I might be dating myself a bit here, but I remember a time when too much horsepower was just that: too much horsepower. It almost sounds sacrilegious to utter such words today, but when I was a kid any car that had ridiculous amounts of horsepower was only good for two-lane blacktops, or showing off.
Most cars back then had four wheel drum brakes, manual steering boxes, rear leaf springs and the handling of a cruise liner – they weighed just about as much as one, too. And yes, that was when we walked five miles both ways, up hill and in the snow, to get to school. Actually, we really did, but I digress.
My best friend in elementary school, Mike, always showed me pictures of his dad’s race car. He was very nonchalant about it; it was no big deal to him because that was all he knew. My father was just a beer-drinking hardware tool salesman who allowed me to second-hand smoke his three packs-a-day. Since Mike’s dad drove a funny car for a living, my father didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of impressing me, not that he ever tried.
When I got around to driving, the only thing that mattered was if I could do a burnout. I didn’t really care so much about horsepower and torque, I just wanted to leave patches on the pavement. A pair of patches was more impressive, but even with a one-legger laying down some rubber was good enough for the masses, especially in the school parking lot.
Cars that had “too much” horsepower back in those days were only brought out at night, or on weekends, to race. There was nothing wrong with having gobs of horsepower, but it wasn’t what we called “streetable” horsepower. It just wasn’t feasible to drive a high horsepower car like that everywhere you went – even at about a buck a gallon for gas. I told you I was dating myself, didn’t I?
We did all sorts of things that our friends convinced us would give us more power. The very first modification we learned was to flip the lid of the air cleaner. It sounded better, and our butt-dyno assured us we had more horsepower. By today’s standards, that equates to adding a sticker.
When we began tinkering with cars, we installed aluminum intake manifolds, a bigger carburetor and headers. We thought that turning the idle mixture screws gave us more horsepower. Again, our ass-dyno assured us of it. We believed that more fuel meant more horsepower, but we were dumb kids and certainly didn’t know any better.
The more we talked to older, experienced guys, the more we learned about cars and horsepower. They taught us about blowers and turbos. We loved the idea of forced induction, but we thought you had to be rich to afford a supercharger, because it meant a complete new engine.
To this day, a 671 sticking through the hood is a real head-turner; and the blower’s whine is to any gear head what Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, 4th Movement is to people who drink tea with their pinky-finger sticking out.
Then the smog years were upon us and we went through a transition phase when fuel injection and dozens of sensors filled the engine bay. The smog years sucked, and the first time we saw 300 horsepower out of a fuelie wasn’t very impressive because we could easily achieve that with our carbureted engines.
We still loved our carburetors because the dozens of hoses and sensors that talked to computers were for Gramma cars, not ours. When manufacturers began tuning EFI systems and we started to see higher horsepower ratings, we regained our love for the automobile. When those figures began to jump even higher, so did our expectations – and our needs.
Times have changed
These days, 600 horsepower is the new 300 horsepower. Not only is it achievable with a bolt on supercharger or turbo kit, but it’s at the low end of where we’re headed when it comes to a modern V8 and forced induction. There are kits that will provide over 700 horsepower on a stock engine – and that’s to the rear wheels.
People these days don’t talk about their cars in terms of laying rubber halfway down the street like we did in the 70’s. They talk about how much power they get to the rear wheels, traction control, and about how easily they can change the fuel mapping with a hand-held tuner. It’s more important to get better 60-foot times than it is to lay rubber.
Not only are we seeing incredible horsepower and torque ratings, but we’re seeing impressive fuel economy figures as well. There are some engine builders who are building engines with 1000+, very streetable horsepower. With the upgraded suspensions that are being installed on classic cars, there seems to be no end to what we can do these days when we want more horsepower.
Remembering back a few years when a friend had to de-tune his 600 horsepower 1965 Dodge Coronet to make it more streetable, it almost sounds funny now to think he had said his car was “too difficult to drive in traffic”.
So is too much horsepower ever going to be enough? Honestly, 350 horsepower sounds lame on my muscle car when my friend’s ’05 supercharged Mustang is pumping out over 550 horses. I’ve thought about replacing my dual quads with fuel injection, or maybe even a newer power train with a blower. Of course, that’s going to have to wait until I upgrade the suspension, because it’s still a ’65 Plymouth with four-wheel drum brakes, and it would be hard to drive in traffic with all that horsepower.
Man, I really do feel old with all that old technology in my car. Okay, you can stop laughing.