But what about today? By some measures, the Golden Age of Motoring is happening right now. That proof can be found in a report produced by the Environmental Protection Agency, of all people. Within the pages of "Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2010" are a number of interesting statistics that, at the least, illustrate the incredible evolution of automotive technology and performance in the last 35 years.
The most frequently used metric to measure a vehicle's performance -- how fast it can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph -- has dropped dramatically since 1975, according to the EPA. In 1975, the average vehicle took 14.1 seconds to hit 60 mph from a standstill. But by 2010, the time had dropped to 9.5 seconds, an improvement of 33 percent.
This is because the average vehicle's pounds-per-horsepower, the so-called "power-to-weight ratio" has improved in every model year, aside from 2009. Pounds per horsepower is calculated by dividing the vehicle's weight by its horsepower to reveal how many pounds each horsepower must carry. It follows that the fewer pounds each horsepower is responsible for, the better the vehicle's performance.
However, the annual improvements in pounds-per-horsepower were not realized simply by weight going down and horsepower going up. In fact, in all but two years -- 1987 and 2009 -- weight actually increased along with horsepower, with the overall increases still resulting in fewer pounds per horsepower than the previous sampling year.
In 1975, the average vehicle weighed 4,060 pounds and made 137 hp, yielding 29.6 pounds per horsepower. By 1987, horsepower had dropped to 118, a decrease of 13.9 percent, but weight had decreased more, by 839 pounds, or 21 percent. The result: 27.3 lb/hp, an improvement of 7.7 percent, which led to a one-second reduction in the average 0-to-60 time, to 13.1 seconds.
Since 1987, however, horsepower averages have been climbing rapidly. By 1998, horsepower was up to an average of 171, and for 2010 it stood at 220, the highest level reported in the study.
What's Under the Hood
If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: There's no replacement for displacement. Car guys love to make a big deal about the size of an engine, but the EPA report clearly shows that there's more to performance than how many cylinders are under the hood.
Even as average horsepower increased from 1975 to 2010, the percentage of V8 engines in new cars decreased, from 62 percent in 1975 to just 16 percent in 2010. During the same period, the percentage of four-cylinder engines increased from 20 percent to 48 percent. The percentage of V8's bottomed out at 12 percent in 2009, while the four-cylinder market share peaked at 55 percent in 1987 .
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Better Living Through (Engine) Technology
The key to getting more horsepower out of engines is determined by the design and technology employed. Put simply, the technology that goes into an average engine in the 2010 model year makes an engine from 1975 look like a glorified boat anchor.
For example, in 1975, the number of multi-valve engines -- this is an engine with more than one intake and exhaust valve per cylinder -- doesn't even register as a percentage. In 1987, 11 percent of vehicles employed this technology. By 2010, that number had risen steadily to its peak of 86 percent in 2010.
Along the same lines, engines with variable-valve timing, which adjusts the intake- and exhaust-valve opening and closing events to maximize power while minimizing fuel consumption, didn't appear in the EPA study until 2008, when such engines made up 58 percent of the market. A year later, they comprised 72 percent and in 2010, variable valve timing made another big jump to 86 percent.
The percentage of engines with gasoline direct injection (GDI) also increased during the report's sample period. GDI injects fuel directly into the combustion chamber under high pressure using injectors to control precise fuel delivery for optimum combustion and efficiency. This technology was used in 2.3 percent of vehicles in 2008 and then roughly doubled for the next two years, going to 4.2 percent in 2009 and 8.5 percent in 2010.
Perhaps the best-known way to improve a vehicle's performance, turbocharging, is actually the least common feature for a vehicle in the report. Turbocharging uses a vehicle's exhaust gases to spin a small turbine, which in turn drives a compressor wheel to pump additional air into the intake manifold. This process increases power output by making the engine more efficient -- with more air, it can burn more fuel without increasing in size. Starting in 1998, a mere 1.4 percent of vehicles utilized turbocharging. The number increased to 3.0 percent in 2008, peaked at 3.3 percent in 2009, then dipped back to 3.2 percent in 2010.
One not-so-positive note for enthusiasts: The manual transmission is gradually disappearing. Car guys may love vehicles equipped with manuals, as being able to "row your own" is a badge of honor. But that hasn't helped stem the tide towards automatics.
In 1975, almost one-quarter of all vehicles were equipped with manuals, and by 1987, the numbers approached one-third. But then the percentages started to drop and by 2008 manuals were only being installed in five percent of new cars. If there's any hope, it might be that in 2010, that number blipped up to seven percent, however, even many ultra-high-performance vehicles now eschew manual transmissions. The Ferrari 458 Italia, for example, cannot be ordered with one. Eventually it seems the manual will go the way of the dodo bird.
The corollary of the manual's descent into obscurity is the ascent of the continuously variable transmission (CVT). A CVT is basically a highly advanced belt-and-pulley system that allows the transmission to change steplessly through an infinite number of gear ratios. The CVT's flexibility allows the engine to operate efficiently to produce excellent fuel economy. In 2009 and 2010, CVTs accounted for 10 percent of the market.
New Technologies, New Age
The next ten years promise to bring tectonic changes in the automotive landscape. While many have written off the internal combustion engine in favor of electric drive motors, clearly the world of pistons and valves and fuel injection will not be going away overnight. Given the leaps in efficiency that gasoline engines have made over the past 35 years, it stands to reason that engineers will continue to extract more from this hundred-year old technology as we move into the future.
But no matter how cars and powertrains may look in the future, when it comes to the Golden Age of Motoring, you can say you were there.