Renault Sport Spider

Renault Sport Spider 1990s French sports car

The Renault Sport Spider came fully-focused. It was built with just two objectives – to go like stink in a straight line and through corners with a minimum of fuss. Both of these goals it achieved. Top speed was 134mph. Roll was near to non-existent. In weight terms, just 1,740lb tried to rein in the Spider’s free-revving spirit. It did not stand a chance. Four cylinders were all that were needed to overpower it. Output was 150bhp. The Spider was equally unburdened by the weight of expectation. Renault never intended that it sell by the shedload. Rather, it was an exercise in performance and aesthetics – specifically, the trade-off between the two. Hopelessly impractical, there was no way the Spider was ever going to cash in on a mass audience. On that basis, Renault Sport’s design team swung into action. Patrick Le Quément led the way. With the creative dust settled, stylish minimalism had reached a new level. No roof, no windscreen, no side-windows. Exposure as an art form, so to speak. To be fair, there was a wind-deflector … and a roll-bar!

It was a gimme that the Spider would take to the track. Renault Sport set up a one-make race series for it. Compared to the roadsters, competition cars were boosted – to the tune of 25bhp. Renault Sport Spider racing was fast and frenetic – to say the least. Many a top driver took part. Motorsport fans loved it – and turned out in droves. Renault’s top brass were ecstatic. The number of Spiders exiting their Dieppe Alpine facility was small. The buzz they were creating, though, was anything but!

The Sport Spider’s chassis was aluminium. That meant not only light weight – but high rigidity. It was supported by rose-jointed double wishbone suspension. Outsize vented disc brakes were borrowed from the Renault Alpine A610. The Renault Clio Williams supplied the Spider’s two-litre engine. 62mph arrived in 6.9s. So, the Renault Sport Spider provided you with the quintessential driving experience – and not a lot else. Though a later model did sport a windscreen and wiper. Oh, the decadence!

Plymouth Prowler

The Plymouth Prowler was a hot rod for the new millennium. Tom Gale was head of design at Chrysler – Plymouth’s parent company. He had long been a hot rod aficionado – and was especially enamoured of those made in the 1930s. Gale picked up his pen – and drew a modern variant on the classic theme. Fast forward to Chrysler’s stand at the ’93 Detroit Auto Show. Gale’s sketch had been turned into ‘dream car’ reality. The public’s response was favourable, to say the least. Chrysler’s top brass immediately saw an opportunity to reinvigorate the Plymouth brand. They reckoned hot rod culture was deeply embedded in the American psyche. Lots of folk would love to own one – but did not have the time or know-how to build it. Why not build it for them? Feasibility studies duly completed, the Prowler project was given the green light.

According to Chrysler, customers were getting the best of both worlds. The Prowler provided the practical benefits of modern technology – as well as retro-style good looks. Whopping 20″ rear wheels were wrapped in 295-section rubber. The front wheels were 17″. The nose of the car was iconic hot rod – high cheek-bones, jutting jawline, and a slimline grille. Only the bumpers on some models gave the chronological game away. They were a plastic concession to modern-day safety legislation. Consummately-crafted suspension components were in plain view. Bodywork was steel and aluminium.

The Prowler was powered by the Chrysler Vision V6. The 3.5-litre engine produced an impressive 218bhp. Purists would probably have preferred it to have been a V8 – but you cannot please everyone. Top speed was 125mph. 0-60 was reached in 7.7s. Acceleration was assisted by light weight – just 2,900lb of it. 11,702 Plymouth Prowlers were sold – in a five-year run. Chrysler were proved right … the hot rod was still an integral part of the American Dream!

TVR Griffith

The seaside town of Blackpool, England, is famous for its Illuminations. Similarly, TVR – the sports car manufacturer, based in the resort – lit up the motoring world. It did so, not with a dazzling display of neon lights – but with the gorgeous Griffith. The new TVR heralded a return to raw V8 power. The TVR brand itself did not need rejuvenating – but the Nineties sports car market did. The Griffith played a pivotal part in that. In five-litre form, the Griffith 500 produced 345bhp. That gave a top speed of 163mph. 0-60 arrived in a tad over 4s. Such fierce acceleration reflected plenty of mid-range poke – as well as gargantuan low-down grunt. The Griffith was inspired by the TVR Tuscan – a pure-bred, blood-and-guts racer. The latter had first appeared in the late Eighties. The iconic TVR Tuscans tore strips out of each other, in a one-make race series. Even TVR chairman Peter Wheeler dived headlong into the high-speed fray. He battled it out with the best of them, in his own racing Tuscan. A fresh take on the company car, as it were!

Design-wise, the Griffith came with a full complement of curves and subtle touches. Most notably, the air ducts – on the bonnet and doors – were cutting edge cute. The interior, too, was impeccably styled. Copious amounts of leather and wood were inlaid with aluminium. Not surprisingly – with all its technical and aesthetic assets – the Griffith sold well.

With its RWD system maxed-out, the Griffith’s exhaust note was ear-splitting. With hood down – and revs up – British sports car drivers had never had it so good. The Griffith prototype debuted at 1990’s Birmingham NEC Show. To say it wowed onlookers would be understatement. Automotive folklore has it that 350 deposits were stumped up that same day. Which translated to an order every eight minutes! The first production cars swanned into showrooms in ’92. The Griffith was designed, developed and built almost exclusively by TVR. Given its relatively small operating scale, that was an astonishing feat. TVR went one step further, though. At £24,802 new, it even managed to keep the Griffith competitively priced!

Caterham 21

The Caterham 21 debuted at the Birmingham Motor Show – in ’94. It marked 21 years of Caterham Seven production. Design niggles delayed the launch of the new car for two years. The 21’s enhanced equipment levels posed an engineering challenge to Caterham. Respected in the industry though it was, Caterham had not hitherto taken on a car of such complexity. The 21 prototype dazzled show-goers – clad, as it was, in silver-polished aluminium. The production car’s finish would be a little more prosaic – standard paint on glass-fibre. The aluminium job, however, could still be had as an extra. The prototype was fitted with a Vauxhall JPE engine. Production models had Rover K-series 1.6-litre motors. There was also a 21 with a VHP – Very High Performance – version of the MGF 1.8-litre mill.

When the 21 did hit the road, it was to great acclaim. Aerodynamics were especially well-sorted. A top speed of 131mph spoke to that. Chassis-wise, the 21 was similar to the 7. The new car thus inherited the impressive handling characteristics of its predecessor. An important way, though, in which the two cars differed, was in terms of practicality. The 7 – while amongst the most exhilarating four-wheelers ever built – was not exactly user-friendly. It was geared pretty much entirely toward the ‘pure driving experience’. The 21, though, came with much more in the ‘all mod cons’ column. So, as an all-round motoring package, it was streets ahead of the Seven.

Caterham passed the 21’s styling brief to Iain Robertson. He doubled up as a journalist. Robertson was inspired by the race-bred lines of the Lotus Eleven. The 21’s interior was equally well-crafted. Though the cockpit was narrow, wide sills kept it the right side of cramped. Visually, the vertical strip of switches was a deft touch. Caterham limited producton to 200 cars per year. That kept it from biting off more than it could chew. And, of course, there was always the Lotus legacy to consider. The Norfolk marque was the progenitor of the Caterham line. For sure, the 7 had done Lotus proud. The 21, then, upped the number of its talented offspring!

Lamborghini Diablo

The Lamborghini Diablo had to top the Countach – its wedge-shaped predecessor. To do so, it would need to be pretty special. Hence the fact that Marcello Gandini was given the design brief. He fulfilled it to perfection. All the way from the inlaid headlights, to the four-barrelled exhausts. The Diablo roared classic Italian supercar from the moment Gandini picked up his pen. It was Lamborghini’s mid-engined riposte to the Ferrari F40 – and the Diablo had all the allure of that Italian masterpiece. Materials used were state of the art. The Diablo was fitted with a strengthened carbon-fibre chassis. That was clad in aluminium and composite-plastic body panels. Lamborghini spent a cool £50m on development. Diablo is Spanish for ‘Devil’ – and there was a heck of a lot of detail to be paid for!

But, there was even more to the Diablo than stunning styling. For a roadster, its performance was off the graph. A 5.7-litre V12 maxed out at 492bhp. Top speed was a gargantuan 202mph. Indeed, the Diablo was the first production Lamborghini to attain that mythical figure. Torque measured a colossal 428lb-ft. From the Countach, Lamborghini had taken what was already an incredible engine – and improved it. Bigger – and tidier of design – it now came catalysed and fuel-injected. The Diablo hit 100mph in second gear alone.

They say the devil has all the best tunes. Their were to be several variations on the Diablo theme. SV, SV-R, Roadster and VT versions duly appeared. There were both 2- and 4-wheel drive models to choose from. The biggest beast of all was the limited-edition Diablo SE30. It topped out at 210mph. 0-60 came up in 4.2s. But – for all the Diablo’s power – comfort was not compromised. Ergonomics were expertly-crafted. Adjustable suspension was but an arm’s length away. Interior trim was impeccable. The sole flaw – if it can be considered so in a supercar – was a lack of luggage-room. But, when the choice was between storage space – and a more voluptuous V12 – most buyers did not hesitate. End of the day, the Diablo was not built to lug stuff about. Lamborghini were testing the limits of design and science!

Bugatti EB110

The ‘EB’ in Bugatti EB 110 stood for Ettore Bugatti – the firm’s founder. On the 110th anniversary of his birth, the new supercar was unveiled. Fittingly, the launch took place in Paris – since Bugatti was a French firm. When it went on sale – in ’91 – the EB110 had a price tag of £285,000. But, if the standard EB 110 was not to your taste, you could always stump up another £50,000 – and drive off in the Supersport version. The latter’s 611bhp output delivered 221mph! The stock EB 110’s top speed was 212mph. If you had the money – do the math!

Superstar designer Marcello Gandini was recruited to style the EB 110. His mock-up, though, was deemed too radical by Bugatti’s top brass. The brief was passed to Italian architect Giampaolo Benedini. Clearly, he was able to style cars, as well as buildings! The aluminium body he drafted was breathtaking. Even the car’s engine was a work of art. Its V12 layout took in 4 turbochargers and 60 valves. There was a 6-speed gearbox – and 4-wheel drive. Handling was precise – to put it mildly!

In ’87, entrepreneur Romano Artioli had stepped in to rescue the struggling Bugatti brand-name. He built a state of the art supercar factory – in Campogalliano, Modena, Italy. Benedini – the EB 110’s designer – had previously architected the factory in which it was built! The EB 110 thus became a sort of French/Italian hybrid – the only Bugatti model to have done so. To head up the engineering team, Artioli had hired acclaimed technical director Paulo Stanzani. The EB 110’s four-year run stretched to ’95 – when Bugatti was wound up. 139 EB 110s were built. Among their owners was a certain Michael Schumacher. The ultimate seal of automotive approval? Off hand, I cannot think of a better one!

Ferrari F50

How to top the Ferrari F40? Well, with the Ferrari F50, of course! While the former was focused solely on speed, the new car offered more by way of creature comfort. Even so, the F50 was far from luxurious – given that it was a supercar, retailing at £330,000. There were leather seats, though, for starters – of course, cast from carbon-fibre. And, the front suspension spring/damper set-up was transverse – allowing extra leg-room. The F50’s ride was smooth, considering its performance stats. They were upped by a ‘firm’ computerised damping system. A V12 engine – and 6-speed gearbox – gave up tractable power. Precise steering was provided by titanium uprights, magnesium wheels and all-metal ball joints.

So, with a top speed of 202mph – and lightning-quick reflexes – the F50 was, effectively, a road/race hybrid. Its 5-litre motor made 521bhp. The 5-valves-per-cylinder V12 had its roots in F1 – in 1990’s Ferrari 641/2. Saying that, peak revs for the road car were 8,500rpm. Rather less than the 14,000 for the GP car! Still – with chain-drive spinning its quad overhead camshafts – the sound from the roadster was still pretty ear-splitting! By contrast, the F1 car’s engine used gears.

The Ferrari F50, then, was technically awesome. Naturally, it needed styling to match. Up to the plate stepped Pininfarina. The esteemed Italian design house unveiled a feast of tastefully-placed lines. Ducting was particularly delicious. Cowled projector headlights lit up the front-end. Inside, the LCD instrument panel was straight out of F1. A ‘black box’ flight recorder was also included! Track days inevitably beckoned – brakes and suspension both being race-derived. 349 Ferrari F50s were built. All they needed was a road with enough scope!

Jaguar XJ 220

The Jaguar XJ 220’s parts-list seemed more suited to aerospace than automobiles. The body was made from bonded-aluminium honeycomb. Its aerodynamics came straight out of Group C racing. The result was cerebellum-splitting acceleration. ‘220’ stood for its mph top speed. Jim Randle – Jaguar’s chief engineer – conceived the car. Thereafter, he coaxed a few colleagues into spending Saturdays on the XJ project. To begin with, at any rate, we are talking spare-time supercar!

The XJ’s race credentials were clear to see. Keith Helfet’s svelte bodywork was just for starters. A 5-speed transaxle ran through an AP clutch. Alloy wheels were centre-locking – for speedy wheel changes. Hefty brakes had 4-piston calipers. Suspension was wishbone/inboard. Output was 500bhp. In theory, at least, though, the XJ was a roadster. Jaguar teamed up with TWR – to found JaguarSport. A production facility was built – in Bloxham, Oxfordshire. In total, 350 XJs rolled out of it. Each with a price tag of £403,000.

When the prototype appeared – at the ’88 Birmingham Motor Show – it had triggered a tidal wave of excitement. Jaguar were besieged by orders. But when the supercar bubble burst, panic had set in. Suddenly, lawyers were overloaded with cases – as over-eager buyers tried to wriggle off the car’s high-priced hook. The Jaguar XJ 220 story – which began in Whitley, West Midlands – morphed into something more suited to Hollywood! What started as a sideline – to keep boffins’ brains busy – turned into a study in Eighties excess.

TVR Cerbera Speed 12

The TVR Cerbera Speed 12 further developed the Project 7/12 prototype. The latter was named for its 7.0-litre V12 engine. The 7/12 had wowed the crowd at the ’96 British Motor Show. It did the same at racetracks. Hardly surprising really – since 0-60mph arrived in around 3s. In the debit column, the 7/12 was far from forgiving, handling-wise. That was all to the good, so far as motor racing fans were concerned. The combination of the 7/12’s prodigious output – and hairy handling – made for some splendid spectating. In effect, the 48-valve V12 was two 6-cylinder motors combined. A 6-speed ‘box did what it could to transition power smoothly to the rear wheels. All of that was wrapped up in a TVR Tuscan modified chassis. So far as race-goers were concerned – with 800bhp flowing through what was essentially a souped-up sports car – the 7/12 was the gift that kept on giving!

But, there was more to come from the Project 7/12. In 2000, a new version was unveiled. Rebranded as the Speed 12, it was everything its predecessor had been – and more! TVR had used the McLaren F1 supercar as a benchmark. Which pretty much said it all. Flat-out, the F1 did 231mph. The Cerbera Speed 12 was about to top that. It was reputedly good for 240mph. That was in no small part down to the Speed 12’s weight – or lack thereof. TVR engineers had pared it down to just 1,000kg. Not only was the Speed 12’s bodywork breathtaking to behold – it was hyper-light, too. Optimal aerodynamics, then, were a gimme.

Sadly, just three Speed 12s were built. Without doubt, TVR – based in Blackpool, England – had built awesome performance into the car. But on the open road, that could be a double-edged sword. In the hands of the unwary, such poke might prove fatal. ‘TVR’ had been founded by TreVoR Wilkinson. Now, though, a new man was at the helm. CEO Peter Wheeler was a seasoned and skilled racer of the company’s products. If anyone knew the capabilities – and potential perils of the car – it was him. Wheeler felt that the Speed 12 was simply too powerful to take to the roads. It was rumoured that the car might compete at Le Mans – which rather reinforced his point! After all, the TVR Cerbera Speed 12 served up some 960bhp. As for the roadster, a price tag of £188,000 had been mooted. Some prospective buyers might well have seen that as a steal!

Dodge Viper

Chrysler recruited Carroll Shelby as consultant for their Dodge Viper project. Previously, he had been linchpin of the AC Cobra. Shelby lavished what he had learned from the Cobra onto the Viper – in terms both of its venom-spitting power and serpentine lines. On its début – at the ’89 Detroit Motor Show – the Viper mesmerised all who saw it. Such was the frenzy that the concept car created, that Chrysler hastily hatched plans to put it into production. Fast-forward two and a half years – and the Viper was sliding onto the highway. Its 8-litre V10 gave 400bhp. Top speed was 180mph. Its wheels featured wide 13″ rims – helping transfer torque to tarmac. And torque there most certainly was – a churning 450 lb ft of it.

Indeed, the Viper’s motor began life in a truck. That was before Lamborghini got hold of it, though. They re-cast the iron block to aluminium. And topped that off with a bright-red cylinder-head. Even so, it was far from a cutting edge engine – comprising just two valves per cylinder, plus hydraulic lifters and pushrods. Which is when Carroll Shelby came in. Basic though the set-up was, he coaxed big numbers out of it. Thankfully, the transmission, at least, was state-of-the-art. A 6-speed gearbox was still a rarity, in the early ’90s.

Styling-wise, the Viper hit the spot. Its sinuous bodywork was seriously aerodynamic. ‘Enthusiastic’ drivers loved it. Seals of approval do not come much bigger than selection as pace car for the Indy 500. Stateside, the sports car sector had been in the doldrums. The Viper reinvigorated it. As for Carroll Shelby – the Cobra was always going to be a tough act to top. Tribute to him, then, that the Dodge Viper had ’em dancing in the aisles. Well, in the passenger seats, at least!

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