Image: Lotus Elise
Lotus
The Lotus Elise belongs on a list of high-tech cars for at least one reason: it somehow starts with a four-cylinder Toyota motor and ends up as, for all intents and purposes, a racecar.
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updated 2/16/2005 7:33:40 PM ET 2005-02-17T00:33:40

In “Tragic Superhero of American Racing,” a story in a 1960 book called “Of Men and Cars,” Griffith Borgeson writes about Frank Lockhart, who designed a car capable of reaching 225 mph and had a fatal accident while driving it in 1928.

The “Superhero” part of the title concerns a hunger for automotive innovation — the kind of hunger that has, in part, propelled such modern companies as BMW and Toyota Motor's upscale Lexus subsidiary to success.

Fans of luxury automobiles such as these expect that each new model will showcase the latest and most sophisticated technology — but as modern as a Lexus might seem, it is part of a tradition of technological refinement that is as old as cars themselves. After all, Lexus and parent Toyota made their mark with high-quality mass production — or refinements to a process pioneered by Henry Ford. Modern, high-tech cars tend not to revolutionize automotive science and industry so much as to refine innovations made by the great pioneers of the past.

Lockhart, a racecar driver who invented the supercharger intercooler, was one such pioneer. A supercharger is a pump that adds power by compressing air delivered to the engine into a denser charge, and its intercooler is a radiator-like heat exchanger that lowers the temperature of the air that is delivered. Ford Motor's Jaguar XJR sedan is a modern, high-tech car that uses a supercharger.

Borgeson writes that “Lockhart experimented constantly and carried an elaborate machine shop with him from track to track. What [race car designers] Miller and Duesenberg considered their best, he refined to the nth degree.”

In the slide show on ten high-tech cars that follows, we describe some vehicles that are designed in the same spirit: to deliver maximum performance. Porsche's $440,000 Carrera GT supercar is the modern epitome of this. We also report on cars with unusual technology, such as Ford's Mazda RX-8 sports car and its rotary engine, as well as cars built with, overall, extraordinary technological savvy, such as Honda Motor's new Acura RL sedan.

Unfortunately, high technology doesn't always translate into high profits; just look at perennial money-loser Jaguar and the world-beating technology in some of its cars for an example.

For another example of the financial gambling involved in technological showmanship, consider two similar, premium Japanese sedans, the Lexus LS 430 and Nissan Motor's Infiniti Q45, which are extremely high-quality and loaded with pretty much every piece of electronic wizardry you could want. But, while the LS 430 is Lexus' flagship and, year-after-year, a stalwart performer in showrooms, the Q45 is practically invisible.

Understandably, automakers always have their bottom lines in mind (or should). But, we contend that high-tech cars come from the same thing that fuels space exploration and science in general: curiosity. As Emerson said, “Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of our science.”

Frank Lockhart was tragic because he died. He was a superhero because he, like other giants in automotive history, longed not to reinvent the wheel, but to study it constantly and refine it to perfection.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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