The Mid-Engine Supercar: Chasing Ultimate Performance – Part III

We last left off with changing public perceptions and attitudes negatively impacting sports cars and gran turismos, so much so that the fabulous hardback annual Automobile Year wondered, “Are we experiencing…the twilight of these goddesses we persist in adoring, come hell or high water?” After nearly a decade, the mid-engine performance floodgates would open once again.

Rebound: Composites and Forced Induction

The malaise the exotic car industry suffered for a decade-plus was almost instantly eradicated in 1984 when Ferrari introduced its twin turbo, 180+mph 288 GTO (foreground).

At 1984’s Geneva Auto Show, the lid was blown off the mid-engine supercar malaise when Ferrari introduced the 180+ mph 288 GTO. It was the first production mid-engine supercar to use forced induction and composite material, and its debut was, in many ways, a replay of the Miura euphoria some two decades earlier. Hundreds of checkbooks were waved in front of the folks from Maranello (just 272 succeeded in getting cars), but for those who missed, a few months later at the Paris Auto Show Ferrari and Pininfarina displayed an impressive consolation prize in the avant-garde Testarossa. With its lusty 380 horsepower flat-12 and claimed 180-mph top speed, the “TR” would end up with a starring role on television’s “Miami Vice.”

Crosstown rival Lamborghini wasn’t sitting still either. The burly Countach Quattrovalvole debuted in 1985, its 5.1 liter V12 now boasting four valves per cylinder and 455 horsepower. England’s Fast Lane magazine saw 190 mph and declared it “the king of supercars.” A new Modenese competitor would dispute that: Claudio Zampolli was an ex-Lamborghini employee who felt 12 cylinders weren’t enough. His Cizeta V16T had a 560 horsepower 16-cylinder, and a top speed listed in excess of 200 mph.

Ferrari’s 288 GTO (left) may have looked similar to the 308 GTB also seen in this photo, but under the skin they were quite different. The 288 was realistically the world’s fastest road car at the time of its introduction.

Cizeta wasn’t the only constructor claiming the magic “double century” as its top speed. In 1987 Enzo Ferrari introduced the landmark F40, the last car created under his regime. It followed in the 288’s footsteps with a twin turbo 478 horsepower V8, but with an all-new carbon fiber body, and a quoted top speed of 201 mph. Once again a feeding frenzy ensued, but with Enzo’s passing in 1988 Ferrari’s Fiat-based management didn’t hold to the original 400-production number, and built more than 1,300—which would come back to bite them several years later.

Lamborghini also claimed 201 mph for its Countach successor that broke cover in 1990. Within short order, the Diablo became the first road car to be independently tested at 200+ mph, and proved quite popular. Over the next decade Sant’ Agata produced more than 2,400 Diablos when all variants are included.

Ferrari’s 288 GTO was the car everyone wanted, but only 272 were made. But the company had an awfully good consolation prize—the Testarossa that was introduced several months later.

Interestingly, none of these efforts was Italy’s most ambitious mid-engine supercar. The elegant and articulate Romano Artioli was the classic self-made Italian entrepreneur whose career started at age 17 when he and his brother opened their modest “Garage Mille Miglia.” Over the next several decades he represented numerous marques including Renault, Opel and Ferrari, and became Suzuki’s Italian distributor. He long harbored a love of Bugatti, and would end up resuscitating the famed nameplate by erecting a magnificent factory in the Modena area, and building the Marcello Gandini-designed EB110. It broke cover in 1991, and featured a 550 horsepower quad-turbo 3.5 liter V12, four-wheel drive, six-speed transmission and top speed in excess of 210 mph.

Further to the North…

The Testarossa had a glorious 380 horsepower flat-12 engine, and the design purposefully let onlookers know exactly where the powerplant was housed. The strakes proved extremely influential, with a number of other manufacturers using the styling touch.

At the time England was also in the thick of the top-speed chase. In 1988 Jaguar showed its lithe XJ220 prototype that targeted a 220 mph maximum. While the prototype debuted with a lusty DOHC V12 and four-wheel drive, when it went into production four years later it had a 550 horsepower twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6 and rear wheel drive. Like the EB110, the XJ220 would also top 210 mph in independent testing.

Intriguingly, there was another mid-engine Jaguar. Around the same time, Jaguar and Tom Walkinshaw Racing made the XJR-15 based on the Walkinshaw’s Le Mans winning Jaguar XJR-9. It had a naturally aspirated 450 horsepower 5993cc V12 and wonderfully swoopy body designed by Peter Stevens and Tony Southgate. Just 53 were made.

Lamborghini’s Countach was the poster car for much of the 1970s and ‘80s, the most powerful iteration coming in the 455 horsepower “Quattrovalvole” (4 valve) version that debuted in 1985.

From the Land of the Rising Sun

For the first time, the Far East was also caught up in mid-engine madness. It began a decade earlier when the small Dome Company had a starring role in the late 1970s at the Geneva, Chicago and Los Angeles Auto Shows with the wedge-shaped P2. But only two were built, and the marque had better luck with its endurance racers, which led to an impressive follow-up act in the late 1980s when it teamed with Wacoal, a booming apparel manufacturer. The resulting (and very ambitious) Giotto Caspita had a Carlo Chiti-designed and Subaru built flat-12, attractive coachwork similar to Jaguar’s XJR-15, and a planned production of 30. When Subaru backed away from the project, just two were built.

Lamborghini’s successor for the Countach was the Diablo that debuted in 1990. Over the next 10+ years there were several variations; seen here is the Diablo SE, of which just 150 were made.

 By now, Japan’s real estate and stock markets were booming, and with mid-engine offerings sweeping through Europe and America (after a decade-long gestation period, Vector’s W8 was inching closer to production), most every Japanese manufacturer wanted in. The Isuzu 4200R debuted at 1989’s Toyko Motor Show with a Shiro Nakamura designed-body before his career took off at Nissan, Lotus-tuned suspension, and a 350 horsepower DOHC V8. Ambitious, and appearing production ready, it remained a one-off. At the same show Mitsubishi displayed its HSR-II research vehicle, while three years later Yamaha and Britain’s International Automotive Design showed the unusual OX99-11 that featured tandem seating and a glass canopy roof. Its 3.5-liter V12 was an offshoot of Yamaha’s Formula 1 engines, but with an $800,000 price tag only three prototypes were made.

Ferrari’s F40 could very well be the icon car from the late 1980s/early 1990s proliferation of mid-engine exotics. It debuted in 1987, and was the last car introduced by company founder Enzo Ferrari.

The single Japanese mid-engine supercar that did make production may not have possessed the acceleration and top speed of all the others, but it was the most notable because it changed the mid-engine game in an entirely different way.

Which is where we shall pick up our story next time…

 


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