Vintage Reviews: The Reality of Vintage Road Test Stats – Greatness Through Estimation

At Curbside we love to discuss the cars of yesterday and reminisce about our memories of owning or driving these cars.  We often have very vivid memories of a particular car and its driving characteristics.  However, as we all know the human memory is far from perfect and our memories can fade, change or evolve.  So our memory of a car’s driving dynamics and performance may not be as accurate as we’d like to believe.  Fortunately, cars were tested and well documented by car magazines resulting in many firsthand accounts of how a particular car was when judged by the standards of its day.  These vintage reviews are often posted here and are among my favorite posts.  As someone who has always loved stats and numbers, I usually skip ahead to the test stats, but how accurate were these numbers?

Many of us grew up devouring car magazine as it was our primary source for information on cars in the pre-internet days.  The articles were often highly detailed, well written, and there was no reason to doubt what was printed. Today, the golden age of the magazine has passed and their popularity has drastically waned.  Many car magazines are no longer published and only the most well established ones have survived.  Those magazines that have survived are thinner with shorter articles and more ads than those of the past.

David E Davis Jr.

So it comes as no surprise that I often see comments on Curbside where people lament the loss of magazine articles of the past.  During that golden era, car magazines had great writers such as David E Davis Jr and Brock Yates.  They are fondly remembered as great word smiths that have yet to be matched by their modern counterparts.  I agree that there were some excellent writers during this era that wrote some timeless articles.  The articles today may not match those of the past for eloquent writing, but that doesn’t mean that car magazines have become poor evaluators of vehicles.  In fact, I’d argue the level accuracy and impartiality captured from instrumented vehicles tests has seen a massive improvement since the glory days of the past.

During the 1960s, Car and Driver had the reputation of having the quickest performance test numbers of the car magazines.  I believe they liked this reputation and it helped sell magazines, but there is a reason for these quick times.  It wasn’t driver’s skill or special techniques.  To be quite blunt – they cheated the numbers.

Perhaps the most famous bogus road test is the Car and Driver comparison of the 1964 Pontiac GTO and the 1964 Ferrari GTO.  It’s a great article to read, but that is because it is a fiction.  It’s well known that not only were the Pontiac GTO and the Ferrari GTOs never within 800 miles of each other, but Pontiac’s cars were Royal Bobcat ringers.  Pontiac’s PR man Jim Wangers brought two GTOs for C/D to test.  There was a blue GTO set up for street driving, the road course and skid pad testing.  Then there was the red GTO set up for acceleration runs.  The red car was equipped with a tri-powered 421 HO Pontiac engine swapped in place of the stock 389.

After many years of denying any funny business, Wangers finally admitted to this little scam in his memoir Glory Days.  In 1964 C/D was undoubtedly well aware that something was not on the up and up.  David E Davis even noted that the red GTO was a lot faster than the blue GTO.  During the testing, Wangers observed that C/D had more photographic equipment than test equipment, which consisted of nothing more than stop watches.  Wangers said “It became apparent that they weren’t going to do any serious testing on the cars, but just go by ‘seat of the pants’ feel.”  The performances figures C/D published were out of this world, 0-60 in 4.6 seconds and the quarter mile in 13.1s. @115mph.  Had those numbers been legitimate, the 1964 GTO would have been one of the all-time quickest muscle cars.  Wangers recalls the acceleration tests and says,

When they came up with zero to 60 in 4.6 seconds, and zero to 100 in 11.8 secs, I knew it was time to for me to “shut up and watch.”  Our red GTO wouldn’t have run zero to 100 mph in 11.8 seconds even if it had been dropped off the top of the Empire State Building.

For comparison sake, several other tests of 1964 GTOs are listed in the chart.  From looking at multiple sources, it’s obvious that the true performance time of the 1964 GTO 4-speed was closer to high 14 second quarter mile time.  But for Davis, accuracy wasn’t that important.  It was all about making a big splash for the newly reinvented Car and Driver magazine, and since we are still taking about this article 50 years later, I must admit it worked.

This wasn’t the only case of C/D having outrageous performance stats.  They performed a follow-up Pontiac versus Ferrari test, this time the 2+2 cars.  Tested was a 1965 Pontiac Catalina 2+2 powered by a 421 against a Ferrari 330/GT 2+2.  Despite the 4400 lb test weight, this portly Pontiac allegedly ran 0-60 in 3.9 seconds and the quarter mile in 13.8 secs at 106 mph.  Who knew a ’65 Catalina could run with a Hemi?  Obviously we know today this is another work of fiction and the performance numbers published for this big Catalina were as accurate as the aforementioned ’64 GTO.



We saw these outrageous C/D numbers again in a recent vintage test published here on the 1965 K-code Mustang.  Unquestionably the 271 hp K-code 1965 Mustang was a quick car, but Car and Driver’s numbers are very questionable.  They obtained a 14.0s @ 100 mph quarter mile time, which is far better than other contemporary tests of K-code Mustangs.  If these numbers were accurate, the K-code Mustang would have been one of the all-time quickest Mustangs of the 1960s, running pretty close to the 428 Cobra-Jet powered Mustangs.  While the 1965 Mustang tested had 4.11 gears, this doesn’t account for the far quicker than usual ET.  It also doesn’t explain the unrealistic trap speed.  Generally lower gearing only reduces ET, but the trap speed won’t change significantly.  Fortunately the Mustang was extensively tested in 1965 and so there are lots of other road tests of 1965 Mustangs.  There are also many road tests of the more powerful and lighter Shelby GT-350.  Even the GT-350 didn’t run anywhere close to C/Ds numbers.  In fact, the only Mustang tests of this time that had similar performance were of the supercharged GT-350s.  So either Ford snuck a supercharger under the hood of that Mustang and C/D didn’t notice, or the numbers are bogus.


Clearly during this time, Car and Driver’s test numbers were suspect but it’s no mystery why.  They confessed in their January 2015 60th Anniversary edition that testing methodology in this era was poor at best.  In the 1950s, as Sports Car Illustrated, the test equipment consisted of a stop watch purchased by Karl Ludvigsen.  A passenger controlled the stop watch after the speedometer had been calibrated.  The stop watch had a secondary button that would squirt a little bit of a removable red liquid to mark the times for the 10 mph acceleration increments.  The passenger controlled stop watch was hardly the paragon of precise measurement, but things got even worse later on when David E. Davis joined the newly renamed Car and Driver.  Former C/D writer Steve Smith said the following about his time at C/D during the 1960s:

We meant well, but there were…limitations.  To David E., a well turned phrase was worth a dozen fact-filled spec panels.  The tech editor having been fired, I was given full responsibility for getting numbers right.  So….I made it all up.  I had econoboxes zipping through the quarter-mile in times that would do credit to a Funny Car.  We did one acceleration run on the Jersey Turnpike, in rush-hour traffic, in the rain, starting on the shoulder, showering gravel on the startled driver’s behind us.  Experts?  None of us on the staff even owned a car.  Some of us even made no bones about hating cars.

While somewhat tongue in cheek, the point is there was little legitimacy to their testing methodology.  Clearly Davis cared more about a great article with exciting numbers over precise (or truthful) measurement.  Nevertheless, C/D did eventually get their act together.  In late 1967, Patrick Bedard joined the magazine, after leaving Chrysler engineering.  I suspect his engineering background caused him to implement some significant changes to the former “test equipment.”   The stopwatch was put out to pasture, and replaced with proper drag strip timing equipment and the stats were even corrected for weather.

Being a collector of vintage road tests and having a good memory for stats, there are definitely other suspect road tests from this era.  So it may seem I am picking on C/D, but that is only because they are one of the few magazines that confessed to their past sins.  However, I am aware of one other significant tester of the era that later confessed to this behavior.  That was Joe Oldham, who did so in his book Muscle Car Confidential.

Joe Oldham wrote for Hi-Performance Cars magazine during the 1960s and 1970s.  He is a self-proclaimed no BS writer who “told it like it was,” all consequences be damned.  He was also heavily involved in the street and racing scene during this time.  In his book he mentions that there are several cars that he never actually obtained performance figures for and that his published test figures were estimates obtained from his so called “desk test.”

Here is what he said about his test of the 1970 Buick GSX:

In my original article in Hi-Performance Cars magazine, I said we took it [the Buick GSX] out to a Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, and ran it against the clocks.  I lied.  I did not.  I did take it to Raceway Park one day for the photo session…but the clocks were not setup and we did not record any actual times for the car.  What I did later back in the office was a “desk-test.”

Oldham goes onto to say that because he had tested hundreds of muscle cars at the track, he knew how fast a car felt.  From this experience he claims to be able to estimate ET within 0.1 to 0.2 secs.  His “desk test” time of 14.0 seconds at 103 mph is reasonably close to other tests of Buick GSXs, but this admission certainly damages his credibility for any of his other road tests.  Of course the Buick wasn’t the only car he admitted to doing this too, he also said he did the same in his Road Test of a 1972 Oldsmobile 4-4-2, where weather didn’t permit testing.

Oldham may have confessed to a couple of “desk tests” in his book, but there was one other test that jumped out at me.  In his book he talks of his test of a 1971 Torino Cobra with a 429 SCJ engine.  I have a copy of this original test where it states it ran 14.50s @ 102 mph through the quarter.  However, in his book he talks about it running a considerably quicker 13.70s @ 106 mph.  So which is it?  Why the discrepancy all these years later?  Again this leads me to question the credibility of his all of his test numbers.

All that said, I think it’s pretty clear the test numbers obtained by some of these magazines in the past may not be accurate.  From reading enough of these test results over the years, I can usually figure out which numbers are reasonably accurate.  Of course, there were also some magazines that seemed to take on more precise testing methodologies during this time.

Today with modern equipment and technology, the testing methodology has drastically improved from the days of past.  Ironically, Car and Driver seems to have one of the best test methodologies of all the magazines today.  They recently incorporated the rollout time into their test figures to ensure the most precise measurement of acceleration times.  So while we may lament loss of the words of the great writers of the past, just remember often times fiction is far more interesting than the truth.