In 2018, Autocar celebrated 90 years of it conducting road tests.
Our approach has always been rigorous, putting through cars through a gruelling series of tests to assess every aspect. And that includes speed.
In 1928 the land speed record stood at 207mph. In 300,000 years of human history it was the fastest any person had travelled whilst still in contact with the surface of the earth. It took Blue Bird III, a 24-litre aviation engine on wheels, the flat and endless sliver of land that is Daytona Beach in Florida and the skill and bravery of that totem of human endeavour, Malcolm Campbell, to achieve it.
Today, anyone who can afford to do so can walk into a Bentley showroom and buy a Continental GTW12 that is capable of exactly the same top speed. That is how far road car performance has come in 90 years.
Today we’re looking at the fastest cars anyone could actually go out and buy. We start in the 1900s, and work forward decade-by-decade from there:
1900s: Mercedes-Simplex 60HP - 73 mph
The first internal combustion engines (ICE) were neither powerful nor reliable. Hence the fastest cars in the decade or so after the launch of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1885 were powered by a tried and trusted motive power, steam, rather than oil. The fastest car of the 1890s was the Steamer, from Massachusetts firm Stanley, which cracked 35mph – rather better than the Benz’s 10mph.
But ICEs developed fast. Developed as a luxury car in 1903, the Mercedes-Simplex 60 hp cranked out a whole 60 hp from its 9293 cc straight-4 cylinder engine. This helped it to a nearly unheard of top speed of 73mph. A more powerful one-off version broke the land speed record in 1904, hitting 97mph.
1910s: Austro-Daimler Prince Henry - 85 mph (136 km/h)
The engine in this Austrian car was a 5714cc in-line 4-cylinder, developing 95 hp. It was designed by a fellow named Ferdinand Porsche. Whatever happened to him?
1920s: Duesenberg Model J - 119 mph (191 km/h)
The Model J’s 6900cc straight-eight developed an almost unworldly 265 hp. It featured various groundbreaking technologies as part of this, including a twin-plate clutch, electric and mechanical fuel pumps, and hydraulic servo brakes. Around 430 were made.
1930s: Duesenberg Model SJ - 140 mph (225 km/h)
Not resting on its laurels and ignoring the serious economic storm clouds of the period, Duesenberg trumped the Model J with a new supercharged version, the SJ. This output 320 hp, and enabled the car to achieve 104mph in second gear. This most stunning of American interwar cars deserved a better fate – company founder Fred Duesenberg died from car-accident injuries only two months after the SJs launch, and the depression eventually led to the firm’s end in 1937.
Just 36 SJs were made. A shorter version, the SSJ, owned by movie star Gary Cooper, was sold for US$18 million in 2018, making it the most valuable American car ever.
1940s: Jaguar XK 120 - 133 mph (215 km/h)
Star of the 1948 London motor show, the 162 hp XK marked Jaguar’s re-emergence after the war. Named after its supposed top speed, minor modification to this 3441cc straight-6 took the car to a production car record of 133mph at Ostend in 1949. 12,045 were made until 1953.
1950s: Mercedes-Benz 300SL - 152 mph (246 km/h)
Contrary to popular belief the 300SL was not the first fuel-injected car – that title went to the rather less famous Goliath GP700. Beloved of movie stars, the gull-winged doors were but one stand-out feature of this remarkable car. Its splendid slender, low-roofed body, jewellery-like grille, complete with intriguing wheel-arch blisters. After a hideous period for Germany and Europe, the 300SL became a symbol of the country’s recovery.
But it wasn’t all new and even contained a reminder of that grim past – its 2996cc 215 hp straight-six was derived from the Daimler-Benz V12 engine fitted to the Messerschmitt Bf109 Second World War fighter plane.
1960s: Lamborghini Miura - 175 mph (280 km/h)
Low, wide, tightly voluptuous and hunched with power, the Miura still catches breaths more than 50 years on. Never mind front-end lift – this was a supercar unsullied by aerodynamics. Power came from a centrally-mounted V12, developing 345bhp, and made the man from Maranello sit up and pay attention.
1970s: Ferrari 512 Berlinetta Boxer - 188 mph (303 km/h)
The success and speed of the Miura convinced Enzo Ferrari that it too had to go the mid-engined route for its successor to its famous Daytona. After the earlier 365 GT4, the 512 of 1976 featured a 4943cc flat-12 cylinder engine (hence the ‘boxer’ name), giving 335bhp.
We will have to take Ferrari’s word for this 188mph top speed; when we tested it in 1978 we couldn’t coax more than 163mph from it. We loved it nonetheless.
1980s: Ferrari F40 - 201 mph (325 km/h)
There’s delicate beauty in that 308-esque glasshouse, but the F40 is mostly about the beauty of raw power and applying it to the road. Unashamedly crude in places – and wonderful for it. Its mid-mounted 2936cc V8 had twin turbos, developing 471bhp.
1990s: McLaren F1 - 240 mph (386 km/h)
When you're building a car that costs £530,000 (US$689,000) plus taxes, you don't have to skimp on the specification. That's why McLaren used the F1 to introduce the world to the carbon-fibre monocoque.
Enveloping a three-seat, 240mph supercar so that it doesn’t take off, weighs as little as possible and stays cool is some feat, especially when the result sparks seven figure spikes of desire. Its 6064cc BMW V12 engine developed 618bhp. McLaren’s sort-of follow up to the F1 – its new three-seater Speedtail – hit 250mph in December 2019.
Since the demise of the Duesenberg, this story has been dominated by European firms. In the new century Shelby changed the script, with this 1183bhp monster – power came from a 6,345cc V8 borrowed from a Corvette C5. You had to be careful with it as well – neither ABS nor traction control were on the car’s menu.
Originally sold for $550,000 (US) and £335,000 (UK), they can be occasionally seen in the classifieds for around US$500,000.
2010s: Bugatti Chiron – 305mph (491 km/h)
Until the very end of the decade, the top speed recorded was the 278mph recorded by the 1360bhp Koenigsegg Agera RS in 2017. But Volkswagen’s Bugatti was not about to allow that to stand for too long. With light modifications, its Chiron hypercar hit 304.77mph at VW’s Ehra-Lessien test track in August 2019, making it the world’s first production car to crack 300mph.
It was helped by the standard engine being boosted to 1578bhp, up from 1479bhp. The car also featured upgraded tyres, capable of dealing with over 68 rotations-per-second at full tilt.
So what if anything will break the Chiron’s record?
2020s: Hennessey Venom F5?
The obvious candidate is the upcoming Venom F5 from US firm Hennessey. The company had previously hoped to make it the first production car to crack the 300mph mark, but as we’ve seen that ship has sailed. But we’re sure it will want to make a statement with its 1600bhp hypercar someday soon.
After all, as founder John Hennessey (pictured) told us in 2018, ‘Being the fastest in the world really matters.’