First Drive: Mosler Photon

May 5, 2011
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Hovering one notch above Lamborghini and Ferrari on the automotive specialness chart is a gaggle of companies whose exotic names could just as easily be typos. Koenigsegg. Pagani. Gumpert. Spyker. Donkervoort. They come from faraway places like Sweden, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands and produce all-conquering, supercar-slaying hyperexotics that generate far more horsepower, carbon dioxide, and attention than they do sales.
Mosler Photon Front Left View
Concerned with show as much as they are with go, hyperexotics are a braggart's dream come true, and they act as high-octane patriotic fuel for their country of origin. So who's representing the good ol' U.S. of A.? Well, there's SSC, which likely infuriated half of Germany and France when its Ultimate Aero proved even faster than the world-champ Bugatti Veyron. And then there's Mosler -- the other American supercar company without a crazy, unpronounceable name. If you don't recognize the Mosler moniker, it might be because some of their past products weren't exactly sexy. The Consulier was a visual train wreck, and the twin-engine, long-wheelbase Cadillac Eldorado, as cool as it was, was also pretty. Pretty flippin' ugly, that is.
When you hear the name Mosler, you should instead immediately think of the MT900S, the supercar that the company began selling here at the end of 2006. The MT900S is indeed quite nice to look at, but this car's ace in the hole lies hidden on a spreadsheet. Buried in the specifications for the track-focused but street-legal variant of the MT900S, the Photon, is one astonishing measurement: its curb weight is a scant 2394 pounds. This is a car as long as a Toyota Camry and as wide as a 4Runner, but it weighs about 50 pounds less than a Mazda Miata -- and that's despite having a 7.0-liter V-8 engine.
While mainstream exoticar makers (now there's an oxymoron!) like Lamborghini are just now starting to get serious about lightweight construction methods, Mosler has been quietly building featherweight monsters crafted from carbon fiber and Kevlar for years. This kind of cutting-edge engineering isn't what you'd normally expect from a tiny, low-volume manufacturer from Florida, but it's the result of founder Warren Mosler's clear mission: to build amazing cars, not to sell them. Mosler doesn't seem to care if people buy his cars. "I want to do something great because I can," he says. "If we sell some, great. There will be some happy owners." And during a recent visit to Palm Beach International Raceway, Mosler Automotive made sure there was at least one happy journalist.
Mosler Photon Rear View
Director of engineering J. Todd Wagner surprised us by showing up and handing over the keys to a $394,500 Photon. At the time, we knew basically nothing about the car. As we were strapping ourselves in, every eye in the paddock was on the orange thing with the exhaust note so violent it could set off air-raid alarms. Wagner yelled over the exhaust, rattling off a ludicrous horsepower number (550), that ridiculous curb weight, and explaining that the Photon -- which has a custom Hewland sequential-manual racing gearbox -- uses a flywheel with about as much rotational inertia as a spinning, dying housefly. It'll stall if you look at it sideways. No pressure.
Having never once been around PBIR's track, and not even knowing if the Photon had antilock brakes (it doesn't, we would learn), we begged for a pace car. When a volunteer stepped forward, he hopped into his track-prepped Porsche 911 GT3 on slicks. When we were told that he was the local Porsche club's fastest instructor, we asked him to take it easy.
He didn't bother -- and we're glad he didn't. The Mosler's vast, curved windshield provided a first-class, front-row view of the rear-engine Porsche scrambling its way around corners, oversteering, understeering, and countersteering. The Photon followed along happily, nowhere near its limits, with a big-block scream from the General Motors LS7 easily drowning out the 911's flat-six wail -- but only for a second at a time. Any longer wide-open-throttle blasts and the Porsche would have had a whole car shoved up its engine-filled arse. In steady-state corners, the Photon might understeer and its steering might not transmit much information about what the front tires are doing, but at the g-forces it generates, your author's spinal cord wasn't transmitting much useful information, either.
Mosler Photon Part
We had time for only a few laps, but the Photon's speed, cornering, and composure is dramatic. The Photon is clearly more than a big engine strapped into a light car -- indeed, a decade-long relationship with Siemens has given Mosler access to supercomputers for seriously advanced engineering. Mosler has just announced a new partnership with Santa Fe Digital Media that will allow it to perform computational fluid dynamics and structural engineering on an ORCA supercomputer capable of five petaflops. That's computer-geek-speak for five quadrillion calculations per second -- or the computing power of something like a billion and a half iPhone 4s.
"Just wait until you see the 2012 Raptor," says a giddy Wagner. "It's going to blow your mind. It gets a massive injection of sex appeal -- in fact, I designed the nose after the face of the most beautiful, exotic woman I've ever seen. The powerplant adds another level of exotic to the surface, featuring twin Garrett turbos as an integral part of the exterior design. With 100 more horses and weighing 500 pounds less [than the Photon], the Raptor is going to whip the Pagani Huayra. And with the turbos just inches from the atmosphere, it sounds like you're driving a fighter jet."
And here we were, not even done being excited about the Photon yet. Stay tuned.
The Specs
ON SALE:
Now
PRICE: $394,500
ENGINE: 7.0-liter V-8, 550 hp, 515 lb-ft
DRIVE: Rear-wheel
What (and who) is Mosler?
Mosler Photon Steering Wheel
You know the adage about joining them if you can't beat them? In Warren Mosler's case, his defeated -- and disgruntled -- rivals got together to ban him instead.
Mosler got started in racing with his Consulier GTP. In 1991, after successes in SCCA club racing, Mosler moved up to the professional ranks. In the inaugural race of the IMSA Supercar series, Consuliers finished first and fourth. But IMSA didn't want to see such a weirdly angular (read: incredibly ugly) car embarrassing exotic Porsche 911 Turbos and Lotus Esprits, and weight penalties eventually rendered the car uncompetitive.
A radically reworked Consulier called the Intruder won the One Lap of America in 1996, and a rebodied version dubbed the Raptor prevailed in 1997 before being "absent by popular demand," in the felicitous phrasing of Car and Driver's Tony Swan, the following year. After a Raptor won again in 1999, it was "disinvited"-car scribe Dan Neil's description-by race organizer Brock Yates. Starting to see a trend here?
The lightning-quick carbon-fiber MT900R qualified on the class pole for the 24 Hours of Daytona three consecutive years and scored a GTS win in 2003. The reward for this achievement? The car was essentially banned by Grand-Am, and it no longer races in the United States. But the MT900R and the MT900GT3 continue to win GT races and championships in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Ironically, the chassis of these all-American cars are assembled at Rollcentre Racing in England. At last report, no fewer than twenty-five cars were being campaigned worldwide.
-- Preston Lerner

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