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Faster, Faster!

From the March/April 2008 Issue

Better technology and the need for speed go hand in hand.

In 1935 there was a sensational automobile called the Auburn Speedster. It was brawny yet rakish with its distinctive “boat tail,” swooping pontoon fenders, and great chrome exhaust pipes coiling out from the supercharged, 150-horsepower, straight-eight engine beneath its long hood. The few Speedster owners (fewer than 500 models were sold) could point proudly to a brass plaque on their dashboards certifying that the car had been test-driven over 100 miles per hour before final delivery. 

Twenty years later, you could buy a lowly 1955 Chevrolet sedan with a V8 that outperformed the legendary Auburn in every way and had a top speed of 120 mph in straight factory form. Today, of course, a Chrysler minivan will do 100 mph. Even the more humble of today’s cars are capable of “the century,” and speedometers reading 140 to 160 mph and higher are common on luxury sedans and performance coupes. 

But this capacity for speed is frequently called into question. A member of the European Parliament is “suggesting” that cars capable of speeds in excess of 101 mph should be banned on European Union roads. In Canada, the province of Ontario has ordered that speed limiters set at 65 mph be installed on large trucks. 

And in the United States, those who deplore the fact that cars are capable of speeds far in excess of national speed limits keep asking why “all that horsepower” is necessary. They seem as out of touch with the imperatives of man and machine as those who caviled against speed at the dawn of the auto age. 

A 1907 editorial in The Saturday Evening Post titled “The Speed Maniac” warned of the dangers of a “racer, runabout type” of automobile that had been witnessed “going at the rate of probably 50 miles an hour!” While noting that “it is not fair to place speed limits at unnecessarily low figures,” the Post solemnly observed that “once such a figure is established, however (and ten miles the hour is generally agreed to meet the sane judgment of all), compliance should be exacted under penalty of jail.” 

A member of the European Parliament is 'suggesting’ that cars capable of speeds in excess of 101 mph should be banned on European Union roads.

Such observations were quaint at the instant of utterance. By 1907 the astonishing idea of going “a mile a minute” had long been reality. Belgian Camille Jenatzy had achieved 65.7 mph in a bullet-shaped electric car in 1899. A cantankerous mechanic named Henry Ford drove his Arrow at 91.3 mph on the ice of Lake St. Clair, near Detroit, in 1904. A specially built Stanley Steamer had streaked down the hard-packed sands at Ormond Beach, Florida, at 127 mph in 1906. 

Speed records rose week to week and sometimes hour to hour in the first four decades of the 20th century. Names like the Winton Bullet, the Peerless Green Dragon, and the Blitzen Benz became bywords for speed, and daredevil race drivers like the cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield became national heroes. 

Fast (and faster) is ingrained in our psyches. The appeal of speed—the exhilaration, the danger, and, most important, the utility of it—has never waned, from the chariots in the Roman Colosseum to the great tea clippers racing the seas between China and Great Britain or the first lap breakout at a NASCAR speedway. 

The automobile uniquely fulfilled a burning desire of man to move more swiftly about his world. Until the advent of the steam locomotive, man’s travel on land throughout history had been at the pace of a horse. The automobile delivered the speed of the locomotive into the hands of Everyman. Cars have given us not only the frisson of speed itself, but also the pleasure of possibilities—of being able to drive to the movies or a ball game and back home the same night; of being able to tell a friend in need who is miles away, “I’ll be right over.” 

Our cars give us not only the frisson of speed itself, but also the pleasure of possibilities—of being able to drive to the ball game and back home the same night.

This enormous desire to go faster brought rapid advances in automotive technology. The Michelin brothers learned quickly what was needed to make better pneumatic tires as they watched cars eat them up in the early city-to-city races in France in the 1890s. Even an item as mundane yet essential as the rearview mirror was first tried on a race car, by Ray Harroun, the first winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911. Advances not just in engines and fuel systems but also in metallurgy, lubrication, suspension design, brakes, tires, and bearings, to name but a few, were made in what automotive writer John Bentley called “the grueling laboratory of the road race” to produce better, safer, and, yes, faster cars for the public. 

And as much as the public loved auto racing, their greater delight was in personally getting from Point A to Point B faster than their parents had ever dreamed. The automobile came to dominate our society and economy precisely because it could slay time and distance. We take for granted being able to get in our cars, of whatever make, and drive from Seattle to Los Angeles or from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta in a matter of hours—not to an airport or a train station in those cities, but to the front door of a friend or relative or business contact. 

Even Greens know that speed sells. Tesla is marketing its electric sports car not so much on the idea that it is green but that it is fast (zero to 60 in four seconds).

Horsepower gives cars their flexibility and ultimate utility under varied conditions. The real point of “zero to 60” in, say, seven seconds, is that trip up the on-ramp and into the flow of traffic on the Interstate. The real point of “all that horsepower” is the seemingly effortless climb up those steep mountains in West Virginia with a load of passengers and luggage, while maintaining your average speed. The real point of “fast” is that the policeman in the Crown Vic with roof lights flashing is in your driveway within minutes of a call. 

As you read this, millions of drivers are covering billions of miles at or above the speed limit with amazingly few fatal accidents. The number of traffic fatalities is 1.42 per one hundred million miles, the lowest in U.S. history, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics. And drivers are saving irretrievable time, while finding escape, pleasure, and opportunity. Maybe it’s an expediter rushing a needed machine tool from Toledo to Chicago in his GMC van. Maybe it’s someone at the wheel of a tractor-trailer delivering goods to a Wal-Mart in California, or a family in a minivan on the way to Disney World in Orlando. 

Even Greens know that speed sells. Tesla Motors is marketing its new electric sports car not so much on the idea that it is green, but that it is fast and exciting (zero to 60 in four seconds). And when Ford wanted to show off its new “environmentally sustainable” engine technology, it YouTubed a video showing a dowdy Ford Taurus sedan equipped with its EcoBoost V6 engine soundly beating a 300-horsepower BMW 3 Series and a 320-horsepower Cadillac DTS in a drag race. 

In envisioning the technology that will move us tomorrow, we must pay attention to the need not merely to move but to move fast. Our economy and society have come to depend on getting from Keokuk to Terra Haute expeditiously. This will be the special challenge of the electric or hydrogen vehicle, or whatever may someday supplant the internal combustion engine automobile. Mere movement is not enough. It must be movement with power—the power to maintain speed with a heavy load, up steep hills, over long distances; the dependable power that enables us to live and move and have our being as we have for more than a century. 

Why do cars have to be so fast? For the same reason that our laptops and coffee makers have to be fast. Fast is productive. Fast is efficient. And, as cars from the iconic Auburn Speedster to a 620-horsepower Saleen SA-25 Mustang remind us, fast is fun. 

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a contributing editor at

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