The Insane Details of the SSC Tuatara, a 331 MPH Hypercar You Can Buy

Brett Berk
·6 min read

When driving at 60 mph, a vehicle is traveling about 80 feet per second, not quite the distance between first and second base. At 331 mph, it’s going nearly 500 feet a second. “You’re literally talking about not a football field, but a football stadium—tunnel to tunnel at Giants Stadium—in one second,” says car designer Jason Castriota.

Castriota knows about designing things that go fast. Following a stint at legendary Italian design consultancy Pininfarina, where he penned road cars, concept cars, and race cars for Ferrari and Maserati, he took on a contract gig with Washington state boutique supercar startup Shelby Supercars (now SSC North America). The goal of the founder, Jerod Shelby, who made a fortune engineering medical imaging devices used for the early detection of breast cancer, was to build a street-legal car capable of blasting along the earth’s surface at 500 kilometers per hour (312 mph.)

“Everyone wants to talk about a moonshot. That’s not an accurate term for most projects it’s applied to, which are just about identifying outrageous market segments,” says Castriota. “When NASA said they want to go to the moon, they knew where they were going. They just had to reverse engineer how to do it. We were in much the same position.”

On October 9th, the Guinness World record for the fastest production vehicle on Earth stood at 277 mph. On October 10th, on a seven-mile closed stretch of Nevada highway, driver Oliver Webb pushed the Castriota-designed $1.9 million SSC Tuatara hypercar to an average of 316 mph across its two best runs. Just for fun, it also crushed the 285 mph record for “Highest Speed Achieved on a Public Road,” with a single run of 331 mph. Both are records held by the Koenigsegg Agera—and technically still are, since the SSC’s run hasn’t been formally confirmed by Guinness.

When Castriota's not creating world-beating hypercars, he’s developing electric vehicles for Ford, including its forthcoming Mustang Mach-E SUV. “I firmly believe that EVs are the way of the future for mass transportation for all people,” he says. But in the meantime, “I think that there’s still a place in the world for a handful of people that want the most visceral, fire-breathing, dinosaur-burning experience,” Castriota says. Here’s how he helped engineer one last, hellaciously fast gasp of the combustion engine to break the production car speed record:

Slippery When Fast

Go speed racer, go.
Go speed racer, go.
James Lipman for SSC

“The exterior shape is one I had in my head for a very long time,” says Castriota. “It’s a series of sharpened teardrops laid on top of each other.” Teardrops are aerodynamically natural—it’s why raindrops are shaped like raindrops. But this wasn’t the hard part. “In terms of the overall shape, aero is limited in a hypercar,” Castriota says. “The exterior dimensions of all hypercars are very similar. They’re all wearing similar tires, they’re all about the same height, they’re all about the same width. So you’re going to gain your advantage under the skin.”

The Engine, It Is Strong

A picture is worth 1,750 horsepower.
A picture is worth 1,750 horsepower.
James Lipman for SSC

In order to achieve a 331 mph top speed, SSC needed ample motivation for the 2.5-ton vehicle; something roughly as powerful as a herd of bison after chugging a Great Lake of Four Loco cocktails. Situated behind Webb was the Tuatara’s custom-built 5.9-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 engine with 1,750 horsepower and 1,348 pound-feet of torque. You can tell these are impressive numbers because they have commas in them. The transmission is from a helicopter, since it needed to be strong enough to handle those commas. But all that power, it generates heat. And heat is bad.

It’s The Heat, Not the Humidity

Where designing a slippery hypercar is relatively simple, creating one that doesn’t turn itself into a flaming meteor hurtling down a closed Nevada highway is harder. “A hypercar is like a pot of boiling water—the engine, the drivetrain, the tires are all creating massive amounts of heat. If you keep that enclosed, the lid will blow off,” Castriota says. “So getting air in and out of the car is almost more important at those speeds than getting air around the car.” Large radiators are meant to pull out the 1,750-horsepower V-8’s heavy breathing, and the average car handles that by pushing regular air into a radiator (usually by way of the car’s grille) then out the other side. Smashing air into a radiator isn’t very aerodynamic, though, so Castriota designed the Tuatara to suck, literally—high-speed air flows past the radiators, pulling the hot air out.

We Do Not Have Liftoff

The rear view of the SSC Tuatara, which is all most people will see.
The rear view of the SSC Tuatara, which is all most people will see.
James Lipman for SSC

“I’m not going to lie, the first thing I said to [top speed driver] Oliver Webb when he got out of the car after the record run was, ‘Thank you,’” Castriota says. “But then I said, ‘I’m glad that I didn’t kill you.’”

The takeoff speed for the supersonic Concorde jet was around 250 mph. At 300-plus miles per hour, a very slippery vehicle is generating lift. Lift is deadly—it means the car’s not planted, not stable, that it can react in unexpected ways. When traversing a football stadium-per-second, it means driver input goes from optimistic to deadly. Castriota’s greatest triumph in designing the Tuatara wasn’t building a 331-mph hypercar—it was building a 331-mph hypercar that didn’t immediately take flight.

Explaining his process would take more Ph.Ds than we currently boast, but part of the achievement boils down to this: In the SSC Tuatara, Castriota created a car where the slippery and the stable are in equilibrium. The air going around the car stays glued to those carbon-fiber teardrop shapes—it “laminates” beautifully in aerodynam-ese—and leaves a perfect little vacuum behind the car, versus the invisible-but-ugly swirls and maelstroms trailing most vehicles. You’re probably thinking: wow, that laminar airflow must be astounding to witness in the form of a heat map. Allow Castriota to paint you a picture: ”If you see the heat mapping, the car looks twice as long as it is, creating a vacuum behind the vehicle. That’s what gives it so much stability.”

All This Can Be Yours

A non-speed-record-prepped SSC Tuatara in a subtle shade of orange.
A non-speed-record-prepped SSC Tuatara in a subtle shade of orange.
James Lipman for SSC

You can’t go after the fastest production car record without a production car—a.k.a., one you actually sell to paying customers. Feel free to call up Shelby Supercars to order your own Tuatara. Starting price is around $1.6 million, but like any good hypercar, you can option your way past two mil.

Upshift

Editor Ross McCammon test drove a Lamborghini and came back with extremely important information for anyone who ever wants to own one of the Italian supercars.

Originally Appeared on GQ