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Dealer’s Voice: Horsepower steals the show

Hollywood has certainly played a role in popularizing the speed and power of automobiles in our culture.

Published August 3, 2012

Two years ago, I got to experience the thrill of a lifetime when our family-owned and bred Canadian thoroughbred horse, Big Red Mike, won the 151st running of the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto.

Not only did Big Red Mike win, but Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, were in attendance, and my family and I had the honour of meeting the Royal couple in the winner’s circle, as well as prior to the race. Indeed, the stars must have been perfectly aligned that day to favour us with such good fortune.

Since the advent of motorized vehicles in the late 18th century, the power and majesty of race horses have been popular motifs and sources of inspiration for the auto industry.

In 1909, Henry Ford sold his famous Model T with 22 horsepower, and today several luxury brand automakers offer high performance models with 600-plus horsepower.

For decades, automakers have used horsepower terminology when marketing cars and trucks. Generally speaking, the higher the horsepower, the faster a car accelerates and reaches top speed.

The origin of horsepower is generally credited to James Watt, a Scottish engineer who invented several improvements to steam engines (horses were used to haul coal from mines). To market his steam engines to potential customers, Watt devised a unit of measurement based on the number of draft horses that his steam engine would replace.

Watt realized that horses commonly walked in circles when pushing a beam that was attached to a mill wheel. A horse typically walked in a 12-ft. radius, making the circumference 75 ft.

He calculated that a horse walked around the circle 144 times per hour on average and pulled with a force of 180 lbs. When he multiplied and rounded off his figures, Watt came up with 33,000 lb.-ft. per minute, which denoted one horsepower.

Although others have used different metrics to calculate the power of horses, and ended up with different figures, Watt’s figure has become the standard definition of horsepower down through history.

Horsepower as a means to differentiate brands and models exploded in the 1950s, which signalled the start of the horsepower wars. This trend gave rise to the muscle car era of the 1960s, when General Motors, Chrysler and Ford began producing 400-plus horsepower engines and competing for horsepower supremacy.

When I began working at our GM dealership in the mid-1970s, I was acutely aware of the importance of horsepower in the high-performance automobiles that we sold. Customers talked breathlessly about speed and horsepower — the bigger and faster, the better. To be honest, I was happy to participate in those discussions.

Hollywood has certainly played a role in popularizing the speed and power of automobiles in our culture. The 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 in Bullitt, the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am in Smokey and the Bandit and the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 in Back to the Future are among those memorable cars that have become synonymous with horsepower and speed in film.

The battle for horsepower supremacy continues to influence the design and performance of all automobiles. Automakers promote higher horsepower figures.

Although the horsepower wars continue, automakers also recognize that today’s car shoppers want more than speed and torque in an automobile. They want eco-friendly features, such as lower carbon emissions, better fuel economy and recycled materials.

In the years ahead, the big challenge will be to marry this yearning for more power with a desire for environmentally friendly features and alternative forms of power.

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