To name something is to know it, at least ‘nominally’ so. To know it and to limit it is also to take a wild territory and turn it into domestic property. These concepts of ownership and property come into sharp relief in my pursuit of a motivating passion for me: The ‘Supercar.’
What is a supercar you ask? We can start off with a visit to our favorite arbiter of conventional wisdom, Wikipedia. Aaah! But what to my wondering eyes should appear but none other than KingElvis’ real world avatar, Robert Harless! He is footnoted a number of times in the Wikipedia definition of the word. His notes 9 and 10 show that the word 'Supercar' predated 'Musclecar.' There might not even be a “dispute”* had the book “Horespower War: Our Way of Life” not been offered up for free web perusal by the gracious Mr. Harless. Good. This gives us a chance to settle accounts.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaSupercar is a term used most often to describe an expensive high end car. It has been defined specifically as "a very expensive, fast or powerful car". Stated in more general terms: "it must be very fast, with sporting handling to match", "it should be sleek and eye-catching" and its price should be "one in a rarefied atmosphere of its own".
However, the proper application of the term is subjective and disputed*, especially among enthusiasts. So-called vehicles are typically out of the ordinary and are marketed by automakers to be perceived by the public as unusual. The supercar can take many forms including limited production specials from an "elite" automaker, standard looking cars made by mainstream companies that hide massive power and performance, (Italics and bold from KINGELVIS) as well as models that appeal to "hardcore enthusiasts" from "manufacturers on the fringe of the car industry".
An advertisement for the Ensign Six, a 6.7 L (410 cu in) high-performance car similar to the Bentley Speed Six, appeared in The Times for 11 November 1920 with the phrase "If you are interested in a supercar, you cannot afford to ignore the claims of the Ensign 6." The Oxford English Dictionary also cites the use of the word in an advertisement for an unnamed car in The Motor dated 3 November 1920, "The Supreme development of the British super-car." and defines the phrase as suggesting "a car superior to all others". A book published by the Research Institute of America in 1944, that previewed the economic and industrial changes to occur after World War II, used the term "supercar" (author's emphasis) to describe future automobiles incorporating advances in design and technology such as flat floorpans and automatic transmissions.
The phrase supercar is said to have had (KINGELVIS bold) its revival originated with British motor journalist L. J. K. Setright writing about the Lamborghini Miura in CAR in the mid-1960s. (KINGELVIS BOLD. One wonders why the exact date of the magazine issue can’t simply be listed here, since this claim is so pervasive in web searches. The previous sentence had achieved the status of an urban myth, or more appropriately ‘conventional wisdom’ – largely because of Wikipedia role as a de-facto authority) The magazine was originally launched in 1962 as Small Car and Mini Owner, and claims to have "coined the phrase". (KINGELVIS BOLD The CAR website page of footnote #8 only states that the magazine coined the term. Again, why not name the famous issue?)
In the United States, the term "supercar" predates the classification of muscle car (KINGELVIS: You can trust that guy to keep it real.) to describe the "dragstrip bred" affordable mid-size cars of the 1960s and early 1970s that were equipped with large, powerful V8 engines and rear wheel drive.
The combination of a potent engine in a lightweight car began with the 1957 Rambler Rebel that was described as a "veritable supercar". "In 1966 the sixties supercar became an official industry trend" (KINGELVIS: Thanks, trusted expert) as the four domestic automakers "needed to cash in on the supercar market" with eye-catching, heart-stopping cars. Among the numerous examples of the use of the supercar description include the May 1965 issue of the American magazine Car Life, in a road test of the Pontiac GTO. (KINGELVIS' 'smoking gun' scan of that very issue...
(KINGELVIS: The word Supercar actually doesn’t occur within the text of the GTO road test in The May 1965 Car Life issue, but a systematic definition is spelled out on this page. This piece of evidence – the scan above – is a ‘smoking gun’ because it clearly settles the ‘dispute,’ perhaps not about which cars are indeed super, but about which magazine gets to claim the coinage for the word “Supercar.” This article clearly, yet subtly defines the word Supercar for the first time.((According to Joe Oldham, writing in the May '74 issue of the American magazine CARS - not to be confused with the UK's CAR - this is the first time the word was used and defined as such)).
Later Car Life articles make direct reference to the issue when discussing subsequent Supercars and whether they deserved to be listed in that exclusive club.
In case you just can't read the text in the above scan from May ’65 Car Life.
Quote: “The ultimate expression of this trend toward the personally specified vehicle is what we call the “Supercar.” It has a big engine with great gobs of horsepower and torque. It has a modest sized chassis of reasonably light weight. It has an axle ratio that lets the engine perform and it has a transmission (in most cases) that can provide optimum engine operating conditions. Many of the Supercars are options atop options; they are packages of options which supplant and complement the original options.”
So the supercar is defined here mostly in terms of it being a 'special car' - one with very rare factory options like sintered metallic brake linings or a hard riding suspension that 99 out of 100 cars don't have.
You can hopefully make out the list of 'Supercars' which includes the 327cid/350hp Chevelle, 427 Ford and 396 Chevrolet. None of these three cars had a 'package' option (GTO, GTX, GTA, R/T or the like) at the time. In fact the whole idea as Car Life has it, is that you would have to special order all the stuff you want anyway. The idea of the supercar is not to have a 'compromise' that will fly off dealer lots but something that only one out of 100 people want. The article says that since the US car market is so big and expansive, it still makes sense for makers to appeal to this rare one percent of buyers. You can also see the oft repeated assertion of 1960's US car magazines: That a buyer could conceivably special order a car with a combination of obscure options so that no other car is exactly like his.
Now, we return to our regularly scheduled Wikipedia entry…
The word supercar later became to mean a "GT" or grand touring type of car. (If KingElvis’ avatar in the real world, Harless, said this, does that mean KingElvis can take it back? We’ll come back to this question in a later post) By the 1970s and 1980s the phrase was in regular use, if not precisely defined. (KINGELVIS: The NYT article of note 23 was about the Mercedes 690 SEL a large sedan with a 420 cubic inch or 6.9 liter engine. Its engine and body are much more like a Car Life supercar than any Lamborghini – particularly a mid engine one as in the next note, #24)
During the late 20th century, the term supercar was used to describe "a very expensive, fast or powerful car with a centrally located engine," and stated in more general terms: "it must be very fast, with sporting handling to match", "it should be sleek and eye-catching" and its price should be "one in a rarefied atmosphere of its own".
2. ^ Ward, Ian (1985). "Secondhand Supercars". London's Motor Show Motorfair 85 Official Catalogue.
4. ^ "British Ensign Motors". The Times. 11 November 1920. p. 6.
6. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang (1989-09-04). "Carl Hovgard, Tax Adviser, 83; Founder of the Research Institute". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-08-23.
7. ^ Cherne, Leo (1944). The Rest of Your Life. Doubleday, Doran and Co.. pp. 216–217. Retrieved 2010-01-21.
9. ^ Harless, Robert (2004). Horsepower War: Our Way of Life. iUniverse. p. 1. ISBN 9780595302963. Retrieved 23 August 2010.
10. ^ Gunnell, John (2001). Standard Guide to American Muscle Cars: A Supercar Source Book, 1960–2000. Krause Publications. ISBN 9780873492621.
11. ^ Norbye, Jan P.; Dunne, Jim (October 1966). "The Hot Ones: Supercars of medium size flaunt tough suspensions, great brakes, most powerful engines in existence". Popular Science 189 (4): 83–85. Retrieved 2010-01-21.
13. ^ Harless, p. 8.
17. ^ Lyons, Dan; Scott, Jason (2004). Muscle Car Milestones. MotorBooks/MBI Publishing. p. 89. ISBN 9780760306154. Retrieved 2010-01-21.
18. ^ Bonsall, Thomas E. (1985). Muscle Plymouths: The Story of a Supercar. Bookman Publishing. ISBN 9780934780711.
19. ^ Primedia (2004). Hot Rod Magazine: Muscle Car Files. MotorBooks International. p. 112. ISBN 9780760316474. Retrieved 23 August 2010.
20. ^ Carner, Colin (February 1999). "1967 Chevrolet Stage III Nickey Camaro". Sports Car Market. Retrieved 2010-03-19.
22. ^ Stuart Marshall (September 4, 1975). "Rewards and frustrations of the supercars". The Times (London): p. 23.
23. ^ "Business Roundup; From the Land of the VW, a $35,000 Supercar". The New York Times: p. F15. September 21, 1975.
24. ^ Eds. Jeremy Butterfield ... (2003). Collins English Dictionary. Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0007109830.
25. ^ Ward, Ian (1985). "Secondhand Supercars". London Motor Show "Motorfair 1985" Official Catalogue.
26. ^ McCosh, Dan (June 1994). "Emerging Technologies for the Supercar". Popular Science 244 (6): 95–100. Retrieved 2010-08-23.
28. ^ Fuhs, Allen E. (2008). Hybrid vehicles and the future of personal transportation. CRC Press. p. 10. ISBN 9781420075342. Retrieved 2010-08-23.
(END WIKIPEDIA – note that some specific references – namely to US Supercars like the American Motors SC Rambler, and a 1990's US government program called PNGV that developed super efficient cars - have been removed for the sake of relevance and brevity)
So now let's brush up our Shakespeare and throw down the gauntlet to the effete snobs across the pond at CAR magazine.Here is my email to Great Britain’s CAR magazine...
Hello Ms. Harrison,
Thanks for responding. Let me clarify a few facts in hopes that we can find the issue of CAR wherein the term ‘super car’ is coined. The subject line of my email was taken from a Wikipedia definition of super car. Since we know anyone can tinker around with Wikipedia, here’s the part of the Wiki definition I’m talking about (in bold):
The phrase supercar did not become popular until much later and is said to have had its revival originated with British motor journalist L. J. K. Setright writing about the Lamborghini Miura in CAR in the mid-1960s. The magazine was originally launched in 1962 as Small Car and Mini Owner, and claims to have "coined the phrase".
(End of Wiki quote)
I see in the CAR web page which is footnote (8) in the Wikipedia article, no mention is made specifically of LJK Setright actually ‘coining’ the word supercar. Instead the magazine itself is given credit. Here it is cut and pasted in bold:
The magazine has a history of innovation. We invented the group test, pioneered the drive story and coined the phrase 'supercar' – and all three remain staples of CAR. The magazine is also renowned for its photography, writing and design: in 2007, CAR won two top design awards and one of our writers recently won the UK's Journalist of the Year gong from the Guild of Motoring Writers. From LJK Setright to Gavin Green and Georg Kacher, ours are some of the world's most respected automotive journalists.
So the Wikipedia ‘assumption’ seems to be: Setright saw/drove/reported upon the Lamborghini Miura, and called it a ‘supercar’ at that time.
As you can see, this is not specifically what the CAR website claims. In any case I ordered a Brooklands Books reprint of Lamborghini Miura road tests and this is what I found.
In the January 1967 CAR article “Riding the Wild One,” LJK Setright’s name doesn’t appear, but it could have been written by him, judging by the style. This article is actually not a road test, but a ‘ride along’ with New Zealand born Lamborghini tech Bob Wallace. No where does the word or phrase ‘super car’ appear. Also noteworthy with respect to Wikipedia, this first ride along story was published not in the ‘mid sixties’ but at the beginning at least of the ‘late sixties.’ Not a surprise considering that the Miura only debuted in March ’66 and the 1966 total production amounted to just two cars.
Then in the December 1967 issue of CAR, LJK Setright’s name appears prominently on the first page of a two part saga called “1000 miles in the Miura.” “LJK Setright gets to grips with the most exotic of ‘em all.” The story recounts a trip from the Lamborghini factory back to the UK where Setright shares the chore of driving a Miura (that had been purchased by a Briton) with a Lamborghini sales representative. The events unfold in September of ’67, again very much in the ‘late sixties.’ There are plenty of words in this two part story, the second of which is printed in the January 1968 issue of CAR, but the words ‘super car’ aren’t among them.
It’s clear that the Wikipedia article on the word supercar is in error. The CAR website does not make the same specific claim as Wikipedia, though it does insist that CAR magazine ‘coined the term.’
So I’m now even more curious. If supercar was not coined by LJK Setright, and perhaps not even to describe the Lamborghini Miura, then when and where did CAR magazine ‘coin’ the term super car?
Some final points for part one of this multi part blog on the Supercar kerfluffle:
I read the rest of the articles sourced from CAR magazine in the Brooklands road test reprint series “Lamborghini 1964-1970” and never saw the word “Supercar” mentioned once, by anyone from CAR. Even as late as November ’70, in a road test contrasting the Miura with a Ferrari Dino, the Miura is referred to as a “GT car” or “sports car” but never "Supercar."
That’s not to say the word “Supercar” can’t be found in the Brooklands Lamborghini road tests. The word appears in a Car and Driver March 1966 review of the first Lamborghini, the conventional front engine 350GT. C&D said “It (350GT) runs the quarter (mile) like one of our (my bold) Super Cars…”
In this case the meaning of “Super Cars” (C&D tended to turn Car Life’s coinage of the word Supercar into a phrase “Super Car”) is easy to discern, since in the very same issue of Car and Driver there was special report called “6 Super Cars!” all of which were in the Car Life mold: Pontiac GTO, Buick Skylark GS, Oldsmobile 442, Chevelle SS396, Ford Fairlane GTA and Mercury Cyclone GT.
“Bu…bu…but what about ‘muscle cars!’ ‘Everybody knows’ (the naïve might say) that the Pontiac GTO and its many imitators were ‘muscle cars!’”
Patience is a virtue! We will plumb the depths of this vitally important question in the next edition of “Elvisceral Appeal.”