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March 06, 2009

A Requiem for the Supercar

Hootan Mahallati ’07
CEO, rightpedal
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Believe it or not, engineers have emotions just like everyone else. I know this because I used to be one — in the car industry, at that. Before going to Columbia Business School, I spent seven years working at Ricardo, one of the world’s leading automotive engineering and management consultancies. After graduation, I founded rightpedal, an automotive social media site for Generation Y. While it is difficult to say what makes an engineer tick, one thing is true of the people who make the world’s machinery: they love a challenge.

This is why the news that troubled giant General Motors was shutting down its High Performance Vehicles division — responsible for cars like the Chevrolet Cobalt and V-Series Cadillacs — came as a blow not only to engineers in the car industry but many car enthusiasts, as well. While the shuttering of a small division responsible for a negligible number of cars seems like minor news against the backdrop of a much deeper crisis, it this kind of act that will have a major psychological and symbolic impact on the car industry.

Nothing gets automotive engineers quite as excited as a project with a purpose. One such project is what I like to call a “halo car,” an automobile designed to rejuvenate a company’s morale and, in turn, its overall product line. With halo cars, engineers are asked to outdo themselves creatively and intellectually. While halo cars aren’t always supercars, it’s often the case.

Creating high-performance cars allows engineers to have fun and think back to when they used to peer up at that poster of a red Lamborghini and dream of one day being close to one. Almost invariably, these halo cars end up being special and historic machines; the original Dodge Viper was concurrent with a brief but confident era for Chrysler, when even its minivans and LH-platform cars were lauded by the automotive press for their innovative design and engineering.

The loss is more than just esoteric or emotional. High-performance cars are crucial to the advancement of technology. Given that these automobiles are usually low-volume and premium-priced, their manufacturers briefly become less risk-averse, and willing to experiment with new and expensive technologies that may some day find their way into regular passenger cars.

Take, for instance, the VTEC system that is today found in many Hondas. The variable valve-timing system, which allows Honda engines to perform more efficiently across their operation range, was first tested in Honda’s brutally successful Formula 1 racing engines and then put into production in the cult classic Acura NSX supercar. The Acura NSX was the first production car in history to feature a full aluminum chassis. While it never sold considerably well due to its exorbitant price, the NSX did change Honda forever.

In a day and age when cars are under attack for ruining the environment and “green” is the socially hip moniker du jour, let us take a moment to remember supercars and their importance in the annals of automotive engineering. If inspirational projects are quashed within R&D centers around the world, innovation itself might be in peril.

Photo courtesy of Hootan Mahallati


by Viswajith Kumar | March 06, 2009 at 2:15 PM

I am sure, GM will re-open their high performance division once they sail through this rough patch. After all the Cadillac CTS-V, a worthy competition to the German biggies, is a gem that came out after years of making soggy products. Another example of an superior (part) American (part Japanese) is the Lexus IS-F. It's sad the economy had to intervene. I just hope and prey the high performance divisions get back to business in the near future. End of the day, efficiency has no meaning without performance and a new meaning when combined with.

by Hootan Mahallati | March 06, 2009 at 3:33 PM

Viswajith, I think you're right, things will return to normal eventually. It's just when "eventually" is that is the big wonder. It might take GM one round of Chapter 11 before getting there, which is not the end of the world.

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