On Driving an SSC and the Tuatara

Last year, Shelby SuperCars was nice enough to take me out for a spin in their world-record-setting SSC Ultimate Aero supercar. It was perfect timing because I was just two days from hopping into a Bugatti Veyron for the first time—the car the SSC stole the Top Speed trophy from.

I planned to write a sidebar on the Ultimate Aero in a big package we did on Bugatti in the print magazine – but we ran out of space. It might have been for the better, because the notes I took are barely legible. I was shaking like a neurotic little poodle-uaua, if such a doglet even exists. If scaring the crap out of you is the mission of a supercar (and I’d argue that it probably is), the Ultimate Aero certainly delivered.

In fairness, the SSC didn’t do anything wrong. It wasn’t unstable or dangerous, but it was so goddamn fast that I about sharted when the boost hit. In fourth gear, at something quiet like 2000 rpm, I stupidly nailed the gas, thinking 80 mph was finally fast enough to not have to worry about wheelspin. Boy was I wrong. By the time I lifted (which was pretty much as quickly as I could pull my foot off the gas), the speedometer had settled at 160 mph and poor Jerod Shelby, the company’s owner, had already contorted himself into crash position. Airplane!-style crash position, that is.

Despite the wheelspin at 160 mph , the Aero tracked dead straight—I needed to make only minor corrections to the steering. Unassisted steering, that is. Along with unassisted brakes, no ABS, stability control or air bags. Did I mention the near pants-soiling? That’s why. But at lower speeds, any concerns I had about crashing were drowned out by the marvelous V-8 music, the insanely vocal waste gates, and the sheer wonder that this 256.2-mph car was so amazingly tractable.

Tractable, yes. Boring, no. This machine was raw in all the right ways—quite the opposite of the clinical Veyron. I mean the Bugatti no insult here—it’s likely the most significant engineering accomplishment that the automotive world has seen to date. And especially the 1200-hp Super Sport, which fixed just about everything I didn’t love about the original. The Bugatti triplets are fast in a different, less insane, kind of way.

And this brings us back to SSC. Bugatti can swear up and down that it wasn’t bothered by the Ultimate Aero’s world-record top speed run, but that’s about as likely as a 40-mpg turbodiesel Veyron hitting production. The proof? Bugatti went and slaughtered the Aero’s record with a 267.8-mph run, no doubt thinking that would be the end of the discussion.

I’m not saying I’m rooting for SSC, but I do confess that I love a good fight. So when Jerod Shelby told me the Aero’s successor would have an all-carbon chassis and a 1350-hp 9200-rpm twin-turbo V-8 and do 275 mph, I thought “Bring it!”

And then I remembered what my underpants nearly looked like after driving the 1150(ish)-hp Aero. The last thing that car needs is a weight reduction and more effing power. But “needs” is such a strong word. Does it need more power? No. Does it need to weigh less? Of course not. And, most importantly, does it need to exist? Clearly not.

But that it does is reason enough to celebrate. And that’s why I sit here a year later, still dreaming of what the unpronounceable SSC Tuatara will be like. I can’t help but thinking the name is a dig at the equally unpronounceable Pagani Huayra. I can’t help but love that. Remember, I love a good fight.

And a good fight this is going to be. What a cool story—a small manufacturer from the Pacific Northwest comes out of nowhere and smacks the Master of the Automotive Universe Fertinand Piech and his VW Group’s prize right on the ass by beating the Veyron at the top speed game. The giant swats SSC out of the way with the Super Sport. And now the little guy comes back with a double Eff You, taking a jab at Pagani, too. Love. It.

I’m sure the Tuatara will scare the living shite out of me if I’m ever lucky enough to drive one. I’m sure I won’t go anywhere near its 275-mph top speed. In fact, I’d love it if the thing were limited to 100 mph because I never again want to experience wheel spin at 160 mph. And besides, I’d love it if it only did 17 mph. Just look at it.

Designer Jason Castriota made himself into a household name with some pretty cool cars (the Bertone Mantide, Ferrari P4/5, and the Maserati GranTurismo, to name a few) but had the SSC Tuatara been his first work, he’d be running the world. In other words, the car is gorgeous. The Ultimate Aero wasn’t ugly, but it looked like it was shaped by the wind. The Tuatara was shaped by… I don’t know what. Sex, drugs, Michelangelo, tectonic motion, whatever. It’s drop-dead. I’m not a supercar kind of guy (gimme a wagon any day) but this one? *shudder*

Look at what Peter Schreyer did for Kia. Kia made good cars before, it makes good cars now. Except now that they’re good looking, suddenly everyone’s calling them “great” cars. SSC made a horrifyingly fast, stunningly enthralling car before. The new one will be faster, stiffer, lighter, paddleshifted, and it’ll have stability control. But it’s the looks that have already put this supercar on screen savers and phone wallpapers. Whether it winds up in the record books is now irrelevant. But here’s hoping it does.

SSC Tuatara on the Concept Lawn at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance
The back of the Tuatara on the Concept Lawn at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, with designer Jason Castriota in the background.
The SSC Tuatara's rear winglets. Functional? Definitely, if their function is to make grown men fall to their knees.
The Tuatara's wheels are one-piece carbon-fiber units. The Castriota badge is the result of SSC's wise decision to hire a top-tier designer for its latest project.
A closeup of the SSC badge, showing some of the golfball-hole detail on the rear fascia. This mirrors the novel Swiss-cheese air exhausts elsewhere on the car.

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