Archive for October, 2010

from 10|2010

Want to know what 1,200 horsepower feels like? In a car that weighs a third less than a Bugatti Veyron? It’s violent, bonkers, near malicious. A crush on your body, a blur on your vision. As magnetic and sinister as peering over the edge of a cliff at crashing waves hundreds of feet below. A headlong rush – a physical one towards the far-distance, and a metaphorical rush towards the edges of your own self-restraint that, for me at any rate, exposes a gaping shortfall of skill to make the best of torque that can, because there’s no traction control, produce extravagant wheelspin in the first three gears and occasionally in fourth beyond 100mph. In the dry.

But that’s an original I’m driving. The spectacular white car in this gallery is its yet-unnamed replacement. Which will have some vital driver aids, but will also have another 150-odd horses, better aero and a whole lot less weight. Oh. Good. Grief.

It’ll cost $970,000, or £626,000 plus tax, when it goes on sale late next year. And its maker says it’ll do 275mph. The ever-intensifying fastest-car-in-the-world battle is being played out before us. If you’re male, you might remember being eight years old, and trying to pee higher against a wall than your mates. Which is about as relevant as the top-speed war. No one drives that fast. It’s like having the world’s most waterproof watch: a human would be crushed at that depth. You’re supposed to wear the watch on the inside of the submarine,guys. And building a car that can go so fast always compromises other aspects of performance: it adds weight and compromises normal-speed agility.

And yet we all love to see the limits probed. The SSC I’m driving is the actual one that broke the world production-car speed record, in 2007, at 256.14mph. The car that beat the original Bugatti Veyron. The record stood for nearly three years until the Veyron SuperSport scraped it back in July.

Back in 2007 you could have legitimately questioned whether SSC really was a production-car company at all. The record car was just the sixth SSC made. Anyway, Jerod Shelby, founder and prime mover of SSC, the Shelby Supercar Company, wanted to get the car right before he chased publicity. But SSC has done 15 now, and the company is still very much here and has taken several orders for this wonderful-looking new car. Being on to its second model and into its second decade puts SSC a major step beyond the usual here-today-gone-tomorrow hypercar dreamers who pop up at motor shows with their overwrought but underfinished cars.

But most of all, here’s the single fact that gives SSC credibility: that the vast Volkswagen Group built the Veyron SuperSport for the explicit purpose of winning the record back. Goliath was not only admitting that David existed, but felt it necessary to take up his mighty cudgel against David’s catapult. Actually, Jerod Shelby is perfectly happy that Bugatti did top his car’s speed. “No, our new car isn’t a response to Bugatti, because we didn’t know they’d break the record again. But their timing is exactly right for us as we’re about to launch the car that will get it back.”

SSC is absolutely one man’s dream, one man’s car. Jerod Shelby (no relation to Carroll, and good grief how he must be fed up with answering that question) made his fortune designing medical equipment, then in 1999 set out to build a supercar from scratch. He did it, with just a handful of employees and very little use of bought-in components. His final assembly plant is a shed behind his house.

The record top-speed run was done on a public road that Shelby found on Google Earth, a narrowish single-carriageway, just four miles long with a dog-leg a third of the way along that you hardly see on a map but had to be negotiated at a stately 210mph before the hardest phase of acceleration could start. It’s not terribly smooth – I’ve driven it at a fraction of the record speed. The police wouldn’t close it off for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Contrast all that with the resources that went into the Veyron. Consider VW’s Ehra Lessien test track, and its 5.5-mile, four-lane-wide, dead-flat main straight, with gentle banked curves at either end.

In initial testing of the SSC, Shelby used a professional test driver. But he got spooked by the high-speed wheelspin, so he was replaced by a 71-year-old mate of Jerod’s, Chuck Bigelow, who’d never driven the car before the final few tests. His only qualification was that he wanted to do 200mph before he died. (Thereby raising the possibility that those two events might have been separated by a very short interval.) He eschewed seatbelts and a helmet, doing the runs in a baseball cap.

For Shelby, doing 256mph was a lot more important than peeing high against a wall. If doing 256mph is a dicey business even when you own the road, the fact that SSC had done that speed gave the company instant credibility. They were no longer 16 guys in a shed. They were the designers and builders of an engine, a transmission, a chassis, an aero and cooling package that were more robust than any other on the planet at opposing the implacable violence of the speed-cubed law of drag.

To the next production cars Shelby added power steering, servo brakes, traction control, ABS and then a Brembo carbon option, not to mention a speedo you can actually read. Having driven the car without any of those, I can’t emphasise highly enough how much they were needed. There’s also an active air brake now for really big speeds, but I won’t fib and claim my open-road drive would have made use of that.

But then he realised that people wanted more, and although he’d pretty much overseen every detail of the car so far, he was smart enough to realise it was something he wasn’t personally able to supply this time. In design terms, the car needed an extreme makeover to play in the top league.

It was supercar-generic on the outside. The interior was frankly a bit kit-car. Shelby is candid: “I designed it. The aerodynamics were much the most important thing to me, and the appearance was only semi-important… and the interior was unimportant.” He’s a self-professed control freak, but in this case he now admits this was a crushing error in the eyes of actual customers. Luckily a hotshot designer had just become available.

Jason Castriota has one of the absolute premier-league supercar design CVs. An Italian-American who made his name in the former country and has since set up a design practice in the latter, he seemed a perfect fit. He knew the market for supercars, and he knew the super-expensive end of it through working with owners on multi-million-pound one-off commissions. He was also passionately interested in aerodynamics.

When Shelby first rang him, Castriota, like the rest of us, needed convincing that SSC was no flash in a pan. “I was very sceptical. After all I’d worked for the biggest and the best. But when I did finally meet them and had a ride in the car, I understood this is a well-done product. Jerod raced karts, was national champion and beat Michael Andretti. And he’s an engineer by trade. Once I got immersed in the project, I saw it was an amazing challenge. They need to set their sights much higher than merely breaking the world record and selling a handful of cars. They need to make a special product, a true American supercar with the best technology, for the world stage.”

That special product is this white car, the first of which will be delivered in a year’s time. The four-cam 6.8-litre twin-turbo engine will rev to 9,000rpm and make 1,350bhp. Even the blowers are SSC’s own design. It’s already doing these numbers on Shelby’s dyno. Unlike the current car, which has some steel in the structure, the new one will be all-carbon except for aluminium crash rails beyond the wheels front and back. Its transmission is the same all-SSC unit that has been proved in the current car, with the same triple-disc carbon clutch, but it’ll have the option of sequential paddle shifting.

Shelby was so obsessed with the aerodynamics that he named the car after the science. He has a compadre in his new designer. “I studied aerodynamics a bit in school and read tons of books,” says Castriota, “but I had an even better training on site, being able to go into the wind tunnel with Pininfarina’s and Ferrari’s aerodynamicists.”

“It’s a lot of fun to use aerodynamics to create something new. If you want to make a splash you need something striking. And classically beautiful dash; the mid-engined proportions are supermodel proportions. The black teardrop canopy is suspended above this long main volume. And the strong volume of the air intake sits on top of the rear wheel like a cannon. Then you flip it with the negative space in the lower body side, air exiting from the front wheels and air feeding into the rear radiators. Real function, like the dihedral rear stabilisers. That all creates dynamic tension, layers of volume and detail.”

Shelby has performed astounding feats to engineer the current car. “At the start I figured that in three years and $4m I could get SSC on the map,” he grins, “But I was exponentially off the map. Initially the McLaren record was 240mph and I thought I’d need about 900bhp. In the meantime the Veyron took the record up to 253 and I got rather concerned.”

In the end it took him seven years to get the record, and he won’t say how far his cost estimate undershot. But let’s keep some perspective: he obviously did it all for what Bugatti spent on office stationery.

That doesn’t mean he thinks he’s capable of actual miracles. So he isn’t reinventing the wheel for the brand-new car. Anything that can be re-used from his existing Ultimate Aero will be. The whole bottom end of the engine for instance is the same; it’s just that he’s replacing the pushrod heads with OHC. The suspension, the Brembo carbon brakes, the steering aren’t changing for the new car. Nor the apertures for the dihedral doors, which are notoriously tricky to do as neatly as this. The sizes of the 10 radiators and their apertures live on. So do the wheelbase and overall dimensions, except it’s slightly narrower at the back because it was too big for FIA GT racing should any owner want to have a crack.

Actually though, Shelby absolutely has had the wheel reinvented. An Australian company called Carbon Revolution has developed for SSC the world’s first one-piece carbon-fibre wheel – the 19-incher at the front weighs an almost comically light 5.8kg. The new car’s entire structure will be made of F1-derived carbon. And by that, the dry weight will fall to 1,200kg-odd. Putting the power-to-weight ratio, even with fluids and the quivering driver strapped aboard, north of 1,000bhp per tonne.

Even in this four-year-old car, you can feel the potential for brilliance. It’s not just the engine that’s epic, but the thermonuclear drama of that V8 couldn’t fail to dominate. At 6.3 litres and with a 9.0 to one compression, it hardly needs the turbo, and anyway, they’re small low-inertia devices. So it’s not over-boosted, there’s no lag to speak of, and little in the way of a sudden mid-range bang. Instead the surge just builds and builds and – woooooaah – builds into a violent careen from well before the torque peak at 6,150rpm to the zap of the shift and the 7,200rpm limit, and then your head, which you’ve been bracing against the force, suddenly nods forward during the pause while you engage the next gear. If you’re good, you can, SSC claims, do 0-60 in 2.8secs. But you really can’t deploy all the beans in anything less than fourth – and then you’re going towards aircraft take-off speeds. Thanks be for downforce.

As if all that g-loading wasn’t enough, the engine adds to the drama with its unending variety of wastegate hisses, chuckles, and fluttering screams. At a volume of 11. All over the snarling V8 growl. My head bursts with the imagining of how the new engine – with its four-valve heads and its 6.8 litres and its 9,000rpm limit – will sound.

We’ll skate over the unassisted non-ABS brakes of this particular car. If you were hoping for wonderful feel in recompense for the lack of artificial help, it isn’t there. I trust Brembo carbons to do a far better job on the new car. Instead let’s talk about the suspension. You sense no roll whatever, even cornering pretty hard, and the steering is accurate on-lock, at which point the car hunkers hungrily into a turn. It rides rather serenely and the damping seems beautifully judged. But the steering is sweatily heavy and it follows cambers (and the record-run road has a lot of camber), especially under brakes. But again, I won’t make a fuss because it’s replaced now by a powered system.

I will make a fuss, in a good way, about the damping and ride refinement. There’s remarkably little tyre slap, even on potholes and concrete freeways. The carbon wheels help here I suspect. Neither is there much engine harshness. Going at regular speeds is a pleasure, the aircon works well and the structure feels (and has proved in someone else’s crash) very solid. There are three SSCs that have covered 10k miles each.

In other words, there’s a lot that’s great about the 2006 SSC. And everything that isn’t is being fixed.

Before you ask, it’s nothing like a Veyron. It’s more visceral and more basic and, yes, more brutally fast. By some way. Shelby himself took a car to the Middle East where some local potentates arrived with two Veyrons and commanded the road be closed. It duly was, they duly did a TG-style drag race, and the SSC duly won. Two men ordered SSCs on the spot. The next day they paid. Using cash, pulled out of a Louis Vuitton holdall.

So it’s a must-have in parts of the Middle East. Yet Shelby notes a reticence among American buyers. Which strikes me as odd given the usual American patriotism – and their liking for big numbers. Numbers come no bigger than these.

Top Gear magazine out now: new Lambo world exclusive.

BUY IT NOW

Friends, Romans, Mini Countrymen, lay down your keyboards. Step away from your computers, leave that colour-coded spreadsheet unfinished and stop watching The InBetweeners on 4OD. The November issue of TopGear magazine is in the shops, and it’s a cracker. It’s so damn exciting that it makes the Ryder Cup finale look like, er, a game of golf in Wales.

We’ve got a world-exclusive close-up with the Lamborghini Sestro Elemento, the full story behind Lotus’s possibly-insane Plan For World Domination and, oh, so much more.

So, that Lamborghini concept. The rest of the world was thunderstruck when the all-carbon Sestro Elemento was revealed in Paris last week, but – devious gadabouts that we are – TopGear had already stolen it away for an exclusive photoshoot and interrogation session with the most astonishing supercar concept of the year.

Six new models by 2015, a £770m investment, Ferrari-beating performance… as grand plans go, Lotus’s new strategy is the biggest since Alexander the Great said, ‘Goodness, Macedonia is feeling a bit crowded recently, isn’t it?’

Our man Paul Horrell gives you a comprehensive run-down of every new Lotus – including the amazing 620bhp V8 Esprit – and concludes with a thorough grilling of Dany Bahar, in which he discovers that the new Lotus CEO is not in fact a barking loon.

Jaguar’s C-X75 concept is an electric supercar with 780bhp, four-wheel drive and a pair of miniature jet engines. Now, you weren’t expecting that, were you? Tom Ford is your guide on an exclusive tour of the maddest thing to emerge from the Midlands since Noddy Holder.

But you don’t want a concept. You want something you can actually get your hands on, right? In that case… the Ferrari SA Aperta isn’t for you. The £350,000, 599 convertible is completely sold out, so the closest you’ll get to it is our preview of the 661bhp rag-roofed nutjob.

Kicking off our New Drives section this month is the Audi A7 Sportback, Ingolstadt’s answer to the bananatastic Merc CLS. Is it good enough to beat the mercurial Merc? And can it dish out a kicking to the base-spec Porsche Panamera? It might…

Also reviewed this month is the new Ford C-Max, a car that you really, really should care about, because it’s the first of a new generation of Focuses. And it’s great to drive. No, really it is. We’ve also got first drives of the Renault Fluence, new Nissan Micra, Volvo V60, Ferrari California Stop-Start and a whole bunch of other shiny new metal.

The Range Rover Evoque is gearing up to be next year’s must-have fashion accessory. Paul Horrell hoses through the Victoria Beckham-flavoured marketing fluff and gets right to the heart of the car that you don’t think you want, but you really, really do.

That’s the Local Motors Rally Fighter, a Dakar-style buggy designed and voted for by the good ol’ American public. Not designers. Not engineers. Plebs. And it’s tackling a 75-foot jump. With our man Pat Devereux in the passenger seat. Do you trust the American public?

And that’s the Peel P50, Clarkson’s office commuting tool of choice, in a shopping centre in the Deep South. Dan Read enrages small-town America (again) in a bid to discover whether James Caan’s money was well spent.

There’s all this and far, far more in the November issue of TopGear magazine, available in all newsagents of ill repute today.

Small Wonder from 08|2007

In the 70s, the Polski Fiat 126 put in some very big performances as a rally car. Bill Thomas heads to Poland where it was established.

There had to be a moment when I saw the Polski Fiat 126 Group 2 for the first time. It happened as we drove down a narrow road near Bielsko Biała, in south-western Poland – there, amid glorious rolling countryside, sitting in front of a neat, red-roofed workshop, was the little blue and white rally car, resplendent in the markings the original wore in the late 1970s, during some of the most heroic drives in rallying history.

This is a car that defies the laws of perspective, because it looks bigger from further away, and gets smaller as you approach. You need to be right up close to appreciate its sensational lack of size – if you’ve seen a 126 on the road recently, you’ll know what I mean.

Its lines have aged more gracefully than any 30-year-old car I can think of right now – it’s beyond ‘cute’, it’s properly pretty, clean, uncluttered, sweet. As we’ve read elsewhere in this magazine, if it’s small and it’s a Fiat, it’s hard not to fall in love with.

So I did – I had no choice. I fell in love, at first sight, smitten to the core. And so did Top Gear creative director Charlie Turner, another self-confessed small Fiat nut. Only ‘nut’ can describe a man who would willingly volunteer to accompany me on this 126 drive – a thousand miles from the factory in Poland back to London via Berlin.

You can now buy a 126 replica like this for around £7,000. The cars use original 126 bodyshells and are lovingly prepared by 126 Group 2 in Bielsko Biała, just as the old Polish works rally cars were – roll cage, tuned engine, trick suspension, stripped bare.

Over three million Polski Fiat 126 road cars were license-built by FSM in Poland between 1973 and 2000, so there are plenty of bodyshells to go round. Polish roads are still clogged with the things.

However, to qualify for FIA-spec in historic rallies – the main raison d’être for this replica, though I suspect many people will buy it just to cherish it – the 126 must use a bodyshell constructed between 1978 and 1983. No problem, thousands to choose from.

It’s a little-documented part of rallying history, Poland and Eastern Europe in the late 1970s, but talking to some of the participants and hearing their stories, I can tell you it’s at a very high level for sheer guts, bravado and skill. And the FSM-OBR Polski 126s were in the thick of it, scrapping with far bigger, more powerful cars, and often putting them down.

Andrzej Lubiak, one of the most successful of all the Polski works drivers, met us at the 126 Group 2 factory and told us some tales. I’ll never meet a more brilliant raconteur. Andrzej showed us one of his old stage results sheets – and there was his 126, running eighth overall, among Renault Alpines and Porsche 911s.

Tremendous. On one event, he lost a right front wheel – so his navigator climbed onto the left rear corner of the car to keep the nose in the air, then Andrzej finished the stage flat-out. One year he competed in Russia and had to deal with a centimetre of ice inside the windscreen.

The demister cleared only a tiny, heart-shaped area in the centre, yet, with his legs wrapped in newspaper, feet clad in ski boots, head bent low to peer through the heart, he carried on at full speed with the temperatures outside at -40°C.

Our first stop would be one of Andrzej’s old hunting grounds, the Walim-Rościszów road to the north-west, near the Czech border. Though it was hard to leave the factory, I couldn’t wait to try Poland’s most famous rally stage in the 126.

Firing up the engine gives you a shock – it is unbelievably loud. Mounted in the rear, of course, there isn’t much between it and the cockpit. It’s a two-cylinder, 650cc unit, balanced and blueprinted, with works pistons and cams and a very serious exhaust system.

The engine is rated at between 48 and 54bhp depending on spec – that doesn’t sound like much, but the car only weighs 550kg, remember, and 54bhp from 600cc is an exceptional power output. We donned ear defenders and hit the road.

It’s a crazy machine to drive. Nothing much happens under 4,000rpm, but keep it above that and the 126 zips along briskly – Group 2 engineer Michal Kumiega told us to keep it below 5,500, but the tiny twin revs so keenly, it was hard not to let it creep toward the 7,000rpm peak-power point.

Neither Charlie nor I are small people, but we fit inside the 126 without drama. The racing bucket seats in this car are too narrow for my frame, with the side bolsters causing discomfort if I didn’t slide forward, but that’s easily fixed – more importantly, the driving stance is surprisingly natural given the car’s diminutive proportions, with a classic long-arm, short-leg Italian driving position, and the co-pilot sat lower and behind the driver. There’s plenty of headroom, too.

The stage near Walim is fabulous, a tight snake across steep forested hills, and the 126 tackled it with élan. This kind of hairpin-infested road is what the 126 is made for, especially with the optional short-ratio gearbox fitted to our test car – its 18kph per thousand revs in top (fourth) didn’t really make much sense on fast A-roads, but here it was perfect.

The trick is to keep your momentum up at all costs, and keep the revs up with it. That’s a lot of fun, because the 126 turns in with great precision and holds its line with proper determination – the 165/55 Yokohama 12-inch tyres don’t want to let go, and you can adjust the tail with a little lift when the car is at the limit of adhesion.

Held tight by the racing seats, dialling in the lock with the Monte Carlo steering wheel and keeping the revs high with constant use of the quick, easy-shifting ‘box, it’s not hard to imagine master drivers like Andrzej embarrassing those pesky Alpines.

I’d like to say we drove the 126 all the way to Berlin, our overnight stop, in a marathon endurance run, but that would be a bare-faced lie. The short-ratio ‘box meant that 60mph equalled 5,500rpm and it wasn’t fair on the car. We slid the little Fiat into a truck.

Heading through Berlin the next morning, we blasted pedestrians and other motorists with deafening engine blips before parking the 126 at the Brandenburg Gate for a photo. Surely no car in the world has such a massive sound-to-size ratio, and judging by the reaction of everyone who set eyes on it, there can’t be many more attractive cars in existence, either.

We did a long stint on a mostly derestricted autobahn, sitting at 60mph and dicing with trucks. As big Mercs and Audis piled past, the 126 rocked on its little wheels and I quietly dreamt of leaving the execmobiles behind on a switchback road. If you’re thinking of tackling longer journeys, I’d recommend the longer-ratio ‘box option, where a top speed of 90mph makes a lot more sense.

‘Sense’ isn’t a word you’d normally associate with a rally replica, but maybe the guys at Group 2 are onto something here – this is a car that works brilliantly in the world we find ourselves in.

Tiny, nimble, charismatic, inexpensive to buy and run, and above all, a gigantic dollop of unmitigated fun – you can sit in it and flick the bird at the world. Then, when you step out, you’ll turn to look at it and it feels like the first time. Every time. I have to have one. Have to.