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 (VLKAY) $1.6 million Bugatti Veyron (BusinessWeek, 9/17/07).
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.
Changing Gears, Chasing a Dream
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 (watch the video). 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 applying.