Maybe Those Old 85 MPH Speedos Made Sense….

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What’s the point of all these 160 mph speedometers?

Almost every new car I test drive (including four-cylinder economy cars) has a speedometer that reads to at least 120 mph.

140 is common; 160 not unusual. Some cars have 180 (or even faster) speedometers.

And the cars could, in theory go that fast.

But of course, they almost never do.

Probably not one out of 100 cars (no matter how fast it could go) ever sees the high side of 120.

Not in the USA, anyway.

First, of course, it is feloniously illegal to drive that fast. Literally. Get caught anywhere near 120 and you are going to find yourself on the wrong end of a Glock and facing the very real possibility of jail time. Your license will be history, at the very least. You won’t be driving anything for some time to come; maybe not ever again.

Fact is in most states anything over 80 mph (or faster than 20 mph above the posted limit, regardless of the limit) is sufficient to get you plastered with a “reckless driving” charge. Six points on your record if  convicted; by-by reasonable insurance – for years to come. Figure at least a few hundred bucks in fines, too – plus the money for a shyster lawyer to defend you.  

And that’s not even close to triple digits.

Second, few people have the balls – or the room.

How many people (yourself included) do you know who have ever, even once, honestly driven a car faster than 130 mph? Possibly one or two. And 150? Unless you’re a weekend racer (or know people who race – on race tracks) it is very unlikely you’ve ever even met someone who has driven that fast on public roads.

Third, it’s damn hard to do even if you have the balls (and the other necessary equipment) to make the run. Yeah, there are vast stretches of deserted, nearly flat highway that run for miles and miles in rural states like Nevada and Wyoming. But most of us don’t live in such places. Most of us live where there are other cars on the road, and where the roads are not nearly perfectly flat and straight, with great lines of sight, for literally miles on end. Which is what you must have to reach speeds much above 140 mph, even in a really fast car.

You simply run out of room – or time.

A Porsche 911 or Corvette Z06 will accelerate like a slingshot to about 140-ish before you start to notice a decline in your forward progress. Oh, the car is still building speed, but much less rapidly than it did from 0 to 100. Wind resistance is increasing with each mph; to get from say 150 to 170 will almost certainly take more time and road than you have available – again, balls aside.

Check out the speed runs at Bonneville. Those cars (some of them with 1,000-plus horsepower, or twice what a Corvette has) still need 2-3 miles of perfectly flat road to do their thing – and slow down with a reasonable cushion of safety.

So our 160 mph speedos are a form of car porno. It gets us excited, but there’s no real outlet. So it’s ultimately a kind of self-abuse.

What’s the point?

I remember the old 85 mph speedometers. Do you? In the late ’70s, Congress thought people might be less tempted to really speed if the speedometer didn’t really tempt them. I had all kinds of fun twisting the speedo in my 1980 Camaro all the way back around to 5 or 10 mph – which was about 115 or so.

Today, it is all but impossible to “peg” a 140 (let alone 160) mph speedometer, even if we wanted to.

Maybe we were better off with more realistic goals in front of us….

Throw it in the Woods? 

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  1. Buy a crotch rocket. Take a few lessons with Keith Code learning how to countersteer, brake, knee drag, wheelie, etc. and with a few weeks practice… you can run 130mph between signals and flirt with 200mph on any freeway. (Get to underground parking before the helicopter tracks you and you’re golden. Track time allows you to concentrate on precision riding.)

  2. I’m no fan of “Speeding” laws, but is there any actual situation where driving 180 WOULDN’T be reckless driving? I obviously don’t mean legally, I mean simply using common sense. Is it EVER possible to drive 180 safely?

    My mom’s a good driver and I remember her one time driving 95 MPH in a 70. She wasn’t doing it deliberately, but she was driving safely. So I get that you can drive pretty fast and do so safely depending on the driver. But I seriously have a hard time imagining anyone could ever drive 180 without being an immediate danger to other cars on the road.

    Would you really object that much to a 100MPH speed limit on basically any highway? Lol.

  3. My 1st new car was an 83 dodge colt. 85 mph speedo. I pegged it numerous times. Also US31 between Indianapolis and Rochester has great road surface for doing 100 mph. I know cause I did 102 in a 2012 charger with auto V6 motor last June. I’ve also done 180 kmh on the German autobahn. Speed is such a thrill!!!!

    • My ’83 Honda’s speedo registers to 130 but “55” is orange highlighted!

      It’s hard to believe that for almost 20 years, that was the fastest you could legally drive on highways… highways that had been posted 70 (or more) previously. Imagine being tickets for “speeding” for running 63 MPH … and maybe getting a “reckless driving” cite for doing 76… ah, the bad ol’ days!

      • I once ran a 120 speedo around to 10 in my 1970 442 Olds. It had a pretty good gap at the bottom between 120 and zero too. I have no idea what speed I was going. It was still climbing, but I got scared I would blow it up and backed out of it. I used to bury the needle on some good strait stretch every day just because I could. That car didn’t need much room to run it up.

  4. My ’87 Chev shortbox 4×4 with 305 cubic inches and three on the floor could barely hit 85 mph with a tailwind and several miles headstart. OTOH, I’m sure my current Porsche Cayenne S could hit its rated top end of 160 mph with ease. Yet, since the “stunt racing” law was enacted here–50 kmh over the speed limit brings a minimum $2,000 fine, seven-day vehicle impound and licence suspension and up to six months in jail–I scrupulously keep to the speed limit in urban areas and barely above on limited access highways. But, then, I’m now a senior and do everything a little bit slower!

    Indeed, the 2025 CAFE standards will bring an end to high-performance American made cars. But there will still, I hope, be the Europeans and Japanese and electric powered vehicles.

  5. Well, they might have made sense, but I’m not a fan of them, or the fact that congress mandated them. My first car, a 1993 Geo Prizm, had a 110 MPH speedo, which I “pegged” a few times on my local interstates. My calculations put redline speed in 4th at 121, and I figure the car topped out at about 119 or 120 based on the fact that it was very near redline when the car stopped building forward momentum. Try as I might, I never could quite get it to “bounce” off the rev limiter, and of course the car couldn’t quite struggle out of speedo range in 5th. By the way, VT was/is apparently a bit more lenient, because I DID get nailed on one of these triple-digit runs. First thing the cop says is “Do you know how fast you were going?”. Well, yes, I did, but I wasn’t sure how fast my brakes responded in relation to when he turned on his radar detector, so I wasn’t about to admit to more than his radar said. “uuh, umm, fast?” was my shaking-in-my-boots response, fully expecting to be hauled off to jail and my car impounded. It didn’t help my nervousness that I had a newly purchased 22 rifle in the trunk, which, while legal, wouldn’t have looked good. “I got you going 101 back there. You could get killed going that fast.” “Y-y-yessir.” He wrote me an expensive ticket but let me drive off, explaining that interstate speeding in the state resulted in only 2 points on your license, (at least at that time, 6 years ago) but admonished me again to slow down. The cars I’ve had since then have had 130 or 140 mph speedometers, and while none of them could struggle up that high, I like my form of “car porn,” thank you very much!

    • Several of the new cars I’ve test driven recently have 180-plus speedos – and are capable of getting there (or close).

      I believe we are now at the very height of the second era of high-powered cars. 2012 will be remembered like 1970 was. And probably within a year or two we will be revisiting the mid-1970s, an other era of down-powered, government-ruined cars.