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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22 COMMENTS

  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!

      • In my now-retired (traded in as part of the class-action settlement for a different Ford ride) 2014 Focus, the 152-mile stretch between Ely, NV and Delta, UT, with just about NO ONE living out there in that forbidding desert, I’ve covered in as little as 98 minutes…do the math. Some stretches, like between Majors Place (where it picks up US 93 coming out of Las Vegas) and the NV-UT border, I easily do 105 or more. Not bad for an econobox!

        • Hi Doug,

          I can reveal this now… enough time having passed to render prosecution untenable.

          Back in ’95, I took a Cobra R from DC to NYC to visit a girl I used to know and made it door to door in two hours and 20-something minutes.

          Yes, she was worth it!

      • 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.

      • You were right. We are getting there. As it is here in 2019, horsepower totals are slowly dropping on modern cars since you wrote that. CAFE and Eeeeeeemissions.

        • Back in 2012 when motortrend still had some car guys on there, someone mentioned something about how we were in a golden age for affordable horsepower. How incredible it was that some normal person could buy a rocket (like a V6 camry or Accord) for less than 30k. That same year the ILX came out and someone commented, “why would I spend 30k on a 4pot when I could get a bigger, faster car (like an accord v6) for less?”

          But now the choice is being taken away. The “nobody needs x” argument. Looks like a 2.0 turbo with 207HP is going to be the new top for less than 30k.

          And back then I didn’t realize how many commenters on these auto-blogs really hated cars and probably the freedom they allowed. And the auto journalists are/were even worse.

          • Hi Brandon,

            I am going to write a book about my experiences one day. When I began my career, many of the old guys – the car guys – were still around. I admired these guys tremendously. Many of them wrenched/modded/raced; it was a given they had a much-deeper-than-average-person knowledge of cars, not just how they worked but what they meant – including their history. The love was obvious.

            Then came the New Crowd. These were – are – the anti-car crowd who got assigned to cover the car business but were indifferent to it at best and often hostile toward it. The did not wrench – much less race. Many of them couldn’t drive stick. And weren’t interested in learning how to drive. The car manufacturers no longer routinely bring car journalists to the track because most of them haven’t got the basic skills to drive on a track and don’t want to acquire them, either. It is a depressing contrast to what was once the case. I champed at the bit to get my ticket to Black Lake and three days with the same instructors who teach the FBI how to hot-shoe. All of that is no more. Generation Soy wants to know about a car’s carbon footprint and its manufacturer’s commitment to “diversity.”

            I feel I’m going to heave my guts…

            • Sounds like a great read Eric! I look forward to it. Now you are the old car guy. One of the few auto journalists who cares about what matters and not about pushing an agenda.

              In a fleeting moment of interest in a new car, I’ll go to Youtube and click on a tour video. But every one is the exact same. After the annoying 2 minute channel intro, and pitch for liking and subscribing, we see the new car, partially being blocked by the soy journalist reading the marketing points or facts given by the manufacturer, and ending the rant by proposing a question like, “Can the new model sway buyers?” “We then flash to more stock driving footage, and eventually transition to the interior of the car. The camera faces the journalist and he talks. Maybe at about 17 minutes in we’ll get a look at the center stack and instrument cluster for about 3 seconds.

              Anyway I guess my point is I don’t know who you’re going to pass the torch to.

            • When I go over to that site that starts with the letter J these youngster morons push every last bit of uncle’s nonsense and then they lament about how this or that is no longer on the market. They don’t understand the link. They complain about they support and demand.

              • Oh good grief, don’t get me started on my fellow younglets. I’m not sure how some people can even call themselves car enthusiasts when they make every excuse in the book to side with everything that harms car culture. It’s like they actually want the hobby to die, but they won’t admit it to themselves, so instead they just ride every anti-speed, anti-driving, anti-tuning, anti-ICE, anti-fun bandwagon they can find. I actually had a rather long rant I posted about it on one of their forums a while ago:

                “In the end, all this really serves to do is to illustrate why car culture is doomed. Car culture can be incredibly resilient to outside attack when it wants to be – the fact that it still exists in places like Japan, where a cultural philosophy of “never stand out” has pervaded for thousands of years, or California, where an engine swap is a convoluted process requiring direct involvement of bureaucrats, or Australia, where the nanny/ninny state is so well-established that a second burnout ticket can get your car confiscated and crushed, is proof of that. But today, it seems like car enthusiasts would rather side with the outside attacks than resist them. Question any of it – the ever-growing list of mandatory safety and pollution equipment, the byzantine mess of post-purchase modification regulations, the onerous inspection regimes, the overzealous policing, anything – and you are immediately accused of wanting people to die. Modern car enthusiasts want bicycles and pedestrians to have perpetual unlimited access to the best driving roads. They want mandatory reinspections after every upgrade. They want EVs to replace combustion engines, and robocars to replace manually-driven specimens of both, and they want the mandates and subsidies and lip-flappingly insane fuel-economy/emissions diktats which will speed this process along. They want the police to cuff and stuff anyone who dares to have any fun outside of a closed course.

                EVs are actually a great example. They are still incredibly compromised; even the fastest chargers are still hideously slow compared to a liquid refuel, and are still dependent on infrastructure which is not available everywhere and likely will not be for some time. But as long as the EV peddlers keep the sound bites coming, their many fans within car culture will ignore all that and expect everyone else to do the same, using the promises of elite-level or “future” EVs to paper over the technology’s faults in the present. Because, again, they desperately want EVs to work, even though they destroy everything car culture used to celebrate. The sound and fury of a nasty race engine, the feeling of a butter-smooth double-clutch downshift, all of it replaced by the same passionless tinnitus whine and the same boring 1- or 2-speed transmission. Is that really what you want?

                So car culture is in a weird place. From the outside, it looks healthy, with forums and websites all over the place highlighting builds and big shows while the latest factory sports models throw down BEEG BEEG NAWMBERZ on the dyno, test track, and skid pad. But underneath, with the regulations that are on the horizon, from “speed limit assist” to ever-tougher emissions and safety standards, we are absolutely headed into another Automotive Dark Age like the one from about 1974-1986 – but maybe worse, because this time we have the technology to make a car truly anti-fun and the regulations to keep people from getting around it. Much of car culture is illegal in one way or another, and even that which always was is now enforced against much more harshly than it used to be. Tuneability and “unintentional sportiness” are effectively things of the past at this point, and aftermarket support for new cars isn’t what it once was – again, blame the regulators.

                There are other signs too. If you were to make a list of the vehicles that carry social currency in the tuning scene, you’d find many of the same makes and models that had cachet 10 or 15 years ago. There have been new muscle cars from the Detroit Three, a couple of hot ones on the tuner side as well, but overall, car culture has stagnated badly. I have, however, seen evidence of unconventional older cars finally being accepted into car culture. On the muscle car side, sedans and wagons have started to find their way into a scene once dominated by coupes and convertibles. The RWD “post-muscle” cars of the 70s and 80s (more-door versions included) are seeing more use in drag racing and, occasionally, for street builds as well. The idea of subjecting an old pickup truck to a serious handling build isn’t nearly as ludicrous as it would have once seemed. I’ve even seen evidence of rodded and cusomized Edsels – it’s not common, but it does happen occasionally. Meanwhile, on the tuner side, I have… not much information because I usually pay more attention to the muscle side of things, but I did once see someone singing the praises of the XV10 Toyota Camry and its punchy, tuneable V6. On one hand, it’s good that people are branching out and finding hidden gems, and who knows, maybe people will eventually come to respect the V6 J-body, but there’s something dark underneath. What this says to me is that we’ve blown through most of the more desirable hot rods and tuners, with fewer unmodified survivors on the market and prices for good-condition specimens starting to increase, so people are scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of affordable base material – and coming up with cars like the Edsel, Camry, or random pickup truck/sedan/wagon which, in their time, were maligned or simply considered to be as far from fun to drive as it was possible to get. We can’t keep picking the bones of days gone by forever. The Supras, Chevelles, E30s, and other objects of gearhead veneration are slowly running out, and they aren’t really being replaced.

                But don’t forget, if you see a problem with any of this, it automatically means you want people to die in car wrecks while having pollution-induced asthma attacks!”

                The Japan obsession of modern car culture is another thing that has been a major source of irritation to me previously, and for a long time I really didn’t understanding it. Japanese car culture became famous specifically because it was crazy. 10/10ths tail-wagging, center-crossing duels down narrow, dark, blind mountain roads. Slicing through freeway traffic at 125 MPH and accelerating immediately to 150+ when the road clears ahead. Basically, everything modern car culture is against. Why worship Japan for the lunatic street scene it used to have while still flying into a frothing rage whenever someone wants to do anything vaguely resembling spirited driving in the present tense?

                A few days ago, it hit me as I was reflecting on the origins of Japan’s car culture. Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, some old structures or something started to loosen up, not really sure what actually happened, but the end result was that it was suddenly much more possible for a Japanese non-1%er to own some land of their own, which over there is rare enough to make people sit up and take notice when it happens. This was compounded by Japan having one of the absolute worst “never stand out, work yourself to death for the boss, take whatever those above you dish out and pretend to like it” cultures to survive into the modern era – “karoshi” is a thing for a reason – so I guess the people there were secretly desperate for a way to break free, at least for a few hours a day. Of course, since Japan is an island nation where most of the buildable land is already built on, this quite quickly drove land prices right back up and once again no one could afford to own a home… so upward movers turned to their cars to express themselves and show their status. “I’m not just Faceless Drone 472798B anymore, I’m Yellow Skyline Man, and you better be ready to move over ’cause at the speed I’m running other cars just look like pylons!”

                Ironically, most of the people who are currently obsessed with all things JDM would probably welcome the imposition of similar never-stand-out collectivist strictures… on car culture itself.

                When I had that though is when it hit me. Modern car enthusiasts worship 1990s Japanese car culture specifically because it’s everything modern Western car culture isn’t. I’ll admit that some of the things Japanese racers did were outright indefensibly dangerous, but good grief, we don’t even try anymore! The IPCC vomits up lies and we wring our hands on cure. Robocars loom on the horizon and we look forward to the day manual driving itself will be banished to racetracks because “the computer is a better driver”. Someone gets frog-marched before a judge over an 8-month-old moving violation that no one even knew or cared about until some department stumbled over footage while investigating a real crime, and we cheer because “he committed a crime, someone could have been hurt, he should suffer the consequences.” We see a beautiful twisty road that would be perfect for putting a car through its paces, and our first thought is “that would be a great place to ride my bicycle!” Instead of standing for car culture, we embrace its destruction, from every angle. We can’t even enjoy driving or tuning ourselves anymore because it’s not “safe” or “environmentally responsible” – so instead, we have our fun vicariously through some other people in some other place who went to the opposite extreme in their quest to throw off the chains we now embrace willingly. To put it simply – modern car culture looks up to Japanese street racers because they had the guts to oppose “beige culture” whereas we no longer do.

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