Masterclass: 25 legendary cars that prove beauty is more than skin deep
There's something special about finding the perfect combination of brains and beauty. Automotive history is full of advanced cars that, as well as stopping traffic with their stunning looks, were engineered to outdo their rivals with superior power, performance and packaging. Here are our picks for history's prettiest game changers.
Duesenberg isn't around anymore, but it once stood for unmatched luxury and excess in the motoring world. The Model J was designed to offer an American alternative to the cars coming out of Rolls-Royce and Hispano-Suiza. As was convention, the car was shown off as a chassis and engine at the 1928 New York Auto Show.
Power came from a straight eight engine, designed by Fred Duesenberg. It was comfortably the most powerful car in America at the time, making up to 265 hp (198 kW) depending on tune. If that wasn't enough, a supercharged version with upwards of 300 hp (224 kW) was offered later.
Even though it cost $8,500 (equivalent to around $100,000 nowadays) without a body, and was launched just before the Depression struck, the Model J sold in reasonable numbers. The company never met its goal of 500 cars, but reports suggest around 480 did make it out of the factory before its (first) collapse in 1937.
1934 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic
There are just two Type 57SC Atlantics left in existence, one of which is owned by Ralph Lauren. Nowadays, it's among the most valuable cars in the world, but when it launched the Atlantic was widely unloved. The car was teased at the 1935 Paris Motor Show, but the Electron Aerolithe Prototype scared off potential buyers with its unconventional design and flammable body panels.
Thankfully, those flammable body panels were swapped for aluminum when production rolled around. Power came from a supercharged inline eight engine making 157 kW (210 hp) that, coupled with the aerodynamic shape, was good for 200 km/h (124 mph). Because the initial prototype was made of magnesium, the body panels and fins couldn't be welded on – unless the coachbuilders wanted a huge fire on their hands. Instead, they were riveted, a unique touch carried into the production car.
1936 Mercedes 540K Spezial Roadster
Back in the 1930s, Mercedes wasn't in the business of building hatchbacks or sedans for the everyman. Exclusivity was the name of the game, and the 540K Spezial Roadster was the most exclusive of the lot.
As was usually the case in the 1930s, the Spezial came in a range of body styles. Regardless of body, power came from a supercharged V8 engine with 180 hp (134 kW) of power, enough for a top speed around 110 mph (177 km/h). That's the preserve of family hatches now, but it was properly quick in 1936.
Just 419 were built, with a starting price equivalent to around $200,000 today. The car you see above was built by the in-house Mercedes styling department, as was the case with most Roadsters, but some cars were coach built by external companies. Values have skyrocketed recently, with a pristine example selling for $9.9 million at auction last year.
1936 Auto Union Type C
It's not immediately apparent, but under the silver skin of the Auto Union Type C lies the beating heart of an absolute monster. The designers didn't give the Type C that long tail because it looked good, and it wasn't an aerodynamic decision. The tapered tail is home to a supercharged six-liter V16 engine making 520 hp (388 kW).
The Type C represented the final iteration of a Ferdinand Porsche design that debuted in 1934. Although it shared plenty with the Type A and Type B, the 1936 car made them both look positively pedestrian, courtesy of that stonking supercharged engine. Top speed was 340 km/h (211 mph).
It was close to unbeatable, too, winning three of five Grand Prix races, half of the circuit races and every single hillclimb entered. Don't think for a second the Type C was good to drive though, because all reports suggest the car was an oversteering pig, with terrible weight distribution and a crude swing-axle suspension setup. Just imagine trying to hold your 520 hp racer in a slide on cross ply tires at upwards of 100 mph (160 km/h). Drivers today have it too easy ...
1937 Silver Arrows W125
Given the monstrous power on offer, it took something special to topple the Type C. That something special was the W125, which managed to squeeze 595 hp (444 kW) out of a supercharged inline-eight engine. The motor could actually make more power, with its peak of 626 hp (467 kW) dialed back for the sake of reliability.
Even in reliability-first specification, the engine was the most powerful ever seen in racing. It was also short lived, as regulations surrounding engine displacement rendered the W125 ineligible for Grand Prix competition. The world didn't see racers with the same amount of power until Can Am rolled around in the 1960s, and F1 cars couldn't match the W125 for grunt until the bonkers 1980s turbo era.
1937 Talbot-Lago T150-C by Figoni et Falaschi
Just two examples of the Goutte d'Eau were built by legendary coach builder Figoni et Falaschi. Teardrop designs are regarded as some of the most beautiful ever built, and this particular car is one fine example – just look at the gorgeous sloping wheelarches, and drink in the fully enclosed front fenders. It's arguably more elegant than the other teardrop on this list, the Type 57SC Atlantic, though that isn't reflected in modern auction values.
The Talbot-Lago was much more than just a pretty face. It had an independent front suspension, and the chassis was designed to deliver a low center of gravity. With power from a 4-liter inline-six engine it was capable of hitting 100 mph (160 km/h) in a straight line, while the lightweight body made for a car that could back it up in the corners as well.
1937 BMW 328 Roadster
The 328 Roadster looks quaint compared to the supercharged monsters from Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz, but it was also a very successful race car. BMW introduced the car at the Nurburgring but its greatest win came at the 1940 Millie Miglia, where the 80 kW (107 hp) 328 showed up significantly more powerful competitors.
After just four years in production, the little 328 had been entered in more than 170 races and, remarkably, won more than 140 of them. It also made the successful transition to life on the road, with the introduction of a consumer version of the car broadening its appeal further. Its simple lines and compact proportions stand out as beautiful, and there's simply no mistaking that kidney grille for anything but a BMW design.
1948 Jaguar XK120
Ask someone to describe the quintessential Jaguar, and it's likely their response will look something like the XK120. It's a classic British sports car on the outside, with bulbous curves and aerodynamic rear fenders designed to eke out every last drop of speed in a straight line.
Behind its (very) pretty curves, the XK120 delivered impressive performance. The 120 in the name was a not-so-subtle reference to its 120 mph (193 km/h) top speed, which was faster than anything else in the world at that point. A version of the car with a low-cut windscreen actually clocked 133 mph (214 km/h) on a stretch of Belgian motorway in 1949, and Jaguar proved its inherent stability by averaging over 100 mph (162 km/h) for 24 hours on a French oval track in 1951.
Not satisfied with these increasingly arduous tests, Jag then ran a fixed-head version of the car at over 100 mph for one week straight, shattering records for average speed and distance covered over a set period of time.
1952 Alfa Romeo Disco Volante
Wind tunnel testing plays an important role in the development of all modern cars, but that wasn't the case when the "Flying Saucer" came along. The unique shape was developed and built by Carrozzeria Touring, a process that included time in the wind tunnel. As a result, the car had a drag coefficient of just 0.25 and a 140 mph (225 km/h) top speed.
The curves of the Disco Volante clearly struck a chord with the public, but they also had an impact in the boardrooms and design studios at Jaguar. Rumor has it the Alfa inspired the curvaceous shape of the E-Type, although proving the connection is impossible.
1953 Porsche 550 Spyder
Based on the 356 Speedster, the Porsche 550 is one of the best known cars in the motoring world. Although part of that is down to its stunning looks, the car also had some very famous owners contribute to its story. James Dean was famously killed while driving his "Little Bastard" in California, while Jerry Seinfeld is among the current owners list.
The 550 isn't particularly powerful, but it was incredibly successful on the track. The car won around 90 of the 370 races it entered, in spite of the tiny 110 hp (82 kW) four-cylinder engine mounted behind the driver. In part, the success was thanks to the car's skinny 570 kg (1257 lb) curb weight.
Values have skyrocketed recently, to the point where a well maintained Spyder is worth upwards of $5 million at auction.
1954 Mercedes 300SL
The 300SL is undeniably one of the most beautiful cars in the world, but it was also one of the most technologically advanced when it launched in 1954. Along with those eye-catching gull-wing doors, the SL was the first car to be fitted with direct fuel injection. Thanks to this clever tech, the inline six hiding under that loooong bonnet made 212 hp (158 kW) – enough for a record-breaking 162 mph (260 km/h) top speed.
Like so many of the other cars on this list, the 300SL was beloved by actors, socialites and prominent racers of the era, including Juan Manuel Fangio, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Clark Gable.
That doesn't meant the car was perfect though. The dramatic doors carried plenty of curb-side credibility, but they also trapped drivers inside in a rollover. The handling balance also varied wildly based on how much fuel was in the 130-liter tank, and the rear swing axle was notorious for following the camber in the road.
1955 Citroen DS
When it comes to the world of weird cars, Citroen is in a league of its own. The legendary flair of the company's designs were coupled with serious engineering development, though. Case in point: the DS.
We don't have room to list all the innovations packed into the déesse (goddess) but here are some of the most important. It was fitted with rotating headlights, a single-spoke steering wheel and a safety-first brake "button" in place of the pedal. But even these innovations pale in comparison to the hydro-pneumatic suspension that delivered a true "magic carpet ride."
The system is credited with saving President Charles de Gaulle's life, allowing his chauffeur to drive away on three wheels after terrorists shot one of the rear tires on his DS. Citroen sold 700 cars within 15 minutes of launch, and more than 12,000 people had expressed desire to own one by the end of the day. The design has appeal today, too. Seeing a DS on the road is like spotting a UFO or Unicorn – rare and exciting.
1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa
This selection includes many rare and successful racers, but few are quite as rare or as successful as the Testa Rossa. The fact it's a Ferrari helps, too. Just 34 examples were ever built, and variations of the car won at Le Mans in 1958, 1960 and 1961.
The car was designed by Sergio Scagletti, the mind (and hands) behind some of the most beautiful Ferraris ever built. Even though it was powered by a thoroughbred three-liter V12 engine, the Testa Rossa was actually designed to prioritise reliability over performance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Still, with 300 hp (221 kW) shifting just 800 kg (1,764 lb) it wasn't slow.
1957 Fiat 500 Cinquecento
The little Fiat is much more humble than some of the other metal on this list, but it's one of the most significant cars here. It was designed to deliver low-cost motoring to the Italian masses, but rather than developing an austere body and beige interior, the design team at Fiat created one of the most iconic designs in the motoring world.
Why is it sitting alongside giant Cadillacs and otherworldly Citroens? Because there is something beautiful about simple, effectively executed industrial design. Stay tuned for more a bit later on ...
1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible
Forget about good industrial design, and forget economy of space, the Eldorado Biarritz Convertible epitomizes American excess of the '60s and '70s. As the range-topping model in the already-luxurious Eldorado lineup, the Biarritz wanted for absolutely nothing. Power came from a V8 with 345 hp (257 kW) on tap, put to the road through a four-speed automatic gearbox.
Power steering, power assisted brakes and six-way power seats were all available, as was air suspension. Still not sold? The fins on the Biarritz were the largest fitted to any Caddy, and there was enough chrome to make even the blingiest rapper feel a bit self conscious. If you want to stand out, there are few better ways.
1961 Jaguar E-Type
The E-Type is arguably the prettiest car ever built. There, we've said it. Enzo Ferrari agreed, as did the countless models, movie stars and socialites who dropped their cash on a Jaguar after the car's launch at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show.
Behind the stunning body was a thoroughly modern sports car. The long-nosed Jaguar had four-wheel disc brakes when most cars still used drums, and its monocoque construction was considered forward thinking among its competitors. Like all good classic Jaguars, the car was powered by a naturally-aspirated inline six.
It could hit 100 km/h (62 mph) in less than seven seconds, and its 150 mph (241 km/h) top speed was enough to make it the fastest car in the world at launch. What's more, the E-Type also proved an incredibly successful racer, especially in low-drag form.
1961 Austin Mini Cooper
Few cars captured the public imagination like the original, Sir Alec Issigonis designed Mini. If the Fiat 500 demonstrated what could be done with a small car and a big idea, the Mini perfected it with its space efficient design. The wheels are all pushed to the edges of the body to maximize space inside, and the transverse-mounted front-wheel drive layout is a masterpiece of packaging.
The Mini became an icon of the '60s in Britain. The Beatles painted their Minis in wild and wacky ways, and three of the little cars starred in the original Italian Job. The plucky Brit also showed up considerably more expensive metal in the rallying world, famously winning the Monte Carlo Rally three times. It would've won a fourth, too, if it wasn't for some dodgy stewardship.
1961 Ferrari 250GT California
The 250GT California sits alongside the E-Type and the 300SL as one of the most beautiful cars ever built, although its rarity makes it even more valuable. Just 106 were built, 56 in short-wheelbase and 50 in long-wheelbase trim. All were powered by a V12 displacing just 3 liters, with peak power of 280 hp (209 kW). That doesn't sound like much, but all 280 of those Italian horses sings like an angel. The 250GT looks pretty, and it sounds it too.
The panels on each California were hand-beaten by Sergio Scagletti, meaning no two cars are the same, and the interior is an example of everything that was right about motoring in the 1960s. Leather, wood and metal are the dominant materials with nary a patch of plastic in sight. Maybe that's why Ferris Bueller was keen to "borrow" the California in on display in Cameron's conservatory?
1966 Ford GT40
The Ford GT40 was built with a single purpose: to make Ferrari look slow at Le Mans.
Why? Ford was trying to buy Ferrari. Everything was going well, and a team of Ford lawyers made the trip to Maranello to negotiate the terms of sale in May 1963. But the deal fell through when Enzo Ferrari spotted a clause in the contract that would hand control of the Ferrari racing team to Ford. He kiboshed the deal on the spot. This enraged Henry Ford II, who vowed to hit Enzo where it hurt. Thus the legendary GT40 was born.
It took a while for Ford to perfect the formula. The original GT40 and its successor were failures. No US-built car had ever won at Le Mans, and building a car good enough to outdo the experience of Europe's leading car manufacturers is not an easy thing to do. Compounding things was the fact Ford II expected his engineers to develop the car in just 10 months.
Consequently the first GT40 flopped on the big stage, as did the car entered in the 1965 race. But come 1966, the GT40 was ready for its big moment. The combination of big V8 power, an aerodynamically advanced shape and all the engineering might of the biggest carmaker in the world bore fruit. The GT40 won in 1966. It then went on to do it three more times.
1967 Alfa Romeo Tipo 33 Stradale
Alfa Romeo is a brand that means a lot to gearheads. Its long back catalogue of stunning sports cars include the 33 Stradale – a road-going version of the Tipo 33 that saw service as a Sports Car and Can Am racer in the '60s and '70s.
It was the first production car to be fitted with dihedral doors, the likes of which are now common on attention-grabbing supercars, and the curved glass windows that blend into the roof were incredibly advanced when the car launched. Just 19 were built, and no two cars were the same. Early examples had twin headlamps, later replaced with a single light design, and the cooling system at the rear of each vehicle varied based on who put it together. Such was the nature of handbuilt Italian cars.
Power came from a race-bred two-liter V8 engine making 230 hp (172 kW) of power. Once again, because each engine was handbuilt that figure varied wildly from car to car. The car given to motoring press at the time was capable of hitting 100 km/h (62 mph) in just 5.5 seconds.
1985 Lamborghini Countach 5000 Quattrovalvole
If the Countach is the ultimate supercar and the 5000 QV is the ultimate Countach, does that make it the archetype against which all supercars should be judged? No matter the answer, there's no doubting its status as the definitive Lamborghini.
The wedgy looks of the Countach look remarkable in 2017, but we can only imagine what it must have been like to spot one back in the '80s. Sure, the gigantic rear wing and tacked-on scoops don't make for the most cohesive silhouette on the road, but few cars can dream of matching the big Lambo for sheer presence.
Hindsight tells us the Countach was a bit of a pig to drive, but the 5000 QV was the most refined of the breed. Thanks to a new four-valve setup (hence Quattrovalvole) the V12 pumped out 420 hp (313 kW). The engine had also had a bigger displacement and ran with a higher 9.5:1 compression ratio than the LP5000S it usurped when it launched at the Geneva Motor Show in 1985.
1995 Ferrari F50
Billed as the "first and last Formula 1 car with two seats," the F50 actually sits as a slightly awkward member of the Ferrari family. It wasn't as fast as the F40 that preceded it, and it isn't a rolling piece of art like some of the classics. But it is a technological masterpiece, a showcase of what the world's most famous car manufacturer can do when it sets its mind to the job.
The F50 truly was a race car for the road. It was powered by a V12 engine developed on the same block as the powerplant from the Ferrari 641, the car Alain Prost drove during one of his fiercest battles with Ayrton Senna. Ferrari bored it out from 3.5 to 4.7-liters, but the highly-strung 513 hp (383 kW) powertrain made little concession to drivability on the road.
At its core, the F50 is an old-fashioned take on the modern supercar formula.. Just 349 were built, making it even rarer than the F40, Enzo or LaFerrari.
2004 Porsche Carrera GT
Representing the pinnacle of road-going Porsche performance, the Carrera GT has come into the public eye for the wrong reasons of late following the death of Paul Walker. Its engine came from an aborted motorsports program – the company was developing a new Le Mans prototype in secret when the FIA abruptly changed the rules, rendering it useless.
Rather than throw out all its hard work, Porsche decided to built the Carrera GT. Under the short rear hood was a screaming V10 engine with 604 hp (450 kW), hooked up to a six-speed manual gearbox. The clutch was notoriously tricky to negotiate, the handling was famous for being unforgiving if you were a bit clumsy, and the styling lacks the drama of the Ferrari Enzo.
But the slick simplicity of the way it looks, and the hardcore analog focus of the powertrain makes the Carrera GT a legend of the motoring world. It also has one of the best sounds in the world, like a baleful animal screaming for its lost mother. Trust us, that's a good thing.
2014 Ferrari LaFerrari
We know, LaFerrari is a silly name, but The Ferrari represents the pinnacle of modern hybrid performance. It's also comfortably the best looking of the latest crop of hypercars.
Certain elements of the LaFerrari are shared with past Prancing Horse flagships: the car is powered by a mid-mounted V12, and it's built around a carbon chassis with room for two inside. But there are some significant differences as well, most significant among which is the hybrid KERS system.
In total, the hybrid system combines for 950 hp (708 kW). All that grunt is put to the rear wheels through a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, which made the LaFerrari quite a handful to drive near the limits, but that's kinda the point here.
2015 Ford GT
Like the GT40 before it, the modern Ford GT has been designed to take down Ferrari. But it goes about it in a very different way to the original, or even the GT launched back in 2002. This is a thoroughly modern supercar, with looks unlike anything we've seen from Ford before, and performance claims to make most European supercars look pedestrian.
New Atlas was in the crowd when the GT was unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show. Most manufacturers will tease their new supercar before launching it, but Ford gave no hint about the bomb it planned to drop on a hockey stadium full of unsuspecting journalists. It just wheeled the car out on stage, said it was going to built it and then, kinda, walked off, leaving the world's motoring press agape at the stunning coupe on show before them. Mic drop.
Unlike it predecessors, the new GT won't be powered by a thirsty eight-cylinder lump of iron. Ford is going all-in on downsizing, which means the mid-mounted engine is a small V6 turbo. Ignore the EcoBoost badging, with 647 hp (482 kW) on tap the focus has been placed on the "Boost" side of things.
That's it for our selection of the most aesthetically pleasing and elegantly engineered cars in history, but these things, of course, are in the eye of the beholder. Let us know what you think we've missed in the comments below. For a closer look at these brainy beauties, be sure to check out the image gallery.