Friends, take a look around you and rejoice. We are living in the most exciting automotive era of all time. Yes, better than the 1920s and 1930s with the Duesenbergs, Bentleys and Delahayes. Yes, better than the swinging 1960s with Jags, Austin-Healeys and Astons. Better than the late 1960s-early 1970s American muscle car era, or the rise of the modern supercar through the 1980s. Right now, new cars with over 400bhp can be had for $30,000 or so. Used cars from the last 10 years with the same power can be found for half that price. If you love horsepower and going fast, there’s never been a better time to be alive.
There is a notable difference, however, with the cars of today versus our heroes and legends of yesterday. No doubt you’ve read the title, so you’re probably expecting me to open up a can of hate on modern cars and all their driver-enhancing technology. Not going to happen. Modern cars are freaking amazing, and part of that is the technology that helps them go, stop and turn in ways older cars never could.
What I do find interesting is the different kind of experience you get from modern performance cars versus their predecessors. Call it digital versus analog – each has their advantages and disadvantage but both are rewarding in their own right.
That got me thinking about some of the greatest ‘analog’ supercars of all time, and by that I mean rear-wheel drive cars with manual transmissions, no electronic assists, and no power steering. With our heads and hearts swooning over modern machines like the LaFerrari, Zonda, or the One:1, it’s a good time to honor some fairly recent – and not-so-recent – performers that required considerably more driver involvement to realise their full potential.
You knew the F40 would be here. To this day there are many people who consider it to be the best Ferrari ever built. It’s also arguably the last truly analog Ferrari – the F50 had electronic dampers that automatically adjusted based on vehicle parameters, but in the end it really doesn’t matter. This is the freaking F40. It looks fantastic, it sounds fantastic, and it requires total driver involvement – and a major set of plums – to hit its top speed of 201 mph.
Honestly I could make this list nothing but Ferraris, but before I move on I have to recognise a personal favourite of mine, the 288 GTO. For starters, the F40 wouldn’t exist without the 288, the machine many people consider the first real Ferrari supercar. It’s mid-engined, dead sexy, and a complete handful for any driver who dares to open up the 2.9-litre twin-turbo V8.
Here’s another car that had to be on this list. Much has been said about the Countach’s driving characteristics and most of it isn’t flattering, but news flash: who cares? Just look at it – this car was designed over 40 years ago and it still looks futuristic.
It’s been the dream car for multiple generations of petrolheads. It’s the reason crazy Honda Civic owners cut up their doors so they open up instead of out. It has a V12 that makes the best Italian supercar sound of all time. It’s a Countach – wrestling with the wheel, manhandling the shifter and mastering its movements is part of the experience.
Speaking of mastering a car, there isn’t another machine on four wheels that epitomises lift-throttle oversteer better than the original 911 Turbo. If ever there was a car to benefit from electronic assist, this was it and honestly, it just might be what’s kept the 911 around so long.
Modern 911s can still be tricky even with prolific assists, but back in the day it was a car you had to learn, and respect, and be patient with until you either mastered it, or died trying.
Time to step into the 1960s for perhaps the best-looking car of all time. And for those who want to say this isn’t a supercar, I have one word for you: context. In the early 1960s when everything else was riding on solid axles with drum brakes, the E-Type showed up with disc brakes and fully independent suspension. When cars were struggling to top 100mph, the E-Type did 150. Obviously it had no traction control or ABS, but it did have a manual gearbox, and power steering didn’t show up as an option until the Series 2 cars in 1968.
I need to stretch the rules just a bit for the Duesy, because despite being a product of the 1930s, this car did have power steering. That’s offset, however, by most models having a non-synchronized manual transmission. If you don’t know what that means, try shifting your manual without using a clutch. Still, these cars were hand-built and ultra-exclusive, and they were also supercharged and could hit 100mph at a time when most cars did 30, and when most roads were still dirt.
Did I save the best for last? That’s completely subjective; I’m still partial to the GTO and Duesenberg, but the McLaren definitely takes the trophy for being the most extreme analog street car ever built.
While Japanese manufacturers were developing complex torque-vectoring all-wheel drive systems and computerized turbocharged engines, the McLaren F1 was hitting 240mph naturally-aspirated, without traction control, ABS, power steering or power brakes. It’s a testament to the engineering that went into the F1’s development, and it absolutely lives up to its legendary status.