On October 31, 2006, Orange County teen Nikki Catsouras had an argument with her father. When Mr. Catsouras left for work, his daughter “borrowed” his Porsche 911. Approaching a tollbooth, Catsouras rear-ended a Honda at 70 mph. The California Highway Patrol took photographs of the gruesome results, the photos were leaked and went viral. Catsouras sued the police for invasion of privacy. Lost in the shuffle: why was Miss Catsouras–a young, inexperienced driver— legally entitled to drive the Porsche?
The issue is pretty easy to understand: should young, inexperienced motorists be allowed to drive high-powered cars? Australia says no. This despite a 2006 study by the University of Western Australia (funded by red light camera income) that concluded that only three percent of young driver crashes involved vehicles with a high power-to-weight ratio. The state of Victoria, for example, has instituted a power-to-weight related graduated license program for young drivers. Since July 2007, a probationary driver can’t drive a car which has:
- an engine of eight or more cylinders;
- a turbocharged or supercharged engine;
- an engine that has been modified to improve the vehicle’s performance; nor
- one of the nominated high performance six cylinder vehicles which include BMW M and M3, Honda NSX, Nissan 350Z, Porsche (all models) and Mercedes Benz SLK350
As a sign, perhaps, of the laws arbitrary nature, there are exceptions to the rules:
- diesel powered turbocharged or supercharged vehicles (without engine performance modifications);
- nominated vehicles with low powered turbocharged or supercharged engines including Suzuki Cappucino 2D Cabriolet Turbo 3 cylinder 698cc, Daihatsu Copen L880 2D Convertible 4 cylinder 659cc;
- all models of the Smart car produced by Mercedes Benz; and
- vehicles driven as a part of the driver’s employment and at the request of the employer
So, how did we get here? Back in the infancy of automobiles the “driving high-powered cars fast” concept was simple—you didn’t. “You” meaning the average driver. Throughout most of the twentieth century, fast cars were a specialty item created by and for professional racers, gentlemen racers, and a small (if geographically diverse) cult of hot rodders. Sure, there were plenty of accidents in low-speed cars, and not much in the way of passive safety, but there was a clear delineation between average schmoes in their “normal” mainstream cars and pistonheads in “high performance exotica.”
Then 1964 happened. Before his love of white lines brought him down, high-flying GM executive John DeLorean decided to plunk a 389 cubic inch motor into a $2751 Pontiac Tempest ($296 option). Suddenly, the pimply-faced nerd pumping gas at the corner Texaco station could own a car with 325 horsepower. The muscle car era was born. Engine power increased, to the point where the Tempest (a.k.a. GTO) offered 360hp @ 5200 rpm, 424 lb·ft of torque @ 3600 rpm and a zero to sixty sprint of just over six seconds. Ford and Chrysler quickly adopted the Tempest template.
The muscle car era peaked in 1968, with the 383 hp (pre-emissions) Plymouth Roadrunner—the limbo bar set at an all time low for affordability. While it’s impossible to break out all the variables which led to a dramatic drop in highway fatalities as the muscle car ended, the association of teens, high-powered cars and death was enshrined in popular culture. Dead Man’s Curve anyone?
Fast forward to 2009. If you think technology has made things better, you may be right. Today’s SRT-8, SS and SHO models have safety built in. They offer better brakes and more predictable handling. But the accessibility is a double-edged sword. That Corvette Z06, for example, offers just enough handling to allow an average driver to drive 120 mph off an exit ramp—but not enough to stop him from trying it at 121.
Motorcyclists are the canary in the power-to-weight safety campaigners’ coal mine. It’s now generally recognized that novice bikers shouldn’t be allowed to sit atop machines that can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in three seconds and top-out at 135 mph even if they can afford the price of admission. The UK has the most extensive motorcycle graduated license program: three stages of empowerment based on the bike’s horsepower and speed potential.
What makes a car any different? When you can buy a 400 horsepower motor the size of a sewing machine and put it in a street Honda Civic it’s time to evaluate the guy behind the wheel. When Ford dealers hand the keys to a 500 hp Mustang to a twenty-something enthusiast with a basic down payment, it’s time to ask if he should have a license proving the basic ability to handle the horses.
This is the Henry Ford ‘average guy’ concept of affordable cars gone rogue. Skip the Darwinian argument. Stop it now because the kid that eats a mailbox on the 150 mph donorcycle that he bought with his paper route money might be the next Nobel-winning nerd. If a mandatory performance-driving course makes a difference for bikes, then this bit of nanny state-ism makes sense.
[For more of Jerry and Jim Sutherland's work please visit mystarcollectorcar.com]