The Fastest Cars in History
From 1894 to 1914, speeds achieved by the automobile rose exponentially, as did the complexity of their design. Engine layouts went from one cylinder to 12, from brakes on just the rear wheels to brakes all around. From steam engines to carbureted, four cylinder internal combustion engines. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen built around 1885, was the first car of its kind to reach a wind-whipping speed of, 10 mph. Within a decade, the steam powered Stanley Roundabout, was lightning fast by comparison, at 35 mph. As the car evolved and as speed became a priority, what wasn’t yet clear was the difference between race cars and road cars. Race tracks weren’t really a thing yet, so speed records, had to be done on public roads.
By the 1920’s cars were hitting speeds of over 100 miles per hour. The Duesenberg Model J, manufactured in Indiana, hit 119 miles per hour, and was followed by the company’s souped-up SJ model, which was said to do over 140 mph. The first man to make a serious attempt at the 200 mile an hour barrier was Sir Henry O’Neil de Hane Segrave in 1927. He would pilot a custom built land speed racer called the Sunbeam 1000HP Mystery Slug. The blood-red racer had two air-trap engines on board, one in front of Henry and one behind. When Segrave and the Sunbeam team took the car to Daytona Beach to go for the record, so many people showed up to watch that Henry had to abort a few test runs, because spectators were standing on the nine mile long course, just in the way. After police showed up to block people from being in the car’s way, Henry set off pushing the car to a blistering 200.66 miles an hour. After the run, Henry pressed on the brakes to slow down, but to his surprise the intense speed quickly burned his brakes out. So he had no choice but to drive into the ocean to slow down. After pulling the car out and making some repairs, Henry turned around and wend to another run, this time averaging 203 mph.
Seven years later, in 1935 Sir Malcolm Campbell was the first man to break the 300 mile an hour, in his Bluebird Streamliner. The sands of Daytona weren’t practical for such high speeds, so Campbell had to go all the way to the wide open Bonneville salt flats of Utah to set his record, a place that would soon become the Mecca of land-speed racing. After World War II, hot-rod culture was bustling with enthusiasts meeting in the deserts of Nevada and Bonneville, with the hope of breaking world speed records in their own customized rides. They would drive anything, from road-going roadsters to completely handmade streamliners fashioned out of fighter plane fuel tanks. While men like John Cobb and Craig Breedlove were smashing the 400, 500 and even 600 miles an hour records, things were going a little slower back in the production car world.
In 1949, the fastest car in the world was the Jaguar XK120, with a top speed of 120 miles an hour. While your buddy’s Hyundai might be faster today, 120 in a car meant for the road back then was very impressive.
The 1950’s brought the Aston Martin DB4 GT, which hit speeds of 153 miles an hour. With all the elegance and no one to possibly catch up in a high speed chase, it’s no wonder the Aston Martin became the car of Bond.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, Ferrari was at the top spot in the fast class with its Ferrari 365 GTB4 Daytona, which reached speeds of 174 miles an hour. Followed by the Berlinetta Boxer which was said to be able to reach speeds of 188. It wasn’t, but Ferrari still eked out its top spot as the fastest car in the 70’s. With the Berlinetta Boxer a bit of a let down, and the Porsche 050 taking the place as the world’s fastest car, Ferrari felt the heat and once again, answered the call.
In the 1980’s, the Ferrari F40 was the first production car to make it past 200 miles an hour, and became the super car of the decade. Once that barrier was broken, the gloves were off. The McLaren F1 reached a speed of 240 in 1998. The carbon fiber production car made 627 horsepower from its BMW V12 engine, making it the fastest car of its era. The Shelby SSC Aero followed and came roaring into the 21st century at 268 miles an hour, followed by the Hennessy Venom GT which holds the top spot at 301 miles an hour. The Hennessy has claimed to go from zero to 249, and back to zero in less than 30 seconds. But Hennessy has yet to confirm the speed with the Guinness Book of World Records, so the real top spot goes to the Koenigsegg Agera RS, at 278 mph. To make things official, Koenigsegg asked the Nevada Department of Transportation to close an 11 mile stretch of Route 160, where the 1,160 horsepower Agera RS hit 284.55 mph during its first run, and 271.19 during its second, for an average of 277.9 mph. So what’s holding streetcars back from 300 miles an hour? While cars like the Bugatti, Veyron and Chiron, Hennessy Venom and the Koenigsegg make monster horsepower numbers. That isn’t enough to break 300. There are two very big obstacles we need to overcome before we get there. The first being air. At low speeds, we don’t think about this much. But as you go past 200, it gets exponentially harder to go faster and faster, requiring more and more power to make gains of even 20 miles an hour. The SSC Ultimate Aero made 985 HP and reached 256. 13 years later, the Agera RS made 175 more horses but only went 22 miles an hour faster. Building engines capable of that sort of power takes a lot of know-how, especially if you wanna put it in a streetcar. But let’s pretend we didn’t have to worry about reliability and that we built an engine capable of 2,000 HP. And we have a super aerodynamic, street-legal and safe super car to put it in. Well, there’s still something holding us back, our tires. The faster you go, the more friction and heat you tires have to deal with.