For most Americans, the German autobahn is a near-mythical beast, a serpentine wonderland of multi-lane blacktop where the speed limit has been slain and the fiery horses under the hood can be unleashed.
It sounds almost too good to be true. A public road, in a notoriously buttoned-up country, where a person can drive as fast as their engine size and nerve will allow? Yes, dear readers, there is an autobahn. And these 10 vehicles have been pushed to their limits on this fabled road.
The thing is, it's just a highway, like almost any you're familiar with. It's not a closed course or a race track with rubber tires stacked on the shoulders of the road. So anyone who lets the horses out to play and nears 200 miles per hour is risking not only their own life but also the lives of the poor suckers in the Citroens and Fiats in the next lane. A mistake at that speed is usually, well, pretty terrible.
But that doesn't stop people from putting the super in supercar. Here the 10 fastest times clocked on the fabled autobahn -- and just to keep you interested right to the end, the top two speeds will knock your high-tech, twenty-first century socks off.
USA! USA! The only American entry on this list of top speeds is of course the Corvette ZR1, one of the most powerful production cars available, making more than 600 horsepower. In a land of Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes and Audi R8s, the 'Vette we take for granted is a special kind of speed demon in Germany. Granted, the ZR1 is a special kind of speed demon no matter where it is.
In 2008, a team from the Dutch autoblog (ABHD) took one of the first ZR1s to hit Europe on the autobahn for a little high-speed test. Thanks to some pesky traffic and a few work zones (it's probably safe to say those guys were happy they wore helmets that day), the team only managed to get the ZR1 up to 192 miles per hour (309 kilometers per hour). "Only" 192 miles per hour because the car is engineered to hit 205 miles per hour (329.9 kilometers per hour). Even so, I doubt the guys driving the car were sad to be 13 miles per hour below the car's full capability. How sad would you be at 192 miles per hour? You can check out the video, too.
You might expect the latest car on the list to also be the greatest, but alas, it's not. The 2012 Lamborghini Aventador might be pretty great for a lot of reasons, but the 199 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour) achieved by the reporter at Inside Line only gets this Lambo to number nine.
Surely the engineers in Sant'Agata, where the Aventador was built, are crying, "It was daytime! There was traffic! How could you expect the 690-horsepower V-12 to reach its full speed of 217 miles per hour in such conditions? Cavolo!" (That's Italian for "crap!" It's also Italian for "cabbage.") But all the other cars on this list (exceptions noted, of course) were subject to the same conditions, and sometimes worse.
Besides, the reporter got to drive the Aventador from home base in Italy to the autobahn in Germany and back. There are worse ways to spend two days.
When the autobahn is in your backyard, you're going to build some pretty insane cars to drive on it. There are lots of German automakers who build very fast cars, but Porsche and its tuner friends have taken nearly half the spots on this list.
The 911 GT3 RTS 4.0 is a factory-prepped car, and the Porsche guys really poured all they had into it. Thanks to their passion (or insanity; it is so hard to tell the difference sometimes), the Road & Track testers were able to push this car to a hair over 200 miles per hour. If you watch the video, you can hear the exhilaration of the guys in the cockpit when the speedo hits 323 kilometers per hour and the driver starts to back off the throttle. Also note that this run was done at night, when traffic was a bit lighter.
What did you do at work today? File something? Maybe make a phone call? Have a team meeting in the conference room, which for some reason always smells like onions? Well, automotive journalist James M. Clash's spent a workday taking the Ruf CTR Yellowbird for a jaunt on the autobahn. Not quite a PowerPoint presentation, is it?
Ruf Automobile is a German car company that, in addition to building its own sports cars, takes the skin and chassis from Porsches and builds nearly unrivaled supercars using its own blend of automotive performance parts. The CTR, which is better known as the Yellowbird, is based on a 1987 Porsche 911.
In 2003, Clash was invited by Alois Ruf, the owner of Ruf Automobile, to take the Yellowbird on an autobahn speed run. On the A81, a section of autobahn that runs between Würzburg and Heilbronn, Clash got the Yellowbird up to 201.3 miles per hour (323.96 kilometers per hour). He described the experience as nerve-wracking, but such a run is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- unless you're automotive journalist James Clash.
If you're a real exotic car fiend, or a real racing game fiend, you're probably familiar with Kellener's wheels. In the real world and the race game world, their lightweight wheels are coveted for reducing weight and looking freakin' cool.
Kelleners specializes in prettying up BMWs, but it also tuned a beast of an M6 and took it to the autobahn. Given that we're halfway through the list, you know what's coming. This BMW M6 hit the pavement in 2009 and flew to 206 miles an hour (332 kilometers per hour). There is, of course, a video, which helpfully provides GPS verification in the upper right hand corner.
"Hey, James Clash, remember that time you drove the Ruf Yellowbird to a record-setting speed on the autobahn?"
"Yes, Alois Ruf, I remember. It was a few minutes ago. Also, it was mentioned earlier in this top 10 list."
"How would you like to do it in another of our cars? One that maybe goes...faster?"
The above is the imagined conversation that happened right after that run in the Yellowbird in 2003, because Clash hopped into a Ruf R Turbo, which has 50 more horsepower than the CTR, and hit 208.7 miles per hour (335.87 kilometers per hour). Keep in mind, this was Clash's workday. It wasn't some midnight run; it was daytime on an open, public road, with traffic and construction and people just trying to get to their boring jobs as anything but automotive journalists hanging out with one of the premier super car tuners in the world.
The Bugatti Veyron is the king of the beasts, as far as exotic cars go. It tops most of the lists out there, from most expensive to most exclusive to most horsepower to most coveted. But it doesn't top this list.
It is included on this list as a proud representative of all the questionable amateur videos on the Internet showing people doing dangerous things in powerful cars. For instance, in this 2011 video you can see flashing lights on the right side of the screen. There are two explanations for this in the comment-verse: either the police are chasing him (doubtful) or he has a police motorcycle escort (more doubtful; what motorcycle could keep up with him?) or he affixed flashing lights to convince other drivers to move over out of his way (pretty likely). And is he really holding his own camera while he drives?
In any case, the speedometer reads 353 kilometers per hour, which is 219 miles per hour. That's believable for a Bugatti, since they've set records above 250 miles an hour on the track. But it's a classic case of "don't try this at home" -- not that many of us have a Veyron sitting around waiting for us to do ridiculous things at high speeds.
Yet another tuned Porsche kicks passes on the autobahn. Ho hum. This one is tuned by a company called 9ff. The car started its life as a mere Porsche 997 Turbo (that's a recent 911 incarnation, in case you weren't sure). Then 9ff got their hands on it and upped the horsepower to 850. Yikes.
The 9ff GTurbo850 goes so fast, it doesn't need spaces in its name. It also managed this record-setting time during daylight hours in 2010, with other cars on the road. It's the fastest time in 72 years, and the top two record holders had a couple of advantages. It's hard to believe advantages over a tuned Porsche are possible, but you'll see what I mean.
Here's where the reality-show-style shockers come in, right at the end, when you least expect it. (Except that if you've seen enough of those shows, you know that there's always a twist in the last two episodes, so maybe it's actually when you most expect it.)
The fastest times on the German autobahn weren't set yesterday, or a year ago, or even a decade ago. They were set in 1938. On the same day. By Mercedes Benz and Auto Union (which would eventually become Audi).
Bernd Rosemeyer drove an Auto Union streamliner that had a mid-mounted V-16 engine, two superchargers and an estimated 400 horsepower -- not too shabby even today. It was designed by Ferdinand Porsche. What the streamliner didn't have, unfortunately, was enough downforce to keep it planted on the road at high speed. Rosemeyer managed to hit 268.432 miles an hour (432 kilometers per hour) when word came in that the Mercedes-Benz driver had managed a faster speed.
The shockers don't stop there, though. Rosemeyer headed out again, and on that run, tragedy struck. He lost control of his car in crosswinds and was killed.
How fast was Rosemeyer's rival? A half a mile an hour. No joke. A record so close it seemed sane to set out again to try to break it.
Ninety minutes before Rosemeyer made his final run, driver Rudolf Caracciola set an autobahn speed record of 268.8 miles per hour (432.59 kilometers per hour) that has not been broken since in a Mercedes-Benz W125 with a V-12 engine.
How is it possible that these two could set records that have stood for the better part of a century? Well, first of all, they were using cars built for the purpose of vanquishing a rival, not production cars like half the rest of the guys on this list. Second, Rosemeyer and Caracciola didn't have to deal with traffic. They had sections of the autobahn shut down so these guys could go all out. And there were certainly no construction crews around.
Is your favorite exotic car fast enough to make our 10 Fastest Cars in the World list? Find out at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: Top 10 Speeds Clocked on the Autobahn
In order to compile the top 10 times on the autobahn, I had to comb through video after video on the Internet, trying to find the fastest times on speedometers, checking to see if there was GPS or other verification, looking for a reliable source -- like a car magazine -- to verify the results. It was a tough slog.
Try telling that, though, to your friends crunching numbers in cubicles all day. Try convincing them that your job, which involves watching YouTube videos of fast cars for a couple hours, is a slog. Trust me, it does not work. You get a lot of tiny violins playing the world's saddest song for you.
- 9ff. (May 2, 2012) http://www.9ff.de/en.html
- ABHD. "Corvette ZR1 Autobahn Shakedown." (Feb. 9, 2010)http://www.abhd.nl/video/corvette-zr1-autobahn-shakedown/
- Arnold, Mark. "Corvette ZR1 Blitzes Europe with 190 mph Autobahn Run." Jalopnik.com. Sept. 11, 2008. (Feb. 9, 2010) http://jalopnik.com/5048342/corvette-zr1-blitzes-europe-with-190-mph-autobahn-run
- Autoblog.com. "Video: German Veyron Owner's Crazy 220-miles per hour Autobahn blast." Feb. 2, 2011. (May 2, 2012) http://www.autoblog.com/2011/02/02/video-german-veyron-owners-crazy-220-miles per hour-autobahn-blast/
- Borroz, Tony. "January 28, 1938: The Passing of the Silver Comet." Wired. Jan. 28, 2009. (Feb. 9, 2010) http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2009/01/jan-28-1938-the-passing-of-the-silver-comet/
- Clash, James M. "Achtung! Don't Try This at Home." Forbes. Sept. 15, 2003. (Feb. 8, 2010) http://www.forbes.com/global/2003/0915/116.html
- Clash, James M. "Joy of Autobahn." Forbes. Sept. 15, 2003. (Feb. 8, 2010) http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2003/0915/224.html
- GTSpirit.com. "Video of the Day: 9ff GTurbo850 Does 381 km/h on German Autobahn." Nov. 14, 2010. (May 2, 2012) http://www.gtspirit.com/2010/11/14/video-of-the-day-9ff-gturbo850-does-381kmh-on-german-autobahn/
- Landler, Mark. "Call for Speed Limit Has German Blood at 178 M.P.H. Boil." The New York Times. March 16, 2007. (Feb. 9, 2010)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/16/world/europe/16autobahn.html
- Orosz, Peter. "Remembering Bernd Rosemeyer." Jalopnik. Jan. 28, 2010. (Feb. 8, 2010) http://jalopnik.com/5458030/remembering-bernd-rosemeyer
- Road & Track. "Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0 - A 200 miles per hour Top Speed Run on the Autobahn." Aug. 22, 2011. (May 2, 2012) http://www.roadandtrack.com/tests/video/porsche-911-gt3-rs-4.0-a-200-miles per hour-top-speed-run-on-the-autobahn
- Taylor, Michael. "Lamborghini Aventador on the Autobahn." InsideLine.com. Sept. 27, 2011. (May 2, 2012) http://www.insideline.com/lamborghini/aventador/2012/lamborghini-aventador-on-the-autobahn.html