Theme : Speed – Introduction

June’s Theme : The Editor Posts Some Thoughts on Speed

Aston DB4We get used to thinking that we, meaning whoever amongst us are young and fit enough to command the technology, are probably the best informed and highest achieving people in history. The knowledge and achievements of our forebears, though impressive perhaps in the context of their age, pales in absolute comparison with our own. Such is the arrogance of The Present and, though it might not have always been this way, it seems set to remain.

How we laugh at people fearing death on the first steam trains, with physicians predicting that a speed of 35 miles per hour might cause the body to stop breathing. And we suppress a grim chuckle at the thought that the first railway fatality in 1830 could have occurred with machinery capable of such paltry speeds. What sort of thinking hobbled development of the motor car in 19th Century England with ridiculous speed limits and the enforcement of the Red Flag act?

A little over 50 years after the repeal of the Locomotive Act, Stirling Moss’s average speed in the 1955 Mille Miglia was just under 100mph and, in places, he and Denis Jenkinson were approaching 180 mph which, advanced though the 300SLR was for its time, seems today to be a triumph of skill, bravery and benzedrine over technology and badly maintained roads. At the same time, a young person with sporting pretensions might buy themselves an Austin A30 and, with careful tuning, get its top speed up to 75mph, at which point they would be grinning insanely and praying they didn’t bend the pushrods. With more money, you could buy that sporting pinnacle, a Jaguar saloon, and achieve 110 mph, possibly.

Fifteen years after that, the fastest ever humans to date, astronauts returning from The Moon travelling at 25,000 mph, had no real impression of speed. Their adrenaline might have flowed for many reasons, but the scenery rushing past was not one of them. However, the first proper motor race, with the winner averaging 12 mph, had probably been quite scary at times.

In the later part of the Twentieth Century, physical speed became all important. Concorde was developed to transport literal high-fliers to transatlantic meetings.  There were tales of industrialists’ 300 kph autobahn commutes to work. These were important, or self-important, people and their time was valuable.   Now Concorde is just an elegant memory, but still the World goes on. How? Naturally it is the largely unpredicted huge increase in what is often called speed, but more correctly rate, of communication of electronic data. That important meeting in New York can be attended by you on your iPad on a beach.  People still want to travel but, bearing in mind the huge numbers who choose to, they end up doing it relatively slowly.  The World is round and, wherever you go, and however quickly you do it, you’ll most likely end up where you started. Has physical speed become redundant or, at most, just a leisure indulgence?

Today, racing cars are certainly potentially far faster than Moss’s, but the difference in fairly run-of-the-mill road cars is even greater. Despite the German industry’s voluntary capping of many cars to 250 kph, the number of cars that will approach this figure and, with relatively easy modification, far exceed it are legion. It’s getting rare for any car not to reach 100mph, and that is sensible. Cruising at motorway speeds, your engine should not be on the limit. But who really makes use of the speed potential of most production cars? From the 140 mph of an Astra to the 240 mph of the Koningsegg, these are figures that might be achieved very rarely in the ownership of such vehicles but, unless conditions are quite miraculous, not without some risk on populated roads; and that is without making any mention of various country’s laws.  These cars are only really exploited on track days or, more likely, in their owner’s fantasies.

So, what are your views on speed?  Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Does it have a future? Do you have fond or frightening memories of its past? Does the need for speed have a deleterious effect on the cars we buy? And how do you reconcile your general respect for society’s laws with your frequent disregard for its speed limits? That last one is addressed to you Sean.

Speed Limit

2 thoughts on “Theme : Speed – Introduction”

  1. As the world gets denser, as regulations get more stringently enforced and as personal morality becomes more sophisticated, I see a dark future for speed. Thinking back to my early 20s, there was space for acceleration. Driving at full tilt across the back lanes of Ireland did not strike me as a particularly alarming thing to do. It was brilliant fun and I am lucky to be alive. But the idea now of attempting similar antics fills me with dread. First, I am more aware of the risks which I offload on others should I consider going at high speed. Second, I think the risks are higher now as there are more people plying the roads. (And in between second and thirdly, high speed just plasters more innocent insects across my bonnet). And thirdly, the policing of driving is more seriously performed. Insurance companies and law-enforcement types are working closely together. The police themselves are less likely to let you away with a bit of tomfoolery. This reflects the professionalisation of life in general and the professionalisation of policing in particular. In the modern world (and it is modern, isn´t it?) people have internalised the ideas of the proper thing to do and are less likely to act on their personal preferences, certainly in the world of the law among many others. We live in a much less informal world. The officer is now less “Daniel Considine, 37, father of two” and more the office he holds. This is, of course, the ideal of the impersonal state enforcing rules equally on everyone.

    Turning these thoughts to the world of performance cars, we see that reviews of high speed cars and even fairly ordinary ones coyly refer to track days and the “derestricted” stretches of Autobahnen (they mean “unrestricted”, of course). You are not expected to use any of the car´s potential on the public highway. High speed cars and the journalism supported by these has become, in my view, a special brand of pornography. In the real world of car crashes, children on bikes, parked tractors and old people cantering along at 40 mph, you just don´t indulge in what we might call “unprotected” driving. But forty years ago, everyone was at it hammer and tongs in both the world of driving and the world of “adult” entertainment; the difference between real life and filmed presentations was probably not so great then.

    In that light, I find the increased emphasis on performance cars likely a direct inverse correlation to the likelihood that we will actually drive at 160 mph on a quiet road. And come to think of it, even hitting a sheep on a quiet Welsh road is probably very dangerous indeed. I wonder if in fact the shoddily clad nerds who populate motor journalism are really aware of the idiocy of putting an Aston Martin through its paces anywhere in the UK or mainland Europe. I find driving at high speed frightening. These loons scream in delight for the photographer in the car. What are they thinking of?

    So, to conclude, speed´s a goner. I want a comfortable car able to do about 70 on the motorway. And at these stupidly boring speeds what becomes important are the steering, suspension and the quality of the interfaces and the ergonomics, not the Nurburgring lap time.
    “Which car is the most comfortable around the Nurburgring?” Has anyone written that story yet?

  2. I broadly concur with everything that Simon and, especially, Richard have to say. Unfortunately, unlike Richard, who puts the case against speed so very well, as Simon hints at the end of his piece I have never matured entirely and have to admit that I do, quite frequently, still drive outside the law. I have driven my Citroen legally close to its maximum on near empty unrestricted autobahns but, years ago, in close traffic approaching Hamburg at well over 120mph, I backed off because I had become old and experienced enough to know what the result would be if I, or one of the unknown drivers in front or behind me, made an error and, since then, I have never felt comfortable driving in fast traffic, even less so in the UK which is even more crowded. Driving in the UK, I tend to set my own speed limits which reflect the nature of the road and driving conditions, rather than what the signs say. I don’t always stick to 30mph in towns, 60mph on single carriageway roads and, if the road is suitable and traffic is light, which it seldom is, I sometimes see three figures. My main reason is probably that I enjoy driving and that driving slowly is boring and undemanding, but I can’t really defend this self-important behaviour. I don’t make my own rules regarding shoplifting or tax evasion. In these, I have a very correct moral compass, and not just because I’m scared of getting found out – if someone drops cash in the street I pick it up and chase after them. Of course unlike the above, speeding, has no impact on society’s well-being …… until……

    So what small justification do I offer myself? Probably that I do, as I’ve said, only go fast when it seems safe to do so and, also, that I’m an above average driver, which is not a boast, just an observation that my faculties are still good and that, because I am very interested in driving, I try to do it well – it is never just an unfortunate chore necessary to get me from A to B. This makes me more alert, probably more so than if I travel slowly, but it doesn’t factor in the behaviour of other, less involved, drivers, or the possibility of mechanical failure. Obviously I’m not alone in this paradox – I’m sure that most of the people who tailgate me on the motorway and, even, blast past on the inside when I’m keeping a safe distance from the car in front travelling at the legal limit, want a well ordered world where miscreants are given the treatment they deserve, maybe even people who speed – just not themselves.

    I certainly agree that the behaviour of today’s cars, which is generally dictated by a bunch of post-pubescent schoolboys (sorry, motoring journalists) who enjoy giving cars a good spanking (the porn comparison is good, Richard), affects the way you drive. I probably drive my hard riding, ‘sporty’ Audi and my motorcycle faster than my Citroen because, unlike that car, there is no nuance and pleasure to be had in driving them slowly. Arguably, if all manufacturers were forced to use the templates of French cars from the 60s and 70s for their vehicles, with new technology applied where it would not affect the character, driving would be nicer, and gentler.

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