Matt Prior: what was the first ever 'supercar'?


My eyebrow was raised by a motoring story in The Times newspaper last week, which attributed the luxury car dealer Tom Hartley with coining the word ‘supercar’ in Britain.

It made me wonder whether or not that was true (it isn’t), and if not, from where its use came.

Even the best encyclopedic corners of the internet are vague about the supercar. Not only the specifics of what one is (in short, it’s a very fast car, but perhaps we will revisit that another time) but also from where the term comes. And so once more, my friends, to Autocar’s new digital archive.

It turns out the word supercar arrived early. I found the very first uses of the term – albeit hyphenated to super-car – in the mid-1910s, mostly in adverts.

First it came via the American manufacturer King, which in 1915 produced a new eight-cylinder model. “To ride in this super-car is to eliminate the mechanical presence in motoring,” King’s copywriters claimed, with period modesty. Price from £355, by the way.

Through the late 1910s and into the early 1920s, luxury car makers such as Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Lanchester and Farman used the word, albeit referring as much to a car’s size as its speed – although the two went hand in hand back then.

In 1921, ‘super-car’ came to an editorial piece about fitting large cars with larger aero engines. “What could be more interesting than to marry the two, and thus obtain a super-car?” we wrote. It’s a sentiment that’s hard to disagree with today.

And I think that definition of a super-car, or supercar, largely holds up a century on. But by the mid-1920s, hyphenated or otherwise, the term had fallen out of frequent use.

Its return again came via the US. In a review of 1968 model-year American cars, a US writer introduced Autocar readers to ‘supercars’ such as the Pontiac GTO, Ford Fairlane GT and Mercury Comet Cyclone.

The term remained a staple in our Detroit Notebook column throughout the late 1960s, describing the fastest variants of what we’ve now come to think of as muscle cars.

Into the 1970s, then, and enter the De Tomaso Pantera, whose “shattering performance and spectacular good looks put it fairly and squarely in the supercar bracket”, according to our 1972 road test.



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