Theme : Speed – Quantity and Quality Thereof

How much fun do you really get out of driving like you stole it?

1990 peugeot-205-

Speed is a measurable quantity. One of the characteristics of the modern age is the increasing dominance of quantity over quality. I see the two as dependent parameters, as necessary as the left and right wing of a jet. In the spirit of the times motoring journalism in recent years has tended to focus on the measurable and to underplay the quality of speed. Perhaps more precisely, they underplay the quality of motion. If you take the time to read a review of almost any very fast car you can find shards of  statistics but very little intelligible insight on the character of the driving experience beyond attempts at subjective descriptions of on-the-limit handling. You might be informed that “you can really throw it into a bend ridiculously late and expect it simply to bite at the apex” and “there´s less of a sense of it sliding into oversteer”. There´s not a lot you can do with this sort of description. It could be applied to quite a large number of moderately fast cars or almost anything driven on a road that was twisty enough.

One of the most entertaining cars I ever drove was a poverty-specification  Peugeot 205 with four-speeds and a 1.0 litre engine. It wasn´t so much painted as whitewashed. I hurled around the depths of the country at what were modest speeds but with enjoyable (and also sometimes rather dangerous results).  The car was flimsy and noisy which meant I was not disconnected from the world outside. Zero to sixty was probably glacial by today´s standards but if you played the game of keeping the car at around sixty on a suitably challenging road the results proved memorable. I am lucky I survived the car. What made the speed enjoyable was the quality of the steering and the very poor grip. In quantitative terms the car was a dead loss. The seats were great.

At the other end of the spectrum I once took a 2.8 litre V6 Audi A4 for a spin on a bit of autobahn and found myself only terrified, with sweating palms. And when I attempted to put the car through its paces on some mountain roads I felt like I had a speed boat on a mill pond. There wasn´t enough road ahead of me or at the sides.  At the time it was the most powerful thing I´d driven. But what was agreeable about the car had nothing to do with the performance, more to do with the smoothness of the engine and the nicely finished interior. Overall, the car bored and frustrated me. Of course, such a car is not intended for black-top gymnastics. It was a means to propel businessmen from Hamburg to Eisenach at a high top speed: once settled at 160 kmp/h the driver settles back and listens to some music and watches the kilometres tick off until the next refuelling.

My current vehicle has no pretensions at speed. It´s a 2.0 litre family hatch getting on for 25 years old. It will do a hundred miles an hour and I often used to push it at these speeds for hours on end. Looking back I got little out of those high-velocity trips.  I arrived exhausted with a fuel warning light nagging at me. Lately I´ve decided to keep the car at 55 mph and my driving life has improved immeasurably. The game I play is to keep things as smooth as possible: acceleration, gearchange, braking, steering.  If possible I don’t use the brakes at all, leaving them to mop up the last few drams of momentum as I glide to a halt.

Speed has dropped out of the picture for me and in a way it´s like being freed from having a madman chained to my wrist (I think that was Socrates who coined that, on another topic). The same technique I have applied to anything modern I am driving. Life seems to be a lot easier now. Of course, these might be the musings of someone being enveloped by middle age. By the same token, the almost irrelevant focus on top speed and the shape of the handling envelope might also be the obsessions of writers disconnected from the reality of speed and the fact the people who drive the fastest in ordinary life aren´t those you´d like to spend time with.

I don´t have a manifesto but a suggestion that the focus on speed has been to the detriment of the understanding of the rest of the car. Cars aren´t only engines and wheels but a multitude of other bits, answers to specific problems. In the speed-focused review, the car is just a thing fuzzily surrounding the driver, a reductive approach which makes cars less, not more interesting. You may as well consider a painting by David Hockney from only the amount of paint applied.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

7 thoughts on “Theme : Speed – Quantity and Quality Thereof”

  1. This brings back memories of the (made in Dagenham) Ford Fiesta, also with 1.0L of displacement and a 4 speed gearbox, which I drove for a while in and around London and enjoyed tremendously, not just because it was free and gave me my first taste of motoring freedom.
    There were genuine driving thrills to be had from something light and chuckable, equally at ease in town and on twisty country lanes – but not on motorways (which are boring anyway). It didn’t exactly drive like a go-kart, more like a soapbox racer (probably because it has the structural integrity of one), but bounced happily on road imperfections and over potholes and could be thrown with much gusto, until body roll and the occasional tyre squeal signaled that it was time to back off, roll down the window and relax for a few miles before starting the next gymkhana.
    When I sold it for scraps, the guy who came to collect it remarked while it was being lifted on the back of the truck that I looked like I was going to miss it. He wasn’t wrong and I still do somehow.

  2. That´s pretty much my feeling about the 205. Part of the thrill was perhaps being 23 and feeling indestructable. And I was probably bound to be pleased with anything that moved under its own motive force. But that said, I am pretty sure if I had another drive of a 205 I´d find it as satisfying. I´d relish the old-boots quality of the car in that since it´s nothing special you can potter around in it in a way you can´t in something big and precious. These cars aren´t that expensive either. It would be an easier itch to scratch than the other more monstrous gas-inhaling barges I hanker after. The only other car I really remember being pure fun to drive was a Focus Mk1. They worked on all sorts of roads too, and even if it was an estate I was driving, it was still nimble and easy to play with. The seats were dire and interestingly, the Focus 3 also has poor seating. Isn´t amazing how these irritating qualities endure, as if there´s a “bad seat fairy” at Ford who migrates across the model cycles.

  3. And my basic but fun hatchback was a Renault 5 GTL, lots of roll, decent enough but not excessive roadholding, totally predictable and chuckable. It is the car in which I executed the only two completely perfect 180 degree handbrake turns I have ever done in my life, one on a snowy Swiss road, the other just up the road from the Prospect of Whitby. God, I was a prat when I was younger, and I’ve not sure I’ve changed enough. Richard’s piece is chastening for someone who finds it hard to even drive a motorhome within the legal limit.

  4. It´s not that I mean to be chastening. Or else I am chastening myself, I would say. There will be some who might accuse me of giving up joie de la vitesse (the joy of speed) whereas I ought to be raging against the dying of the light (thanks, D Thomas). But I rather feel that being in a state of constant hoon is a bit careless about the risks to others. Where there is the opportunity to do a bit of silly acceleration, such as around a quiet roundabout or barging onto or off a motorway at quiet times or along some clearly unoccupied bit of road in daylight there´s probably not much harm. Oddly, one of the more recent dampeners on my driving speeds was the time last Autumn I stopped by the side of the road to rescue a hedgehog. The poor thing had been scuffed by a speeding car, not run over. It was curled up and there was some exposed flesh. I didn´t want to leave it there so I brought it to safety and laid in a thicket of bushes. I rather hope it survived thought chances are it didn´t. I rather felt for that utterly harmless little character and I had a rather quiet drive home after that. I imagine you have to be driving very fast and not paying attention to hit a hedgehog. They don´t move that fast. Anyway, that was the party killer for me as regards late night driving during summer time anyway.

  5. I certainly wasn’t suggesting you are preaching Richard. All you say is sensible and, as one who is closer to the dying of the light than you are (I trust), I can vouch that driving quickly doesn’t make it any more bearable. Though I suppose I could argue that it does make journeys faster when time is becoming more scarce.

    In mitigation of my behaviour, I find that being a motorcyclist does give one more awareness of the dangers of speed, plus the fact that on a bike you are the most likely victim if anything goes wrong. As such, when I behave less than perfectly in a car I aim to make sure that there is a reasonable buffer between me and anyone else.

    Elsewhere here I’ve penned something on my abhorrence of the Donut, and I find all the screeching, tortured machinery part of driving fast anathema (a handbrake turn on a snowy road is quiet and graceful, if you pull it off). It pleases if I do things well and smoothly, smacking a car around just to see the figures rise has no interest at all.

  6. “Doing things well and smoothly”

    Indeed there is real joy in that. I’m against all form of brutality inflicted to either or both my body and the equipment I am using, whether I’m driving a car, riding a bike or skiing… Anticipating, avoiding unnecessary shocks, building up and maintaining momentum is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

  7. To be clear I didn´t take your previous post that way at all! It´s rather more that I am aware I could sound preachy and if so, was really preaching to myself.
    A sidebar on this subject is perceptions of speed. The closer the sides of the road the faster you feel at a given speed. 60 mph on a laneway feels blurrily fast but 60 mph on a motorway induces a coma. The difference? Roadwidth and the scarcity of objects immediately nearby. I notice around where I live the council felled a load of trees on a ring road. They did this widen…the cycle path (I clutch my head). The effect is, I think, to make drivers go faster at that stretch. And it makes it noisier for those who live by the side of that section. Pretty dumb, on the whole. I keep meaning to ask the council what they had in mind with that idiotic decision.

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