Decades ago, during the golden age of coachbuilding, bespoke automobiles weren’t uncommon. Customers with enough capital could buy a chassis from any automaker and commission a custom, one-of-a-kind body from a coachbuilder like Touring Superleggera, Pininfarina or Bertone. Today, the alluring aspect of a car built around your sense of style is a fantasy for most, and the sea of Corollas, Civics and the occasional AMG is a blend of conservative designs branded as “dynamic”. But as the rich have gotten richer, automakers have taken action and worked with wealthy individuals to make special cars with price tags as unbelievable as their exclusivity. In this piece, I plan on looking back at some of the most outstanding cars built as either one-offs or in very limited production. The way I see it, these cars either harken back to the past of the automotive world, celebrate its present or look toward its future, and show what happens when a gearhead with copious amounts of cash wants to create his or her ultimate personalized poster car.
Some of these limited production autos are meant to honor what the auto industry once was and what vehicles it used to produce. These cars harken back to alien designs and screaming naturally aspirated engines, gearboxes with only one clutch and the absence of an iPad-like screen glued to the dash. These exclusive cars often take inspiration from historic models, yet they can become legendary automobiles in their own right if they’re executed properly.
One of the most visually striking of these cars is the Alfa Romeo Disco Volante Touring, a bespoke design from Touring Superleggera mated to the underpinnings of Alfa’s previous flagship, the 8C. Essentially the closest a modern car can come to the coachbuilt vehicles of the past, the Disco Volante takes several styling cues from the 1952 Alfa of the same name, but includes them in a contemporary design that is polarizing and undeniably stunning. Compared to other supercars of 2013 it’s nowhere near as quick as a Ferrari 458 or Porsche 911 Turbo, and its estimated price of over $500,000 leads many to question its worth. But those who have the means and desire to have one do exist, and would likely be buying into an automotive investment that also happens to be one of the rarest and most visually arresting automobiles on the road today.
Like the Greek hydra, the Zonda isn’t easy to kill. Every time a magazine reported that the last Zonda model had been sold, Horatio Pagani always seemed to prove them wrong by building a few more. When it was unveiled in 2010, the Zonda Tricolore was meant to be the last street-legal Zonda before deliveries for the Huayra began, yet several individuals made sure this wasn’t the case. Instead of opting for the Huayra and it’s twin turbocharged powerplant, some wanted the old-school thrills of the Zonda, its naturally aspirated V12 and its manual gearshift. This came at a price, and when Evo released their review of the Zonda 760RS, it was said that the car cost at least twice the price of a Huayra. The special Zonda had 750 horsepower, an automatic gearbox and a carbon-titanium passenger cell, leading it to be known as “The Beast” within Pagani. But it wasn’t until one Lewis Hamilton commissioned his own Zonda 760 that the fastest Zonda ever possessed a manual gearbox. The Zonda 760LH came to celebrate the best qualities of the Zonda, a car that debuted back in 1999. With a massive V12, wailing exhaust note, manual gear change and gorgeous Pagani design, the 760LH proved what the ultimate Zonda can be. Several one-off versions of the Zonda 760 followed, and although Pagani continues to focus on the Huayra and it’s future variants, those with enough cash shouldn’t deem the Zonda dead just yet.
The mid-engine V8 Ferrari is a beautiful thing. Legends like the 288 GTO, 355 and 430 Scuderia have gone down in history as some of the most desirable sports cars in history, but things changed drastically in 2015. Starting with the 488 GTB, Ferrari began turbocharging its mid-engine V8 supercars, bringing about higher torque and horsepower figures at the expense of the perfect soundtrack and rev-eager engines that came in the various berlinettas and spiders before it. The 458 Speciale that preceded the 488 was renowned for being an instant classic, a Ferrari that surpassed all expectations and memorialized the N/A Ferrari V8. Only so many Speciales were built, and they quickly began to appreciate once production stopped. For most, the dream of purchasing a N/A mid-engine V8 Ferrari from the factory ended in 2015, but one “enthusiastic British owner” wouldn’t have that. He or she paid Ferrari an exorbitant amount of money for a one-off Speciale known as the 458 MM Speciale. It featured new bodywork, new side intakes and a “Tricolore” stripe down the middle. It kept the engine and underpinnings from the Speciale, ditching the newer and more innovative powerplant of the 488 for the soulful V8 that’s on its way out. The 458 MM Speciale commemorated one of Ferrari’s greatest engines in a car that perfectly fits the fantasy of an individual, and is the last hurrah for natural aspiration before a future of turbocharged and electrically-assisted Ferraris.
The reveal of the 991 GT3 RS at the Geneva Motor Show in 2015 went well for Porsche. The 500 horsepower sports car was billed as the perfect road-legal track machine, and it sported new features like better front axle grip, greater downforce, a smaller steering wheel and the fastest shifting PDK gearbox yet. But one key component that had a great impact on Porsche’s RS cars of the past was absent: the manual gearbox. Like in the 991 GT3, Porsche decided that, in order to make the GT3 RS the killer track toy it’s meant to be, it needs a fast shifting dual clutch transmission, one that will shift faster than any human being and allow the driver to focus more on putting down power when necessary and following the optimal race line. Critics eventually sided with Porsche’s decision, but one year later, Porsche’s presence at the Geneva show gave the world a look at what a limited production, enthusiast-themed 911 would look like. The Porsche 911R was essentially a GT3 RS without its trick aero and PDK ‘box. This wolf in sheep’s clothing kept the chassis and engine of the RS, but appealed to the wealthy Porsche enthusiast who wanted a car with a couple retro touches and the tactile appeal of the manual gearbox. It’s likely that, in a few decades, the manual will be almost impossible to get in new cars. Porsche decided that there were still people who wanted a classic six-speed manual in a modern 911, and thus built the 911R. Although its production isn’t wildly limited, the 911R is clearly a rare car that celebrates the fact that sports cars with modern technologies that can still retain the best aspects of the industry’s past.
The Lamborghini Sesto Elemento is not road-legal, and despite 20 having been delivered to customers, it’s rare that they are ever photographed on a track. Be that as it may, the lightweight track weapon is an incredibly significant car for the automaker, and ushered in a new age of Lamborghini. In the past, the company only built cumbersome V12 supercars they were very quick in a straight line, but lacked the finesse and agility in corners that many owners had hoped for from such an exciting looking car. Before the release of the Aventador, Lamborghini set out to change this stigma. The Sesto Elemento was unveiled in 2010 and highlighted a remarkable weight figure of just 999 kg thanks to its widespread use of carbon. Retaining nearly all the mechanical parts of a Gallardo, the Sesto Elemento’s main purpose was to show the lengths Lamborghini went toward researching carbon and how it could be used in future cars. Today, the Aventador and Huracan are lighter than their predecessors because of this research, and the manufacturer recently opened a new research facility in Seattle to further study the possibilities of using forged carbon in road cars. This composite, which was used throughout the Sesto Elemento, is just as light and strong as carbon fiber, but can be made much faster and at a lower cost. Whether the future of Lamborghini includes adoption of forged carbon is unknown, but one can say with confidence that the Sesto Elemento helped brand the company as one that builds capable supercars instead of flashy cars that can’t handle a windy road..