Editor’s Note: Are we at “peak supercar?” Leading industry voices think so. If the current Holy Trinity — Ferrari LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 — are indeed the peak, it’s time to look back down at base camp, and see how far we’ve come. This limited series will take a brief look at the supercars that defined each era, one decade at a time, beginning with the birth of the supercar in the ’50s.
Coming off the heels of WWII, the States entered an economic boom — an age of excess that gave rise to the Greatest Generation and a new America. With no more dogfights and air raids over European skies to test their mettle, homebound fighter pilots turned to motorsport and automotive development to test their talents and bravery.
Regulations in certain race series required that high-performance cars developed for competition be homologated, meaning a set number of each race car had to be road-legal and sold to the public. What resulted were slightly modified race cars sold to the public with only a few creature comforts. They were the first supercars.
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL
“Race car for the road” is a cliché now, but Mercedes can arguably lay claim to making the first when the manufacturer produced the 300 SL. Mercedes-Benz took the Le Mans-winning W194 racer and swapped out the carbureted fuel system for the same direct injection used in the Messerschmitt German Fighter plane in WWII (the first of its kind in a road car). The road car was given a well-appointed luxury interior, and its now-iconic gullwing doors (another first). The result was the world’s fastest road car.
Engine: 3.0–liter Straight-Six
Top Speed: 160 mph
Original MSRP: $6,820 – $8,902
Current Estimated Value: $4,620,000
Notable Owners: Clark Gable, Juan Manuel Fangio, Tony Curtis, Zsa Zsa Gabor
1957 Jaguar XKSS
At the end of the 1956 season, Jaguar decided to call it quits on the sportscar racing. But in doing so, a number of Jaguar D-Type race cars went unsold. Instead of letting those cars collect dust and rot in storage, the company decided to convert the remaining D-Types into road cars and sell them in the US. Not much was needed to make the XKSS road-legal; all Jaguar did was remove of the aerodynamic fin from behind the driver’s seat and add some weatherproofing, a folding cloth roof and a working passenger side door.
Engine: 3.5–liter straight-six
Top Speed: 159 mph
Original MSRP: $6,900
Current Estimated value: $1,400,000 – $19,800,000
Notable Owners: Steve McQueen