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.
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.
Oh ,does pre litigation and advertising standards days. “Grab a coffee on the way to my desk and we’ll magic up some test ,time figures”
Thanks for this! As a kid in the 1980s, I read the major magazines and somehow suspected that the acceleration numbers were exaggerated. As I grew older, I became convinced that the magazines were more entertainment than fact, but for some reason I thought that in the olden days, the magazines were more honest.
Your analysis really shines a light on the magazines’ false precision, and in retrospect it’s all rather amusing. C&D’s and Oldham’s recent mea culpas are obviously just the tip of the iceberg — whether it was done to sell more magazines, or to curry favor with advertisers, or both.
But regardless, I do miss many of the good writers; regardless of accuracy, they succeeded in making their products appealingly entertaining.
Very enjoyable read. Hard for any of these publications to distance themselves from the influence of their biggest advertisers. David E famously did heavily criticize BMW for the terrible radio reception was asked to edit it out or lose them as an account.
Very enjoyable to read, and very informative. Car magazines have followed the same trajectory as the cars themselves. Not as much style and razzle-dazzle to “wow” the general public, but both do a better job of fulfilling their basic purpose.
It wasn’t just acceleration times either. C&D indulged in all sorts of BS, including the hatchet job on the Opel Kadett wagon, which the author 50 years later admitted was just that, because they could.
I knew at the time (and others did too) that those times for the GTO and 2+2 seemed less than credible. But for me, it was the Opel Assassination that really opened my eyes and turned me off. These guys were just fucking with us because they were well paid New York writers who were so superior. Fake News, 1960’s style.
People complain about the current times with the internet being an endless tower of babble, but for better or for worse, the days of patrimony when big and successful media could blatantly lie to us like that are mostly over. They would have their heads handed to them if they tried nowadays.
My peak car magazine reading years were between the ages of 12 and maybe 25. 1968 to the early ‘80’s or so. Even then I far preferred Road & Track’s style to CD’s, despite (or perhaps because of) being the son of an author and literature professor. R&T at least seemed to take the data seriously; Ron Wakefield was an engineer on R&T staff long before Bedard at CD; and R&T’s non-technical (or even humor) feature writing by Henry Manney, Dick O’Kane and others was clearly differentiated from the tests and technical features. Road & Track’s technical perspective was a major factor in my choosing mechanical engineering as a course of study and then career. Today, I think there’s no need to exaggerate cars’ performance ‘cause they’re all so damn fast.
I agree with R&T taking the data more seriously than C/D in this era. Which is why I always really like R&Ts counterpart, Car Life. They tended to test the cars I was interested in and they had highly detailed stats that seemed to be accurate for the most part.
Great info – there was so much more liberty taken back then, with almost everything. The horsepower numbers were fudged as often as not and it didn’t matter because many of the magazine tests were too.
I have not read Jim Wangers’ book, but suspect he was up to these tricks before the GTO came out. I remember doing a piece on a Popular Science test of 1963’s hot compacts. The Tempest LeMans seemed unnaturally fast, given its specs. 8.1 sec 0-60 with a 4 bbl 326 and a 3 speed stick?
Testers for Autocar magazine were always meticulous in recording stats, though they could be economical with the facts. If something blew during the acceleration tests they probably wouldn’t mention it, or if the hardtop blew off a TVR during high speed runs it would not be recorded.
The 1961 test of the pre-production ‘E’ Type Jaguar Coupe made news when they recorded a top speed of 150 mph, but it was many many years later that they admitted that initially it wasn’t quite that quick, and only managed 150 after being returned to the factory for some extra fettling in the engine shop.
Excellent article, thanks for the research and accompanying info. Amazing but not really surprising that the one thing that can truly be objective in a car review/test often…wasn’t.
Then as now the best way to find out the facts is to go down and figure it out yourself rather than blindly relying on someone else. But the majority of the articles are fun to read and still informative. And if all the numbers are made up by the same person, then hopefully they are more or less in line relative to each other. Although some obviously aren’t.
It sounds like the wild west of the internet just without the internet part. The more things change…
In motor writing, more ink has been spilt in a futile battle for attention than any other field. Putting aside the too-common regurgitation of PR, there have been vast swathes of dull windbaggery, and I gotta tell you, folks, the US publications were by far the worst. Given the oceans of waffle and drivel, I am not too surprised to read here of fiddled figures either.
I suspect it all arises out of trying to write anew on a subject car, even though the process of evaluation must (or should) be a fixed routine. It can be done well, a just-so balance of passion, concision and objectivity, but there’s only ever been a few who are consistently able to do so. There can be some humor, some cheek, some wit, but it must be passing and brief. There can be some subjectivity, but it must be likewise.
Columns and odyssey articles are ofcourse a different thing, with rules particular to the author. Some in that endeavour were consistently good, many not.
In tiny Oz, motor writing was slowly whipped into shape in the ’60’s by the dominance of one person, Bill Tuckey, a forceful editor of the dominant magazine Wheels. In the ’70’s and ’80’s, his position was filled by the equally passionate Peter Robinson (later Euro editor for C&D for years). I’m sure they made mistakes and even fudges, but by and large, they created that passionate objectivity which made the journalism reliably honest here. Even when they chose cars that became market duds as COTY’s, the decision was arrived at transparently on each occasion.
I mention all this because former Wheels editors filled the chair at Car and Autocar magazine in England for 30 years, and the (I think) longest-serving Editor of US Motor Trend as well, Angus McKenzie. The English mags were uptight and uncritical, and these folk brought Aussie cheek and mythbusting into the business, and it spread across the entire English-speaking journalistic world. (Arguably, they also opened the door to one too many Clarkson-esque blowhards too, but that’s a different problem). In short, Australians have had a profound and lasting effect on the best aspects of car journalism, and, arguably, even on the quality of cars themselves, as high standards for the important stuff of steering, brakes, ride and safety helped force manufacturers to change their ways or be exposed. It seems an over-blown claim, but I believe the evidence in personnel alone backs it up.
And it all began with the very Aussie process of questioning and eliminating bullshit. Like GTO Ferrari times on a Pontiac…
Great piece, Vince.
Thanks for the good feedback on the article and I am glad you all enjoyed it. This topic of the inaccurate stats is something that I and others have noticed over years. So I figured putting a piece together that shows this and why it occured would be an interesting topic.
It was also interesting that despite some of the less accurate equipment from this era, if tested properly the performance numbers are surprisingly consistent. Look at the Mustang times or even the GTO times. Interestingly C/D did a real comparison between the Pontiac GTO and Ferrari GTO in 1984 and the test times for the GTO were pretty darn close to other tests of a 1964 GTO. I included the 1984 results in the chart above.