of aero-efficiency.
Two years later the Jaguar XJ220 broke the Bugatti’s record at the Nardo track, with F1 driver Martin Brundle taking the Jag to 212.3mph and a new record, 45 years on from the XK120’s record run.
Jaguar soon lost its trophy stat, although the record remained in British hands. 1993 saw the birth of the ultimate supercar, the McLaren F1. Exquisitely designed by ex-F1 designer Gordon Murray and assembled by McLaren, the car was nothing short of a masterpiece. Minus its rev-limiter, the F1 clocked 240.1mph, and marked a huge jump in what was possible for a well-equipped supercar such as itself. The 6.1-litre BMW V12 ensured that even today, 23 years on, the F1 remains the fastest naturally aspirated production car of all time.
The F1 isn’t, however, the fastest. That title belongs to Volkswagen, and the bonkers Bugatti Veyron supercar. The original incarnation of the Veyron was chronically over engineered, to the point where VW were making each car for no less than £5 million a pop, at a net loss of £4 million per car. 300 were made… you do the maths.
One could argue that this exercise in car building wasn’t in vein, however. Despite a hefty kerb weight of 1,888kg, the Veyron pulled 253.81mph in 2005, and broke McLaren’s 12-year hold on the record set by the F1.
Five years later, Bugatti returned to the fray with the Veyron Super Sport. It was the Germans nail-biting response to a number of cars claiming to have broken the 253mph barrier. Lighter and faster than the bog-standard Veyron, the Super Sport blew everything else out of the water with an official record of 267.8 mph, set without the compulsory electronic limiter in place (designed to stop the tyres shredding when flat-out).
So close, yet so far away
Since the Veyron Super Sport rewrote the history books, a number of cars have gunned for the record, and failed, joining tens of hundreds to fall short over the past 65 years. For many, like the Koenigsegg Agera and Shelby Ultimate Aero, failure came as a result of limited production numbers, which for the record to be obtained and upheld must exceed 20 cars of said specification produced. The Agera can reach a rumoured 280mph, thus placing it as the fastest car currently on sale.
Other failures include the Barabus TKR which reached 270mph and crashed, the Hennessey Venom GT which was recorded travelling at 265.7mph but was only caught doing so one way (two timed runs are required), and the ultra-expensive and extensively engineered Vector W8, which in 1993 would have held the top speed record by 1mph over the McLaren F1. Limited production however, saw that dream fail to materialise.
*To secure the official fastest top speed in the eyes of the Guinness Book of Record, a car must have matched or exceeded 25 production units, recorded two runs in opposite directions to find a verified average top speed, and above and beyond all, not crash.
Words: Joe Diamond