The greatest thing about our passion is the fact that it’s only about 150 years old. If we were all Bible scholars, instead of petrolheads or gearheads, we’d be spending our days poking around in the searing heat out in the desert somewhere. Instead we get to go to cities like Modena, Stuttgart, Detroit and Paris. Or even Woking.
/ #McLaren-P1 / #McLaren / #2015 / #2015-McLaren-P1
When I was a teenager my life was muscle cars. I used to feel sorry for people who grew up in the 1920s and ’30s because cars seemed so slow back then. But the more knowledge I gained, the further back I wanted to go. That’s the reason I got interested in steam. I wanted to know what came before the internal combustion engine.
Steam ran the world from the 1800s until the opening decade of the 20th Century, just as the internal combustion engine ruled the world from the 20th Century to the dawn of the new millennium. Sure, the internal- combustion engine is still around, but the writing is on the wall. A child born this year will most likely not ride in an internal-combustion vehicle as an adult, just like most kids in America today have never been in a manual-shift car.
I now realise that every decade had its supercars. In 1906 Fred Marriott, driving a Stanley Steamer, set a world land speed record of 127.6mph on the beach at Daytona, Florida, that record stood for 103 years as a steam car’s peak speed achievement until it was broken by a British three-ton, two-stage turbine-driven steam car which only went a hair over 20mph faster - over 100 years later.
Another early supercar I lusted after, and was fortunate enough to acquire, was the 1918 Pierce Arrow Model 66. The Pierce 66, as it was popularly called, still holds the distinction for being the largest production engine ever put in a car. It has six cylinders with a total displacement of 825 cubic inches, that’s 14 litres.
The pistons are the size of paint cans and the engine has three spark plugs per cylinder. It needs three spark plugs because the combustion chambers are so huge, the bore is 5in, the stroke is 7in and the wheelbase is 147.5in. Horsepower is rated conservatively at 125. This car is a torque monster. One time when I was pulling away from a traffic light I thought to myself, it feels a bit sluggish, then I realised I was in fourth gear.
The twilight of the 1920s brought what has to be the greatest American classic of all time, the Duesenberg Model J. A straight-eight, twin-cam, 7-litre masterpiece, with four valves per cylinder and 265bhp. Or 320bhp when fitted with the optional supercharger, this was at a time when 100bhp was considered exceptional. It was also the first American car to be fitted with four-wheel hydraulic brakes. Between the braking, the horsepower and the handling, it’s one of the few cars of the 1920s that you could actually drive today in modern traffic with no problem at all. Assuming, of course, you have massive biceps and a strong left leg.
Another thing you learn when you study automotive history is that there is really nothing new under the sun. Four-valve heads, twin cams, hemispherical combustion chambers, even hybrid cars are nothing new. All these things existed before the First World War. One of Ferdinand Porsche’s first cars was a hybrid: the 1899 Lohner Porsche, which was front-wheel drive and had its electric motors in the front hub. And since battery technology was still in its infancy, he had two small gasoline engines directly powered to a generator, providing the electricity to the front wheels. Sounds like the future, doesn’t it?
When I was a teenager, the King of the Hill was the Chrysler Hemi - a massive V8 with two four-barrel carburettors and an unheard-of 425bhp. It really ticked all the boxes, the one I have is in a 1970 Dodge Challenger with a four-speed transmission and the hilarious pistol-grip shifter. It’s painted Hemi orange with a black vinyl roof and matt accents on the hood. It handles like a bowling ball on a waterbed but that doesn’t matter because it goes like stink in a straight line. Or it seemed like it did, back in the day, when 0-60 in 6.3sec was as good as it got. And 13.1sec quarter-mile times were all it took to beat everything else out there, all the while getting nine miles to the gallon. On a good day.
Unfortunately, today driving a ’70s muscle car is like walking around with a rolled-up sock in your pants. It looks impressive until a kid in a hot hatchback blows your doors off while still getting 30 miles to the gallon.
In this era of McLaren-P1s, Corvette ZR1 s, Bugattis and Koenigseggs, there are probably kids now looking back at my era and feeling sorry for me. Why? Because cars were so much slower then.
‘A CHILD BORN THIS YEAR WILL MOST LIKELY NOT RIDE IN AN INTERNAL- COMBUSTION CAR AS AN ADULT'