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.
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:
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.