When Alois Ruf, owner of Ruf Automobile, invited me to Germany to attempt 200 mph (322 km/h) on the Autobahn in his historic Yellowbird, I was skeptical. OK, the Yellowbird is capable of such speeds -- it was the first production car to break the elusive 322 km/h barrier in 1987. And yes, I had driven that fast before, twice -- in a Lamborghini Murciélago and in an open-wheel Indy race car owned by Sam Schmidt -- on large oval tracks with no other cars around. But on the Autobahn, with traffic, in a relic from the 1980s?
"I'm not joking," Ruf repeated. "Come see." So I did.
For the unaware, Ruf enjoys a cult following of sports-car purists, even though it has produced fewer than 1,000 cars since its inception in 1963. In addition to souping up stock Porsches -- 911s, Boxsters -- Ruf builds its own cars that run at mind-boggling speeds that marvel even Porsche. The Ruf R Turbo, for example, with 520 hp, tops 340 km/h (211 mph) -- faster than Porsche's 10-cylinder Carrera GT. In its designs, though, Ruf is careful to preserve a car's understated lines and integrity. No nitro-burning, flashy muscle cars here. You could pull up to that 340-km/h R Turbo at a stoplight and think it was a normal car.
It's no surprise, then, that when I first spied the Yellowbird at Ruf's Pfaffenhausen, Germany, headquarters, I mistook it for a customer's car. Far from it. With twin turbos producing 470 hp and weighing just 1,150 kilograms (2,535 pounds), the Yellowbird clocked a blistering 340 km/h in 1987 with Le Mans winner Paul Frère behind the wheel in a famous speed shootout at Volkswagen's Ehra-Lessien proving ground, leaving Ferrari and Lamborghini in the dust. The car has been refurbished, and I was to be given the honor of taking it back to speed.
More than half of the 11,000-kilometer (6,835-mile) German Autobahn system has no speed limit. It is perfectly legal there, for example, to pass a police car at 200 km/h (124 mph). In fact, according to Mark Rask, author of 1999s American Autobahn, the average speed for cars is 130 km/h (81 mph); at any given moment, 15 percent are traveling 155 km/h (96 mph) or faster. Surprisingly, the Autobahn is safer than U.S. highways. In 2001, the death rate there was 27 percent lower (0.59 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled versus 0.81 per million for the U.S. interstates), according to Rask.
Why? Drivers in Germany must be at least 18 years old and fork over more than $1,000 to undergo 24 hours of rigorous private instruction, including training on the Autobahn, and pass a comprehensive written test before obtaining a license. Compare this to the U.S., with no required training and a minimum age of 16 in some states. Also, unlike in the U.S., Germans use the left lane only for passing. Roads over there are built better, too -- a 70-centimeter (27.5-inch) roadbed versus 28 centimeters (11 inches) in the U.S. -- and are better maintained. So are German cars made by BMW and Mercedes, which handle easier at high speeds and sustain less collision damage.
But extreme speeds, even on the Autobahn, present their own problems. A slight curve that seems straight at 160 km/h (99mph) becomes quite challenging at twice that speed. Second, no matter how well-behaved German drivers are, there is traffic. Slower cars in the right lane have trouble judging closing speeds of really fast-moving cars because they have not experienced them -- 250 km/h (155 mph) maybe, but not 320 (199 mph). A driver may glance in his rearview mirror, see you as a dot in the distance and then leisurely pull into your lane to pass the car in front of him, thinking he has ample time. Truth is when approaching at 320 km/h, you close on a car traveling 160 km/h as if you're doing 160 km/h and he's standing still!
Our plan was to try at night on the A96 between Mindelheim and Munich, when few vehicles prowl the road. That is when Ruf -- and Wolfgang Weber, Ruf's professional driver -- occasionally test at top speed to ensure the automakers vehicles have 100 percent of the power and performance finicky customers are promised. At 11:30 p.m. on the night we tried, the roads were still damp from a day of Bavarian downpours.
The Yellowbird is like a missile, and I'm not the first to describe it that way. The rapid acceleration and accompanying noise are akin to having a jet engine strapped to your back. Each gear shift feels like jettisoning stages of a rocket. After "getting used" to it, I managed to hit 305 km/h (190 mph) but night-blindness and unfamiliarity with the road made me increasingly tense. Tense isn't good at those speeds. Sensing my discomfort, Ruf -- an incredibly gracious host announced a change of plans. We would try again the next morning on the A81 Autobahn between Würzburg and Heilbronn after rush hour but before lunch.
Sure enough, the next day the roads were dry and I could see a lot better. But there was traffic. Not a lot, but enough to make me pause. Test-driver Weber, who would act as my copilot in the passenger seat, assured me we wouldn't try unless we found a proper break. So out onto the A81 we went. I would build up to 225 km/h (140 mph) in fourth gear and try to maintain it in the left lane, picking off scattered cars and trucks while awaiting a long, clear stretch of road. Often we found what we thought was one and would accelerate, only to see more traffic and immediately have to back off. At 300 km/h (186 mph), it doesn't matter whether traffic is in the right or left lane -- we just couldn't take a chance.
After several nail-biting attempts, we found a promising gap between the Mockmuhl and Neuenstadt exits. I shifted into fifth, flipped on the high beams and matted the throttle. The rocket was launched. Weber began calling out numbers: "275, 290, 300." I was too busy to look at anything but the road, now reduced to a long, thinning string. I straddled the two lanes to see better ahead and for stability (we were in a gentle left-hander). "Still OK," shouted Weber, "305, 315, 320." The front of the car suddenly felt very light, as if we were about to take off and all that was peripheral -- trees, guardrail, signs -- became a blur. "Go for it, go, go!" screamed Weber maniacally, with his thick German accent -- then suddenly, "Yeah, you did it!"
I immediately eased off the gas, and none too soon. A quarter-mile ahead a truck lumbered along in the right lane. I carefully moved all the way into the left lane and, for the first time in what seemed like hours, took a breath.
When we returned to the shop, Ruf and his wife, Estonia, like proud parents, were there to congratulate me. I had done 324 km/h (201 mph). Estonia gave me a Ruf windbreaker, signifying my initiation into their speed club. On a roll, we decided to take an R Turbo out. I managed to push it even further -- to a GPS-recorded 336 km/h (209 mph), a personal best for me. But the newer car, with 50 more horsepower and ABS brakes, runs a lot smoother and while I got a speed rush, it wasn't as intense as in the Yellowbird.
Rufs newest car is the Rt12, a Porsche 997 Carrera rebuilt to generate 650 hp, which is supposedly capable of speeds of 360 km/h (224 mph). If you see Alois Ruf, tell him I want to test it -- but on a track this time, not the Autobahn. I have no more nails left to bite.