It was October of 2004. I was watching the speedometer hold steady at 140 mph as I rocketed down Highway 395 in Nevada headed toward the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley.
I was reviewing the new Ford GT for The New York Times, and I was the first journalist turned loose with the car without a horde of Ford handlers observing every move.
Accompanying me was SCM “Legal Files” columnist John Draneas. In the review, I wrote, “My co-pilot was a lawyer who specializes in auto-related issues; if I was stopped for speeding, he was prepared to tell the officer that I was legally blind and incapable of reading the speedometer.”
The GT was rock-steady at triple-digit speeds. I spent more time fussing with the finicky climate controls than I did worrying about the handling.
Today, I’m not sure I’d repeat this high-speed drive.
Big and small together
During my decades with new and old cars, I’ve had a chance to drive everything from 1-cylinder Isettas to modern 12-cylinder Ferraris. I’ve held a land-speed record (briefly) at Bonneville in a supercharged Alfa Romeo. I’ve put thousands of miles on Vipers when Chrysler was a sponsor of the California Mille.
Today, the SCM garage houses cars with engines that range from a 600-cc opposed air-cooled twin to a thundering 8,000-cc V10. In between those extremes are a host of twin-cam 4-cylinder engines ranging in size from 1,400 cc to 2,000 cc, a twin-turbo 3,600-cc flat six and a 2,500-cc 4-cylinder turbo diesel.
You might assume there is a direct connection between the horsepower of a car and the “fun factor” it has.
Surprisingly, less is more.
We automotive enthusiasts live in a rapidly changing world. Soon enough we will have the option of autonomous cars that will relieve us of mind-numbing driving when commuting or covering long distances on the Interstate.
Not only do new cars emit far fewer emissions, by any measure they are infinitely safer than our old cars. The steering column on vintage Alfas is a straight piece of steel that goes directly from the front axle centerline to the horn button, and it is aimed directly at your chest. We call this “Safety by Lancelot.”
The SCM car I drive the least is our 2000 Dodge Viper GTS ACR coupe. It has covered just over 10,000 miles and is, for all intents and purposes, a new car.
However, I find that it simply has more power than I can use on the street without feeling like I am driving in a dangerous and stupid manner.
According to MuscleCarGarage.com, I can be at 80 mph at 6,000 rpm in second gear — which makes me illegal anywhere in Oregon, and there are four gears left to go. The Viper gets to triple-digit speeds with no discernible effort.
I contrast this with my 1965 Alfa Giulia Spider Veloce. Last year on an Alfa tour, on a very long, straight stretch (probably going slightly downhill), I saw my speedometer needle touch 100 mph, with the tachometer indicating an engine speed of 5,500 rpm. As this was a vintage Alfa, my actual road speed was probably somewhere between 85 and 110 mph.
Nonetheless, it was clear that the car was straining. I wouldn’t have wanted to have to stop quickly or swerve. If a jackrabbit bounded onto the road — or a rock rolled down from the road-side hills — I would have been in trouble. After a minute or so, I backed off down to a comfortable 4,000 rpm, which was probably somewhere under 80. Even with skinny tires and vintage brakes, I felt I had some evasive capabilities available to me at that speed.
Contrast this with the Ford GT at 140 mph. We were covering two-thirds of a football field — 240 feet — every second. If we had come around a turn and found a cow standing in the road, we would have been toast. As your speed increases, no matter how competent your vehicle, your stopping and turning options decrease.
Make mine tiny
As we increasingly use our old cars for recreation rather than for functional daily tasks, I am drawn towards cars with small displacement — where I have to work hard to make them do things like keep up with traffic.
Recently, the SCM Méhari has been the smile-maker of choice. A ridiculous vehicle, it was purchased from Seattle-based Cosmopolitan Motors at a Silver Auction in Fountain Hills, AZ, last January. I had driven one in Martinique decades ago, and owning one became an itch I had to scratch.
According to Bill Lonseth, a former Citroën parts manager for the Western U.S., our car was one of a batch sold to Budget Rent A Car for use on Maui in 1971.
Eight-year-old Bradley calls it our “French Golf Cart,” and it gets a nonstop series of happy waves as we drive (sedately) down the road.
While I’d much rather take the 1967 Alfa GTV or the 2001 Porsche 911 Twin Turbo if I had to cover large distances, for mundane running around, the Méhari turns every outing into an urban safari.
The essence of motoring
I’m finding that as the driving environment changes, and my own feelings about cars evolve, I am drawn to vehicles that require me to master them to get satisfaction. I want my cars to be full of weird, unlabeled switches. I want the gearboxes to reward me when I execute a shift properly — and to punish me with horrible grinding sounds when I don’t get it right.
John and I put over 1,000 miles on the Ford GT in a quick three-day run, and every mile was glorious. The voluptuous curves of the GT in its striking red-with-white-stripes livery were gorgeous. And it did everything we asked it to do without muss or fuss.
But today if I were going on a 1,000-mile trip through Yosemite National Park and down the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas to Death Valley, the GT wouldn’t be my ride of choice. I’d pick something that would go much slower but would feel much faster. It’s the visceral feel of the journey I’m interested in, not the triple-digit number on the speedometer. ♦