Opinion: are supercar speedsters totally pointless? | Top Gear
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Supercars

Opinion: are supercar speedsters totally pointless?

Would any of the mega-roadsters live in TG's dream garage? Time for an argument...

Published: 15 Jun 2021
 comments

Ollie Marriage: Right, these Speedsters. I couldn’t make it to Scotland, which gave me massive FOMO as I think those cars define the craziness of the hypercar market at the moment. They’re entirely pointless, yet you kind of yearn for them. I had a quick go in the Aston Speedster at Silverstone, but it felt rather heavy on track and it stunned me that I couldn’t hear the V12 at all. Where does the noise go?

But that’s not the question I want answered. Well, not immediately. You took them to Scotland to find out if they offer an experience – so are they just windscreenless not-so-cheap tricks, or do they actually deliver something that other hypercars can’t? Go…

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Jack Rix: They definitely offer something different… question is whether that’s good different or bad different. In fact, I’ve just been standing in my kitchen trying to explain to my wife’s aunt (who has very little interest in cars) what a Speedster is. “They’re supercars without roofs or windscreens,” I tell her. 

“But why?” she replies looking very confused. 

“Well because it makes the whole business of driving quickly that much more visceral."

"Really, but what are they for?”

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“For fun I suppose.”

“But why is not having a windscreen fun?”

“Because you feel more connected to the outside world rushing past…”

“BUT WHY?” And so it continued, illustrating a very real point about these cars… that there’s no reasonable way of justifying them or explaining them – I didn’t even tell her the prices - until you’ve had a go yourself, and it either clicks or it doesn’t. For me, it did… eventually, but only once the roads had dried, the sun came out and the Elva’s AAMS system was actually working.
 
Ollie Kew: Keep working on Auntie’s Top Gear mag subscription, Jack. Try an autographed copy? It wasn’t lost on me that the Monza we borrowed for this 2,300bhp dive into supercar philosophy had only covered 140 miles in its life – until we climbed aboard and pointed it through some pregnant Scottish clouds. The Monza exists less because Ferrari wanted to build something wildly extreme, and more because Modena needed to sate the desires of the world’s swelling population of billionaires who didn’t get on the list for a LaFerrari.

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So the ‘why wouldn’t you just have an 812 GTS and a million quid of change?’ argument has to die right here and now. Anyone who’s got a Monza already has the keys to more Ferraris than Charles Leclerc. They’re buying into the idea of being on the guest-list, of life in the VIP section of Italy’s most exclusive little black book. 

Rowan Horncastle: Here’s the number one reason to give to Auntie Rix as to why these scalped supercars exist: they’re  - ahem - screwyoumobiles. Crass as that may seem, it’s the truth – and something the manufacturers won’t publicise but no doubt recognise. More than any other car purchase, I’m positive ego and self-confidence are a major driving force in people’s buying decision.

OK: Shall we mention the weather? Jeez. I thought piloting a speedster through the great outdoors would give me the healthy, weather-worn glow of those perma-tanned bead-wearing surf instructors who make your girlfriend giggle during a holiday lesson. Five minutes in an Elva with the AAMS offline slapped me into a chapped, leathery cross between Ernest Shackleton and The Old Man And The Sea.  

OM: So you can’t explain them to people who don’t care about cars, and if the weather is wrong they inflict pain. I’m not sure it’s possible, but let’s try to leave the ethics of them aside. They exist because they worked on a spreadsheet, not because the firms thought they needed to exist, that they’re channelling the spirit of 50s roadsters or fulfilling supposedly pent-up demand. As McLaren has painfully found out, reducing Elva production from 399 to 249 and then 149.

They’re not bespoke one-offs, they take existing cars and chop away everything above your shoulders, leaving the most vital part of your body exposed. As someone who commuted in a Radical SR3 for a while, I understand just how vulnerable that sense of exposure makes you feel around other traffic. The question is, when you’re ploughing through Scotland and have god’s fingers dancing down the road in front of you, how did you feel? Were you having a better time in these than you would in a DBS, 812 or 720S?
 
RH: From the moment you plop your rear in the seat, everything feels a bit weird. And weird is good. Weird challenges the normal and makes you think differently. Windscreenless cars are nothing new, neither are motorbikes, but the performance these offer without anything in front of your face is new. But I can’t help but think these cars are slightly overegged. They’ve come in with outrageous price tags, massive engines and crazy pace. I think they’d all work with 350bhp as there’s so much added theatre from getting from one place to another.

JR: I’m with Rowan, the overriding feeling when you drop into any one of them is unfamiliarity (a good thing) with an adrenaline chaser. That latter is nothing to do with speed, everything to do with the insurance excess. Start rolling and – extremely obvious observation incoming – it’s the wind in your face that dominates everything. Slow down so it’s not actively annoying and you’re not really exploiting the insane chassis and powertrain underneath. Speed up and you can’t hear them anyway. Doing 60mph feels like 90mph in the Ferrari and Aston, and because you can’t hear the revs or the rear tyres, knowing how much grip you have left is guess work. At least it was for the first half of the day when the roads were cold and wet and offered all the traction of Christian Von Koenigsegg’s scalp.

Driving them was an experience for the memory bank – new sensations, smells, views, challenges, a stream of new data for your brain to try and sort through, and in world where the latest Lamborghini is as easy to drive as an Audi A3, that has to be celebrated. But initial impressions were a bit like a bungee jump – in the bar afterwards you’re glad you did it, but at the time it’s not particularly pleasant. 

OK: Neck on the block time: the only one I had ‘a better time’ in than I would have in the donor car was the Elva. We all know McLaren’s regular range can sometimes suffer from a touch of the cannibal factor: a 570S bleeds into a 600LT which feels pretty similar to a 720S… but the Elva is wild enough to break free of the all that McDuplication schtick. I’ll be honest, in the Aston and Ferrari particularly, I was gutted I couldn’t hear their V12s and mostly overwhelmed with relief to climb out of them without needing to phone a tow truck and our insurers. I don’t think I have the ‘look-at-me' mentality these cars are pitched at.

RH: Given that your head pops out the top of them, people with hubristic tendencies will lap up the attention they deliver. But you’re seriously exposed in these things. If you can handle that – and you’re not a shrinking violet – they offer a new take on a driving experience.

OM: But do they? Surely you need to wear a helmet to drive them. A set of ballistics-tested sunglasses will save part of your face, and in the Radical I wore this clever beanie with D3O material that hardens instantly on impact. But – and here’s a bit of vanity for you – I always worried about my teeth. I’d snug down into the cockpit, and imagine what would happen if a stone or a bolt flicked up. It wasn’t pretty. 

OK: I think Jack has a gnarly scar on his face as a permanent souvenir of this story. 

JR: No one tells you that when you’re driving a windsceenless car at 40mph in a hailstorm, those tiny balls of ice become thousands of vicious little bullets. Yes, I did emerge from the Elva with a scratch on my forehead Harry Potter would be proud of. 

OM: The more I drive electric cars, the more I’m coming to realise how big a part an engine plays in the enjoyment of driving. It’s not about speed, or force: it’s the sense of mechanical connection and the sound. And if the Aston is anything to go by, it’s gone. I mean literally gone. A quick roar at start up, but above 20mph, nothing. 

RH: The McLaren is far more vocal thanks to that trick intake and exhaust, but by and large their torque delivery and performance is similar to an EV's. Which got me thinking, would the Speedster argument be better served by EVs? We’ve all come to realise that EVs offer an anodyne sensory experience when compared to sports cars; there’s not enough noise, not enough energy. Ripping the windscreen out turns everything up and adds theatrics – it makes driving a 4D experience. It’s what EVs desperately need.

OK: Totally agree. That’s the ugly truth of speedsters: it’s not the looks or the cost that offends most. These should be noise appreciation pods. Carnival floats for worshipping at the altar of intake, pistons and exhaust. Ferrari and Aston Martin are responsible for some of the greatest sounding cars of all time – and their speedsters can’t outshout the wind. Pretty terrifying to be robbed of the aural clue the revs have spiked and the rear tyres are fully spooled up.

And ironic that modern McLarens tend to sound like a wet fart in a lift, but the Elva manages to make a frantic, angry noise that’s the most enjoyable of this lot to listen to. Unless of course, you’re an onlooker. Something tells me the Aston and Monza are more about being appreciated by those who aren’t on board... 

OM: Look, I’ll come clean. From what you’ve said two of the cars irritate because they haven’t been engineered properly. It just reinforces the suspicion they’re cynical grabs for cash. The only one I’m remotely interested in driving is the Elva – that one does do something for me because you can tell by looking at it that McLaren has thought about the problems and come up with solutions. The others just seem lazy.

I do have a slight issue with many convertibles – the 720S Spyder is one – in that the windscreens curve back so far over your head that you don’t feel particularly exposed, and in a convertible you should. Which makes me wonder if there’s a halfway house.

Anyway, say you’ve got the money, would you add a Speedster to your collection? I’ll tell you now that I wouldn’t, mainly because I think they say the wrong thing about the type of car collector I’d be. I’d consider an Elva, but the others, no.  

JR: Sounds like McLaren has just the answer for you Ollie – you can now buy an Elva with a smallish windscreen fitted. It’s aimed at various countries and US states where a screen is compulsory, but it’s a bit like buying a motorbike that you can option with four wheels. Anyway, would I have a speedster in my collection? Probably not. If I were rich enough to buy one I’d also have a tonne of other cool stuff, stuff that would almost certainly be more appealing to drive on any given day, thus demoting ‘my’ speedster to a life of gathering dust in the corner of the 35-car garage. And I’m not willing to be that person who hordes cars as objects.

RH: I would have the Elva. It has more character than a Senna, is happier on the road and I’m sure it’ll be entertaining as hell on a track. But there’s more to it deeper down. It’s McLaren loosening its tie and trying something new. But the McLaren way; there’s crazy materials, ballistic sunglasses, it’s lighter and more powerful than anything before and has used some sort of logic to try and come up with an engineering solution to the oxymoronic nature of a hyperspeedster. Call me a sucker, but I buy into that.

From what I can tell, the others just sawed the roof off and threw the screens in the bin. At least the Elva does the opposite of what modern McLarens like the 765LT and Senna have done. It’s not chasing diminishing returns, but offers a thrilling experience. Yes, it’s only for sunny days and whimsical drives a few times a year, but if you’ve got £1.4m to spend on a car, you’ve obviously got the money for a Ryanair flight and lock up somewhere hot to drive the thing.

OK: Who saw that coming? The one that on paper has the least outrageous engine, the nerdiest approach and has struggled to sell so much they’ve now done a windscreen-fitted option is the TG choice. If I was a sultan of car-collecting, I’d have the Elva too. Just not in gold. Or Gulf livery. 

RH: But there is a rather buzzy, supercharged fly in the hyperspeedster ointment: the Caterham 620S. I’d hate to congratulate our own editorial greatness, but it was the best control subject for our ridiculous speedster pseudo-science experiment. And a sobering one too. As – amazingly – it does exactly what the other three speedsters were trying to achieve. Actually, it did some stuff better. 

It’s stupidly light (600kg), it’s stupidly powerful (310bhp) and therefore it’s stupidly quick (0-60mph in 2.8sec). It’s incredibly visceral. It’s a fantastic driver’s car. It’s an event for both you and the people around you. It turns heads. And at £50k, it’s a fraction of the price. 

OK: Not to mention the easiest to see out of, the least intimidating, and the only one in which you can chat to your equally excited passenger without being interrupted by a carbon fibre spar, or a category five hurricane. 

RH: But it also did stuff better. It has furnace-level seat heating… which the Elva doesn’t. It makes a great noise… which you can actually hear thanks to a sidepipe inches away from your ear. You can also replace the carbon fly screen (that deflects wind better than both the Aston and Ferrari) with a proper windscreen with two allen keys and a bit of swearing, so you can do a long road trip…. which you can, as I drove to the shoot from London to Scotland in the hacking rain.

No wonder the first thing McLaren did when they were embarking on designing the Elva was borrow the 620S’ equally screenless, sequential-geared sibling (the 620R) to test.

 

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