Old School Fast

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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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31 COMMENTS

  1. Each car had its own unique way of handling he sudden acceleration and burnouts. Nice video clip Eric. I know it’s not yours but………………..

  2. Eric,
    You talk about the safety cult and its devices but, one of the biggest ones is the shockingly high limits of cornering, stability and braking in new cars. As a result it’s hard to reach those limits without exceeding posted speeds by a factor of 3.

    Your article also brings to mind a story I read in Road & Track (I think) in the early 70’s. GM got a bunch of average folks and told them they were testing tires. They stuck them in a base Nova, or some such pedestrian car, and told them to drive the course they laid out with traffic cones as fast as they could. What they were testing was “average” drivers. What they found was that virtually all the people tested used barely half the corner capability of the car yet, they thought they were “at the limit”. Those limits were probably half what a modern car can achieve.

    Driving at or near the limit is hard to do in modern cars on the street due to those high limits. Driving a car with low limits at the limit is where the fun is.

    What I’d love to do some day is drive the Blue Ridge Parkway at 45mph in a pre-war convertible…that would be a BLAST!

  3. Fantastic article, very evocative! Took me right back to my ’69 Chevelle SS on back roads with my girl snuggled up next to me, the glass-packs roaring and those mags glinting through the smoke of burning rubber. Man, those were the days. On the rare moments I can find a road clear enough to open her up I get a similar experience with my ’92 Mustang GT 302 V8 5 speed. Not quite the same, but reminiscent.

    But as you well know, Eric, there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, like twisting the throttle and kicking through the gears of a hot bike, listening to both the engine and the wind roar while you hang on and guide that beast just where you want it to go. Fortunately they haven’t figured out how to make bikes mild and passive like cages (though I see more mild riders these days) which is why I’ll continue to ride until the day I stroke out.

    Again, great article!

  4. Eric, the title picture of this article reminds me of something that happened to me about 30 years ago. I was on a back road in a rural area driving a beat-up old convertible (it was old even back then). I was passing a small airport parallel to the runway where a DC-3 “Gooney Bird” was taxiing to take off. The pilot was eyeing my car as I was eyeing his plane and we gave each other the thumbs up. A priceless moment.

  5. This is why I always had so much fun in my 86 Fiero GT with 4speed manual. She doesn’t have long legs but oh so fun in the New Hampshire twisty hills with that screamin 60 degree 6.

  6. Which is why I’ve been driving Miata’s for the past 18 years. I did briefly own an 08 6 speed auto, briefly. Wasn’t horrible with paddles, but not good enough. They don’t have a great deal of power, but they don’t weigh anything either. The best I ever got in the NCs that I’ve owned is about 7 seconds to 60, which just so happens is were the red line is in second.

  7. Wooden roller coasters vs metal are another example of this phenomenon. The metal coaster’s charm is a checklist of numbers and new records, wooden coasters are just great fun. The old wooden coasters from the 1920s and 30s were especially good with a date since the bench seating tossed your GF into your side. The big metal roller coasters are an engineering marvel, but about as much fun as the train to the gates at DIA. Oh, and you’re strapped into an adult child seat and can’t even see your sweetie, let alone cop a feel on the turns.

    • When in Pittsburgh, stop at Kennywood Park for a ride on the Thunderbolt. A 1924-built wood roller coaster. Originally known as the Pippen, the amusement has had only one rehab circa 1968 and still uses the original bench seat cars. You’ll love that smell of greased rollers and a rickety top speed of 55mph,

        • Hi Nunz,
          Did you ever ride the Steeplechase at Coney Island? Just a wooden horse to hang onto for dear life, almost crapped myself the first time I rode it 😆. Of course that was decades ago, probably long gone as it would give the saaaaaaafety cult apoplexy.

          • Hi Ya Mike!!

            Oh, if ONLY! The Steeplechase was abandoned by my day- pretty much had to content myself with the Wonder Wheel and the disco bumper cars… 🙁

            Sad thing is, there was a rickety old wooden coaster at Rockaway Playland, that was still in operation for a year or two when I came around. Wish I would have ridden that baby! It’s long gone now. (Only reason I didn’t do it, was ’cause as a teen exploring the peninsula whilst playing hooky from skool, I was pretty much tapped-out between subway fare and [I think it was] $1.25 for a pack of Newports[Yeah…white people used to smoke ’em!] ).

            Just glad I even got to see that stuff though!

        • Hi Nunz,
          Every time I go there I let people cut in front of me in line so that I can get the seat in the very front. After the climb to the top it’s “hands up” for the whole ride! Damn!!! Now I want to go over the hill and ride, but Santa Cruz County has shut everything down,… again! ERRRRR!!!

  8. Eric:
    There’s definitely something to this. I remember learning to drive my dad’s 65 Plymouth fury 3. It had the 383 and four sp. out of the factory. He had put duals, a cam, and racing clutch on it afterwards. Thought I’d never get that thing rolling into first gear even though I had driven multiple stick shifts before. Once I mastered (sort of) driving that thing I couldn’t find enough excuses to drive it. Even though many family car sedans of current year outperform it on paper and track. It is hard to beat the feel of the old-school transmissions, suspension, and engine noise. Something iconic and probably never to be repeated again.

    New cars have their own appeal as well, but I find that appeal mostly utility, mpg’s and comfort options etc. Very few of them are as interesting as the pre mid 70’s muscle cars.

  9. Hi Eric,

    I’d agree that the roaring engine, the squealing tires, and the marginal traction did make hard driving old muscle cars more thrilling. And yeah, the miata does make “driving fast while going slow” about as fun as it can be (if you’re into that sort of thing.) 🙂

    But you are totally ignoring one crucial component of a thrilling drive. That’s the incomparable rush of high G force, forward acceleration. IMO, no amount of noise or fishtailing, or wind in your face, roadster zippiness even comes close.

    And best of all, is the thrill of “driving fast while actually going REALLY FAST.” Granted, it’s hard these days to find many roads where you can do that. There are a few.

  10. Every time I drive my 67 MGB, with my tuchas 6″ from the tarmac, it gives me the same smile-inducing sensation. It is a visceral thing as Eric has described above, and is not replicated in modern vehicles.With skinny tube-type tires on 14″ wire wheels, it is twitchy and nervous near the limit. The fun in this car is below the limit, and that is what modern cars are missing I think.

    As for aircraft, 1984, an Olympic Airlines 707 on takeoff from Madrid Barajas, piloted (apparently) by an ex-Hellenic AF fighter jock. Firewall them, let off the brakes, and feel your eyeballs press back in your skull. “Normal” passengers nervous, uneasy, complaining, me grinning ear to ear. Rotate, climb like a bat out of hades! What a takeoff, like in an unloaded KC-135! Try that with an Airbus.

  11. First commercial air flight for me was in a Lockheed Constellation. What a thrill as its four propellers, driven by 18-cylinder Wright Duplex-Cyclone radial engines, bit air and pitched us back in our seats on takeoff. Soon we were cruising at a bumpy 8,000 feet, dodging scattered clouds, making 320 mph.

    Already the incredibly noisy Boeing 707 jet was muscling into the market. Its ability to fly above turbulence at up to 41,000 ft and 540 mph rendered the Constellation instantly obsolete. But there was a dark side.

    Like its distant descendent the 737MAX, the 707’s swept-wing design was inherently unstable. ‘On one customer acceptance flight, where the yaw damper was turned off to familiarize the new pilots with flying techniques, a trainee pilot’s actions violently exacerbated the Dutch roll motion and caused three of the four engines to be torn from the wings. The plane, a brand new 707-227 destined for Braniff, crash-landed on a river bed north of Seattle, killing four of the eight occupants.’ — Wikipedia

    Sixty years later, on its current 737MAX web page, Boeing explains that the ‘enhanced’ MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) ‘will never override the pilot’s ability to control the airplane using the control column alone.’ But 346 people died because the old, bad MCAS repeatedly overrode pilot inputs, no matter how desperately they fought it.

    Hard to believe that cars increasingly incorporate automated systems that override driver inputs. Tesla’s lethal Full Self-Driving goes much farther. And as with the crash-by-wire 737MAX, sold-out regulators remain serenely untroubled by the ensuing bloody trail of death and destruction.

    • Hi Jim, That was my first airliner flight as well, on Eastern Airlines (rip) from my grandparents house in Florida, having taken the train down. It was an evening flight and my window seat was next to the exhaust from the inboard engine. Loved seeing the blue flames shooting out at full power. Also took many flights on the Lockheed Elektra on Eastern’s shuttle between Newark and Boston as a student in the 60’s. Flying was fun back then, no TSA molestation, just walk up to the gate and get onboard, didn’t even need an advance ticket. Sigh, really miss those days, today’s youth will never know how great it was.

  12. Eric,

    Before I get to my point, I saw your post on Parler. I’ll say the same thing here that I did there: give it a little time. The platform IS growing, thanks to Twitter’s Orwellian behavior; Parler’s picked up something like 5-6 MILLION new users recently! Also, David Knight experienced the same thing. At first, he got no interaction; now, his posts are getting a lot of replies. It’ll take a little time to gain traction over there.

    Meanwhile, I’ll try to echo (Parler’s equivalent to a retweet) your posts. I have over 1,500 followers over there; that’s about 3X what I had on Twitter! That’s an impressive accomplishment when you consider that I spend less time on a smaller platform. I subscribe to you, so I get your posts automatically. When I see them, I’ll make it a point to echo them, tell folks to check you out, and to show you some love on Parler.

    Now, on to my point…

    Though it’s not an exact analogy, the Kawasaki 750 H2 I test rode felt a lot faster than my ZRX did. Though my ZRX didn’t have traction control, launch control, or ABS, it had modern tires and brakes. Hence, even accelerating hard on the ZRX didn’t feel scary as the 750 triple did; I’d bet money that the ZRX was faster than the triple, but it didn’t FEEL like it. You know the old joke, right? The 750 H2 had a 100 mph engine on a 80 mph frame with 40 mph brakes. Or was it 60 mph brakes? It goes something like that, but the moral of the story is: if you give the H2 the gas, you’ll scare yourself-with good reason! The power the old H2 triple had wasn’t really CONTROLLED…

    I watched the video with the Cobra. He was fishtailing the whole way! While the guy was giving it the gas, it was fishtailing. What do you expect when shoehorning a 500 hp V8 in such a small, light car sans all the modern tech like traction control? The only traction control on that thing is in the driver’s right foot. So yeah, the Cobra would feel faster than a modern, high performance car…

    • Good stuff, Mark – thanks!

      I will continue to post on Parler and we’ll see. In re the H2 vs.the ZRX: Having ridden both (and own one) I can vouch for the same. The H2 is a scary fast bike. The ZRX is just fast 🙂

  13. somehow I think car culture among the kids is dying. they seem much more interested in phones netflix and social media. its sad. God forbid a stick shift. Another great article Eric with excellent linked videos.

    • You know the old joke right? The ultimate anti-theft device for a car is a stick shift! So few people, especially among the younger generations, can drive ’em…

      • Hell, my ex brother in law, Who I think is near 70 now, couldn’t drive one. Many years age, while visiting us, he asked me to introduce one of his sons to a manual tranny. I asked him why he didn’t do it, and lo and behold, he couldn’t. Took me about an hour to teach his son how to get it moving, how to change gears, and how to stop. By no means mastered such, but introduced.

    • I was just thinking this myself last night. I’ve long been a “car guy”, but nothing built in the last 40 years is of interest to me- and I consider anything built in the last 20 years an abomination- so how is it even possible that any young person should have any interest in cars these days, considering they’ve likely never even ridden in a ‘proper’ car; all of the cars throughout their lifetime have been boring, overly-complex look-alike isolating hopelessly expensive baubles, which possess none of the charms of what made us love cars, but are just transportation appliances or pay-to-play performance?

      If the crud they manufacture doesn’t interest those who have long been car guys…how is it supposed to convert new people lnto the fold? (And now anything old is worth so much, it’s not as though one can just run out and pick up some cheap fourth or fifth-hand hoopty to experience real car-dom).

      …just another facet of the extinguishing of all vestiges of free-range humans.

      • They’ve definitely turned cars into disposable life sucking appliances. To say nothing of the safety Gestapo lurking in wait if you actually enjoy living for a few moments.

        If you want something fun or interesting you have to restore it or build it yourself. Car guys absolutely love my stuff- my wife and daughters sneer at my Willys roadster pickup and such…

  14. Even a decidedly non-performance vintage ride, like a ’65 Dodge Dart convertible with a Slant Six and “three on the tree”, is still a lot more FUN to drive, because you actually have to DRIVE it. And yes, even a six-banger Dart can have a few “goodies” added that’ll give it a wee bit more “giddyap”!

    • Amen, Dooglas! I love those old straight-sixes. You didn’t have to have a smoking-hot shaking beast to enjoy the pleasures of driving. Those 6’s were no slouches…and as long as you weren’t racing, trying for a new land speed record, or interested in making lots of noise, it was hard to tell the difference.

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