Kilowatt My Ride

By The Metric Maven

The first manifestation of my interest in both art and engineering was when I first saw some of the crazy models of Kustom Kars created by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. I had obtained a small plastic Rat Fink from a novelty dispenser, and in my single digit youth experienced a fascination with metallic sheen, so I spray painted the small plastic image with gold paint. I witnessed the last few years of the American Graffiti era in the US. On Saturday nights in my small town, I watched a string of cars cruising down main from a second story window. Myself and others would identify each car cruising main street, each had a customized low pitched rumble emanating from their engines. They pointed out cars like a ’57 Chevy Nomad, ’68 Camaro with moons along with three digit integers for each engine displacement. The bigger the number the better. There was the 289, 350, 383, 442, 396 and 454, which all became familiar. The Beach Boys had a song called 409, which a news segment assured me was a fictitious engine displacement number. One evening I saw a late 1950s Chevrolet Impala with a 409 on its side. I thought it was a joke. I knew the person driving it, and asked if it was real. He said “everyone seems to ask me that.” He pulled out the oil dipstick and it read 409 SS. Never had a single number of measurement seemed so romantic. I should have realized The Beach Boys would know more about cars than a TV reporter. In 409, the Beach Boys make a direct metaphor with a horse, as the refrain goes: “Giddy up giddy up 409”

There was not much mention of horsepower, but one would hear values from 300-400 when engines were discussed. It wasn’t something that was readily measured. The time in the quarter mile, or who had beaten whom in late night racing, was the metric used by those who still cruised Front Street. The first and second Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s brought the era of muscle cars to an end for the average teenager. The 1970s was the era when US cars began to become metric.
Only in recent years did I begin to realize that all those three digit engine displacement numbers had all become two digits with a decimal point. When I drive along the streets of my metropolis I see numbers like 3.7 L or sometimes numbers over five liters, which I know is a serious amount of engine displacement.

Engine displacement in cubic inches was a proxy for the power output of a car engine in the 1960s-1970s, a 289 was not going to be as powerful as a 396, but they were not direct power descriptions. They were also strictly tied to Otto gasoline engines. Another type of engine introduced in that era, the Wankel engine by Mazda, was not. It did not have a set of pistons, but instead a stator and rotor, which caused a mismatch between its displacement and that of Otto engines. The Mazda had a 10A engine (10 suggesting 1 Liter). In races this caused considerable confusion, and often the displacement quoted for Wankel engines was doubled. The old “reliable” three digit displacement in cubic inches was not consistent, even for gasoline powered cars.

Dodge Demon

The Kustom Kar Kulture of the 1960s and 1970s has been preserved, but is no longer a mainstream activity of modern youth. The nostalgia for these cars is epitomized in the television series Counting Cars. They are almost exclusively cars from before 1980 and exclusively non-metric. But time has moved on, hot cars remain, but have morphed. My friend, Dr. Sunshine, has a friend, Good Randy, an extreme car enthusiast, who keeps him up on current car culture. Dr. Sunshine one day showed me an image of a car on his smartphone, and asked if I could identify it. I had no idea, other than it looked pretty cool. It is the Dodge Demon, and it is currently the most powerful production car ever created. Rumors were flying that it would have 1000 horsepower or a mere 746 Kilowatt. My mind reeled at the amount of energy flow involved. I made an off-hand comment about how electric motors are much more powerful than mechanical engines. Dr. Sunshine pointed out that in car races electric cars are not allowed, specifically Teslas, which they disparagingly call “the world’s fastest golf cart.” He told me the Tesla has a “ludicrous mode,” where the car is able to go from 0 to 100 Km/hr in 2.8 seconds. I smiled and said that in this case “Maxwell beats Newton.”

Three digit engine displacement has been a problematic proxy for energy output when comparing Otto and Wankel engines, and now electric motors. Electric motors outperform engines,  but don’t have a displacement value, as they are not heat engines. The obvious metric, in a metric age, would be watts. Energy in the metric system is measured in joules. The amount of energy flow is in joules per second, which is defined as a watt. The use of watts provides a measure that is common for all vehicles, steam powered, gasoline powered, diesel powered, natural gas powered, or electric powered. The way to get a feeling for the energy output of vehicles is to compare them with known historic and contemporary vehicles directly and unsegregated. The appropriate prefix would generally be Kilowatts, but to maintain integers (Naughtin’s Laws) I’m going to produce the table using watts:

I suspect that persons in their 20s, 30s and possibly 40s do not have any feeling for a 289 engine versus a 454, as all modern cars have liters on their sides. (My 1959 Volkswagen Beetle had around 1200 mL (cc) written on its rear lid or 1.2 L.) If they have any feeling for the displacement of engines as a proxy, it would probably be in terms of liters. That proxy disappears with electric cars. In my imagination, it would be interesting to see 131 KW on the side of a Toyota Rav 4, and 215 KW on the side of a passing Tesla 2.5 Sport. The Toroidion would have 1000 KW or possibly 1 MW depending on the desires of marketing. The expected values would be from 25 to 1000 KW for cars in general. Looking at the table we can see that my 1959 chartreuse Volkswagen Beetle had about ten times less power than my friend Rick’s 1968 Plymouth Road Runner.

Of course, the power output alone doesn’t given any feeling for the amount of acceleration one can expect. A fast car in the era of Muscle Cars was around 12 seconds or so for a quarter-mile as I recall. A quarter-mile is about 400 meters, so this could be changed to 400 meters. Humans have run the 400 meters since the first modern Olympics in 1896. The current 400 meter world record is 43.03 seconds for a human, so a fast street legal car would take about 12 seconds or so to cover the same distance. The Dodge Demon has the production car record with 9.56 seconds. The Demon is about four times faster in the 400 meters than a human can run. The Tesla Model S takes 10.44 seconds. The world’s fastest horse ran 400 meters in 20.57 seconds. So a horse can run 400 meters about twice as fast as a human. The fastest production car with a heat engine is about twice as fast as the fastest horse.

I won’t hold my breath waiting to see a Jeep Wrangler with 354 KW in chrome letters, a new three letter power designation value, that is actually equal to power, but a person can always dream. Mike Joy sent me an ad from Australia that gave me at least a little hope for the future:

Related essay:

One Hundred is Everywhere!


The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

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Cultural Measurement

By The Metric Maven

Mini-Bulldog Edition

A long time back I used to spend a lot of time at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu California. The museum has a large collection of classical Greek and Roman artifacts. On display they had an example of a set of armor that a Roman soldier once wore. What immediately struck me was the size of the armor—it looked like it would fit a small woman. One of the guides told me that Roman soldiers were not all that large. It should be obvious to anyone who has a modern world view (I’m looking at you John Quincy Adams) that using body sizes as a measurement standard, is, well, ludicrous.

In 2013 a controversy unfolded when patrons of Subway in Australia, and later in the United States, discovered their footlong sub sandwiches were only eleven inches long.

Now, one must keep in mind that Subway appears to have only stated their torpedo with toppings was a “foot long” and did not define the length in inches (as far as I know). In this case, we must consult a reference to determine the distance in question. My favorite reference is Measure for Measure by Richard A. Young and Thomas J. Gover. They have these definitions for a foot:

Foot:

Ancient Babylon 353.9 mm

Canada Quebec 325.0 mm

Ancient Egypt 360.0 mm

France 324.8 mm

Greece Ancient Olympic 320.5 mm

Greece Ancient 308.9 mm

International 304.8 mm

Iraq Ancient 316.0 mm

Netherlands 283.1 mm

Phoenicia Ancient 495.0 mm

Rome Ancient 296.0 mm

Russia 304.8 mm

South Africa 304.8 mm

US Survey 304.8 mm

Assuming the eleven inch subs were measured in US inches, 25.4 mm per inch, then they are 279.4 mm. Well, Subway is still way too short, even when compared with the
foot of the Netherlands (283.1 mm – 279.4 mm) = 3.7 mm. This is close but no cigar for Subway. Even with all the variation in feet over the ages, they still managed to create a sandwich that is not even within the range of the most common definitions of a foot.

But the complaint was that the Subway sandwich offered was only eleven inches, and not twelve. Well, then let’s see if we can show that the sandwich is actually plenty
long and indeed a 12 inch sandwich by using “traditional measure.” The smallest definition of an inch I can find is for Spain at 23 mm per inch. This means that 12 Spanish inches is equal to 276 mm, and therefore the Subway sandwiches are indeed 12 inches long. As the complaint was that the sandwich was not 12 inches long, I must protest that when using pre-metric units, the Subway sandwich in question, is longer than 12 inches, and therefore endowed with enough length to justify its claim—at least in Spain.

But did Subway actually have the good sense to argue this way? Nooooooooo……they had to claim that “footlong is not intended to be a measurement length.” Then Subway changed their mind, and embraced the footlong rubric as a measurement length. Good move, because now I’m sure you have the backing of the former NIST director who embraces “multilingualism” in measurement, and does so specifically with Spanish. He must be on board with the idea that Subway in the US has met its claim, and Subway sandwiches are 12 Spanish inches long, and that’s good enough for US multicultural measurement. This conversion will finally make American footlong hotdogs match their name. Indeed there seems to be a human obsession with long hotdogs, currently 203.8 meters is the longest.

There is a nearby chain burrito establishment that sells “Burritos as big as your head.” They managed to avoid any measurement unit comparison by using a head instead of a foot. I’ve never found a unit called a head. But then the burrito chain just might mean “big as your head” as a metaphor—-perhaps? Many American men have this as their only excuse for unjustifiable measurement distortion when dealing with the opposite sex. The concern about the size of Subway sandwiches started in Australia, with good reason. They are a metric country and it seemed that rather than proclaiming their sandwiches are as big as your head, Subway tried to slip implied measurement into metaphor. As Australia is metric, one would think that Subway might realize that in metric countries comparing their sandwiches with feet might not be a good marketing strategy. Everyone knows a quarter pounder with cheese in France is a Royale with cheese. Why was Subway so culturally insensitive to Australians! They only managed to put their foot in their mouth. You know what I mean!


The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

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