Does top speed still matter?


Koenigsegg, the Swedish supercar manufacturer, has just announced the latest version of its Agera supercar, along with the news that it will be allegedly capable of 280mph, and I’d just like to say I couldn’t care less.

When did top speed become such a boring subject? As a child I was obsessed with it, diligently noting every time a new fastest car in the world was announced, even though the battle was usually between a Ferrari and Lamborghini, companies that then rarely let their claims be impeded by anything as tedious as reality. Later I read with rapt awe that the Porsche 959 had knocked on the door of 200mph, which was nothing compared to the elation I felt when the Ferrari F40 actually walked through it. Was this because I was young and ignorant or was top speed actually a rather more relevant figure then than now?

I think both. There was a time when top speed was probably the most important statistic a car manufacturer could wield because if your car could do 55mph and your rival’s only 45mph, that meant yours would cruise at 50mph and his at 40mph. This in turn meant yours could cover the 60 miles from London to Brighton in not than much more than a hour, while his would need an hour and a half. Or at least you could spin it that way. Now top speed is so unimportant most large manufacturers of fast cars deliberately limit their cars to 155mph allegedly to show how much they care about the planet, but actually to spare themselves the time, effort and expense of letting them go faster, a process that requires rather more than removing the limiter. To allow a car to run safely and unrestricted to, say, 200mph requires fundamental changes to the suspension, brakes, wheels, tyres and probably aerodynamics, incurring an unavoidable increase in unsprung mass evident at all speeds, all for an additional 45mph no one’s going to use.

Where is it all going to end? Now that there’s a Volkswagen you can buy that’ll do 268mph (it’s called the Bugatti Super Sport) I think we have to accept that the day of a standard production car capable of 300mph is not that far away. To know just how ludicrous is this prospect is, the next time your speedo accidently nudges 100mph imagine travelling three times as fast.

Of course speed, or at least the perception of it, is as much a factor of the environment in which you find yourself as the speed at which you’re travelling. I can remember trying to reach maximum speed in a TVR V8S on banked bowl and being so terrified by its bucking and weaving at 140mph that at the time it was the most frightened I’d been in a car without crashing. By contrast when I drove the aforementioned Bugatti up to nearly 220mph on a runway designed to handle V-bombers, it wasn’t much more difficult than sitting back, enjoying the ride and not missing your braking point.

To me a car’s top speed used to be interesting, but only because it gave some indication of another speed, that which you might be able to reach quickly and safely in a scenario that just about equating to the real world. So I guess I was fascinated by the F40’s ability to do 200mph because that meant it would probably squirt without delay up to around 180mph and on a long, dry, straight and empty autobahn that would be bloody exciting. But beyond that? Forget it. There have been many times when I’ve been in a position to do a legal 200mph on a public road but I never have. Somewhere you have to draw a line that says fast enough, and even in ideal conditions fun turns to fear before you get near such speeds and the entire point of the exercise is lost. At least for me.

So while I might admire a Bugatti Super Sport, it will be for its exquisite, ground-breaking engineering rather than its ability to get from here to a mile away in fewer than 15 seconds. What was once the holy grail of car design has become an unachievable irrelevance. If you’d told me 40 years ago that the more augmented this speed became the more diminished it would become I doubt I’d have believed you. But that is what it now is: an number on a dial no-one will ever see and from which no benefit will ever be derived, save by the manufacturer’s marketing department.

I’d love to do 300mph and still cherish a hope that one day I will. But if I do, it will be on the Bonneville Salt Flats, one of perhaps three places left on earth left where top speed still really matters.

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