Fast is not just about the numbers. Does it feel fast to be traveling 500 miles per hour in an Airbus? It feels much faster in the open cockpit of a WWI-era barnstormer – even though the rickety papier-mache aircraft of a century ago never flew faster than 150 MPH or so.
But it felt so much faster because it was rickety – and you were exposed. Wind in your face – the sound of the fire-spitting engine roaring in your ears.
It was, literally, a sensation.
One can expereince similar sensations in an old muscle car. Gettintg to 60 in six seconds feels very fast when the tires are squealing, the rear end is sliding, the four barrel is moaning and the car feels as if it’s just barely under control. It feels faster than getting to 60 in four seconds in a modern perfromance car, which doesn’t squirrel all over the road and only requires engaging the launch control and the flooring of the drive-by-wire accelerator pedal.
There is no moan of the four barrel – and very little burning of the rubber. Before you know it, you’re there – like a trip from NY to LA in an Airbus, traveling three times as fast as the WWI-era barnstormer.
But which ride do you remember better?
The old muscle cars, of course, gave you a ride because they had to. There was no other way to go fast back in the ‘60s and ‘70s except via the bludgeon of really big engines – one thing not even a modern ultra-performance car like a new Dodge Hellcat has – making as much power as they inefficiently could via the expedient of lots of cubic inches, as opposed to lots of airflow, as modern performance engines do.
A Hellcat has a 6.2 liter V8, which is middling-sized by the standards of the ‘60s and early ’70s – when engines pushing eight liters were the big dogs on the lot. Chevy 454s, Ford 428s and 429s, Pontiac 455s and Chysler 440s.
The Hellcat’s 6.2 liter makes big horsepower, though – more than twice as much as most of the almost-eight-liter V8s of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
But it doesn’t feel like it, especially when you aren’t going fast.
The Hellcat – I’ve driven several – idles unthreateningly. Smoothly. There is no lope. No mechanical concatenation. The four barrel does not moan. There is no four barrel.
Start up an old muscle car and the engine fires to life – after pumping the accelerator pedal that’s physically connected to the engine via cable and you can feel that, too. Hear the click of the choke blade on the carb’s primary side snapping closed. The idle is not smooth. The engine lopes in syncopation with the elliptical lobes of the camshaft. Up the ramp, the peak – hold it a moment – then back down. The valves were opened wide – and held open long – to gulp in as much air as possible but at low RPM this was like an athlete at rest taking enormous gulps of air he didn’t need quite yet.
It also made the old fire-breathers hard to drive unless being driven hard. They didn’t like to idle and power accessories – including power brakes – were problematic and often not installed for that reason. AC was rare.
It is a given today – even in a Hellcat.
Also the automatic transmission, which 90 percent of modern cars come standard with. These are programmed to shift exactly right, every time. No need for the driver to master the art of bringing up the revs and engaging the clutch in perfect communion for that just-right launch.
The launch control handles all of that now.
Though there wasn’t big power on tap – by the standards of today – the lack of big traction made it feel as though there was so much power on tap that you dared not make use of it all. The tires were so inadequate to the task of coping with even 300 horsepower – the amount of horsepower exceeded today by the V6s and turbo fours that are the run-of-the-mill base engines in modern performance cars such as Mustangs, Challengers and Camaros – that it was possible to overcome them when already moving.
A hard downshift at 25 or 30 MPH could and often did cause the rear end to fishtail violently. If the car had a big V8 with big torque it was possible to spin the tires at 35 or 30 MPH without downshifting. This felt mighty fast – even though the car was much less so than a modern performance car which tracks straight and true because it has traction to match its horsepower as well as traction control to modulate slipping without you ever realizing it.
Which is why it doesn’t feel as fast, despite the going much faster.
This may account for the enduring popularity of not-very-fast but feels fast cars like the Mazda Miata, which is one of the very few modern performance cars that feels faster than it is, too.
It hasn’t got a big engine or big horsepower. It is about as fast as the fastest of ’60s-era V8 muscle cars, getting to 60 in about six seconds depending on how artfully you shift the gears. An automatic is available but that doesn’t mean you want it. Not if you want a ride – irrespective of how fast it is.
Numbers aren’t everything.
Sometimes, they add up to less than what you had.
. . .
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