The Physics
An encyclopedia of scientific essays

Speed of the Fastest Street Legal Car

search icon
Bibliographic Entry Result
(w/surrounding text)
"Road Test Summary." Road & Track. July 1998: 186. "Ameritech McLaren F1, Top Speed (mph), 231" 103 m/s
Egan, Peter. If speed costs money, what does a million dollars get you? In this case, a lot of speed. The most we've ever seen, actually. Road & Track. no date. as archived in Joe's Exotic Cars (see below). "Highest reported top speed: 231 mph." 103 m/s
Burns, Joe. McLaren F1. Joe's Exotic Cars. "The car is powered by a 6.1 Liter V12 engine developed by BMW. This awesome power plant develops 627 BHP and powers the car to 230+ MPH" > 100 m/s
Hope-Frost, Henry. LM World Record. Racing Line. November 1998. as archived in "Officially the world's fastest production roadcar with a logged speed of 240.1 mph, the McLaren F1 also holds the record for the fastest lap speed on a UK circuit: 195.3 mph …. 1998: Broke own record at Ehra-Lessien, Germany in the McLaren F1 XP5, taking it to 240.1 mph" 107.3 m/s
87.3 m/s
Akos Zoltan Kiss (a.k.a Moli). McLaren, the Fastest Car in the World. 15 June 1999. "Top Speed 240.3 mph" 107.4 m/s

It has been called the "Fastest Car of the 20th Century."In addition, it is. The McLaren F1 is officially the fastest street legal car on record. However, everybody who knows anything about cars knows that. So, what makes the McLaren F1 such a fast car?

McLaren, the company, was started way back in the early 1960s. What kind of cars did they build? Formula One and CanAm cars to be exact. Initially, Bruce McLaren's CanAm racers dominated the series. Bruce tragically died while driving one of these beasts in 1970. However, the McLaren name carried on through the decades and with much success. They won their first F1 Constructor's title in 1974 and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, their competition record was unmatched. The McLaren F1 was McLaren's first venture into the street car market. Gordon Murray, the car's designer, wanted a no compromises, no-holds-barred super car and, through McLaren's immense racing experience, he got it.

Murray wanted the best of everything., which must be why an F1 costs almost one million dollars (US). The exhaust headers cost more to manufacture than an entire BMW 850CSi engine! Murray only wanted the finest metals, alloys, and components to go into this car. The body and frame are composed almost entirely of carbon fiber with some aluminum honeycomb for reinforcement. To eliminate visually and aerodynamically detracting wings or scoops, Murray designed a ground effects under tray. The wide opening at the bottom of the nose sucks air under the chassis and two big fans diffuse it out the back. This absolutely glues the F1 to the ground.

What most find weird about this car is the seating arrangement. Most exotic cars, because of their mid-engine configuration, have their pedals skewed toward the center of the car to accommodate the intrusion of the front wheels. Gordon Murray wanted none of that. Whereas most exotics are two-seaters, the McLaren seats three. The driver sits in the center with two passenger seats set back from the driver's seat on either side. This gives the driver a symmetric view for right and left turns and makes room for not one, but two extra seats. Hey, it's the world's most practical super car.

The McLaren F1 weighs only 1290 kg (2840 lb) largely because of its composite construction, but also because it has no power steering, ABS, or even power brakes. The car is so light and so precise that it doesn't need any of these. There is a small, computer controlled rear flap that pops up under heavy braking to increase traction and expose the brake cooling ducts, however, which can also be manually raised. One thing that the McLaren does have is one hell of an engine. Built by BMW, it cranks out 468 kW (627 bhp) at 7400 rpm, has 6.1 liters of displacement, and 48 valves. The construction follows race car practice, as the engine is bolted to the rear suspension, and is a stressed member of the chassis. It is force fed air through the duct above the windshield, and spits it out through those expensive headers and dual twin tailpipes. The catalysts and mufflers generate immense heat and are shielded from the bodywork by nothing less than gold plated foil! Speaking of the bodywork, it's pretty impressive looking. The F1's body reminds one of a 1960s GT racer. It's aggressive and purposeful looking, with its long wheelbase, short overhangs, and wide stance. It is a first-rate head turner, though maybe not quite as much as a Lamborghini or Ferrari.

As everybody already knows, this car hauls ass. [International readers: see the table below for conversions -- Ed.] With a 627 bhp mid-mounted V12 pushing only 2840 lb of car, the McLaren F1 goes from zero to sixty* in an amazing 3.1 seconds! It churns to 100 in the low 7 second range, and quarters** in 11.6 seconds at 125 mph. The BMW motor keeps right on winding, and the speedometer needle seems to move almost as fast as the tachometer's! This car can pull off 150 mph like it's nothing, and it still has plenty of revs. The first five of its six gears are closely spaced, for rapid acceleration. They get you from 0 to 180 mph. Then 6th has to take the long haul from there all the way to the claimed 231 mph top speed.

About the top speed; Road & Track, as you may well know, got to "only" 231 mph in the F1 they tested, driven by Mario Andretti. Keep in mind, that it wasn't a production McLaren F1 that got to 240.1 -- it was the XP5, or Experimental Prototype 5. They may have had different engine, chassis, or tuning on that particular car.

Michael E. Feldman -- 2000

Here's a translation guide for the last two paragraphs. These are the metric or SI equivalents of the values the student is referring to.

speed distance
60* mph = 100 km/h = 027 m/s
100 mph = 160 km/h = 045 m/s
125 mph = 200 km/h = 056 m/s
150 mph = 241 km/h = 067 m/s
180 mph = 290 km/h = 080 m/s
217 mph = 349 km/h = 097 m/s
231 mph = 372 km/h = 103 m/s
* final speed of zero to sixty acceleration test

¼** mile = 402 m
** distance of quarter [mile] acceleration test

2480 lbs = 1290 kg

627 bhp = 468 kW

Editor's Supplement -- 2000

Bibliographic Entry Result
(w/surrounding text)
Oehme, Andreas. Callaway Corvette Sledgehammer. "Performance: Top-Speed: 409,98 km/h, 254.76 mph" 113.88 m/s
Short Test of 1996 callaway Supernatural Corvette LM. Motorweek Online. "And like every poster dream, the LM has a gorgeous body. The LM's aero work continues on the theme first conceived by stylist Paul Deutschman for the legendary Sledgehammer, the street-legal Callaway which ran 254 mph back in 1989." 114 m/s
Riggs, D. Randy. Sledgehammer.Vette Magazine, 1989. "898 horsepower; 6200 rpm in fifth Overdrive equals 254.76 mph! … The Sledgehammer disappeared into the distance and the walkie-talkie crackled with the answer to the question everyone had burned into their mind. How fast? 254.76 mph. Das is der Sledgehammer. And how!" 113.88 m/s
Rosshuber, Klaus. Sledgehammer. Sport Auto, 1989. "The "sneakers"on the car made drag specialist and Sledgehammer record driver John Lingenfelter a little safer at speed. The record was set in October 1989, 254.76 mph which figures to exactly 410 km/h. Now we can report that it would be possible to confirm these achieved numbers in the Vaterland itself." 113.88 m/s

For the record the world's fastest street legal car is not the McLaren F1, it's the 1988 Twin Turbo Callaway Sledgehammer Corvette. At 254 mph, it smokes the F1 by 14 mph (which is virtually running by) with all the amenities of home (A/C, etc. thank you) and runs the quarter mile in 10.6 seconds to the F1's 11.6.

Erik V. Davis -- 2001

[an error occurred while processing this directive]