I tend to give a lot of shit to the Bugatti Veyron (and now, the Chiron) but I do it because, well, it’s worth it. The idea of $2.5 million-dollar cars making over 1000 horsepower and capable of 240+ MPH that mostly do nothing but sit in garages is ridiculous. But a $36,000 car making more than 1000 horsepower and capable of 240 MPH from 1959 is something I can get behind. Especially when it looks like something The Future doodles in its notebook during math class.
That car up there is the Argonaut Smoke, and it’s arguably history’s first true supercar. The specs on this car, even though they’re from almost 60 years ago, are a remarkable match for Bugatti’s greatest wealth-signifier. And the price, when adjusted for inflation, comes to about $300,000—a hell of a better deal than the multi-million dollar cars hucked by Bugatti.
Of course, the Bugatti has one huge advantage over the products made by the Argonaut Motor Machine Corporation, and that’s that they actually managed to make some cars.
By most reports, Argonaut only built three prototypes, but I’m not going to let something as insignificant as a lack of existence cool my ardor here—let’s see what these remarkable cars were like.
“...finest, most beautiful, best engineered, best powered, most comfortable, most carefully constructed and longest-lasting automobile possible.”
Luntz seems like a guy who was really good at setting realistic goals. I bet his new years resolutions included things like “develop skill of flying (no planes” and “become best person ever.”
Three models of Argonaut were planned: the eight-passenger State Limousine, the 21-and-a-half-foot-long base model, starting at $26,993 (that’s about $1200/foot), one that seems to have been called the Raceway or perhaps the Texan, and, of course, the Smoke, the fastest, most expensive one, and the one with the best claim to first-supercar status.
The Popular Science article describes a special 7.5-liter Argonaut V-8 motor, made from a modified Chrysler marine engine. While horspower isn’t mentioned for this engine, the Smoke seems to have been planned with an aluminum supercharged V12 overhead-cam engine that made 1,010 HP. Oh, and it seems to have been air-cooled as well, which makes me wonder if they were looking at a modified version of an aero engine like a Ranger V-770? Just a guess.
With this power, the Smoke was designed to reach 240 MPH, with special tires interwoven with steel strands to support those speeds, maybe it could have actually done it. Tires remain the limiting factor on modern supercars achieving these sorts of insane speeds, so who knows?
Everything about the Smoke was overdone in the best possible way. The chassis, which was actually built, was a tube-frame setup made from ultra heavy-duty tubes with 3/16" wall thickness, and the pictures of the chassis show a remarkably beefy-looking beast. Popular Science said it was “three times” stronger than a normal frame, however they computed that.
It seems like everything that could get doubled did: twin carburetors, twin 12V batteries, twin radiators (for the non air-cooled V8, I guess), two fuel pumps slurping fuel from a massive 32-gallon tank. There was torsion bar suspension up front, and shocks front and rear were adjustable from the dash.
The materials used were top-notch as well, with “aircraft-grade” wiring used throughout, and lots of stainless steel and brass.
That giddily elongated body was to be made from aluminum in Italy by Bertone or Touring, and that seemed to cause trouble for Luntz. According to a referenced interview from 1987, Luntz stated that his financial backers
“felt that to put Italian bodies on an American chassis would infuriate the steel companies,”
...which may have been a factor in why finished cars never got made.
Supposedly, the Blackhawk Museum in California had an Argonaut car of some kind on display from 1988 to 1997, but it didn’t really seem to look like the known drawings of Raceway or other Argonaut designs. Allegedly, the Blackhawk Museum did not know where the car was as recently as 2005.
So, if anyone happens to find a car from the late ’50s with a strangely beefy chassis, double everything, and you realize it can go 240 MPH, please don’t hesitate to let me know.