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Classic Velocity Blog

The Illusion of Speed

Classic Velocity

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Racing school instructors all roll out the old adage that fast is slow. Famous racing drivers talk about being in the zone where speed turns into slow motion. Smooth is fast, calm is fast. It seems that collective wisdom has reached consensus. In order to go fast, you must actually be slow. This theory fits perfectly with the vintage car/bike world. In fact the very name of this blog, Classic Velocity, is one of those potential automotive oxymorons that isn't. If you drive or ride something old, then you probably know what the top speed was when it was new. You have probably spent some time coaxing your old steed to get up close to that original speed and perhaps exceed it.

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The thing is, getting anywhere close to that top speed feels very fast. It feels very fast regardless of the fact that it is clearly slow compared to anything modern. It feels very fast regardless of the actual speed you are going. In the Bookends II posting, I referenced the fact that exceeding 50 MPH on the R50 felt like I was flying along. In stock trim, cornering at that speed with earles forks can be on the ragged edge. Speed in the 911 is measured more accurately by the Tachometer than by the Speedometer. The wail of the engine brings a sense of speed that makes the MPH irrelevant.

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I remember doing a "parade" lap around the original Watkins Glen course. We were flying along in parts and got a little sideways in a corner or two in the mixed group of old and new BMWs as we tried to keep up with a 2 year old 5 series sedan. We emerged from the car exhilerated at the hypervelocity. The 5 series pilots told us that they were frustrated at not being able to use more of the car's potential, because the E30 in front was holding them up. We later discovered that we were all going slower than old guys in slacks and sportshirts in postwar cars with  mechanical brakes on bias ply tires narrower than those on my mountain bike.

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A month ago or so, I got a chance to demo the new S1000RR sportbike. during the demo ride, I hit 90 MPH, a couple of times. It did not feel fast. Back in the parking lot, I realized that I had at most used half of the available rev range of the bike. I had probably not gotten into the meat of the powerband. The VW Karmann Ghia that once occupied the garage did 0-60 in a week or so. However, once it got up to ummmm....speed...it was blasting along at 65 MPH. You maintained that speed by capitalizing on momentum.

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If you've seen the film Rendezvous, then you know that it feels fast just watching it. Why does a given speed feel faster in a tunnel ? Why is 70 MPH slow on the interstate. It is all relative of course. You combine, driver, machine, and setting to produce a cocktail that manifests itself in a sense of speed. I would submit then that a vintage vehicle is the best place to experience speed. You can do so without exceeding posted limits in some cases. You can test the ragged edge without the fatal consequences of doing so in your Bugatti Veyron. You can operate the vehicle at 8 or 9/10ths. I don't know about you, but I experience speed everytime I take a vintage vehicle out for a drive.