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The Evolution of Speed – The relentlessly increasing speed of cars

Human beings have had a relatively short time to get used to the concept of speed. Other than falling off a cliff a short-lived and ultimately pointless thrill the horse was the easiest way for our ancestors to achieve a velocity-induced adrenaline rush. Indeed, it wasnt too long ago that the speeds we take utterly for granted nowadays seemed incomprehensible. During the first days of Stephensons Rocket, a commentator of the day was heard to say:
the engine shot along the road at the incredible rate of 32 miles in the hour.So astonishing was the celerity with which [it] darted past the spectators, that it could be compared to nothing but the rapidity with which the swallow darts through the air.
Another, lucky enough to hitch a ride, proclaimed:
we flew along at the rate of a mile and a half in three minutes; and the velocity [30 mph] was such that we could scarcely distinguish objects as we passed by them.
It did not take too long for people to become used to these super-equine speeds, however. With the advent of the automobile, mans competitive nature encouraged people to race their machines and search for more and more performance. This came about as early as the beginning of the twentieth century: the history of the sports car can be traced back to a 1910 Vauxhall.
It was in the 1960s that the phrase supercar became common parlance, having been used by the famous motoring journalist L.J.K. Setright to describe the phenomenal new Lamborghini Miura. This was a car that produced 350hp, could get to 60 miles per hour in less than 7 seconds and would not run out of puff until 170.
Stop. Read those numbers again. Are you slightly underwhelmed?
It isnt a surprise if you are. Those statistics look so, well, normal in these days of AMG Mercedes and Ariel Atoms. Even the humble Golf GTi puts the headline acceleration figure to shame.
Just imagine though how overwhelming that would have been in 1966, when the bestselling car in the UK was the Austin Morris 1100 (top speed 78 miles per hour). The Lamborghini must have seemed as extra-terrestrial as Stephensons Rocket did to the horse-riding observer.
Over the years though, the yawning gaps between the supercar and the more down to earth run around have certainly decreased or even been surpassed in some cases. For example, there is now a BMW 1-series that, although not quite as powerful, is much, much faster, easier to drive and certainly safer than the Miura. The BMW costs less than one years average annual salary; in its day, the Lambo cost more than twice that figure.
Indeed, there is now a car available in almost every niche you can think of that will surpass the performance of that original pioneering supercar. Need a 4×4? The Porsche Cayenne Turbo has an extra 150hp on the Miura and is quicker to 60 miles per hour by more than two seconds. Something more subtle perhaps? An Audi RS6 Avant then, an estate car faster and more than one and a half times as powerful as the Lamborghini.
Nowadays, then, so called supercar performance is available to the masses. The privileged few even get to use them for the daily chores a search of YouTube will bring up dozens of clips of 458 Italias, GT3s, and Audi R8s grinding through London traffic. We praise Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo for introducing to the world the first everyday usable Ferrari in the shape of the 550 Maranello. Every Waitrose car park in the land will almost certainly contain a V8 Vantage or two. All this has caused a further shift and a lurch to the extreme: mere supercars are no longer enough.
Now we have progressed to the hypercar, an extremely rarefied selection of exotica manufactured by companies such as Pagani, Koenigsegg and Bugatti. These beasts are even less available to the public as the Miura was in its day, costing up to and over 1 million. Their performance is astounding; to put their abilities into context, the Bugatti Veyron is almost as accelerative as a contemporary Formula 1 car, and actually has a greater top speed.
There is a yet more impressive seam of performance to be mined by the modern motorist though. The track-oriented cars being produced by the likes of Radical and Caterham are even more remarkable than their hypercar cousins. Around 60,000 will buy you a second-hand Radical SR8, holder of the Nurburgring production car record. This is actually faster than the track-only, non-road legal Ferrari 599XX. Which will cost you 1.2 million. If Ferrari invites you to buy one…
That this development, improvement and progress has occurred over a period of oil price rises, speed cameras, health and safety and ever greater congestion is nothing short of miraculous. It is difficult to know where it will end with the first road car capable of 300 miles per hour? The first car with 2000 bhp?
Certainly we have never lived in a period where such astonishing ability has been so available to so many people.
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