PER­FOR­MANCE To­day even the slow­est Porsche 911 can hit 179mph

How tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments pushed the au­to­mo­tive en­ve­lope


It could be ex­pressed in a thou­sand dif­fer­ent ways just how much faster cars have be­come since 1928. Rather than com­pare the top speed of the Austin Seven, sub­ject of Au­to­car’s very first road test, with that of its mod­ern-day equiv­a­lent, for in­stance, let me in­stead of­fer you this: early in 1928, the land speed record stood at 207mph. In 300,000 years of hu­man his­tory, it was the fastest any per­son had trav­elled while still in con­tact with the sur­face of the earth. It took Blue Bird III, a 24-litre avi­a­tion en­gine, the flat sliver of land that is Day­tona Beach in Florida and the skill and brav­ery of that totem of hu­man en­deav­our, Mal­colm Camp­bell, to achieve it.

In 2018, any one of us who can af­ford to do so can walk into a Bent­ley show­room and buy a car that is ca­pa­ble of ex­actly the same top speed. To­day, the lux­u­ri­ous, op­u­lent, fully war­rantied and en­tirely un­de­mand­ing Con­ti­nen­tal GT is ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the same ter­mi­nal ve­loc­ity as the very fastest wheel-driven ma­chine mankind had yet de­vised in 1928. That is how far road car per­for­mance has come in 90 years. The bet­ter part of a cen­tury of steady evo­lu­tion – as well as the odd quan­tum leap for­ward – in en­gine, trans­mis­sion, tyre, aero­dy­namic and safety tech­nol­ogy has con­veyed the

hu­man race from there to here, so cars are faster in ev­ery con­ceiv­able mea­sure by an order of mag­ni­tude.

The for­ward strides that have been made in en­gine tech­nol­ogy alone are enor­mous. It was in 1921 that a Gen­eral Mo­tors re­search lab­o­ra­tory dis­cov­ered the ef­fec­tive­ness of tetraethyl-lead (leaded fuel to you and me) at re­duc­ing en­gine knock. Over the fol­low­ing years, leaded fu­els were re­fined and en­gi­neers were able to crank up com­pres­sion ra­tios. As a di­rect re­sult, fuel ef­fi­ciency and en­gine power out­puts shot up, and it would be decades be­fore leaded fu­els were phased out on en­vi­ron­men­tal and pub­lic health grounds.

In the decades that fol­lowed, en­gine in­no­va­tions con­tin­ued to rain down. Vari­able valve tim­ing, elec­tronic en­gine man­age­ment and, more re­cently, hy­brid pow­er­trains have helped to im­prove power out­puts while also re­duc­ing the amount of fuel be­ing burned.

Of course, mas­sive progress has also been made in trans­mis­sion and tyre tech­nol­ogy since 1928, all of it help­ing to make the world’s most ex­otic cars faster than ever and ev­ery­day cars much quicker than any Austin Seven driver could pos­si­bly have imag­ined.

The 1955 Mercedes-benz 300SL may have missed out to the Go­liath GP700 on be­ing the road-go­ing pioneer of fuel in­jec­tion, but it was a ground­breaker none­the­less, ca­pa­ble of 152mph flat out. That record would sub­se­quently be raised by the likes of the Fer­rari 365 GTB/4 Day­tona, the Mclaren F1 and the Bu­gatti Vey­ron as power out­puts climbed ever higher, while the forth­com­ing As­ton Martin Valkyrie is sold on the prom­ise of far greater on-track per­for­mance than that of any other road-le­gal car.

The Bent­ley 6½ Litre was armed with a wal­lop­ing 6597cc straight-six en­gine to make it one of the fastest cars you could buy in 1928, yet it could only man­age a top speed of 92mph. Progress could not come quickly enough. To­day, how­ever, we have surely come too far. Even the slow­est Porsche 911 you can buy has 365bhp and can hit 179mph. Sports cars have be­come too quick for the in­creas­ingly con­gested roads they are driven on, and in this blink­ered pur­suit of ev­er­higher speeds and faster ac­cel­er­a­tion, driver en­gage­ment and in­ter­ac­tiv­ity seem to have been side­lined.

Cars have come a very long way since 1928, not least in terms of their per­for­mance. To­day, how­ever, it isn’t yet more progress that we need but just a lit­tle regress.

The land speed record at the time of our first road test is within a Conti GT’S grasp to­day

Vey­ron was the star of 5000th road test

Th­ese sports car icons, the Fer­rari Day­tona (l) and Lam­borgh­ini Miura, were among the fastest things on Tar­mac in the late ’60s

Launched in 1954, the 300SL sur­passed 150mph

Oldsmo­bile Jet­fire had a turbo in 1962

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