Weekend eye candy: The new supercar exhibit at the Petersen Museum

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V12s not mandatory —

As the museum reopens to visitors, it celebrates 100 years of the supercar.


  • Supercars: A Century of Spectacle and Speed is a new exhibit at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.


    The Petersen Museum

  • The Lamborghini Miura is often credited as the world’s first supercar, but this exhibit makes a compelling case that the breed predates the Miura by many decades.

  • This is a 1913 Mercer Raceabout. A car capable of 100mph must have seemed as insane back then as a 300mph car does today.


    The Petersen Museum

  • You don’t have to be an Edwardian motorist to think this looks pretty racy.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Lysergic acid diethylamide was first synthesized in 1938, the same year that the Chapron styling house in Paris clothed this Delahaye Type 145 coupe.


    The Petersen Museum

  • One of Ferrari’s early road cars, a 212/225 Inter Spyder Barchetta from 1952.


    The Petersen Museum

  • The Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing featured an engine that was canted over by 50 degrees to reduce the height of the hood.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Steve McQueen once owned this Jaguar XKSS.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Even so, I think the luggage rack looks dorky.


    The Petersen Museum

  • If anyone knew about putting a big powerful engine in a sports car, it was Caroll Shelby.


    The Petersen Museum

  • It might be harder to find a Cobra that Shelby didn’t sign.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Shelby went on to develop the GT40 for Ford. Which won Le Mans with the MkII and the MkIV. The MkIII, seen here, was a road-legal version. UK readers might know that Noel Edmunds used to have one.


    The Petersen Museum

  • This is McLaren’s little-known first road car, the M6GT, based on the team’s highly successful M6A Can-Am racer.


    The Petersen Museum

  • The original McLaren logo makes it easy to see the kiwi.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Yes, those are tennis balls blocking each of the velocity stacks.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Hey, what’s that metallic orange thing behind the M6GT?


    The Petersen Museum

  • BMW’s first mid-engined car was the M1 in the late 1970s. It wouldn’t build another until the plug-in hybrid i8 in 2015.


    The Petersen Museum

  • The Ferrari Testarossa embodies the late 1980s. Check out those strakes!


    The Petersen Museum

  • The other quintessential late ’80s supercar would have to be the Lamborghini Countach. This is the 5000QV version.


    The Petersen Museum

  • That rear wing actually decreased the Countach’s top speed by a few miles per hour.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Supercars can be rear-engined. On the left, a Porsche 959, an all-wheel drive twin-turbo technological marvel built to Group B specifications. To its left, a Ruf CTR Yellowbird, which introduced a generation to the Nurburgring when they saw Stefan Roser drive around it sideways in a video called Fascination at the Nürburgring.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Ferrari also built a car to compete in Group B: the 288 GTO.


    The Petersen Museum

  • The 288 GTO took the good looks of the 308GTB and 328, and added a lot of muscle. My favorite design detail is the exposed differential at the back.


    The Petersen Museum

  • A few years later, the Honda NSX showed Ferrari that it was possible to combine handling, speed, and good looks with actual reliability.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Saleen’s S7 was devastatingly good as a GT1 race car.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Based on the Ferrari Enzo, the Maserati MC12 is much rarer—50 versus about 418 examples.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Which would you pick?


    The Petersen Museum

  • The F40 understands that supercars need to show as well as go.


    The Petersen Museum

  • State of the art in 2004: the Ferrari Enzo.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Is the Enzo a good-looking car, or just a striking-looking car?


    The Petersen Museum

  • No supercar exhibit would be complete without a McLaren F1.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Regular readers are probably sick of me going on and on about this car. I don’t care.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Just look at it.


    The Petersen Museum

  • This particular example is fitted with the high downforce kit, which is where there’s a big wing at the back and those 18-inch wheels.


    The Petersen Museum

  • Did you know these tail lights came from a coach?


    The Petersen Museum

  • Yes, the driver’s seat is in the middle.


    The Petersen Museum

Identifying the world’s first supercar is harder than it sounds. The problem—to me at least—is that there’s no universally agreed-upon definition of what a supercar actually is. If you’d asked me yesterday I’d have probably said Lamborghini—when it introduced the Miura in 1966.

Its body was dramatically styled by Gandini, writing checks that the mid-mounted V12 could definitely cash, sending notice to establishment names like Ferrari that the game had been changed forever. But my answer might be 50 years too late, according to a new exhibit at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.

It’s called Supercars: A Century of Spectacle and Speed, and our friends at the museum—which was just named Museum of the year by The Historic Motoring Awards—were kind enough to send over photos of some of the cars in the new exhibit. And that’s as much excuse as I need to put together a gallery to give people something to click through this fine November Saturday.

The Miura might have been the first production sports car to mount its V12 between the driver and the rear wheels, but the idea of a powerful engine, sleek body, and just two seats is almost as old as the automobile itself. Take the 1913 Mercer Raceabout, which even to these Generation X-eyes looks like an Edwardian equivalent to a McLaren. With 34hp (25kW) from its 4.9L engine the Raceabout could see the other side of 100mph (160km/h), which I have to imagine required a lot more bravery than it would in something made in 2013.

Or how about the Ferrari 212/224 Inter? It’s one of the first Ferrari road cars, and the 1952 example on display was once owned by the Ford Motor Company, bought as research during development of the original Ford Thunderbird. The 1950s was a time when there was little difference between a supercar and a top-level race car. For example, after dominating Le Mans in 1956 with the D-Type, Jaguar slapped on a windshield and a luggage rack to create the XKSS. Jaguar only planned to build 25 and built even fewer after a fire at its factory destroyed nine of the chassis. The green one you see here was even owned by an actor called Steve McQueen for some time.

Joining the Miura are a couple of mid-engined ’60s supercars that, like the XKSS, also began life as race cars first. The Ford GT40 Mk III—a road-legal version of the Le Mans winner—is probably easily recognized. The McLaren M6GT may be less so, as the road car project was derailed by the untimely death of team founder Bruce McLaren in 1970.

The ’70s are represented by vehicles like the Lancia Stratos, another racer gone legal, and the BMW M1, a car that was supposed to be built for the Germans by Lamborghini until Lamborghini went broke.

The Jaguar XJ220 was briefly the world's fastest car, until the McLaren F1 showed up a year later and went much quicker.

Enlarge / The Jaguar XJ220 was briefly the world’s fastest car, until the McLaren F1 showed up a year later and went much quicker.

The Petersen Museum

As a product of my age, it’s the cars from the 1980s onwards where I really start to get interested. And I can’t really quibble with any of the cars the Petersen has included that came from the final decades of the 20th century, nor the handful from the new millennium.

There are the early 1980s Group B homologation twins, the Ferrari 288 GTO and Porsche 959. Late ’80s yuppiedom is represented in the shape of a Lamborghini Countach and a Ferrari Testarossa. Honda’s pioneering NSX deserves its place here, for proving you could build a car that looked like a Ferrari and was quick like a Ferrari but without being unreliable like a Ferrari. And then my personal favorites and harbingers of early ’90s excess: the Jaguar XJ220 and McLaren F1.

Of course, now we live in an age where an electric Volvo crossover can out-accelerate many of the supercars on display and where the ultimate automotive excess is now characterized by hypercars that are outgrowing the roads on which they’re supposed to drive. The supercar still exists, though, even though these days 600hp and a top speed of 200 miles an hour is considered entry-level…

Listing image by The Petersen Museum

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