Technology is a moving target. Today’s high-tech automotive flagship can seemingly be easily be supplanted by another car with more innovations or a more refined, better-performing version of existing technologies.
Still, someone has to get there first.
The five automobiles listed here each made an important technological first step that changed the way cars are designed and built. The fact that each was ultimately supplanted by something even more fantastic shows just how persistent the pace of automotive evolution is.
Today, each of these five cars remains a technological benchmark of its era.
1960s: Lamborghini Miura
The Miura was not just a radical leap forward in car design; it also created the ultimate category of car: the supercar.
There were many fast, exotic cars before the Miura, but this Italian legend introduced the template that all modern supercars, from Lambo’s own Aventador to the high-tech hybrid LaFerrari, follow. By putting the engine in the middle, Lamborghini opened the floodgates. Most road cars of the period had their engines where one normally expects to find them, in the front. In 1965, Lambo’s engineers decided to turn their car’s engine sideways (known as transverse mounting, similar to what you’ll find in most modern front-wheel drive cars) and mount it behind the driver. This improved weight distribution and allowed for a smaller package.
In fact, the packaging was so tight that once the 4.0-liter V12 was wedged into the chassis, there was hardly room for anything else. Lambo solved the problem by merging the transmission and differential into one transaxle. Everything was cloaked in a shape for the ages, courtesy of Italian styling house Bertone.
The Miura’s bare chassis was shown at the 1965 Turin Salon; a fully-clothed prototype was unveiled at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show the following spring. The car went into production later that year and kept rolling out of Sant’Agata Bolognese factory until 1972, when it was replaced by the equally outrageous Countach.
1970s: BMW M1
The words “BMW” and “supercar” seem like they belong together, but the story of the M1 shows that reality is much more complicated. A car’s technological sophistication can’t ensure its success. In the late 1970s, BMW was just beginning to assert itself as a dominant automotive force, so it decided to build a supercar.
Not having any experience doing that, it commissioned Lamborghini to build the body and chassis.BMW did know a lot about engine design, though, so it created a world beater for the M1. The 3.5-liter M88 inline-six was a clean-sheet design, featuring six individual throttle bodies, four valves per cylinder (highly exotic for the day), and Kugelfischer mechanical fuel injection. That added up to 272 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque. The competition from Ferrari and Lamborghini had more power, but they also had twice the cylinders.
Sounds pretty impressive so far, but the birthing process got complicated for the M1.
Lamborghini’s financial troubles soon forced BMW to take over the project completely. In the confusion, only 456 M1s were made, and those cars were nearly impossible to sell. In the midst of the late ‘70s economic malaise, few people were interested in a supercar from a maker of German luxury sedans.
However, the M1 still has an important legacy.
BMW transplanted its M88 engine into the E28 5 Series to create the first M5; the M Division was born. Thirty-five years and several generations of M5, M3, and M6 cars later, BMW is coming full circle with the i8, a new supercar that will rely heavily on the prestige of its M forebears – all the way back to the landmark M1 – to attract buyers.
1980s: Porsche 959
The 959 may look like a 911 that’s melted a bit, but it brings an impressive array of tech and gadgets to the party. Welcome to the first wired performance car. Today’s drivers are used to having electronics adjust their cars’ behavior, and that all started with the 959. Among its many innovative features were an all-wheel drive system with adjustable torque split, electronically controlled suspension with adjustable damping and ride height.
Lightweight materials also played a big role. The body panels were made of Kevlar and fiberglass-reinforced plastic, while the wheels were magnesium. A turbocharged (this was the ‘80s after all) 2.8-liter flat-six powered the 959, producing 450 hp and 370 lb-ft. That was enough to get this Porsche to 200 mph, making it the world’s fastest production car when it debuted in 1986.
Originally developed for Group B rallying, Porsche decided to continue with production of the car after that class of fire-breathing racer was eliminated. When it did go on sale, the 959 didn’t just indicate changing times with its tech. Whereas previous supercars had actors and rock stars as celebrity owners, the 959’s most famous owner was Bill Gates.
1990s: McLaren F1
How can you argue with a car with an engine compartment lined with gold?
The McLaren F1’s blinged-out bay wasn’t just a publicity stunt; it showed how committed this race team-turned-car builder was to building the ultimate road car. McLaren said it needed the gold because it was good at reflecting heat, not a small detail in the F1. Mounted in that engine bay was a 6.1-liter V12 developed by BMW’s M Division. It produced 627 hp and 479 lb-ft and, as in a race car, the rear suspension was bolted directly to it.
Another exotic material, carbon fiber, made up the body and chassis; the F1 was the first production car to be built this way. The chassis was designed with an integrated roll cage, forming a “survival cell” that could be the father of the “LifeDrive” chassis of BMW’s upcoming i cars. Even the seating position was unorthodox. McLaren placed the driver’s seat in the middle, with two passenger seats on either side, giving the driver what must be one of the best views in all of cardom.
The result was the fastest production car of the 20th century, with a top speed of 240 mph. Some car lovers still argue that the F1 is better to drive than the current top-speed record holder, which is…
2000s: Bugatti Veyron
Every gearhead can recite the specs by heart: Sixteen cylinders. Four turbochargers. One thousand and one horsepower. One million dollars. The Bugatti Veyron isn’t just an exercise in excess; it’s one of the few cars that has reached the level of epoch-defining engineering achievement.
The Veyron is the ultimate car in the same way that the Concorde was the ultimate airliner: it was built purely to push the envelope. The Concorde was built to meet a specific performance target, and so was the Veyron. In 1998, Volkswagen Group purchased Bugatti, and the group’s boss, Ferdinand Piëch decided to build the world’s fastest car.
The idea of a quad-turbocharged W16 Bugatti hypercar seemed ludicrous, and it was. Through the Veyron’s tortured development, engineers had to do things like fit it with 10 radiators and develop special tires that could still only survive 50 minutes of driving at the car’s insane top speed. But on top of that tech and power, the Veyron had to be comfortable and luxurious, befitting a car that was as expensive as it was fast.
The mission was accomplished: The original Veyron 16.4 achieved 253 mph in 2005. When the SSC Ultimate Aero overtook it in 2007, Bugatti came back with the Veyron Super Sport, which still holds the world record at 267.8 mph.
Eventually, a new high-tech car will be added to this list. Will it be a super-performance hybrid? An electron-powered ultra EV? Only time will tell.
What’s the next car that will raise the tech bar for the industry? Leave a comment below.