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Pre War Cars - how fast is fast?


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So having had pre war cars for a while the question always comes up how fast?  I asked one of my Graham friends, he was in his 90's, can I run my Graham at 60 mph?  He just laughed and said step on the gas!  I am always on the lookout for Graham advertisements when I came across this one from 1930 talking about the 4 speed transmission.

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I am assuming they are talking 75mph, 60, 50 and 40mph...  That is faster than I normally run my cars.  My concern comes from the fact the cars are 90 years old.  I am thinking the babbitt is getting old and brittle?, they still carry good oil pressure.  Are the engines just that much noisier than new cars or has sound deadening gotten that much better?

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IMO we tend to look at old cars through a natural filter of our experience driving todays newer cars with finely balanced engines, overdrive transmissions and copious sound deadening technology. Very few prewar car owners alive today actually have personal experience driving those cars when they were new or even a few years used. I imagine back then many owners had no qualms about driving their cars at high speeds on the rare good road available and did not worry about the screaming engine rpms, high oil consumption and rapid wear those speeds caused. Engine overhauls and bearing replacement at modest mileage were very common and accepted as the price of hard use, while today we beat on the drivetrain and fully expect the car to last beyond 100,000 miles with no repairs needed.

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The other , often forgotten factors  are  the roads and the tires. The road system today is vastly superior  in width, surface and layout.  Pre - war roads were often narrow , winding, and comparatively poorly surfaced. 

 And tires were not suitable for sustained high speed travel. They have evolved to a truly remarkable degree since pre-war times.

 

Greg in Canada

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I think it's important to distinguish between

advertising claims and the truth.  Since most of us

weren't driving in the 1930 time period, what was

really true back then might remain unknown unless

we have accurate testimony from people of that era.

 

In 1928, the Jordan car company did a survey of 

motorists' driving habits.  Ninety per cent said they

seldom drove more than 40 or 45 m.p.h.  That gives

a good picture of the highways of that time.

 

How long could those cars handle sustained higher speeds?

Probably not for sustained cruising.

Edited by John_S_in_Penna (see edit history)
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There was probably a bigger difference between various makes and models to perform at high speeds in the early 1930s than there is now. Some manufacturers were using fully balanced cranks, replaceable bearing inserts, aluminum pistons and full pressure lubrication while their competitors were shipping splash lubricated engines with cast iron pistons and poured babbit bearings. So what what one early 1930s car is capable of might be quite different from another early 1930s car.

 

A few years back I wrote up what I thought my particular old car was capable of for long distance "high speed" driving. Your car and your opinions may be quite different.

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There are a number of variables,as mentioned. My '21 Chevy is comfortable at 28-30 MPH,the '25 Buick about 40-45,the '29 Buick about 50,and the '40 Packard 110 50-55 MPH. Radial tires help immensely in keeping the car going straight,whereas the bias tires require your undivided attention .Stopping these beasts with mechanical brakes can be a nail-biting experience in traffic equipped with modern disc brakes,that is if you could free up a hand to chew the nails. It all boils down to common sense.

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The spinning impeller inside that aluminum housing at about 20,000 RPM- right on a plane with my belt buckle would be my biggest concern. I might get it Magnafluxed. All the rest of the stuff is just good maintenance practice and safety checks.

 

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The Pennsylvania Turnpike, which opened in 1940 with a speed limit of 70 miles-per-hour.  It is considered North America's first 'Superhighway''; a precursor to the Interstate Highway system as we know it today.  I would say the percentage of cars that could have maintained 70 mph on opening day would have been around 50% or less of what was on the road at the time.

 

Fast forward to 1959 when England opened its first "Motorway" with a speed limit of 80 miles-per-hour.  Roughly only 10% of British-made cars on the road at the time would have been able to sustain that speed, which would have been limited to Jaguars, Aston Martins, Austin-Healys, and perhaps an MG or a Triumph with overdrive transmission.  (The pre-war Ford Popular was still available at the time which had a top speed of 45 mph.)

 

Craig

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1 hour ago, ply33 said:

There was probably a bigger difference between various makes and models to perform at high speeds in the early 1930s than there is now.

 

I've heard that too, Ply33.  The larger and more expensive

cars, back then, really offered a difference from the smaller

and inexpensive cars, as far as speed, endurance, and quality.

As the decades progressed, those differences became

less and less until they practically disappeared.

 

 

Edited by John_S_in_Penna (see edit history)
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39 minutes ago, 8E45E said:

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, which opened in 1940 with a speed limit of 70 miles-per-hour.  It is considered North America's first 'Superhighway''; a precursor to the Interstate Highway system as we know it today.  I would say the percentage of cars that could have maintained 70 mph on opening day would have been around 50% or less of what was on the road at the time.

 

Fast forward to 1959 when England opened its first "Motorway" with a speed limit of 80 miles-per-hour.  Roughly only 10% of British-made cars on the road at the time would have been able to sustain that speed, which would have been limited to Jaguars, Aston Martins, Austin-Healys, and perhaps an MG or a Triumph with overdrive transmission.  (The pre-war Ford Popular was still available at the time which had a top speed of 45 mph.)

 

Craig

English motorway was M1 , 80 mph ,  sadly since reduced to 70 mph , which most cars can attain nowadays so continually exceeded 

Edited by Pilgrim65 (see edit history)
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Graham had balanced engines, full pressure oil system, aluminum pistons, invar wrist pins, and the entire engine was safety wired.  My 827 even ran double disk clutch.  So the claim sounds plausible?  In 1933 MN had 3 "improved" highway/roads, the rest were gravel or mud/dirt.

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I started driving my Grandfather's 99,000 mile car in 1959.  He never drove it over 45mph. On reading the operators manual I noticed that the economizer valve in the carb cut out at 55 mph. I reasoned then that it was okay to drive at least that fast.  I have consistently driven it at 50-55 on highways and 55-60 on the TCH and your interstates.  In 500,000 miles the engine has been overhauled twice.  Both times the babbitt was cracking more than worn (never had removed shims).  He had always used good oil (detergent when it became available) but 330 or 40wt.  Both times when I rebuilt the engine I started out with 10wt oil and after 50,000 or so changed to 20wt. The visible results when opening the engine were the same.  I don't know what conclusions one can draw from this except that Pontiac engines were stronger than we thought.

In 1962 I got to drive a brand new (26 miles on the odometer) 1930 Pontiac.  It had been stored by the dealership when new).  The man who bought it asked me to teach him how to drive it.  That car was just as nice shifting and on the highway as a brand new 1962 was.  There was a fantastic difference between it and my 100,000+ mile Pontiac.  I imagine there would be the same difference or even more difference since it had never been beat up on 30's and 40's roads.

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In the early seventies car makers went from rear axle ratios of 3.5:1 or so, to 3:1 or less. They did this in an effort to get better mileage without investing in new motors but it also made the cars a lot quieter at speed. Today's cars often have 4, 5 or 6 speed transmissions instead of the 2 or 3 speeds of the past to get the same effect.

 

In the 30s 40s and 50s we expected more engine noise and wind noise too, at higher speeds. 50 was a typical road speed then, rising to 60 or 70 when the interstates became popular.

 

Cars may have been capable of higher speeds but not without noise. And, that was a long time ago. You wouldn't expect the best dancer in the world to jump up and do the boogaloo at 80 the way she did when she was 18.

Edited by Rusty_OToole (see edit history)
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Leaving New Orleans our way from home to the Glidden Tour in Twin Falls, Idaho 3 weeks ago our 7.3L Diesel Ford Excursion's turbocharger failed outside of Rawlins, Wyoming. We backed the 1941 Cadillac out of the trailer, loaded all of our tools, spares, and luggage - determined to make the 500 miles before dark.

 

The first 100+ miles I kept the speeds between 50-55 mph, feeling leary of the 80 mph speed limit on I-80 and big trucks doing much more than that while coming up behind us. The fuel stop/restroom stop showed that at the fuel fill-up we were averaging 12.5 mpg - just as it always does. With a very long distance to go and fast traffic behind us I stepped up the speed to 60-65, averaging 63 mph and after 140 miles (on the GPS as well as the odometer) the rest/fuel stop fill-up showed and average of 15.2 mpg. The final 260 miles was ahead of us and I knew we'd still be on the road just after sunset. Since the engine didn't protest I stepped up the speed a bit more. The GPS showed that we had averaged 73 mph for the last 260 miles, but the astounding thing was that the now fully loaded '41 Caddy convertible coupe had averaged 16.9 mpg at the 73 mph - all this on low-octane Ethanol gas from Pilot Truck Stops.

 

In all, we drove the Caddy about 2,000 miles during the week-and-a-half, including the Glidden and the return drive to retrieve our truck and trailer from the Ford dealer in Wyoming. Regrettably, the replacement turbo-charger turned out to be defective. The drive home was a chore and a strain on us as well as the truck. The turbo is being replaced under warranty back home in the New Orleans area.

 

The up-side is that the 77 year-old essentially original now-44,xxx mile Caddy convertible performed beautifully at highway speeds. We did try to keep our return trip speeds in the mid-high 60 mph range since the Bias-ply tube-type tires are older than I care to admit. We've driven this Cadillac more than 24,xxx miles since acquiring her 12 years ago in September, 2006 after losing almost everything with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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A 1934 Auburn 652Y sold new for under $1,000.  It was equipped with a Dual-Ratio rear differential.  It could run all day long 65-70 mph.  The brakes were Bendix and stopped a lot better that a 48 Chevrolet I used to have.

In reality, the 34-36 Auburn sixes run better than the eights. That being said, an eight cylinder Auburn with a supercharger and the looong hood is a fun toy and will do 90+ in my experience. 

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Pre World War II high speed we’re not common. My father who was born in 1922  told me how he and some friends went to the Pennsylvania turnpike before it was finished and drove their 1933 Nash twin ignition sedan (CCCA Classic) with worm drive rear at 65 mph and that was considered flying in 1938/1939 down the unopened road. Jump ahead twenty years and he took his new Cadillac down the then unfinished Mass Pike............and 110 mph was no problem. Today most pre war cars will run faster than they can safely be driven. Steering,suspension,and brakes are not adequate to the road conditions. Many new hobbyists will over rev their motor and pop it. I have seen it many times. The rule of thumb for driving a pre war car at modern speeds is listen to the feedback from the engine, find the sweet spot without pushing it, and drive the car at that speed. The big CCCA cars seem to be happy from 45 to 55 unless you have an exceptional platform. Better yet, ask the question............. what’s the hurry? While I do occasionally drive my 1936 Pierce twelve with the factory overdrive down the highway at 75 mph and do so comfortably for both me and the car, I prefer the small back roads on country lanes that make motoring in a pre war car enjoyable. The true trick to enjoying the hobby is a truck and trailer if possible......less wear and tear on the car.

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1 hour ago, auburnseeker said:

I had a 38 Cadillac 70 series that I drove with no problem at 70 MPH for 30 mile clips on the interstate back in 2003.  It was original far from fresh and seemed very smooth at that speed. 

Ah, the joy of pulling off from a stop light or stop sign and impressing everyone - that is what most pre-WWII were all about. And, where were you going to go as there was not much in a road system even through the 50's.

 

The 1941 Cadillac 60 Special with automatic and high speed axle (which you get with the automatic) had a favorite speed of 76mph - whole car smoothed up and felt right at home there.   I never did it for a long time, but seemed a much happier car at 76 than 55.  I bought the car in 1979 (at age 14) with 14K miles on it and drove it to 2015 - countless AACA and CCCA tours (it had 97.5K then and considerable drivetrain work along the way).  The 41 Buick Super though could run circles around it.  The 36 75 Series Town Cabriolet was a dog (not a fast dog, but a slow dog) - just too heavy.   The 31 Cadillac V-8's  were ok but 50-55mph,

 

The RR-PI was impressively torque-y and everyone told me it would do plenty more than 50mph it seemed conformable at - if I was willing to continuously open my wallet (ie a car best kept at 50mph).  And, the two 25/30 cars were about same (less power, but less car too). 

 

The 1930 Franklin 147 with 4 speed and factory high speed axle would go 60mph.

 

The 1931 Auburn was ok - it would do 55mph and the 1929 Auburn 8-90's were 45-50mph. 

 

The Packards were nice, but you can hate me for saying the engineering was in such as the 4-48, the first and second generation Twin Six, Twelve, V-8, and torsion bar suspension.

 

And, .... 

 

But, the Auburn 851/852 cars always come back around full circle as being fabulous road cars.  I am told the only thing more fine pre -1953, is a Cord 810/812 - dad asks three questions when someone asks about one though: Are you an Engineer ?  If No, then are you handy ? And then if No, do you have a lot of disposable Income ?  Final reply is if not one of the three it will not be the car you want it to be for you. 

 

Edited by John_Mereness (see edit history)
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On 10/5/2018 at 2:30 PM, Tinindian said:

I started driving my Grandfather's 99,000 mile car in 1959.  He never drove it over 45mph. On reading the operators manual I noticed that the economizer valve in the carb cut out at 55 mph. I reasoned then that it was okay to drive at least that fast.  I have consistently driven it at 50-55 on highways and 55-60 on the TCH and your interstates.  In 500,000 miles the engine has been overhauled twice.  Both times the babbitt was cracking more than worn (never had removed shims).  He had always used good oil (detergent when it became available) but 330 or 40wt.  Both times when I rebuilt the engine I started out with 10wt oil and after 50,000 or so changed to 20wt. The visible results when opening the engine were the same.  I don't know what conclusions one can draw from this except that Pontiac engines were stronger than we thought.

In 1962 I got to drive a brand new (26 miles on the odometer) 1930 Pontiac.  It had been stored by the dealership when new).  The man who bought it asked me to teach him how to drive it.  That car was just as nice shifting and on the highway as a brand new 1962 was.  There was a fantastic difference between it and my 100,000+ mile Pontiac.  I imagine there would be the same difference or even more difference since it had never been beat up on 30's and 40's roads.

I work with bearings every day, and for a babbitt bearing, I will say 10 Wt. oil is to thin, when hot, it is as thin as water. You have to have cushion between Crank Pin, and the bearing, and 10 Wt. just doesn't have it in stressed times.  Yes, as you know it will work, but like everything, it works until it don't. Summer Weight should be 30 , and winter 20 Wt.

 

Herm.

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My 37 Buick Special has an 120mph top speed on the speedometer face so one time I plugged in my GPS and opened it up for two miles on a dead level road. It topped out at 93mph on the accurate gps and 105 on the optimistic speedometer. This was on a paved road and radial tires so I'd guess half that speed was close to the norm in 37 with bias ply tires, tubes, and a gravel road. Had TERRIBLE wind noise at that speed.

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13 hours ago, mcdarrunt said:

My 37 Buick Special has an 120mph top speed on the speedometer face so one time I plugged in my GPS and opened it up for two miles on a dead level road. It topped out at 93mph on the accurate gps and 105 on the optimistic speedometer. This was on a paved road and radial tires so I'd guess half that speed was close to the norm in 37 with bias ply tires, tubes, and a gravel road. Had TERRIBLE wind noise at that speed.

I read one of the new VWs has a 240 MPH  speedometer and has a top end of 127. Your Buick;s marketing team was more accurate or realistic.

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I asked this question in the Studebaker forum quite some time ago. In my GL Dictator (1929-30) I have never gotten it over 45mph. My engine starts to cut out at the higher rpms. I might be able to tune that out, I don't know but perhaps a valve job, new points and cap may make the difference. Even with that being said when approaching 40mph the car develops quite an alarming shudder. It's not constant but comes and goes as you travel. I usually take the back roads where my top speed might be 35mph so I don't get launched over a humped intersection, break a wheel in Hoosier pot hole or simply vibrate the car to pieces from poor road patching jobs. The car sounds good at 30-35mph, the engine seems to be tuned for this speed. Incidentally, 1929 was when Indiana raised its speed limit above 30mph. Of course the federal government would impose a national 30mph speed limit to save fuel during WWII.

 

I also have recently acquired a 1969-70 Siata Spring that uses the Fiat 850 engine, transaxle and suspension. I did run it at 55mph on the highway once but the tach was showing 4200 RPM in fourth gear. I suppose this is okay since I believe the speed limit at that time was 65mph but this might be excessive for a nearly 50 year old engine. One consolation is that in this tiny car 55mph feels like 110mph in a modern automobile, it's kind of like comparing a mini-bike to a Harley Davidson. 

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5 hours ago, keninman said:

I asked this question in the Studebaker forum quite some time ago. In my GL Dictator (1929-30) I have never gotten it over 45mph. My engine starts to cut out at the higher rpms. I might be able to tune that out, I don't know but perhaps a valve job, new points and cap may make the difference. Even with that being said when approaching 40mph the car develops quite an alarming shudder. It's not constant but comes and goes as you travel. I usually take the back roads where my top speed might be 35mph so I don't get launched over a humped intersection, break a wheel in Hoosier pot hole or simply vibrate the car to pieces from poor road patching jobs. The car sounds good at 30-35mph, the engine seems to be tuned for this speed. Incidentally, 1929 was when Indiana raised its speed limit above 30mph. Of course the federal government would impose a national 30mph speed limit to save fuel during WWII.

My Pontiac cut out occasionaly when I first stated driving it, was caused by corroded connections at the ammeter.

Shudder could be castor, camber or a broken spring leaf.

Even with a high rear end ratio you should be able to drive 55 fairly easily without the cutting out and shudder.

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In 1936 the Buick Century was introduced. It was named Century to recognize that it was capable of 100 mph. I have driven my 1937 Century at nearly that speed, but it routinely feels like 60 to 65 mph is its most natural normal every day cruising speed. I drove it in normal Interstate traffic on a 2 day trip from North Carolina to Indiana without problems while keeping up with traffic without any issues. 

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2 minutes ago, MCHinson said:

In 1936 the Buick Century was introduced. It was named Century to recognize that it was capable of 100 mph. I have driven my 1937 Century at nearly that speed, but it routinely feels like 60 to 65 mph is its most natural normal every day cruising speed. I drove it in normal Interstate traffic on a 2 day trip from North Carolina to Indiana without problems while keeping up with traffic without any issues. 

 

This is also a century - 100kph   ?

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It’s interesting that many of the fastest pre war cars were not necessarily the most expensive. The big Buick’s along with the Auburns seem to offer the best value for speed back in the day. Also just one or two years difference in platform of the same marque can make a world of difference. A supercharged Auburn with a two speed rear is a wonderful car to drive.....but it’s small, and the build quality of the body and hardware ar middle of the road.......but a fantastic value when new. I like any car that drives well in modern traffic, and there are quite a few “sleeper models” that fall through the cracks. Big Stude and Reo come to mind. CID is where it’s at on MOST pre war cars. “There’s no replacement for displacement.” 

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12 hours ago, Tinindian said:

My Pontiac cut out occasionaly when I first stated driving it, was caused by corroded connections at the ammeter.

Shudder could be castor, camber or a broken spring leaf.

Even with a high rear end ratio you should be able to drive 55 fairly easily without the cutting out and shudder.

This one isn't occasional, as you get to about 45mph the engine gets very rough, missing and unless you let off the accelerator you will actually begin slowing down. I have had the springs and front end off of her last year, the springs and king pins are fine but the steering joint are sloppy. I tried to do some adjusting but it did not help. 

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18 hours ago, keninman said:

I asked this question in the Studebaker forum quite some time ago. In my GL Dictator (1929-30) I have never gotten it over 45 m.p.h.

...when approaching 40 m.p.h. the car develops quite an alarming shudder.

 

One well-known collector I know had a similar shuddering

problem in his '30's Packard.  At first he thought the problem

was in his steering damper.  Instead, he found that the tires needed

to be shaved to make them perfectly round.

 

Shaving tires was a common practice, because out of the mold,

the tires weren't perfectly round.  Shaving takes small slices of

rubber off the wearing surface to even out the tires.  It's a practice

that's forgotten today, but he said it solved his problem. 

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