Happy new year. With 2013 underway, I thought it was a good time to look back at some landmark years in the automobile world. I’ll start with 1932. By then, at least in America, the car was here to stay, and most were fairly dependable. With reliability no longer an issue, manufacturers had to make them exciting.
There were exciting cars around before 1932: Duesenberg, for instance, had introduced the 265bhp, 420ci twin-cam straight-eight, but there was nothing much for the common man. Then Ford came out with an affordable V8, and GM introduced the 16-cylinder Cadillac – both of which looked breathtaking, too.
In the depths of the Great Depression, manufacturers knew they had to design real dream machines to encourage hard-up consumers to buy. Prior to ’32, most cars were brush-painted in dark grey and green, but these new cars had incredible bodywork, and were available in an array of amazing colours thanks to DuPont’s latest automotive paints. This was a watershed year.
Like the Depression, World War Two forced US car makers to get creative. Post-war America enjoyed incredible new cars from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. In fact, the 1948 Cadillac was probably the best car in the world. The Rolls-Royce of the period, while certainly well-made, was still a six-cylinder. The Cadillac had a V8, electric windows and power steering, a radio and automatic transmission – things that Rolls-Royce, still recovering from the war, was probably only dreaming about.
I got my licence in 1966, which was the last year America was free of regulations. You could put almost anything on the road as long as it had four wheels and headlights. Designers had free rein, and the result was the Lamborghini Miura. No bumpers, no passenger protection, no safety equipment of any kind; just pure, unadulterated style. It literally took people’s breath away. In ’66 there were still a lot of hulking ’40s and ’50s cars on the roads. Then there was this thing that was, what, 41 inches tall? That was pretty exciting.
By the 1970s, engines were so strangled by emissions regulations that a Corvette made well under 200bhp. Cars were still carbureted, and the manufacturers would just lean them out until there was hardly any fuel going through, and they’d run hot. It was a pretty awful time. I thought the ’60s had been a golden age to which we could never return, but then the Japanese came along and turned the car industry on its head. Unlike the lobbying Americans, they didn’t try to fight the emissions regulations. ‘What are the targets?’ they asked. ‘OK, we’ll meet or exceed them with science and technology. Thank you. Goodbye.’
In the late 1980s there was another breakthrough: the Ferrari F40 appeared in ’87, and was followed just a few years later by the 400bhp Dodge Viper. That made Corvette get off its ass. At the time, 400bhp was crazy; now 600bhp barely gets you into the supercar club.
The most recent year I’d pick is 2004, which saw the arrival of the Porsche Carrera GT, hot on the heels of the McLaren-Mercedes SLR, which was introduced the year before. However, the leap in technology from ’04 to now is amazing. I have a Carrera GT: it was the single most unbelievable, sophisticated car of 2004, yet I drive it along a rough road and I’m getting bumped around – bam, bam, bam! – because it’s so stiff. Then I take out my McLaren MP4-12C and it seems lightyears ahead. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in a few short years.
I think 2013 will be a very exciting year. Turbocharging in the ’80s gave a glimmer of hope. Now, KERS and hybrid technology seem set to be the turbocharging of the future. Ferrari seems to have adopted KERS, and the rumour is that McLaren will have it on the P1.
Only a generation or two ago, when you got a supercar from Italy it would be gorgeous but it’d have fairly standard technology. You were paying for design, for something beautiful to look at. With cars like the P1 now, you’re paying for art, science and technology, which is really exciting.
When I was a kid, 0-60mph in under seven seconds was staggering, and I remember when the Chrysler Hemi, with automatic transmission, beat a standard shift in a drag heat for the first time. It did 0-60mph in 6.3 seconds. That just seemed like the end of the world. Now, you’re looking at sub-three-second times. The future will be as exciting as the past.