There are 35 years that separate the first E Type from the 550 Maranello and yet the philosophy behind the two cars is quite similar. Two amazing designs which draw admiration rather than aggression from onlookers and fellow road users.
These cars possess long line forms and few sharp edges and with their limited front and rear overhang they seduce in a way that the supercars of today no longer do. As for the Ferrari 458, the Porsche 911 and the Lamborghini Gallardo, they are too obviously dedicated to speed in order to try and hide their ambition to dominate the road. In reality they are only really welcome on racing circuits.
The aesthetic beauty of the great grand touring cars, like the E Type and the Maranello, is that they generate a different type of dream, one that is almost accessible. There is no longer an excessive emphasis on their mechanical power. This leads us to another paradox; a 550 Maranello at full speed is less shocking than a Porsche 997 Turbo undertaking the same exercise, although both cars break the law to the same extent. It is very probable that a Jaguat E Type evoked the same reaction when compared with a very rare Ford GT40 street version, which was too wide, too threatening, too obviously souped-up.
The miracle of the E type and the 550 is that thanks to the limpidity of their extraordinary design, one forgets that they belong to the 4 or 5 most powerful cars of their time, with 265 and 485 horsepower respectively. Even more surprising, in its own family, the E type is extraordinarily sober when compared to the XK 150 from 1957, not to mention the transition from the 550 to the 512 TR built in 1992, of which I am, however, a fan ; a caricature of a car which sums up the disco years. In order to be accepted by the public, a beautiful car design has to spring from a simple idea without artifice. How can one find this delicate balance? The cars of the 1960s are a highpoint in the history of sportscar design ; they are more user friendly than the cars of the previous decades, yet are not the overtly luxurious status symbols of the museum quality cars of the 1930s. From the 1970s onwards the sports car becomes heavier and more voluminous and only the addition of horsepower offsets the associated lack of agility and the emergence of the electronic era.
The 550 Maranello, even it does not possess the agility of a ballerina, does to some extent belong to this lost Eden. Having said that, it does not mimic the preceding decades. It is a car of its time with a strong identity. It is both elegant and refined and its interior is quite sumptuous without being too opulent; its Jaeger monochromatic dials are placed under a lightly curved leather lunette, the central console is just as harmonious and perfectly separates the wonderful seats upholstered in Daytona leather. This all echoes back to the E Type and its legendary aluminum console placed between two minimalist bucket seats softened by their leather covering.
Should one be pessimistic about the most recent tendencies in sports car design ?
The answer is clearly no. The weight trend has begun to reverse, hundreds of kilos of weight have been shed and the designs have again become more subtle The last Jaguar F type and the Mercedes SL confirm this return to a Golden Age. Even the Lamborghini Avantador, with its monumental dimensions, is quite graceful despite its colossal strength.
I have never really been able to reconcile the multiple facets of my passion for cars. Like aviation, but with a stronger social and universal dimension, the history of the sports car is marked by the vain attempt to dominate time and space: to possess a sports car is to buy one’s freedom and escape from the relative immobility of man with his two legs.
Unconsciously the car lover chooses his camp: either he travels in elegance and style and selects a beautiful grand touring car whose performance easily surpasses other sedans on the market; in 1960 he would have bought a Jaguar E type, in 1970 a Maserati Ghibli, in the 1980s a Mercedes SL 500, and, fortune allowing, in the 1990s, a sublime Ferrari 456 GT. All these wonderful cars dominate on the road but, above all, extend an invitation to drive to far off places.
If the car lover’s priority is to capture time, his propos is quite different. Performance becomes the only obsession and he will want to choose a car as close as possible to a true racing car. Porsche with its legendary RS series (RS for RennSport) and Ferrari with its small berlinettas featuring central V8 engines (355, 430 & 458) allow their clients to substitute themselves for racing pilots.
For my part, I have never really accepted to address this dilemma. The purchase of a sports car which is a racing car in disguise nowadays, has become a farce: a Porsche GT2 RS in less than 10 seconds will propel you to 125 mph and directly into prison with your photo on the front of the daily newspapers. The purchase of a GT2 RS or a Maclaren MP12 is access to the hidden fruit without the possibility to taste it outside modern day circuit arenas. Car makers have been forced to pervert the idea of a true sports car by including a CD player, Hi-Fi, leather interior and electric chairs. Lotus, once the champion of « light is beautiful » now makes cars weighing more than 1000 kg, the Porsche RS have lost all their previous fine simplicity and the luxury of the latest Ferraris is too blatant.
Today confusion reigns as a Ferrari F12 is hardly any heavier than a well equipped 458 and just as performing. Contrarily the 458 is not less comfortable than its bigger sister.
To be clear, I am nostalgic for the era of radical cars when a Porsche RS was closer to a super-powerful Lotus Elise than a Mercedes SL, with a stark austere interior which recalled its precedents, the Porsche 908 & 917, illustrious prototypes which ran at the ‘24 heures du Mans’ in the 1970s.
Nowadays GT cars are all road cars or racing cars in disguise, even if some limited series are like rare flashes of lightening in the night, pursued like crazy by famished enthusiasts. Let us hope that the car makers can return to a more radical and well defined choice: where on one hand you will have real sports cars, which will be a pleasure to drive as they will be light and sober and with all options banished; and on the other the heavier GTs for travelling, aimed at a clientele eager for luxury options and electronic and digital gadgets. It is time to accept the elementary rules of physics: a car with 300 horsepower weighing 1000kg will always be more satisfying to drive than one with 600 horsepower and 2000kg. Unfortunately the former option no longer exists.
My first Porsche RS was a 964 from 1992, with no radio, no air conditioning, no electric windows and with windows and carpet as thin as a 10,000 meter runner. Years later, in 2007, I decided to go for a Porsche RS again. The Porsche GT3 RS 3.6 is one of the first water cooled engine, the elite of the Zuffenhausen mark, followed the 993 RS, the last of a long series of air-cooled engines. I have omitted the 2004 996 GT3 RS on purpose, which in my eyes does not qualify due to its tear-drop headlights and its cheap finish.
One must understand that a Porsche RS is really a different kind of Porsche, even if in appearance it is close to a standard 911. Porsche « Motorsport » is the competition department which makes a small number of road cars in addition to its main production of pure racing cars. It is therefore the closest a car lover can get to buy a racing car; a unique opportunity in the sense that competing brands only offer partial or imperfect modifications to their basic models. To sum up, one horse power from Porsche Motorsport is in no way comparable to one from Porsche; there are hundreds of hours of development and modification in between the two.
It was therefore in a state of high excitement that I went to the large Porsche dealership on the outskirts of Paris to order my new toy. Surprisingly, what should have been a convivial moment turned into a battle of arguments. I refused to tick the options; hi-fi, leather interior, floor carpets, air conditioning…. « your car will be unsalable sir and we will be unable to exchange it against a new one ». The message was clear, I was supposed to weigh down my future RS to make it more liquid, to make a travesty of its genetic identity in order to improve the Stuttgart balance sheet.
I refused to give in so that the magnificent 415 horsepower engine with its titanium connecting rods, developed by the engineer Metzger, could express its full capacity. It is true that the central console is a move away from the car’s initial simplicity, but the wonderful fireproof carbon seats redress the balance. The extreme precision of the direction is an incentive to excellence in driving technique I have yet to achieve. In fact the car soon makes your realize how modest your ambition is, when the maximum curve entering speed in a curve is several dozen km/h than yours. The suspension is miraculous. How have Porsche Motorsport been able to combine such comfort with such precise road handling ? The car absorbs shock and remains close to the road and does not give up during extreme compressions.
The gear box is a major talking point. Why talk today about the RS 3.6 after the 3.8 and the 4.0 have come out with 35 and 85 horsepower more respectively ? For a simple reason, the 3.6, which came out in 2007, offers the driver very long gears which are a delight on the open road. It is just the contrary of the 3.8 and 4.0 which are racing circuit cars that have been made compatible for the road with gears that constantly need changing. The 3.6 is a fantastic Porsche for the road allowing one to keep it in 4th gear between 140 and 230 km/h on a German motorway and to be able to enjoy the full extent of a racing engine with endless acceleration capacity. This long gear box is a faux pas for racing circuit drivers, but it is a benediction for those who are able to let it go on an open road.
Nowadays the GT3 RS is extremely reasonable with a 50% discount for a car with a low mileage. It has no equivalent and even the impressive 430 Scuderia with 90 more horsepower cannot provide the same mechanical pleasure. Evo, the well respected car magazine, is spot on in placing the Porsche GT3 RS in front of the Ferrari. In fact, with this car Porsche is at the height of its mechanical art, whereas the Ferrari has already entered the digital age. It is a question of philosophy.