Sacrificing All For Beauty

Back in the early 1990s, there were essentially three “production” sports cars vying for the title of “fastest”:  the Ferrari F40 with a 2.9-liter V8 engine, the Porsche 959 with a 2.8-liter flat-6, and the Jaguar XJ220 with a 3.5-liter V6, all three featuring twin turbos.  While all were nominally production models, only a couple-three hundred of each were ever made because they were designed specifically to compete at Le Mans in the then-Group B class.  To just about everyone’s surprise, the car with the highest straight-line speed was the Jag, at 217mph.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

As always in posts of this type, the thing is pointless without pictures, so here we go, in order:

All three are beautiful by the standards of the time:  the F40 because Ferrari;  the Porsche despite being a Porsche (I actually think the 959 was the nicest-looking Porsche ever made until the Cayman);  and the XJ220 was gorgeous even in a marque which had always made beautiful cars (XK120, E-type, etc.).

All three are crap to drive — the F40 has a spartan, ugly interior with a hideously-stiff clutch and gearbox, the 959 was also a handful (although the toughest of the three:  in 1986 the 959 entries finished 1st and 2nd in the Dakar Rally), and as for the XJ220, let me quote one of the reviews of the time:

The testers liked the “sheer blistering pace, looks and a superb cabin” but its size, the doors not opening far enough and handling were criticised:  “If there’s a more evil device on our roads, I wouldn’t like to find it, for the XJ220 suffers from immense initial understeer followed by violent and snappy pendulous oversteer.”  Most disappointing was the engine;  at idle it sounded “like someone’s clanking a bucket of rusty nails together”.

However, given that these beauties were never intended to be “passenger” cars, all the above can possibly be forgiven.

The last pic, that of the XJ220, is a special one.  I took it at the Salon Privé at Blenheim Palace over a year ago (full report here and here), and I have to tell you, with all of the automotive beauty on display that day, the XJ220 quite simply took my breath away.  It looked like a jaguar [sic] : feral, sleek and dangerous, and even in repose, it seemed to be begging someone to drive it really, really fast.  I’d never seen one in the flesh before, unlike the other cars listed above — and good grief, my carlust was almost ungovernable that day.

I suspect that others may feel the same way, not necessarily about the XJ220 but about the other two, or others.  So, Gentle Readers and fellow Gear Knobs:  which cars make you forget how terrible they may be to drive simply because they’re so beautiful?

Responses in Comments (or by email, if you prefer).  I’ll make the best three suggestions the subject of next Saturday’s post, and add pictures if necessary.


  1. My “car lust” to the extent I have it is on the Toyota Land Cruisers and Land Rover Discos. If I ever hit the lottery…

  2. There’s something to be said for sensuous curves and voluptuous beauty. I’ve always thought Ferrari represented a feather as opposed to the angular Lambo’s whole damn chicken… Back to reality and my rusty Dodge farm truck…

  3. If I might be allowed to stretch the question a bit?

    Sportbikes Totally uncomfortable to ride, but they look great, to me, and have performance very close to full race bikes.
    I’m old school, so I lust after a Ducati 888, a Ducati 916, or a ‘93 Honda CBR900RR

  4. There are lot of beautiful cars, but, limiting the search to the 90’s and high performance, the McLaren F1 stands out. The others seem to need some sort of aid to keep from going airborne. Not so the McLaren. They are now impossibly expensive for the hoi polloi. The current McLaren lineup provides value for the money I guess, but look supercar generic. The F1 just looked right and needed nothing beyond its body shape, low weight and 600hp BMW V12 to set and hold the production speed record for years.

    Kim, the Cayman S in my garage is pleased with your assessment. I have the gen 1 version from before Porsche started added creases and hard lines to the shape. If I wanted an MR2, I would have bought one.

  5. I’m a fan of the first generation of Ford Mustangs. My first car (shared with my sister) was a base ’66 hardtop*. And what a spartan car it was- simple bucket seats, no power steering, brakes, windows, or other geegaws. No A/C, and a heater that would let the windshield ice up in central Florida.

    But I would take another in a heartbeat.

    *with the straight six and automatic transmission

  6. Continuing Overload’s diversion, how about the Sopwith Camel? Gorgeous plane but unforgiving to say the least.

  7. The 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO is IMHO the most beautiful car ever designed. I also have a soft spot for the Stutz Bearcat and the 1924 Bugatti Type 35.

  8. …and not one of those three would have been considered to have “luxury”, or more than spartan, accommodations – but they defined “performance” for their time.

  9. There’s no doubt that of the three pictured the Jaguar is the best looking by a huge margin. But just like so many British cars the engineering and construction were somewhat wanting.

    The worst cars I had to drive were also among the ugliest ever made (VW microbus). The nice looking cars I have experience with (not a large range) were at least adequate from a driving perspective. So no go for me.

  10. The F40 was the last and greatest supercar unencumbered by electronic interventions. Just you and the car, nothing in between.

    The 959 was the future I didn’t ask for – a computer decides if you really want to do that.

    1. No, it doesn’t. The only computers in the 959 were for the EFI, 4WD system, and suspension control on the road going versions. There’s no traction control, no stability control, no electronic nannies of any kind. While it was slightly more difficult to wrap around a phone pole than, say, a 930, that was due entirely to the 4WD system and significant amounts of physical grip the thing could generate.

      Electronic nannies didn’t really become a thing until the early 2000’s with the advent of DBW throttles, high-speed multi-channel ABS computers, and so on and so forth.

  11. Only the 959 was built with any kind of racing in mind. The F40 and Jag were built “because we can” and largely for bragging rights. See also the F50, Enzo, et al. Neither car is remotely close to legal in any form of racing that existed at the time. Maranello also cranked out a fairly decent number of F40s– just over 1,300, which for a world-beating supercar is pretty impressive, especially for the time.

    While they are all technical marvels in their own right, here’s where you’re entirely wrong: While the 959 is akin to piloting Rosie O’donnel out of a Cracker Barrel buffet line, both the F40 and 220 are sublime to drive. The F40 in particular is the best handling road legal car I’ve ever driven. It makes a Lotus Elise feel like a dump truck. It’s a legend because it is THAT good.

    As to the clutch, it’s no worse than any other road-going Ferrari of the time (and in fact better than many)– but complaining about that is like complaining that your supermodel, nymphomaniac, rich girlfriend likes blender drinks.

    The 220 is a bit more of a handful, but the engine that actually is pretty much lifted from a race car more than makes up for it. Whoever called it a “clanking a bucket of rusty nails” has the pallet of a twelve year old.

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