To get his motoring fix at the age of seven, Jerod Shelby would jump the fence of his local kart track on a Sunday. He had the place all to himself, and all the time in the world to dream of speed. He soon competed in karts successfully, and swapped them for big wheels when he got his first car, a Nissan 240Z. That's nice and all, but the dream of speed was still etched in there. Hence, the Japanese straight-six made way for a 500 horsepower Chevy V8. A new suspension design came next, coilover shocks, the works.
Suddenly, Shelby was living the dream.
Until of course he went to sleep one night and decided that cracking 400kph was more like it… Shelby lived that dream too, with the first model under the Shelby Supercars banner clearing the hurdle to unseat the mighty Bugatti Veyron as the fastest car in the world. Unfortunately, pretty soon Shelby's Ultimate Aerolost the top speed battle to the Veyron Super Sport, which is precisely the moment when it was a good time to get back to bed and have another dream. How does 440kph sound? wheels spoke exclusively to Shelby, the founder and owner of SSC and obsessed speed freak, to find out what goes into dreaming and then designing and actually building a car capable of mega speeds.
"I think back in the Fifties and Sixties, Americans became branded as lovers of big iron with big displacement, big horsepower engines. I think this stigma still stands today. Although automotive engineering here in the US is so advanced, I think that Americans get so excited about 0-100kph and quartermile statistics, that it overshadows nimble handling, braking, and ride quality of a lot of American sportscars today. But my personal obsession with speed comes from the fact that it takes every sub-assembly of a car working exactly as they were engineered to achieve the theoretical limit of the complete package," Shelby told wheels. "So, although a 440kph top speed is not practical at all, and serves most of its purpose as a marketing tool, it's effective because it is so difficult to engineer a package to achieve these speeds, that a lot of other lesser performance pursuits come easy."
As SSC has just unveiled the Tuatara at the Dubai motor show, all attention once again turns to the race for top-speed honours. Currently it belongs in Europe, to be exact, it belongs to Bugatti. But Shelby has other ideas.
"The production top speed record belongs in the USA, and it will belong in the USA. Sure, we're viewed as the new kids on the block. Even though we have been designing and producing supercars for over 12 years, we are definitely the underdog when we are competing against legacy companies. We are building our own legacy here and it will be fun to look back at these days, 50 years from now. But I think competition is healthy for SSC and the niche industry that we compete in. I like to research the areas that our competitors struggle in or areas where they have engineering challenges, and we put a high priority on focusing on and conquering these design challenges. My goal is always to design the best all-around vehicle for the sensation that the driver/passenger will experience."
It will, however, take a lot more than being a pressure-free underdog to take on the might of the VW Group, a gigantic company with aspirations of being the world's biggest carmaker. How will Shelby do it?
"I can sum that up simply by saying, design logic and lots of persistence! We have designed a very efficient powerplant. It is very easy to build big horsepower. It is a completely different challenge to design an extreme horsepower engine that is emissions-legal, durable enough to handle extreme driving for up to 160,000 kilometres, and runs cool in all climates. We are very proud of our drivetrain design successes. When we started the design of our Ultimate Aero engine package back in 2002, we did use a GM-based C5R Le Mans block for our testing. It was very difficult to not only get the engine to live at power outputs of over 1,000bhp, but extremely expensive to make major modifications to the oiling and structural systems of the block. So it became justifiable to design an assembly that was specified for our precise needs."
The power is the least of Shelby's problems though. The Tuatara faces design difficulties at every corner due to its pursuit of 440kph.
"There are no small problems when you are trying to achieve the theoretical top speed of an assembly. Durable horsepower and proper aerodynamic balance are probably the largest two engineering challenges. But then of course, you have all the other components and assemblies that have to perform to their specifications or the overall assembly cannot succeed, such as clutches, gear packs, transmission temperatures, axles, brakes, fuel systems, intake air cooling systems, etc. It's a symphony of components that have to play in perfect unison and harmony. The way we overcame all of these extreme challenges, was real-world testing! And a lot of it. We had a test car that logged more than 3,200km at over 350kph.I challenge any other manufacturer, no matter how large the organisation, to achieve that."
One thing that you've no doubt noticed so far is that the Tuatara looks markedly different to its predecessor in one very obvious aspect: design. That's because Jason Castriota — the man who penned the Bertone Mantide, Ferrari P4/5, Maserati Gran Turismo, Fenomenon Stratos and the 2011 Saab PhoeniX concept — was responsible for the Tuatara's looks.
"Jason was a natural choice. He's the best. When we sat down to discuss the potential of this project a couple of years back, it didn't take me long to see that Jason and I share a lot of the same design philosophies and goals. The production run of the Ultimate Aero was just a test bed of assemblies for a follow-up project. We didn't know what exactly that project was going to be back then, but we all know now that it was the Tuatara. The Tuatara is not reinventing the wheel. We are carrying over 80 per cent of the proven assemblies from the Ultimate Aero project. We are just using a lot more exotic materials, with more sophisticated onboard electronics, and of course wrapping it in a much more sleek, appealing and cutting-edge skin and interior."
"[After Castriota's design] we learned a lot from the full-scale wind tunnels as well as our real-world top speed testing. The Ultimate Aero was designed and shaped with aerodynamic balance in mind, not so much the outward appearance of the body. Amazingly, we were able to shape the Tuatara to have even a lower Cd and better aero balance than the Ultimate Aero and we feel that the Tuatara is light years ahead of the UA in appearance.
"Now that the Tuatara is very much reality, the only mission left to complete is change the media and public's perception of SSC.
With the Ultimate Aero, SSC learnt a tough lesson: the world top-speed record for a production car was a great media introduction to the world for SSC, but we had no idea at the time that the ability to achieve such high top speeds would completely overshadow all the other great characteristics of the car. The Ultimate Aero had amazing braking, cornering, ride quality and comfort. But no one ever wanted to talk or write about that.
"When Bugatti broke our record last year and then we introduced the Tuatara, everyone thought that was our answer to the record. Actually it was not. We had been in development on the Tuatara for a year before Bugatti even broke our record. We have a clean slate with the Tuatara project. This time we'll start by taking the Tuatara to the Nürburgring and breaking our class record there, and then get the car in a lot of journalists' hands to write about all of these overshadowed characteristics that we want to make sure get communicated to the public. Once we feel that this message has been conveyed, then we will break the top-speed record again."
Yes, Shelby is that blunt. Unlike pretty much all other car company executives we can think of, Shelby has nothing to hide, nobody to fear. The company is already gearing up for a follow-up to the Tuatara, which is on the drawing board as you read this. The SSC is also planning a higher volume, more affordable supercar. Shelby adds, "There have also been rumours floating around our R&D department of a super-exotic, Tuatara DNA-ed boat…"