When wizened former road testers see the modern data logging equipment we use to test cars, they’re prone to stroking their beards and telling us how easy we have it. I won’t admit it to them, dear reader, but I will to you: sometimes they have a point.
There was a time when obtaining road test performance figures was a bit of a faff, mostly because of the equipment involved. Early road tests needed force gauges to test handbrakes; there were margins for error when calculating acceleration using the rev counter and a stopwatch, and when somebody eventually invented a way to accurately measure road speed and log the data, things didn’t get much easier.
Have you heard of a fifth wheel? It was, as its name suggests, a wheel attached to a bumper or bodywork, rolling at road speed. Sensors worked out how fast that was and gave a road tester the right numbers, as long as the wheel didn’t fall off. Often it did.
I’ve never used a fifth wheel but am confident one day I’ll trip over a broken one that has been lying in the undergrowth beside a test track for decades, thrown there by a despondent road tester.
Later optical sensors were, apparently, better. Stick one of these to the side of the car and it’d shine a light to the ground, somehow – magic, possibly – knowing how fast the road beneath it was travelling, as long as it wasn’t too bright, or too dark, or too wet, or the ground too broken…
So, no, when I joined Autocar a decade ago and we were already using a GPS positioning system called a Vbox, I didn’t know how easy I had it. There was the box itself, an antenna for it (when we hadn’t broken it), a 12V power lead (or a battery) and a digital speed readout (when we hadn’t broken that lead too). Into the Vbox we plugged a memory card that would record everywhere we went within a few centimetres. Then we’d download the data afterwards. Luxury.