Challenger, GTO, Roadrunner, all classic car names from the 1960’s and ’70’s. Packing monster V8’s, these were built for getting from one red light to the next as fast as possible. But times change, Detroit’s horsepower obsession died and sanity returned.
Not for long though. Power sells, and like adversaries peering out from behind the barricades, manufacturers can’t resist taking shots at one another. Neither is this competition a purely American phenomenon. The Germans seem unable to resist a good scrap. Heck, even the French and the Brits join in from time to time.
Horsepower wars: the early years
In the ’50’s and ’60’s cars were cheap and young men had money in their pockets. Racing inevitably followed. Quick to spot a market, Detroit built ever faster cars while sales-hungry marketing teams boasted of their power.
Detroit built ever faster cars while sales-hungry marketing teams boasted of their power.
Chevrolet claimed 450 hp for their LS6-equipped Chevelle SS. The 1970 Pontiac Firebird was rated at 330 hp, and the fabled 426 cu. in. Chrysler Hemi motor put out 425 hp. Of course, some caveats are in order. First, these numbers were gross outputs, not the power actually achieved at the rear wheels. That could be up to 30% lower. And second, these cars weren’t what you might call well-rounded. They were built for running the quarter-mile.
Take a Saturday evening stroll down almost any Main Street in the late ’60’s and you’d see them: two cars lined up at a red light, snarling and shaking as they waited for it to change. Horsepower ruled. Then three things happened. Insurance rates went up, the switch to unleaded gasoline lowered compression ratios, which meant less power, and the oil crisis came along. The horsepower war seemed over, though it turned out more of a ceasefire.
Meanwhile, over in Europe
While companies like Jaguar and Ferrari were building beautiful, and for the era, powerful, cars, horsepower wasn’t a focus of competition through the ’60’s. In the late ’70’s and into the ’80’s though that began to change . Lamborghini unleashed the Countach, Rolls-Royce turbocharged the engine in their Bentley Mulsanne and Ferrari gave us the Testarossa.
These cars were far out reach for the average “petrolhead”, but what they could afford were German sedans. With no speed limits on their autobahns, the Germans were expert at engineering very, very fast cars. And so began the next round.
The German battle
Audi, BMW and Mercedes pride themselves on building sporting sedans. Some drivers though were willing to sacrifice creature comforts in exchange for more performance. And so BMW’s ‘M’ brand was born. And AMG Mercedes, and in more recent years, the ‘S’ and ‘RS’ lines from Audi.
Few would disagree the benchmark for sporting sedans is BMW’s M3. This first emerged in 1985 as the E30 coupe and convertible. A 2.3 liter four cylinder made 192 hp. A few years later a specialist engineering company known as AMG unveiled modified versions of the Mercedes-Benz 190 and 300.
Audi, BMW and Mercedes pride themselves on building sporting sedans. Some drivers though were willing to sacrifice creature comforts in exchange for more performance.
The AMG 190E came with an in-line six that made 231 hp while the AMG 300E got a 5.0 liter V8 good for 340 hp.
The M3 got faster. The E36 model made 282 hp, followed later by the 420 hp E92 . Meanwhile, Mercedes bought AMG and gave us every faster versions of their luxo sedans and wagons. (For a real ‘sleeper’ search out their E63 wagon, available with over 600 hp.)
Determined not to be bystanders, Audi built cars like the Quattro. This lead to vehicles like the 444 hp RS6, launched in 2002 with a twin-turbo 4.2 liter V8 shoehorned-in under the hood.
Keen drivers know there’s a limit to how much power you can use, safely, on public roads. And as Porsche’s Andreas Preuninger, told the UK’s ‘Car’ magazine in 2015, more power adds weight in terms of bigger brakes and stronger suspensions. In fact he said then, “For my personal tastes, around 500bhp is enough.” Perhaps that’s why the 2018 Porsche 911 Targa 4 GTS makes ‘only’ 450 hp.
Is the war over?
No. Engine outputs keep rising. Back in 2010 Car & Driver counted nearly 40 cars on the market with outputs over 400 hp. For a while 500 hp seemed the performance benchmark. And then it was 600 hp.
Proving Audi are still in the game, the RS7 Performance is rated at 605 hp and the R8 V10 Plus at 610 hp. From the UK the Aston Martin DB11 has exactly 600 hp and the Bentley Continental GT Speed 633 hp. GM fired a triple salvo with the 640 hp Cadillac CTS-V, 650 hp Camaro ZL1 and 650 hp Corvette Z06, and then there’s the now discontinued 645 hp Viper from Dodge.
But these aren’t the top dogs. Outputs are still going up. Bentley offers a 700 hp Continental Supersports, and Chrysler brings three 700+ hp monsters to the fight. (That’s the Challenger SRT Demon, the SRT Hellcat, and the Jeep Trackhawk.)
So who is king? For now it’s the Bugatti Chiron at 1,500 hp, although tiny Swedish manufacturer Koenigsegg seems determined to get one up on the French-built though of German parentage, hypercar.
Will it end?
It’s worth noting that these horsepower gains have come without increases in engine size. In fact engines in many modern supercars are smaller than they used to be. This is because new technology, particularly turbocharging, has enabled increased output per liter.
Engines in many modern supercars are smaller than they used to be. This is because new technology, particularly turbocharging, has enabled increased output per liter.
Turbocharging has an Achilles heel though: lag – the time needed to spin up the turbine to pump more air into the engine. But engineers have a solution there, two in fact. In the interests of fuel efficiency, electric turbochargers are replacing exhaust-driven units, and those can start spinning as soon as the gas pedal goes down. And then there’s hybrid technology. Electric motors deliver an instantaneous surge of torque, as anyone who’s witnessed a Tesla drag race can attest.
So are the horsepower wars over? Not a chance.