60 mpg and 200mph

Cobra

In 1968, Warner Bros. recorded Bill Cosby during a live show at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe as he performed his now legendary “200mph” comedy bit. Cosby is a historic figure in the world of entertainment, and famous for his comic style, but for gearheads of almost any stripe, “200mph”is pure gold.

When I first heard this piece of stand-up comedy, it was on the flip side of a vinyl album played on my parent’s Zenith stereo console. I had little knowledge at the time of the significance of Carroll Shelby or the true potency of his Cobra sports cars, but as I gained that information later in life the impact of Cosby’s delivery became all the more hilarious. If you have never had the pleasure of this comedy gemstone, it’s available on iTunes or on Amazon for download as well as CD.

Cosby relates his experiences of driving high performance sports cars and his chance visit with Shelby, who ultimately talks him into buying a Cobra. The story of the delivery of the new car and his first test drive are side splitting as his sound effects and descriptions will keep you in stitches. I vividly remember roaring with laughter as he spoke about the shocking power of the Cobra, and how the fright of one drive turned his Italian racing shoes into sneakers.

I reflected back on this as I read a few days ago that the proposed CAFÉ standards for new cars may be set at 60mpg by the year 2025. While that seems like a shocking figure at first glance, a measure of perspective tells a different story. If we look at how far we’ve come in the last fifteen years then it isn’t hard to imagine the kind of heights we could reach in the fifteen years to come.

In 1995, Chrysler’s most potent offering was the Viper, boasting 400hp from its 8.0L V-10 engine. I find it rather poetic that Carroll Shelby was instrumental in the development of the Viper, which Chrysler President Bob Lutz saw as modern interpretation of the iconic Cobra. The Viper was a halo car, and as such was produced in very small numbers. The next step in a high performance car offered by Chrysler at the time was the twin-turbo Stealth R/T, which was built in Japan, and was initially slated to be the pace car for the Indy 500 in 1991. The UAW cried foul over the possibility of that happening, and it was another element that brought the Viper to light, and the prototype car piloted by Shelby himself eventually assumed the pace car duties.

As a side note, I find this whole episode slightly ironic since the Indy race is now dominated by Italian Dallara chassis powered by Honda engines. We still put American iron in the pace car slot, but none of what we build is competitive in the most legendary race of our country. Go figure.

Both General Motors and Ford offered performance versions of their respective ponycars, the Camaro and Mustang, but neither broke the 300hp figure for the 1995 model year. Today, both automakers offer base six cylinder engines generating that level of horsepower while delivering fuel mileage in the 30mpg neighborhood.

Despite all of Chrysler’s financial woes over the last decade and a half, they have still managed to deliver cars to the showroom that were competitive. While still not breaking the 300hp mark, the 300M was an impressive version of the LH platform that offered big car room, spirited handling and fuel economy at or above its counterparts.

If someone had told me in 1995 that Chrysler would soon release a modern version of its famed Hemi V8 engine, and it would be installed in full-sized, RWD car that still got 25mpg, I would have rolled my eyes and laughed. Yet that is exactly what they delivered, and they continue to refine and improve on that platform of Chargers, Challengers and 300s.

While the advances in horsepower and fuel economy have been impressive, that’s still a far cry from a 60mpg fleet average. Yet with the release of the Chevy Volt, which looks to get a rating of about 75mpg, the face of the game is rapidly changing. Hyundai has patented a new polymer cased battery for their hybrid vehicles that is considerably lighter than any other in the market, and this year marks the first time any automaker has gone racing with hybrid technology as Porsche fielded one of its 911 racers equipped with electric power to its front wheels.

Every major automaker is researching hybrid technology as means to hit those elusive mpg numbers, and the results will surely have its share of failures, but the success stories will reshape the automotive landscape. Some will bemoan this trend as the end of the performance car, but that is a song we have heard more than once.

I personally never would have thought a turbo diesel powered car would be the dominant force at Le Mans, yet the Peugeot 908 and the Audi R10/15 continue to set new lap time records far ahead of any gasoline powered car. The Audi twin-turbo, direct injected V12 displaces a mere 5.5L, yet produces a phenomenal 650hp and over 900 lbs/ft of torque, and those figures are not the maximum the engine is capable of producing, but since reliability and fuel efficiency are major factors in endurance racing, a compromise must be struck.

Audi showcased a “streetable” version of this engine in one of its R8s as a teaser that it might see production. The de-tuned version was a 5.9L cranking out 500hp and 740 lbs/ft of torque with a projected top speed of 200mph, all while delivering 24mpg.

In 2002, Acura showed a concept called the DN-X, which they called a four-door sports car. A mid-mounted 3.5L V-6 powered the rear wheels while electric motors powered the front, resulting in 400hp combined with 42mpg economy.

Concept cars have always shown how innovative car makers are capable of being, but bringing that technology to production is monumental task. My cross-country drive this past summer gave me just a taste of the many different environments that the modern car must be able to function in, from high altitudes and freezing cold to dusty flatlands and scorching heat, and no matter where we live, we expect to get in our cars, hit the ignition and be on our merry way. The engineering it takes to make that happen day or night, rain or shine is something to be respected and admired.

Will automakers be able to hit the magic 60mpg number? I’m thinking that they will, and even if they don’t, I’m willing to wager they will come very close. I always take heart in the fact somewhere in the design departments of every automotive studio, there are people who love cars just as much as I do, and they are forever looking forward to building the next new phenomenal machine.

My annual visit to the New York Auto Show is a testament to that fact, and it’s very good to see Chrysler on the rise once more. The glimpse of the new 2011 Charger was the tip of an iceberg as each newly refreshed model in the Chrysler line-up gets more impressive.

Big Hemi, little Hemi or hybrid Hemi; the names and sizes wont really matter as long as the driver seat stirs the soul, and I firmly believe that element will live on as long as people like us demand cars that move us with passion.

Just like Bill Cosby, I also own a pair of Italian racing shoes.

– T. August Green

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