Something struck me today while reading a roadtest of the Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 (from the excellent evo Magazine UK) . It's something which I'm sure everyone who takes an interest in cars has noticed and possibly been baffled to the point of frustration with, so I thought it was worth having a think about here.
So, what's in a name? The car in question is a 2011 Dodge Challenger (retro-futurist retake on 1970's muscle car icon) SRT (Street & Racing Technology) 8 (Eight Cylinder). And the 392? That's where my point lies: this denotes the number of cubic inches displaced by the V8 engine. To those in the US, there's absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about that. Big-capacity engines have always proudly worn their capacity badges on their flanks, telling all those you thundered past you weren't just in any cooking model, but a AC Cobra 427, or Charger 440 R/T. In Europe though this is fairly alien, as swept volumes have always been measured in cubic centimetres, and therefore litres.
And yet, in Britain, unlike in continental Europe, speed is still measured in miles per hour. So while Porsche's German website notes the 911 GT3's top speed as 312km/h, this is pretty meaningless gibberish to the English-speakers. Therefore their UK site sets out the speed as 194mph. More double standards.
This constant 'mash-up' of imperial and metric measurements extends everywhere in cars. It's almost comical that despite motoring technology constantly pushing the edge of the possibility envelope, there's no universal way to measure or quantify it. The all-important 0-60 dash is still used in America, but in Europe it's become 0-62mph, as this corresponds perfectly to the nice round 100km/h barrier. Kerb weights are given as kilograms everywhere but the US, where a Bentley Continental GT is a 5100 lb car, not 2350kg.
This isn't exclusive to the performance orientated cars I've cited either. Previous European Car of the Year, and environmentalist's darling, the Toyota Prius, has its carbon dioxide output quoted as 104g/km, and yet its old-fashioned torque figure isn't measured in new-fangled Newton-meters, it's still given as 353lb/ft at 1200 rpm (thank the electric motor for that impressive low-rev number). And then, how can CO2 be given in grams per kilometre, but economy still come out in miles per gallon?
Then there's the ultimate car-lovers' stat: power. Brake horsepower still rules but the movement towards PS is swelling. Buy a Renault Clio Renaultsport 200 Cup in the UK and you might be disappointed to find in the brochure its 2 litre motor actually kicks out 197 bhp. If you want a nice round 200, you'll want the continental measuring system. Or take Bugatti's original Veyron. 987 bhp...or 1,001 PS. Or 736 kW. Confused?
Turbo boost pressure is lbs. Tyre widths are millimetres. Drag races are standing quarter miles. It's a wonder cars today leave the factory with their engines in the right way up, with this multitude of measurement maths confounding every element of their construction and performance.
Is it possible that at some point there will befall a situation like that of the unfortunate NASA Climate Orbiter in 1999?
A $125 million space probe project, headed by Lockheed Martin, caused massive embarrassment for the Space Administration, when it was revealed the huge investment had smashed into the Mars surface it had supposed to be surveying on research.
The investigation found it had been programmed with metric and imperial units during its construction, so after a 9 month odyssey to the Red Planet, the probe got confused, went off course, and plummeted into the ground it assumed was elsewhere.
Anyone for standardisation?