The world's fastest street-legal car
Boutique automaker unveils a 1,183-horsepower road rocket
By Stuart Schwartzapfel
updated 3:33 p.m. ET, Thurs., Jan. 24, 2008
On Sept. 13, 2007, the Shelby SuperCars' Ultimate Aero became the
fastest production car in the world. The event took place on a
temporarily closed, two-lane stretch of public highway in Washington
State. In accordance with Guinness World Records' strict policies, the
car had to drive down the highway, turn around, and make a second pass
in the opposite direction within one hour.
The Ultimate Aero posted 257.41 mph on the first pass and 254.88 mph on
the second for an average of 256.18 mph. Official data were collected
via a GPS tracking system from Austrian data acquisition company
Dewetron. Guinness World Records later verified data for an official
top-speed announcement on Oct. 9, 2007. At that speed the Ultimate Aero
broke the official record held by the Koenigsegg CCR (242 mph) and the
unofficial record (253 mph) held by Volkswagen's $1.6 million Bugatti.
And the car could go even faster. NASA's wind tunnel testing facility in
Langley, Va., found the Ultimate Aero to be aerodynamically stable at
speeds up to 273 mph. It just ran out of road. "If there was additional
straight pavement on which to accelerate, the top speed would have been
considerably higher, so if anyone challenges our record there is tons
left on the table," says Chuck Bigelow, the brave soul who piloted the
Ultimate Aero on its record-breaking run.
Achieving the record wasn't just a matter of bragging rights, though.
For company founder Jerod Shelby it was a business decision. From early
on Shelby, who started the West Richland, Wash. company in 2000, decided
that he had to break the production car top-speed record in order to
establish credibility for his infant company. "No one is going to buy a
$600,000 car they never heard of," he says.
As Junus Khan, his director of marketing, adds: "Being a brand-new
player, it was important to do something extraordinary in order to gain
credibility and to be taken seriously. Our main goal wasn't just to
break the speed record, it was to become a well-known, respected
manufacturer of world-class exotics."
Before he was able to realize his dream, Shelby, 39, a former go-kart
champ and an engineer by trade, spent 13 years developing patents for
medical-device company Advance Imaging Technology in nearby Richland,
Wash. One of his patents is for a radiation-free medical device that
uses sound waves to scan for breast cancer.
After more than a decade developing breakthrough medical technology,
Shelby — who is no relation to legendary auto designer Carroll Shelby —
realized that his financial success would afford him the opportunity to
pursue his lifelong automotive ambitions. "I always thought it would be
great if I could design my own car. So about nine years ago, while
eating at an Italian restaurant, I did my first napkin drawing.
Amazingly, the final product looks very similar to our early sketches."
The final product stood waiting for me on a sunny afternoon in
mid-December at a 13-mile loop in the Nevada desert. I had previously
driven the Veyron, and SSC wanted to get my feedback on the Ultimate
Aero. So I went out to Las Vegas to meet Shelby, Khan, and the
stakeholders in SSC's first and, so far, only dealership. The guest of
honor, a sultry red and black Ultimate Aero, is No. 7 of the 50 Shelby
plans to build and is the only customer-ready example that currently
exists in the U.S.
The Bugatti and Ultimate Aero are very similar when you look at some of
the key performance and hardware statistics. They both contained
expensive, lightweight materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber; a
mid-mounted engine aided by the use of turbochargers (two for SSC and
four for Bugatti); 1000-plus horsepower; 0 to 60 mph times under three
seconds; and a top speed above 250 mph. This is where the similarities
end and differing characteristics start to become more apparent.
First off, the Veyron sends power to all four wheels while the Ultimate
Aero utilizes a rear-drive setup with no traction control. Yes, you read
that correctly — no traction control. In the engine department, Bugatti
favored the use of 16 cylinders while SSC made do with eight. The
Ultimate Aero's weight, thanks in part to the smaller engine and lack of
all-wheel-drive system, comes in at a much lower curb weight than the
Bugatti. Most shocking, the $1.6 million Veyron costs more than 2.5
times as much as the SSC.
Bugatti pitches the Veyron as being the best of both worlds — luxurious
and civil when you want it to be, and shockingly fast when you feel the
urge for speeding tickets. "It's this unique combination between very
docile, everyday handling and top speed. So you can drive this car
normally like a Golf or Passat, and at the same time, you can overtake
[Formula 1 champion Michael] Schumacher with your tie on," says Bugatti
communications chief George Keller.
The SSC, although surprisingly smooth and comfortable over rougher
surfaces, does not pretend to be anything other than an involved
driver's car. And it is. There is no power steering, which makes for a
killer workout when navigating the car at low speeds, but at the same
time makes for a more connected and authentic road feel while traveling
at speed and during handling maneuvers.
Regarding Shelby's decision to do without traction control for the
Ultimate Aero, it was a move he saw as consistent with pure sports cars
that are not interfered with by the electronic nannies seen in many of
today's modern cars. There is also a traditional manual gearshift lever
to your right, which, in my opinion, makes for a more rewarding and
engaging experience in a car of this performance caliber.
You don't need to be Mario Andretti to pilot the Ultimate Aero, but
chatting on the cell phone and sipping a latte while behind the wheel is
probably a bad idea. And although extremely well-balanced — fuel is
stored up front as to counter the mid/rear weight bias from the engine —
the Ultimate Aero demands your respect and attention if you would like
to remain vertical or out of traction. "We celebrate the Ultimate Aero's
unique differences because we did not create this car for everybody. The
Veyron is an amazing car, but the Bugatti driver and the SSC driver are
two very different people," says Khan.
Flick a switch on the Ultimate Aero's instrument panel, hold down the
ceiling mounted starter button, and what can only be described as a
lion's roar emanates from all that American muscle resting behind your
head. Standing outside of the car at idle, the ceramic exhaust pipes
emit a pleasing grumble alluding to the symphony of power that awaits
your right foot.
Inside the car, on the road
Probably the first thing I noticed after takeoff was all the amusing
noises reverberating in the cabin. They're a mix of high-tech happenings
and muscular emissions. The twin turbos cradling the engine, for
instance, make an awesome pinging sound as the wastegates switch on and
off between them. Shelby lovingly refers to them as "the twins." The
turbo pinging, along with a ferocious exhaust note, becomes more
aggressive as you tear through each of the six forward gears. With a
quick flick of the wrist, the Ultimate Aero's transmission precisely
clicks into each gear gate as you rapidly climb to triple-digit speeds.
How rapid? How about reaching 60 mph in 2.78 seconds in first gear. Like
a well-funded brewery, the SSC's power is always on tap. And thanks to
massive 14-in. vented and slotted disc brakes up front (eight-piston
calipers) and in back (six-piston calipers), the Aero only needs 103
feet to get back down to zero.
The interior is just as well thought out. "You hear feedback about other
cars, like the shifter is too far away or the steering wheel is too
close," says Shelby. "So we did a lengthy study about different sized
bodies and how they fit into cars. We talked to a lot of owners. We
would look at a 55 percentile female and a 95 percentile male, and there
is a huge swing in arm/leg length, eye level, etc. We came up with an
interior that is suitable for men and women of every size."
The specially made Recaro seats are super-snug and effectively keep your
body in place while ripping through corners. This is necessary
considering the Ultimate Aero literally handles like it's on rails. Like
a high-end camera, just point and shoot where you want to go.
A hand-built record-breaker
SSC is already well on its way to reaching the 50-car production run
planned for the Ultimate Aero. The 2007 order bank, which opened more
than halfway into 2007, has been put to bed with five cars sold and
delivered internationally. And 2008 has already seen eight orders with
six-figure down payments to match. Next on the company agenda is a
four-door, four-seat, luxury sports sedan aiming at near or above 220 mph.
When you consider SSC's daunting challenges and its David vs. Goliath
situation, it is all the more impressive that they came out on top. And
like the founders of many startups, Shelby has been intimately involved
in the design and development of his baby. In fact, workers in SSC's
assembly plant have become quite used to Shelby turning wrenches
alongside them during the 3.5 months it takes to hand-build each
Ultimate Aero. "I know the part-number and price of every part on this
car, which you will never see at a larger company," says Shelby.
With 1,183 hp and 1,094 foot-pounds of torque, the Ultimate Aero's
all-aluminum, twin-turbocharged V8 has more horsepower than any other
street-legal production car, another record for which the company is
But wait, there's more.
The car also holds the best-recorded speed for navigating the slalom
(73.1 mph), and bests all others in the ever-important
weight-to-horsepower ratio (2.33). "A lot of people think that powerful,
American supercars are only good at going straight, but our car will
out-handle just about anything that you put next to it," Shelby says.
"When Road & Track tested a pre-production version of our car, it broke
the Ferrari Enzo's slalom course record. It will just take time to get
the word out on how capable we are."