Supercars: a beginner’s guide

Supercar – the very word brings to mind images of style, performance, and mind-boggling speed.

The best cars are the pinnacle of a manufacturer’s skill and dedication, combining four-wheeled fun with scientific precision and the pursuit of horsepower.

We’ll take a look at supercars through the ages, find out what makes a supercar a supercar, take a look at their history and which cars are the fastest and most expensive on the planet.

This beginner’s guide to supercars tackles the lot.


Quick links for this guide


What is a supercar?

What exactly is a ‘supercar’? And what makes them stand apart from other fast and expensive sports cars?

Like a lot of things, there is no single agreed upon definition, but there is a generally accepted list of criteria that motorsport bods, and enthusiasts alike, accept.

However, three things are more important than anything else when it comes to identifying a supercar: cost, design and performance.

Lamborghini Gallardo LP560
Supercar design: a concept CAD sketch of the Lamborghini Gallardo LP560.

Everyday concerns like comfort and practicality do not hold any sway in the world of supercars. If it doesn’t go fast and doesn’t look great (no matter what the cost), it doesn’t qualify.

Supercars have to reach for the stars, and an important aspect of achieving super-status is an astronomical price-tag. Most often driven by celebrities, millionaires, and royalty, supercars have to be very, very expensive and usually made in small batches.

It almost goes without saying that six figures are the entry level price tag (I will break down the current most expensive cars later on) and there is almost no limit to what some supercars are worth.

In addition to being expensive and exclusive, they also have to be beautiful. If the price makes them the domain of the stars, the design has to make them glow like the angels of the heavens.

Aerodynamic ingenuity and huge amounts of funding for supercar projects have created some of the most iconic and recognisable cars in history.

Some examples of these include the ’53 Corvette, the ’54 Mercedes 300SL and the ’66 Miura, all of which I’ll discuss later.

Lastly, and perhaps, most importantly, there is speed. Of course, over time a speed that constitutes ‘supercar fast’ has increased as shown in the graph below, but they have always been the fastest beasts on the road.


Production car top speed (mph) over time

Editors note: the chart above relates to the top speed of “production cars” (as defined in this article) over time. Some cars mentioned in this beginner’s guide are faster than the graph above suggests, they just don’t meet the requirements needed to be known as production cars. 


At this moment in time, to be considered super, a car would be expected to reach upwards of 230 mph.

To put this into perspective, one of the most iconic supercars of the 1970s and ‘80s, the Lamborghini Countach, reached roughly 180 mph flat out. The rate of progress is truly outstanding.

The current fastest supercar, the Hennesey Venom can reach speeds of over 301 mph. Just think of the speeds supercars will be reaching in 2040, and the tech that will accompany these vehicles: electric, self-driving…levitating…?

We’ll have to wait and see!

Supercars: a brief history

The history of supercars is hotly disputed amongst enthusiasts. As is perhaps human nature, each new generation of petrol-heads believes the iconic car of their era is the birth of the true supercar. In reality though, they’ve existed in some form for over 100 years.

Mercedes Blitzen Benz
A 1909 Blitzen Benz, a strong contender for the first ever supercar, on display in the Mercedes-Benz museum. Credit.

A strong contender for the title of ‘First Supercar’ in motorsport is the 1909 Blitzen Benz, a souped-up masterpiece of German engineering that, for a time, held the land speed record (an impressive 126 mph).

With the Blitzen Benz, car manufacturers had for the first time created a machine that was both roadworthy and one of the fastest things on four wheels.

Birth of the name

The actual term ‘supercar’ however was not coined until several years later, when it appeared in a 1920 Ensign 6 advert in England.

Although both very fast for their day, neither of these vehicles are perhaps sufficiently modern to really make the list of recognisable supercars. The two big icons of the 1950s are arguably the first to break down this barrier.

Released within a year of each other, one in America and the other in Europe, the 1953 Corvette and 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL remain instantly recognisable and outlandishly stylish to this day (see below).

The Mercedes in particular was a big leap forwards in the history of supercars. For a time, it was the fastest car on the road, reaching over 150 mph; but, what makes it truly special are the engineering innovations that went into its manufacture.

One small step for man, one giant leap for supercars

The 300SL is the first road car to have a fuel-injected engine and is still affectionately called the ‘Gull Wing’ because of the unusual hinges on the doors. A true supercar icon.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL "Gullwing"
1954 Mercedes Benz 300 SL “Gullwing”. Credit.

The next jump in supercar evolution didn’t take quite as long. The 1960s saw a man plant a flag on the moon, and it also ushered in the arrival of some truly space-age supercars back on earth.

Again, America and Europe offered up two era-defining classics whose DNA is still visible in many cars today: The 1965 Ford GT40 and the 1966 Lamborghini Miura.

Originally masterminded to disrupt Ferrari’s dominance in the famous Le Mans 24-hour race, the GT40 was a major breakthrough for an American manufacturer.

For the first time Ford took it upon themselves to design a car that was never going to be a commercial hit, but rather a real competitor at the pinnacle of automotive technology.

The GT did indeed accomplish its mission of defeating Ferrari and winning Le Mans; in fact it won the race four consecutive times from 1966 to 1969!

Ford GT 40
Ford GT 40 – Winner of Le Mans in 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969. Credit.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Miura too was making history. Designed in secret so as to not upset Lamborghini’s owner, Ferruccio Lamborghini, who preferred luxury cars to extreme racers, the Miura was released at the 1966 Geneva show.

Just like the Ford GT, the Miura was created to rival Ferrari and was the first mid-engine supercar with a two-seat layout, a setup which is still most common among supercars to this day.

With its stunningly smooth curves and beautifully shark-like nose, the Miura captured the attention of car aficionados across the globe who immediately began creating their own versions.

The race to create the world’s greatest supercar had well and truly begun…

Hypercars

Another term which has made its way into motorsport language is ‘hypercar’. Some supercars are just too super to be called… super. So a new turbo-charged label had been created.

The Pagani Huayra, an example of a hypercar.
The Pagani Huayra, a £2.3M hypercar, can reach speeds of 230 mph.

Hypercars are the most exclusive and rare supercars. Very low production figures numbering in the tens or hundreds, seven-figure price tags and a futuristic spec (many hypercars experiment with electric engines) are a must for hypercars.

Legendary Supercars

Lamborghini Countach (1974-1990)

Lamborghini Countach 5000QV
Lamborghini Countach 5000QV. Credit.

The Countach is an Italian icon. A pioneer of the so-called ‘Italian Wedge Design’, its shark-like nose and super-wide and low frame are both examples of the Countach’s ingenuity, introducing ideas which still exist in today’s supercars.

It has the longest production run in Lamborghini’s history, which only adds to the car’s legendary status.

McLaren F1 (1993-1998)

McLaren F1 GTR
1995 McLaren F1 GTR on show at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Derek Bell with his son Justin came third at Le Mans in this car in 1995. Credit.

Simply put, the McLaren F1 was way ahead of its time. Carbon fibre throughout, gold leaf in the engine bay, and a central driving position akin to its Formula 1 cousins, this legend outstripped the competition literally by miles.

As the last great analogue supercar, it’s digital successors owe a lot to the F1.

Bugatti Veyron (2005-2015)

Bugatti Veyron
A Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport on display outside Bentley Düsseldorf, Germany. Credit.

Bugatti rewrote the supercar rulebook in the 21st century with the introduction of the Veyron. After Volkswagen purchased the rights to the French company they created an 8 litre, W16 engined monster with 12 radiators and over 1,000 horsepower.

A true modern legend.

Tesla Roadster (2020?)

Tesla Roadster Prototype
Tesla Roadster 2020 prototype at the launch event in November 2017. Credit.

Although the Tesla Roadster is not yet available to the public, it has the potential to be the newest legend on the block.

An all-electric supercar with a target 0-60 mph of 1.9 seconds, if Tesla can live up to their own hype and deliver on their petrol-free promises, the Roadster could re-define supercars forever.

The fastest supercars in 2018

Speed, speed, speed. When all is said and done, supercars and their legend rest on whether they can perform g-force defying acts of speed around the track.

The we’ve compiled two lists below concerning the current speed-kings in the world of motoring, sorted by both top speed and 0-60 acceleration.

Fastest Supercars by Top Speed

Fastest supercars by top speed

As our graphic above shows, the top five fastest supercars can definitely shift.

Here is an extended list of the top ten fastest supercars by top speed:

  1. Hennessey Venom F5: 301 mph*
  2. SSC Tuatara: 300 mph*
  3. Koenigsegg Agera RS: 278 mph
  4. Hennessey Venom GT: 270 mph
  5. Bugatti Veyron Super Sport: 268 mph
  6. Bugatti Chiron*: 261 mph
  7. Rimac Concept Two: 258 mph*
  8. SSC Ultimate Aero: 256 mph*
  9. Aston Martin Valkyrie: 250 mph*
  10. Tesla Roadster: 250 mph*

The * denotes a claimed top speed – i.e. one claimed by the makers of the car but yet to be verified by a third party, usually the Guinness Book of World Records.

The current official fastest supercar is the Koenigsegg Agera RS.

Top 10 Fastest Supercars by Acceleration

Below, the world’s top supercars are ranked by their quickest 0-60 speed.

#ModelYear0-60
1Porsche 918 Spyder20142.2 seconds
2Tesla Model S P100D20162.28 seconds
3Ariel Atom V8 50020122.3 seconds
4Dodge Challenger SRT Demon20182.3 seconds
5Lamborghini Huracán Performante20182.3 seconds
6Lamborghini Aventador20162.4 seconds
7LaFerrari20152.4 seconds
8Bugatti Chiron20172.5 seconds
9Bugatti Veyron20062.5 seconds
10Porsche 911 Turbo S20162.5 seconds

Top ten most expensive supercars in 2019

We’ve just learned about the leaders of speed, but does that mean they’re also the most expensive? Not necessarily.

Koenigsegg CCXR Trevita
The most expensive supercar (by manufacturer’s tag) in the world: the £3.7M Koenigsegg CCXR Trevita – seen here in the glamorous setting of a Zurich car park. Credit.

The most expensive (by the manufacturer’s tag) supercars as of January 2019 are below:

#ModelCost ($)Cost (£)
1Koenigsegg CCXR Trevita$4.8M£3.7M
2Lamborghini Veneno Roadster$4.5M£3.5M
3McLaren P1 LM$3.7M£2.9M
4W Motors Lykan HyperSport$3.4M£2.6M
5Bugatti Veyron Mansory Vivere Edition$3.4M£2.6M
6Ferrari Pininfarina Sergio$3M£2.3M
7Aston Martin Valkyrie$3M£2.3M
8Bugatti Chiron$2.9M£2.2M
9Pagani Huayra BC$2.6M£2M
10Ferrari F60 America$2.5M£1.9M

EDITOR’s NOTE: The figures shown in the table above were sourced in USD ($) and converted to GBP (£), rounded to the nearest 100,000.

Final thoughts

There we have it, a complete beginner’s guide to the world of supercars! These motor vehicle beasts have been providing thrills and inspiring awe for the best part of a century and don’t show any signs of slowing down. On the contrary they are only getting faster and more extreme every passing year.

Electric and hybrid vehicles in particular are improving rapidly and in the process are adding extra acceleration and precious horsepower to the classic mid-engine two seat design. It’s exciting to think what will come next.

Have we missed anything?

Send us an email or get in touch on social media (Twitter / Facebook / Instagram) to let us know!

Now, the sales pitch…

This article may have given you some ideas to add to your shopping list… or if these supercars are slightly out of your price-range you could always join The Children’s Trust at our annual Supercar Event at Goodwood Motor Circuit on 1 June 2019 that we hold every summer.

It’s a great opportunity to see and have a ride in some real supercars in all their metallic glory while supporting the UK’s leading charity for children and young people with a brain injury.

See you there!

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