Speed Culture: Why?

Published January 9, 2018 in Warp & Woof

  Speed Culture: Why?

William Sundwick

Origins of Speed

In the earliest days of the automobile, the “horseless carriage” era, all cars were mechanical curiosities. They were playthings for the rich and adventurous. None were particularly reliable, but many startups sought to sell something new and different to a privileged few.
When the Model T became a true mass market phenomenon by the 1920s, a consolidation began in the auto industry. Soon, there were far fewer choices in a price range that many people could afford. Mechanical reliability became the norm. As the number of choices for affordable, reliable transportation diminished, and sales, especially of the “T,” continued to grow, a large supply of spare parts, easy to fabricate, entered the market. Another big thing characterizing the 1920s in America was Prohibition. It created an unanticipated new market for bootleggersto build cars that could outrun the police on country roads, an “outlaw” market.

Then, the Depression hit. Prohibition was repealed, but the popular glamorization of the bootlegger’s “souped up jobs,” modifications to older low-priced Fords or Chevrolets (since nobody could afford new ones) created a fad among a certain set of young men, in California at first. Ford added fuel to the fire by introducing a daring new design in 1932 – a V8 engine that would sell in the same price

class as previous Model A four cylinders, and would match the performance (i.e., straight line acceleration and top speed) of its main competitor, the six-cylinder Chevrolet. The Ford “flathead” V8 became the basis for an entire culture of speed and amateur racing on Southern California’s dry lakebeds.

The “after-market” in parts for Model T and Model A four-cylinder engines was already established. Some of those same shops easily shifted to V8 “speed parts.” Better still for the new racing hobby, Model T and A chassis’ could easily accommodate the V8. Bingo – “hot rods” were born! 

Bodies (usually roadsters) were stripped to the barest essentials. Fenders, seats, tops, all sacrificed to lighten the load that the modified engine would move. The cars were still drivable from communities like Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena to the dry lakes where they would race. But these cars were often unsafe to drive on public roads and streets. Especially, since they encouraged breaking speed limits.

NHRA Solves Social Problem

As hot rod top speeds approached 100 mph, public outcry grew louder about safety. The typical American disdain for idle young men (unemployed, under-educated, easy targets for gang recruitment) played a role. Street racing became a social problem. Finally, in 1951, the National Hot Rod Association was formed, founded by Wally Parks, and set about opening officially sanctioned and regulated “dragstrips” around the country, often on abandoned airfields disused since the end of World War II. Returning veterans added respectability to the hobby, many having gained mechanics’ skills during their service. With the help of the NHRA, drag racing became professional.

Early dry lakes racing had been organized and officiated by the Southern California Timing Association, and the standard ¼ mile straight line course (1320 ft.) was established by them. The NHRA, however, invented the “Christmas tree” light system to control staging between two

competitors in adjacent lanes. Another NHRA institution – various classes – became the basis for dizzying complexity in the sport. One could game the system by qualifying in the most advantageous class. But, full exploitation of this tactic didn’t come until the 1960s.

Detroit Discovers Speed

Cued to the popularity of the “speed culture,” Detroit continued development of mass-produced V8 engines from the late ‘40s on. In the 1950s, America was becoming an automobile obsessed country – especially for young, new drivers. The growth of suburbia and improving highway infrastructure also facilitated a motorized transformation of society, everywhere except in central urban cores.
In 1955, Chevrolet introduced its “small block” V8, soon eclipsing the old flathead Fords in everybody’s hot rods – it outperformed even the most “souped up” Fords due to its efficient 

overhead-valve cylinder head design. Even straight “out of the crate” from the factory, the horsepower of these relatively light weight engines left the best rebuilt Fords in the dust (in fairness, there was one after-market supplier of overhead valve cylinder heads for the “flattie,” starting about the same time – Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Belgian immigrant and Le Mans race driver, who had been instrumental in the development of the Chevrolet V8).

By 1958, the NHRA had begun racing its “stock” classes and “super stock” classes (the latter were factory produced high performance cars sold in limited numbers through ordinary Chevrolet, Ford, or Dodge dealers). This created what was known at the time as a “horsepower race” among the Detroit manufacturers – they were competing among themselves for the highest possible SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) horsepower rating of their production engines, presumably as a spur to greater sales. All these engines were large displacement V8s. Indeed, volumetric dimensions of the eight combustion chambers were probably the main determinant of horsepower rating in those days. Other design featureslike multiple carburetors, higher compression ratio, intake and exhaust manifold shape, were relatively minor contributors to raw power.

Soon, a new breed of “stock” automobile emerged from Detroit – the “muscle car.”  This took the existing engine design technology (basically, bigger displacement) and placed it in a lighter body. The

archetype muscle car was the Pontiac GTO, introduced as a 1964 model. By 1968, all domestic manufacturers had a competitor – a mid-size sedan packing a very large V8 originally intended for much heavier vehicles. At about the same time, a new class of car, even smaller, was also introduced, the Ford Mustang. While not originally fitted with Ford’s largest V8s, the transition came soon enough – with the help of the NHRA. Why not something even smaller and lighter than those mid-size sedans to house the big engines? “Pony cars” (Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds, Barracudas, Challengers, Javelins) became the new muscle cars.

Speed Dies and is Reborn

Then came the 1970s. First it was the Feds – new emissions requirements forced on Detroit automakers (and imports) effectively strangled the horsepower output of all engines beginning about 1971. Although not connected to the new emissions requirements, manufacturers agreed to use SAE “net” horsepower ratings rather than “gross.” This measured engine output through the exhaust system rather than at the flywheel. The alleged “high performance” offerings from all domestic makers lost up to 100 hp overnight! Since 1972, only SAE net ratings have been advertised. As the ‘70s continued, foreign policy also had a big effect on the auto market in the United States. There were two successive “oil shocks” – in 1973 following the Yom Kippur War, and again in 1980, following the Iranian revolution. American dependence on Mideast oil became painful to all – but, none more than the high- performance enthusiast. The third blow to the speed culture was the insurance industry. In the mid-seventies, they collaborated in raising rates for what they deemed “high performance” cars. These situations made it uneconomic (in the case of emissions, illegal) to do anything meaningful about boosting performance of your daily driver, and Detroit followed suit. Muscle cars died a slow and agonizing death. The “GTO” badge, for example, became trim only, divorced from engine choice, and disappeared completely by 1975.
Unforeseen at the time, however, the whole world of performance – yes, horsepower — would rise again from the ashes, like a phoenix. Starting in the nineties, and continuing today, new technologies built around digital EEPROM Engine Control Units (ECUs), fuel injection, turbochargers or superchargers, cheaper gas, and much safer cars (thanks to those Feds!) have all contributed to a renaissance. And, not least, a new class of young drivers, including recent immigrants, who embody some of the same socio-economic characteristics as those depression-era California dry lakes racers. They may be idle, without much formal education, but gifted with a spirit of competition and a cult of ingenuity. They’re more likely to choose small imports nowadays, rather than “Detroit iron,” but the impetus seems to be the same.
What is that impetus? Cars are both economic necessity and ego extension (Freudians might call them phallic symbols). They express desire for social status, despite lack of financial resources. Also, that natural thrill of competition, and creativity through mechanical ingenuity, all contribute to the “speed culture.”

Drag racing has become international. In Australia, it’s almost on equal footing with the U.S. Sweden, Finland, and the U.K. also have active groups with organizing associations. There is a vigorous after-market in bolt-on turbochargers and superchargers, and compatible replacement ECUs with programming kits. 
Not to miss an opportunity, Detroit has once again jumped into the fray. What’s with the 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon? The newly introduced factory drag machine from FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) loads a race built 6.2-liter Chrysler hemi V8, with supercharger, rated at 840 hp (SAE net)! Far removed from the 300 or so horsepower (SAE gross) of the 1950s super stocks. The car is “street legal,” which means that it can legally be driven to and from the dragstrip — much like those early dry lakes hot rods. But, its real purpose is to win drag races. It is clearly optimized for ¼ mile acceleration. As such, it is touted as the fastest production car ever manufactured by a volume auto-maker. Under ten seconds for that quarter-mile run, accelerates 0-60 mph in 2.3 seconds, exerting a force on driver of 1.8g. Something like NASA!
And, you can buy it for a mere $86,000 right off the floor of your local Dodge dealer (still ~$6000 less than a standard 370 hp Porsche 911). FCA plans to make 3000 of them. Why? Because it thinks it can sell that many!

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