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The Evolution of Speed: High-speed Production Cars of the 20th Century

Vukasin HerbezFebruary 8, 2019

Since the dawn of the automotive age, car enthusiasts have been fascinated with speed. It seems like every new car is faster and stronger than the ones before it. The nature of this speed progression has pushed car engineers and designers to build cars that can go far beyond the limits of traffic. And at times, they even beyond the limits of the driver.

Even though most drivers never will experience speeds over 100 mph, at least not in a car, people are still mesmerized by the top speeds and ability to go super fast. During the 20th century, a car’s top speed has been one of the more important selling points. Even when road conditions, traffic or other cars were much slower, people still lusted after high-speed cars. Som most car manufacturers have chased after the coveted title of “the fastest production model in the world.”

Because of this lust for speed, here is a compilation of the 20 fastest production cars the 20th century has ever produced. Not surprisingly, almost all of them are supercars, which is what you needed to go fast some 40 years ago. So keep reading to learn more about the fastest cars in automotive history.

  1. Mercedes Simplex 90HP

Mercedes introduced the Simplex in 1902, and it was the biggest, most luxurious model they offered to their customers. Although it looked like any other antique car, the Simplex had a powerful engine for the time. Buyers could get 40 to 60 and even 90 HP versions.

The 90 HP version set a world record when it traveled at speeds of over 90 mph during testing. Today, 90 mph is nothing special. But 115 years ago, it was lighting fast since most people traveled in slow horse carriages.

  1. Duesenberg SSJ

Duesenberg was one of the most famous luxury manufacturers famous for superb quality and big power. Sadly, they discontinued the company in 1937. However, their SJ and SSJ models they produced in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s were among the fastest cars of the period.

And that was things to their big straight-eight engines they equipped with a supercharger. The output ranged from 260 to even 400 HP in the SSJ trim. As expected, those rare, extremely expensive cars had big top speeds. They could reach over 110 mph, which was insanely fast for 1932.

  1. Jaguar XK120

After the Second World War, top speed racing faded a bit, but the sports car manufacturers continued to improve their models. One of the cars that created a big stir due to its high top speed was the 1948 Jaguar XK120. Jaguar equipped it with a straight six engine and overhead camshafts.

With a light aluminum body and low weight, this Jaguar could reach 120 mph straight from the factory; hence, the name. And that was extremely fast for a regular production model. Soon, Jaguar produced the XK140 and XK150 models, suggesting those upgraded versions could go even faster.

  1. Mercedes 300 SL

In the early ‘50s, Mercedes was in ruins, production was low and the factory was slowly recovering from the devastation of World War II. Nobody expected they could produce one of the finest sports cars of all times as well as the fastest production car of the ‘50s, the 300 SL Gullwing.

They used a space frame chassis, fuel injected straight six engines, a host of components and race-proven parts. In the 300 SL, Mercedes created a masterpiece with unusual opening doors and a fantastic performance. With just 240 HP on tap, the Mercedes 300 SL was a 150 mph car all day long, but some claimed it could reach 160 mph.

  1. Aston Martin DB4 GT

As a renowned sports car brand, Aston entered the top speed race in the late ‘50s, briefly winning the “the world`s fastest production car” title. Their weapon was the Aston Martin DB4 GT, a lightweight and 300 HP-strong version of the DB4 Grand Tourer.

The Aston engineers tried hard to achieve this power output with some major upgrades, like three carburetors and two spark plugs per cylinder. Although the top speed at 152 mph wasn’t that impressive, it was good enough to beat the Mercedes.

  1. Ferrari 250 GTO

Probably the most legendary, sought after and valuable classic Ferrari is the 250 GTO. Ferrari introduced the car in 1962 as the high performance/racing version of the 250 series. But, in fact, it was a separate model due to numerous changes to the engine and chassis.

The 3.0-liter V12 delivered around 300 HP, so the car was a sure winner on race tracks all over the world. Since this was racing machine for the road, the 250 GTO claimed to hit top speeds of 155 to 160 mph.

  1. Iso Grifo GL

The Iso Grifo was an elegant, dramatically-styled coupe they presented in 1964. Immediately, it became one of the most advanced, fastest and desirable sports coupes on the market. This was a bold claim since the middle of the ‘60s in Italy meant there was serious competition from heavy hitters like Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini.

But the Iso Grifo was more beautiful and faster than anything else. The base engine was a Chevrolet 350 V8 they tuned to produce more than 350 HP. After a couple of years, Iso switched to the 427 V8 that produced 400 HP. With that kind of firepower, the Grifo was able to go 164 mph.

  1. Shelby Cobra 427

Ever since they released the first Shelby Cobra 427 in 1965, the car world knew it was an immensely powerful and fast car. However, the magazine testing showed the little Cobra was also the fastest production model in the world in the mid-60s. The big 427 V8 from Ford could propel this lightweight roadster to a sublime top speed of 167 mph, which must have been quite scary in this open car.

  1. Lamborghini Miura

Many enthusiasts will claim the Miura is the first proper supercar in the world. And to be honest, it has all the right ingredients, like a fantastic design as well as crazy power and performance numbers. Also, it had a high price tag and the limited production numbers of a typical supercar.

But part of that appeal comes from the 4.0-liter V12 engine they transversally mounted behind the driver. It delivered 350 HP to the rear wheels in a furious fashion with a thundering soundtrack. The Miura is also the first production car to go over 171 mph, which was quite an achievement in the late ‘60s.

  1. Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona

Ferrari unveiled the Daytona in 1968 and it proved to be an extremely important, advanced car. It featured four camshafts on an upgraded 4.4-liter V12 engine. Also, it had an independent rear suspension, discs all around and a transaxle gearbox.

With 300 HP, the Daytona was one of the best, fastest GT cars of the period. Due to a better transmission and a sleeker, more aerodynamic body as well as more torque, the Daytona was able to beat the Miura. Also, it could claim the title with a top speed of 175 mph.

  1. Lamborghini Countach LP500 S

The Countach is possibly the best-known supercar of its day. In fact, it was the most popular poster car on the walls of kids in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Although Lamborghini introduced it in 1974 as a concept, it soon became a reality for wealthy playboys of the day.

Although it was notoriously hard to drive and cramped inside, it was a legendary car. The ‘70s models, despite being quite fast, were not a record-breakers. But in 1981, they introduced the LP500 S version, which was capable of going a full 180 mph.

  1. Ferrari 288 GTO

A full 22 years after the release of the original Ferrari 250 GTO, Enzo presented the 288 GTO. It was a mid-engine car they designed for racing. It had a 2.9-liter turbocharged V8 engine that delivered 400 HP. Today, most car experts and fans consider the GTO as one of the best supercars they ever made.

But in fact, this car started its life as a homologation special. This means the 288 GTO was a race car for the street, just like the original one. The top speed was 188 mph, which was enough to be the fastest production car in the world in 1985.

  1. Porsche 959

The Porsche 959 is one of the fastest, most advanced and technologically complex supercars of the ‘80s. The 959 was a super Porsche in every way, not only by design but also by performance and price. Porsche presented the 959 in 1987 with a 3.0-liter turbocharged flat-six engine producing 450 HP.

And that power went to all four wheels over an intelligent AWD system, the first of its kind for Porsche. They equipped the car with traction control, ABS and a host of electronic systems, which helped the driver. It had sublime acceleration from 0 to 60 in just 3.7 seconds. However, its top speed of 198 mph was even more impressive.

  1. Ferrari F40

In 1987, Ferrari presented the F40 as a commemorative model to mark their 40th anniversary. However, the F40 was much more than that. It was and still is one of the greatest sports cars they ever built as well as one of the best Ferraris they ever produced.

Most of the chassis and drivetrain came from the 288 GTO, but the updated engine produced around 450 HP. But Ferrari’s main goal was to beat the Porsche 959’s top speed. And it managed to do that with just one mph over its 198 mph record.

  1. Lamborghini Diablo

Coming from a long line of world-class supercars, the Diablo was the definitive ‘90s, Lamborghini. It had a screaming V12 behind the driver and Lambo-styled scissors doors. With a 202 mph top speed, it produced a glorious soundtrack. Sadly, it was only available as a manual with air conditioning as an option.

  1. Bugatti EB110

Before the mighty Bugatti Veyron or the new Chiron, they developed with Volkswagen’s money, there were the early ‘90s Bugatti, which they produced in only one model. Bugatti named it the EB 110 and it was on the market for just a few short years. With a 560 HP engine, it could hit 60 mph in 3.2 seconds. And the EB 110 had a top speed of over 200 mph, or 209 mph to be exact.

  1. RUF CTR/Yellowbird

With a proven top speed of 213 mph, the RUF CTR is one of the fastest cars of the 20th century. But, there is some controversy are about its production status. The RUF is a Porsche tuner and uses Porsche cars as the basis for its creations. This means that the production is limited so you can’t buy a CTR in any Porsche dealership. Although the production car title is open for discussion, its top speed is still mind-boggling.

  1. Jaguar XJ220

The story of the XJ220 is a strange one. Conceived in the late ‘80s as Jaguar’s first road-going supercar, it looked promising. The concept car and the first prototypes had Jaguar`s V12 engine they tuned to produce a higher output. However, halfway into development, Jaguar decided to install the new 3.5-liter twin turbo V6 unit with 542 HP.

The design of the car was fantastic with flowing lines along with a wide stance to emphasize its performance and speed. Jaguar claimed this supercar could go 220 mph, but independent testing proved that was not true. However, with a 217 mph top speed, this car was still capable of shredding Bugatti’s record.

  1. Vector W8

The legendary Vector W8 is a wedge-shaped, V8 powered monster they presented in 1990. The W8 had a space frame chassis with a Kevlar body they reinforced with a special kind of plastic. Under the engine cover was a typical American powerhouse in the form of a Chevrolet small block V8.

Vector paired it up with twin turbochargers to produce 625 HP, which was an impressive figure. The company claimed that at full boost, the 6.0-liter twin turbo engine was capable of 1,200 HP. The company also claims a 218 mph top speed, which no one has officially proven. But with 1,200 HP on tap, it is possible to go that fast.

  1. McLaren F1

There is so much written about the F1, including the way they designed and produced it, as well as the way it changed the supercar world forever. To repeat the basics, they presented the F1 in 1992. It stayed in production until 1998.

The F1 featured a bespoke 6.1-liter V12 engine BMW Motorsport produced. It delivered an astounding 627 HP with a six-speed manual transmission. So, what’s the top speed of this beast? It can do exactly 221 mph before hitting the rev limiter.

This eclectic list was about the evolution of speed. These 20 cars are the fastest production cars of the 20th century. Did you find your favorite?

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