The best '90s supercars that aren’t the McLaren F1

17th April 2020
Henry Biggs

The 1980s is often held up as a decade of excess but in supercar terms, it was the ten years that followed when we saw questionable shapes being crafted in carbon-fibre seemingly on a weekly basis, powered by unlikely combinations of cylinders, driven wheels and forced induction.

In a decade where Alfa Romeo could create a one-make race series for the SZ it seemed mothing was too outlandish, but that’s not to say there weren’t any engineering and technological pearls among the overly-curvaceously styled swine as our list shows. And, much as we love it, we would like to point out to people that there were other supercars of the 1990s, even if none of them was as great as the McLaren F1.


Honda NSX

Thanks in part to another F1 driver, Ayrton Senna, the Honda NSX was nothing short of revelatory when it went on sale in 1990. Senna was asked to provide his input on suspension and chassis tuning and following a day of testing with the F1 champion at Honda’s Suzuka circuit, the car was taken to the Nürburgring for further development. Fellow F1 driver Satoru Nakajima would lap the Green Hell and then highlight areas of chassis flex, allowing the engineers to weld in aluminium strengthening plates before the next lap. The resulting data was crunched by a Cray Supercomputer and used to refine the design of what was the world’s first all-aluminium semi-monocoque.

The rest of the car was just as innovative, featuring Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing system for its 3.0-litre V6 and cabin architecture and styling inspired directly by the F16 jet fighter. The real revolution the NSX inspired however was in making buyers realise that supercars didn’t have to be a masochistic exercise to drive. You could drive to work in one; comfortably, quietly, reliably and very, very quickly.


Lamborghini Diablo GT

The Lamborghini Diablo was literally the supercar posterchild for ‘90s excess. Big and brutal, it managed to outdo its forebear, the Lamborghini Countach in almost every way, including its name, Spanish for ‘devil’. Released in January 2000, the original Diablo only just sneaks over the line into this list but it’s the last of the mid-engined monsters that interests us here.

The Diablo GT was introduced in 1998 and instantly dismissed critics who believed it was a poseur’s car. Ditching the four-wheel-drive that had been introduced on the VT model in 1993, the GT also upped the stroke of the V12, boosting it from 5.7-litres to 6.0-litres and raising power to 575hp. Externally the Diablo GT took the car from parody to purposeful; its mainly carbon-fibre bodywork was made radically more aggressive and included NACA style ducts and a roof-mounted ram air scoop. A stripped out interior helped the GT achieve 0-62mph in 3.6 seconds and a top speed of 215mph.


Bugatti EB110

There is something about the sheer lunacy of the Bugatti EB110 that engages us in a way that the former fastest car in the world, its successor the Veyron, just doesn’t. Maybe it’s the sense that the EB110 project was driven by passion rather than headline figures. The two cars do have some common features however; both have engines fed air by no fewer than four turbochargers – although the EB110’s 3.5-litre V12 concedes four cylinders and 4.5-litres to the Veyron’s W16. Those engines also power all four wheels and neither car is exactly a looker. In fact the EB110’s styling was softened from Marcello Gandini’s angular original and the engineering was undertaken initially by Paolo Stanzani who came to the company from Lamborghini and then Nicola Materazzi, formerly of Lancia and Ferrari.

The car’s engineering was impeccable, including the aforementioned all-wheel-drive and a 553bhp 60-valve engine, active aerodynamics and a carbon-fibre monocoque built by an aerospace specialist. In lightweight Super Sport guise the EB110 could reach 60mph in 3.3 seconds and top out at 221mph. Sales got a boost when one Michael Schumacher bought one in 1994, the year of his first F1 world championship.

Jaguar XJR-15

This was probably not the Jaguar supercar you were expecting. With all due respect to the Jaguar XJ220, the XJR-15 deserves its spot on this list for being both very advanced and at the same time brutally uncompromising, as well as using an engine nearly 20 years old. Brainchild of TWR owner, Tom Walkinshaw, the XJR-15 was based on the team’s Le Mans-winning XJR-9 chassis, with a body designed by Peter Stevens of McLaren F1 fame and posited as a better XJ220.

The world’s first all carbon-fibre and Kevlar supercar, the XJR-15 was raw in the extreme – a tannoy system was installed for driver and passenger to communicate – and as close as possible in spirit to cars such as the Jaguar C-Type and D-Type which were racers first and foremost. The six-speed manual gearbox was unsynchronised, the rear suspension was lifted directly from the XJR-9, the 6.0-litre 450hp V12 was a stressed chassis member and the bottom of the car was completely flat with enormous Group C style Venturi tunnels. Weighing just 1,050kg the XJR-15 could sprint to 60mph in 3.2 seconds and was gearing limited to 191mph. A special run of five cars was later produced for a Japanese customer that used the full-bore 7.0-litre 700hp V12 from the XJR-9.


Pagani Zonda C12

An ultra-exclusive supercar shaped by an obsessive attention to detail and powered by a mighty, naturally aspirated German V12. No, not that one. Most people are actually surprised that the Pagani Zonda C12 debuted in 1999 as it seems so much a part of the early noughties supercar scene. Initially planned to be named the Fangio F1 as a tribute to the Argentinean maestro Juan Manuel Fangio, it was renamed following his death in 1995.

Just five examples of the original C12 were made, powered by a Mercedes-Benz 6.0-litre V12 that made what now seems a comparatively tame 400hp, particularly when the current Pagani Huayra has more than double the power. The car was a relatively lightweight 1,250kg however which put its performance on a par with contemporaries from Ferrari and Lamborghini. The later Zonda C12 S would receive the same (albeit slightly detuned) 6.9-litre V12 as the Mercedes CLK GTR.


Lotus Esprit Sport 350

Sneaking in just under the cut off for this list is a Lotus that has been in production since the mid-‘70s. The Lotus Esprit had received its most significant upgrade three years earlier with the installation of Lotus’ own all-alloy, flat-plane crank V8. Twin-turbocharged the 3.5-litre engine was capable of 500hp but detuned to 350 – hence the car’s name – to protect the Renault-sourced gearbox.

Despite having been building it for decades, Lotus was still able to ‘add lightness’ in creating the 350, shaving 80kg from the standard V8 Esprit GT’s weight despite adding larger brakes, beefier suspension and a gargantuan rear wing. The result was a 0-60mph time of 4.3 seconds and a top speed of 175mph. Perhaps not wild even then but a fitting swansong for the model.


Porsche 911 GT2

Today, the Porsche 911 is undoubtedly one of the most capable and trusted performance cars on the planet, but perhaps not strictly speaking a white knuckle supercar. The same could not be said of the pinnacle of the last of the air-cooled models which has achieved legendary status even among its revered brethren. The 911 GT2 was the beginning of a legend which continues to this day as the GT2 RS – the most focused, hardcore 911 variant.

The 1993 original was created as a homologation car for the GT2 class for the FIA GT2 Championship. To do so, Porsche effectively took the current 911 Turbo, threw away its four-wheel-drive system and most of the interior to create a car that needed to be approached with caution. With up to 450hp, the car’s 0-60mph time was in the sub four-second range with a top speed approaching 190mph. Just 57 examples of the original GT2 were built for customers.


Ferrari 512 M

We recently wrote about the Ferrari F50, which was probably the Maranello supercar you were expecting to see on the list. So we thought we would give some glory to a car that was the ultimate expression of a car that is wholly representative of the previous decade, the Ferrari Testarossa. Besides, the Ferrari 512 M was the last car to use Ferrari flat-12 engine so it deserves a mention just for that.

Still 4.9-litres, the quad-cam, 48-valve engine now used titanium conrods and crankshaft, meaning it had to be electronically limited to 7,500rpm (but just imagine how good it sounds at that point). At 4.7 seconds its 0-60 dash wasn’t stellar even for the day and the car still couldn’t top the double-tonne, but it still had the all-important side-strakes, even if the pop-up headlights had been lost in achieving a more muscular look. The 512 M was also the last of the regular production Ferraris with a mid-mounted V12, its successors having reverted to a front-engined GT layout.

  • McLaren

  • F1

  • Honda

  • NSX

  • Ferrari

  • 512 M

  • Porsche

  • 911

  • 911 GT2

  • Lotus

  • Esprit

  • Bugatti

  • EB110

  • Pagani

  • Zonda

  • Jaguar

  • XJR-15

  • Lamborghini

  • Diablo

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