I was driving along at a pretty good clip, maybe a mile over the 55 limit, through a rural landscape, on a beautiful summer morning, under clear skies. Around a gentle sweeping turn I had to slow down for traffic: two cars meandering along the highway. At best, on the straight stretches, we were speeding along at 45, slowing when the road curved or started up an incline. I was in no greater hurry than usual to get to an appointment, and had been content to amble along at the speed limit, and now I seemed to barely be moving forward. Still not late, and knowing that there were passing zones ahead, I let my thoughts linger over the question of why some people, including the drivers ahead of me, would buy vehicles of two- or three-hundred horsepower in order to drive (alone) at forty or forty-five miles an hour.
I have driven small cars for most of the 60+ years I’ve been licensed, with occasional forays into high-performance or otherwise over powered vehicles but never stayed with them very long. I’ve owned big 8 cylinder and more modern six cylinder cars and trucks, with enough power to move quickly the overweight carriages attached to them. I had one V-8 powered sports car (used as much for sport as for transportation), and of all of the vehicles I’ve owned, only that one was truly capable of more than 100 miles-per-hour. I know because on at least two occasions, I saw the needle sweep past that magic mark. Thrilling, exciting and (because this was in the early 1960s) dangerous. It is strange to feel the front end of a car lift off the road. I didn’t sustain the run past 112 miles per hour. Of course the accuracy of the instrument providing that number was perhaps off by five per cent, but still, I had crossed the line.
In those years you had to buy a purpose-built vehicle, a sports car, to be able to drive as fast in the mountains as I do today with almost any passenger vehicle. There has been that much technical advancement in the suspension and tire department world-wide.
My primary vehicle today is a small, 4-door that would be called a station wagon in earlier times, powered by a 4-cylinder engine of about 130 horsepower, coupled to an automatic transmission that is probably at lot smarter than I am, and I can easily run up and down the mountains with little use of the brakes and appropriate use of the accelerator. On the open road, if the law allows, I can easily cruise at 80 or even 90 miles an hour. The speedometer is electronic, and stop-watch/odometer tests indicate that it has no more error than tire-slippage can induce, so I am confidant of my numbers. But 90 wouldn’t leave me any room to go, I know that, too.
So as I rolled along, I returned to my original question: why buy a car of great horsepower if you aren’t going to need or use it? Then I looked down to check my speed and realized that here, in this economy car, my speedometer face assures me that regardless of what I do, should I be able to coax this vehicle to go faster than 90 miles per hour, I’ll still be able to know exactly how fast I am traveling because the dial has numbers up to 150 miles per hour! Now that’s optimism. And then my thoughts leave the road, as it were, for less traveled places. I wonder why we want instruments that measure things we can never achieve.
It’s sort of like politicians: we know they won’t deliver what they promise, but we keep on buying them anyway.