Engineering Inspiration: SSC Tuatara

Apparently, my interests have been well defined from a very young age. I’m told that I was able to say the names of car brands and models before I was able to say the names of my younger sisters. Clearly, I had my priorities in the right place. 

Growing up around cars at our family mobile car wash, I grew to love and appreciate the evolution of their designs and technology. My room always contained posters of my favorite vehicles on the wall and scale model cars that I saved up to buy. Fun fact, the first thing I ever bought was a light-up Hummer H2 from Walgreens – best ten dollars I’ve ever spent. Still, my love for cars is very untraditional as I have rarely had the opportunity to mechanically work on them. Instead, I spent hours combing through Motor Trend, Auto Week, and Road and Track clipping pictures of new vehicles and then writing down information about them on the back. My thesaurus-like knowledge of new cars led to nicknames from friends like “Hot Rod,” which only further defined me as a car guy.

Exerting the expertise that I’ve built over the past 18 years of my life, I must say that October of 2020 has been the most significant in the history of modern vehicle performance.

The automobile, much like its predecessors, was created with the intention of making travel easier. Over time, its’ purpose has shifted to meet different needs such as higher efficiency, larger size, greater luxury, and of course – speed. The past century and a half have been jam-packed with speed records that were continually broken, evermore pushing the boundaries of what a car can do. The most significant up until this month had been back on April 27, 2005, when the Bugatti Veyron broke the 400 kilometers per hour barrier that no production vehicle had ever reached. Reaching a single direction top speed of 411 kilometers per hour (255 miles per hour), no production vehicle had ever accomplished the feat. The Veyron became known as the first “Hyper” car as it was no longer competing with a regular “Super” car. It was in a category of its own.

The Bugatti Veyron served as the pinnacle of automotive engineering for nearly 15 years, challenging the boundaries of automotive and aerospace engineering as many of its instrumentation were developed by the aero industry. Bugatti not only sat at the top of the top speed pedestal but aimed for more, eventually making an iteration of the Veyron (the Veyron Super Sport) that was able to go 268 miles per hour. As unattainable as that speed sounds, there have been a handful of companies that had officially challenged the Veyron. Companies such as Hennessey and Koenigsegg were creating their own “hypercars” and getting the Guinness world record officials out to officiate. Interestingly, they’d occasionally be granted the record but the “Big Boss” Bugatti, would never say anything or retaliate. You see they are too refined for that sort of child’s play and would instead focus on developing the next monstrous vehicle.

With speeds already creeping up towards 300 miles per hour, it was only a matter of time before the record was to be attained. On September 2, 2019, a factory modified Bugatti Chiron (which would later go on to have a very short production run) reached a top speed of 304.7 miles per hour in a single direction. The single direction part is very important because it does not qualify for the record unless it can hit that speed again in the opposite direction that it did on the first run. That’s because the record is taken by averaging the speed that the vehicle reaches on opposite runs. Guinness was not going to give them the record unless they could prove that they could meet that requirement. They couldn’t meet it but they also couldn’t care less. They had created the first production (or near production) vehicle to travel at speeds over 300 miles per hour and every automotive news publication had already pressed publish. There was no changing the fact they had accomplished the feat even if they weren’t going to be granted the record.

Still, someone was going to get the official record and the industry had no idea when, where, how or who. That was……..until October 10, 2020, when the unheard of SSC Tuatara had the world-renowned Top Gear publish footage of their hypercar achieving the absolutely absurd speed of 331.1 miles per hour in one direction with an average of 316.1 miles per hour over two runs. The company was unknown to most. The vehicle is typically agreed to not be very handsome. Still, the hype was there and there was footage to prove them right. The industry was in a state of confusion, shell-shock, and joy in the fact that the record had been completely decimated. How had a newcomer to the “hypercar” realm break the record that the established brands had not yet done? Maybe the answer lays in the fact that they were not newcomers and they had “not” broken the record.

SSC was founded by Jarod Shelby (no connect to Carol Shelby) in 1998 and their first vehicle was created in 2003. That first vehicle, the SSC Ultimate Aero actually held the top speed production vehicle record in 2007 for a little while before Bugatti came back and created the Veyron Super Sport. Clearly, the engineers over at SSC have pretty good experience in creating ultra-fast vehicles. So, that establishes some credibility for them but what about them “not” breaking the record. Being that SSC is not an established brand name, the majority of the press they got besides Top Gear was from automotive YouTubers like “The Stradman.” These influencers posted it all over their social media and even made videos promoting the vehicle and its amazing feat. Still, as with all things on the internet, there were skeptics that didn’t quite believe what they had seen. One of those was the wildly popular YouTuber “Shmee150,” who posted a video where he claimed to have solid evidence that they had indeed not broken the record.

In his video, Shmee goes on to mathematically disprove the video evidence provided by SSC by comparing it to a run that Koenigsegg had made a few years before on the same road in Nevada. In his video, he shows how the Tuatara claims to be significantly faster than the Koenigsegg but when the videos are put side to side starting at the same comparison point, it is actually slower. Later in the video, he even explains that according to SSC’s specifications, it was physically impossible to achieve that speed in the gear they said they did with the gear ratios of the transmission. So, they lied right?

Well, after many publications reposted and elaborated on “Shmee150’s” video, SSC’s founder Jarod Shelby, faced the public by posting a video on YouTube. In the video, he tells the story of the company, the struggles they’ve gone through, and addresses the controversy head-on. He says the footage and video had been outsourced to an external company that did everything, including sending it to the press. SSC had never seen the footage themselves since after all they witnessed it in person in real-time. Although the claims made are quite illogical, the promises made at the end of the video break the bad habits that Bugatti had made the standard. Mr. Shelby promised to redo the record-breaking run again, use a different company for the footage, and invite all those who recognized the flaws in the footage (including Shmee150) to come and watch it live.  

After that entire fiasco, the record now lays in question, and seemingly no one knows what to believe. A question entered my mind after looking at the entire situation which is, “Does it really matter if the SSC Tuatara’s footage was accurate or not?” Much like when Bugatti did not care about establishing the official record with the Chiron, the fact that they achieved a speed of over 300 miles per hour opened the stage for a new generation of vehicles and engineers to beat it. In my engineer mindset, I feel that innovation should be an inspiration for more new projects to come. In our ever-evolving world, no process (besides life lol) stops, they are always evolving into something new. It’s like when people say “Get with the times already!” because if you are not at the same point as everyone else or ahead of them, you are behind. That’s why fashion trends are always changing, new phones are always made, and why everything is becoming better with every iteration (ie. Compare a Kia from 20 years ago and one from now, you’ll be amazed). 

I truly believe that whether or not SSC actually hits 331 miles per hour again (or 350 like they claim they can), there will always be people who saw that figure and were left stunned. Those people much like myself when I first saw the Bugatti achieve its insane top speed, will be inspired and motivated to want to fly high and above those speeds someday. As I further my education as a mechanical engineer with the goal to eventually work in the automotive industry, I’m so excited to learn and see the capabilities of an engineer first hand. One day I’ll be out there pushing the boundaries that no one thought could be moved and shattering the record that we all thought were unbreakable.

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