The 1990s saw the supercar evolve into an even more technologically advanced form, as well as a few road-legal racing cars. Here's a selection of the very best
Who doesn’t love a good supercar? The 1990s were a strange time for the super high performance market however, with the demand for top-end supercars seemingly bottoming out after the excess of the late 1980s and a biting recession early on in the decade.
Not that this stopped anyone dreaming up all manner faster and more wild cars. This was a decade that saw the supercar formula refined, laying the groundwork for the faster and more usable supercars hypercars of today.
Even when the McLaren F1 was on the drawing board, there was one clear mission: to build the best driver's car on the planet. Gordon Murray’s savage attention-to-detail ensured that the car was as lightweight as possible, while Peter Stevens designed an extremely streamlined body. A central driving position gave the car a unique three-seat layout too.
With a 6.1-litre naturally aspirated V12 engine from BMW’s Motorsport division, producing 627bhp, the F1 managed to hit a top speed of 231mph, overshadowing all previous records. Without the rev limiter in place, the F1 actually recorded a top speed of 243mph. Watch the video of Andy Wallace hitting the record speed here.
Production of the F1 commenced in 1992, and finally came to a stop in 1998, after selling 106 cars in total. The GTR models were built for racing, and without major modification went on to win the Le Mans 24 Hour race.
Although it made its motor show debut in 1988, the Jaguar XJ220 was well and truly a child of the 1990s. It was developed by Jaguar’s ‘Saturday Club’ – the informal gang of engineers working after hours on interesting projects – along with by Tom Walkinshaw Racing. While the 542bhp power figure was impressive, a lot of the buyers were unhappy, having been promised a V12 engine.
It looks vast, and it really is at nearly 7ft wide. The long, low and wide proportions add to the drama, with the curvy and extremely sleek aerodynamics looking alien compared to today’s aggressive wings and aero packages. The XJ220 briefly held the production car top speed record as well – hitting 213mph in 1992.
Following up the Iconic F40 is never going to be an easy task. When the Ferrari F50 came out, it boasted a naturally aspirated V12 engine – derived from the 1990 F1 car – and a convertible roof. The styling was bold, and divided opinion, with some loving it and others hating it. Ferrari managed to create something almost completely different in character to the F40 though, and as the years have passed, collectors consider the F50 to be even more valuable.
Another hard act to follow was the Lamborghini Countach – the car that probably defines the term supercar better than any other. Lamborghini, which was at the time owned by Chrysler, launched the Diablo in January 1990. The original Gandini styling concept was rejected, and a slightly less aggressive design was finalised for production.
Lamborghini’s fantastic V12 engine was retained, with a new engine management system, but the biggest shock to the system was perhaps the introduction of a new four-wheel drive system for the 1993 VT model. As the model evolved, power continued to increase as the Diablo. When Audi bough the company in 1999, the cars became far better built.
As a forerunner to the mighty Veyron, the Bugatti EB110 was also an exercise in over engineering. The powertrain is particularly special, featuring a 60-valve 3.5-litre V12 engine, with a total of four turbochargers adding up to 552bhp. Despite the fact it was built around a carbon fibre superstructure, manufactured by a French aeronautical company, the EB110 managed to weigh in at a portly 1618kg.
In 1992 however, a lightweight EB110 SS was launched, which reduced it to 1418kg thanks to swapping some of the aluminium panels for more carbon, and other weight saving measures. A few tweaks also saw power increase to 592bhp, making it one of the fastest and also best resolved cars in this list.
Aston Martin V8 Vantage Le Mans
At the end of the V8 Vantage’s life, Aston Martin gave the hand-built model a suitable swansong with the ultra-special Le Mans. The heart of the transformation included a 604bhp incarnation of the supercharged V8 powerhouse, with over 600lb ft of torque. Remaining a world of pure luxury inside, the exterior bodywork was also suitably beefed-up, with Dymag magnesium wheels, unique front grille and side vents mimicking the Le Mans-winning DBR-1.
When it was conceived, the Dodge Viper was going to be the modern day Shelby Cobra. Starting out with an 8.0-litre V10 truck engine was good, and thanks to Chrysler’s involvement with Lamborghini, it was fettled by the Italian engineers to good effect.
The Viper was, true to its name, particularly venomous and quickly gained a reputation for tricky handling. April 1997 saw the introduction of the far more interesting GTS Coupe, with a tweaked engine and improved suspension – a raw and overtly American entry into this list.
Whether or not the Honda NSX should be considered a genuine supercar is constantly up for debate, but it makes our list. Not least because it revolutionised the concept of being able to own and use an exotic car, without the unreliability and impracticality people had come to expect of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. The fact that Ayrton Senna played a very small (but arguably very important) part in the car’s final development also helps boost its credibility as a very special car.
Enter the racers...
These cars were built largely out of a need to homologate racing cars for competition use: they were fully road legal and in many respects even more extreme than the ‘normal’ supercars above. Here are a few of the most interesting.
Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR
While the McLaren F1 was a road car that worked incredibly well on the track, Mercedes came up with the CLK GTR, a specifically developed endurance racer that was homologated for the road. A total of 26 road-going cars were built, featuring a 6.0-litre V12 engine and very few creature comforts. Leather was offered as an option inside, with traction control added to keep the car on the straight and narrow.
Using a 7.0-litre V12 engine, this Jaguar-based racing car was homologated for road use, much like the CLK GTR, to allow racing at Le Mans. One of the largest V12 engines ever fitted to production car, the Storm pushed out 546bhp and a tarmac pummeling 582lb ft of torque. Just four road cars were ever built however.
Nissan R390 GT1
Just two of these were ever produced for road use, one of which remains in Nissan’s possession. Mechanically unchanged from the racing car, the R390 road car could do 0-60mph in 3.2secs, and 0-100mph in 6.5secs. Top speed was a verified 220mph. TWR also played a key role in this car’s development (spot a theme developing?), while Nismo developed a new engine based on an old V8 design from the Group C era. A true engineering masterpiece.
Dauer 962 LM
Porsche never had any intention of turning the extreme Group C 962 into a road-legal machine – it wasn’t required for homologation purposes like the later GT1 cars – however a small number of companies such as Koenig and DP Motorsports had a crack at it themselves. The Dauer-built cars are widely considered to be the best.
The 962 enjoyed back-to-back wins at Le Mans, so imagine just how savage it would be as a road car. Without the need to conform to any strict racing regulations, Dauer tweaked the aerodynamics, added a carbonfibre and Kevlar body shell and increased power to more than 700bhp.
The XJ220 might have been launched with a muffled twin-turbo V6, but the much more track-focused XJR-15 – released within months of the XJ220 – was endowed with a 6.0-litre naturally aspirated V12 engine. This was a one-make racing car at heart, modified for road use by TWR.
Thanks to the fact it was largely unchanged from the track car, it gained a reputation for being a bit of a widowmaker. The underbody aerodynamics and suspension worked well on track, but the snappy rear end was quick to catch out unsuspecting owners on the road.
Porsche 911 GT1
Between the 1980s 959 and the post-millennium Carrera GT, Porsche failed to launch any full-fat supercars. The company’s desire to win Le Mans was strong however, and a 911 GT1 racer was developed. The 3.2-litre twin turbo engine was a development of the 962’s successful unit, while a 911-esque carbonfibre body clothed the bespoke suspension.
Thanks to the GT1 homologation rules, Porsche built 20 road-going 911 GT1s, with a mildly de-tuned 536bhp engine, leather seats and proper road car dashboard. Everything else, including the driving experience, was pure racer.