By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
In the ’80s, when most cars were slow, you could drive fast and mostly get away with it. Or at least you could do it and (usually) not risk a beating — or a shooting.
True, you’d get a ticket if you got caught. But speeding wasn’t all that big a deal back then. Tazers did not exist. Guns were still wheelguns, not high-capacity autoloaders — and rarely drawn — almost never used. There was an element of good humor in the cat and mouse game between speedy drivers and the police. They knew you weren’t a criminal (assuming all you were doing was driving fast) and didn’t, as a rule, treat you as if you’d just blown up a building. And we knew — as a rule — that most cops weren’t thugs — and (usually) could at least be talked to, even if talking didn’t get you out of the ticket.
We were a lighter-hearted people then.
Today, cars are much more powerful and far faster than they were back then — than they have ever been — but we hardly dare use them for fear of extreme repercussions, legally and otherwise. Things are no longer good clean fun. In some states, it’s an automatic “reckless driving” beef the moment you get nabbed going faster than 20 mph over the posted limit, no matter how silly the limit might be. Or (as in Virginia) get caught driving faster than 80 MPH — anywhere.
Do either and you’re in danger of being cuffed and stuffed on the spot — and of losing your license for several months upon conviction. It will cost you hundreds in fines if you lose — and hundreds if you win, to pay the lawyer.
We have a major secondary road here where the speed limit drops — for no obvious or at least good reason — from 45 to 35 on a downhill stretch. Most traffic is already doing at least 45 because (as is common) the speed limit amounts to the low-average flow of traffic speed. Two-thirds of the drivers are doing slightly more than the speed limit — as is the case everywhere, just about. It is no big deal. It is not unsafe. But it is illegal — and once the limit drops by another 10 MPH it’s all to easy to find yourself right on the edge of a “reckless driving” beef.
And on the highway, it’s worse — ironically, because speed limits are more reasonable now. It’s 70 on many Virginia interstates. So most cars are running about 5 over.
But the law says over 80 is “reckless.”
It’s ridiculous — but it’s also the reality. And it’s a reality that spoils the joy of owning something speedy.
What’s the point? Use it — even a little bit — and you’ll lose it.
It’s an automotive Catch 22 to have access to vehicles with Autobahn capability (a current V-6 Camry can easily do 130-plus MPH) in a country where you can’t legally or realistically drive much faster than 80 or so for more than a few furtive seconds without risking a potential legal and financial impaling- and where getting caught doing more than 90 will send much worse your way.
Including very possibly bullets.
What’s the point of owning a machine that you can’t enjoy more than about 60 percent of what’s on tap without risking a Life Changing Experience at the hands of the enforcers?
I tested out a 2011 Corvette Grand Sport recently. It’s only the third most powerful Corvette you can buy right now (the next two, the Z06 and ZR-1, make the Grand Sport seem almost piddly). In a car like this, fourth, fifth and sixth gears are functionally useless from other than a fuel economy standpoint. Third gear in the ‘Vette will get you to 120 mph. Fourth, over 140. Making that next upshift into fifth is a lot like that scene in The Deer Hunter when the VC make DeNiro play Russian Roulette for their amusement.
This is what makes the current state of things so cruel — like setting a picture of a Hawaiian luau (maybe with free smells, too) in front of a starving man.
Not only is almost any car built during the past ten years capable of much-faster-than-lawful speeds, thanks to overdrive transmissions and many other improvements, they feel deceptively relaxed at those speeds. Eighty in a Prius feels slower than 60 felt in a ’70s-era Camaro Z28
Seventy, 80, even 90 mph….such speeds ares almost boring in a new Corvette or any modern high-performance car, two doors or four. Such cars don’t begin to even feel like they’re going fast until you’re going really fast. I mean well over 100 MPH — which of course will get you on the news.
In the curves, it’s the same story.
Today’s middle-of-the-road sporty sedans have suspensions so sticky you have to take those freeway off-ramps posted at 35 at 20 MPH over that just to begin to sample the limits. Anything less and you might as well be riding a bus — because you’re not really driving anyhow.
But do any serious driving and you risk doing serious time, these days.
In this way, the current horsepower /capability build-up is the automotive equivalent of body-building contests: It’s mostly for show. Just as Arnold used his massive biceps for flexing, today’s bulked-up cars and trucks are mostly all about posing, too.
It almost makes you pine for the days of Drive 55 — when you could at least run 80-ish without ending up as an extra in your very own version of “Oz.”