The adage goes that it is sometimes more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car fast. You know, cars that seem to go fast while in fact going slowly.
With that in mind I had a look through my garage to see which of my cars best fit the bill. There was my 1937 Fiat Topolino. It has 13.5 horsepower and a top speed of 52mph. The speedometer reads in kilometres, so 50mph is 80km/h, but the sensation behind the wheel is more like 80 miles per hour!
Believe me, bobbing up and down at 50mph in a car with tiny wheelbarrow-sized wheels and tyres and rudimentary suspension can be frightening. Just trying to keep control as the girl in the lane next to you in her Honda Civic is texting and applying lipstick while maintaining the same speed.
The next to grab my eye was the Morgan three-wheeler. It has a 998cc two-cylinder JAP engine, sounds like a Gatling gun at full pelt, and gives a ridiculous sense of speed as it is just inches off the ground. Toyota Camrys loom like trucks as they pass you. I know, because I often end up reading their hubcaps at eye level.
One day I'm on Mulholland Drive in the Morgan, scaring myself silly, throttle wide open, and I come around a corner, rear end sliding. Just as I straighten out I see an LA policeman with his radar gun. It's aimed right at me so I figure he's got me so, as I pass him, I pull over and I wait. And wait. And nobody comes.
So I turn and pass in the other direction and I pull up next to him. Hi, how're you doing?' He says Good.' And I say 'I thought you were going to stop me.' He says Why? you were only doing 37mph. The speed limit says 45.' I think what gives the sensation is vibration, minimal suspension, and being extremely noisy. In the Morgan, all three come together, overwhelming your senses. But noise is not everything. My 1909 Baker Electric is one of the few vehicles that is taller than it is long. It looks like a phone booth on wheels. It has tiller steering and a top speed of 22mph and seems slow until you're going downhill. When you go downhill in a vehicle whose roof is taller than it is long, there is a tendency for it to become front-heavy. You find yourself thinking Hey, slow down, slow down! Take it easy! You're going 19!'
Speed limits originate from our perception of speed. When they came up with the highways here in America, people were taken for a ride in a modern car with a blanket over the speedometer and the driver would ask the passengers to say when it felt uncomfortable. And 65mph was what most people said felt fast. And that's sort of how they came up with the speed limit.
Till the day my dad died, he'd say Slow down, you're going a mile a minute!' I'd say Dad, we're in the F1 McLaren. We're doing almost three miles a minute'. A mile a minute to him was fast.
There is 110 reason for anyone to go over 18mph. Being a speed demon proves nothing!' It says that in the manual for the 1907 White steam car. You sit maybe six feet off the ground in the White, with no windshield. So 40mph seems fast enough. You get a real sensation of speed and the steam engine has so much torque. Now let's go to the ultimate in slow vehicles that scare you silly. I have a machine that is the most extreme example of frightening low speed. It is a 1906 Advance steam tractor. It weighs 13 tons, requires 250 gallons of water and. once you start the process of firing it up. It takes 90 minutes to pull away. It's been converted to run on propane because shovelling coal can get tiresome. It has steel wheels about 6 feet tall, which I've put rubber on so as not to tear up the road too badly. It's a steam tractor, used to plough fields. The guy I got it from had it at a tractor pull and he pulled 55,000lb with it. That's about 27 tons. On a sled.
The steering is by two massive chains, pulling to the left or the right. It takes two people to drive it, one to steer and one to work the throttle, clutch and brakes. Actually there are no brakes. What you do to stop is shut off the throttle, disengage the clutch, put it in reverse, let the clutch out and shudder to a halt.
Driving does not get much slower, or more exciting, than this. The sound is amazing. Hissing steam, a deafening whistle and the huge gears clanging. My buddy George and I took it out on the road last week and I said something I thought I'd never hear myself say. Slow down! We're going almost 4mph!'
“My 1909-Baker-Electric has a top speed of 22mph. You find yourself thinking 'Hey, slow down, slow down! Take it easy! You're going 19!”