SSC: new fastest car in the world?

Posted: October 8, 2010 in Articles
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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.

  1. nobody says:

    VECTOR WX8 HYPERCAR 10 liter V-8 engine is capable of over 2,000 horsepower

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