Cars with Ferrari or McLaren badges regularly blow past the 200-mph (322-km/h) mark, but Hondas and Volkswagens, not so much. Sure, technically, VW is no stranger to the 200+ conversation because of group brands like Bugatti, Lamborghini and Porsche, but the "Beetle" isn't usually the VW Group car that's mentioned amongst such company. But this month, a VW Beetle and a Honda have both been driven past 200 mph to sign their names in the book of the world's fastest cars.
Honda S-Dream Streamliner
Honda R&D in Japan began its quest for a land speed record last year, launching the "Bonneville Speed Challenge" and selecting 16 volunteers to build and field a streamliner it calls the Honda S-Dream.
We saw the S-Dream at Speed Week 2016 last month, and it was quite the impressive land rocket to behold with its front end blistering high above the ground before descending down into the digital-styled, multicolor livery of the greater fuselage.
Based on its looks, we immediately thought the S-Dream might have had a chance for fastest 'liner of Speed Week, before coming to find out that, instead of relying on the four-figure-hp, hammer-dropping V8 engines you'd find in the fastest world record-streamliners, Honda designed the S-Dream to set a world record with a much more modest 660cc unit – that's just 0.66 L of displacement, which also happens to be the maximum displacement allowed in a kei car - the cute, quirky tiny cars of Japan.
Honda started with the 660cc three-cylinder from the S660 sports car, broke it down and built it up to the task of powering a four-wheeled bullet to well over 200 mph over the baking desert salt.
"The team carefully reinvestigated every part of the S660 engine and renewed many of them, including cylinder block, pistons, crankshaft and valves in hopes of coaxing more than three times the power for which it was designed," explains Honda R&D. "Additions such as the replacement of the lower block with a steel unit and reinforced connecting rods gave the unit the rigidity it would need to withstand the record run, and the car completed several test runs in Japan before heading to the US."
The S-Dream hopped the Pacific over to the US earlier this year and immediately hit a rather big snag when preparing for an officially timed record run. Driver Hikaru Miyagi couldn't properly see through the small windscreen and was having trouble keeping the S-Dream pointed straight ahead on the sea of white that is the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Since Honda is a part of the modern era of global auto design and manufacturing, it didn't need to ship the car all the way back to Japan, but instead reconstructed the windshield and surrounding structure at Honda Performance Development in California before heading back out to the salt flats in time for Speed Week.
The sleek-looking S-Dream and the meticulous Honda R&D team rolling it toward the starting line made an impression on onlookers like us, but Speed Week proved uneventful for Honda. It did get the car firing to 240 mph (386 km/h) several times, but it didn't have the record-breaking success it was hoping for (the SCTA record for a blown fuel streamliner with J [0.508 to 0.753 L] engine sits at 266.561 mph/429 km/h). On the run we saw, the S-Dream took off and accelerated past 230 mph, but then came to a stop mid-run due to some kind of issue.
Speed Week was followed by an invitation to Mike Cook's Bonneville Shootout, a very different land speed racing event where the menu is world records sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) for cars and the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) for motorcycles, a completely independent set of records from Speed Week's SCTA-regulated national records.
The shootout is a lower profile event with a small, distinguished list of competitors vying for international speed-record glory. The vibe seems much more "world class speed machine" and less "garage-built hot rod" than Speed Week and other Bonneville events. This same event played host to Venturi/Ohio State's electric vehicle world record.
The shootout course is 11 miles (17.7 km), which is much longer than the 8-mile (12.9-km) long course of Speed Week, and the classes and rules are all very different. For instance, instead of the qualifying run/overnight impound/morning return run of SCTA regulations, FIA records require a two-way run with the return run being made within an hour of the qualifying run.
Honda came to the shootout on a mission, and it didn't waste any time accomplishing that mission. On the first day of the event last week, it set a world record with a 227.776-mph (367 km/h) run, and it didn't slow down until it raised its record mark to 261.875-mph (421 km/h) on a subsequent run later in the event.
Not only did the S-Dream set the mark in its class (Category A, Group 1, Class 4), as reported by Honda, but it grabbed internal bragging rights, surpassing the BAR Honda F1 race car as the fastest Honda ever. The heavily modified BAR F1 car held the "fastest Honda" title for a decade after a 246.908-mph (397-km/h) flying mile at Bonneville back in 2006, which also gave it the land speed record for an F1 car.
Congrats to Honda R&D for a very fast, efficient effort!
Volkswagen of America Beetle Record
Before Honda ever took to the salt last week, Volkswagen of America, Inc. had its own Bonneville success with its own modestly engined car. The specially prepared Volkswagen Beetle LSR achieved a 205.122-mph (330-km/h) record, laying claim to the title of world's fastest Volkswagen Beetle.
Volkswagen set the record at the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association's World of Speed 2016, another major Bonneville event that uses the same SCTA regulations as Speed Week. World of Speed is particularly VW-friendly and includes a challenge specifically for 36-hp VW bugs. This year's event was held between September 10 and 12, and Volkswagen just issued a press release about the feat earlier this week.
Just like Honda, Volkswagen of America did some heavy engine modifications prior to attempting its run. The turbocharged 2.0-liter TSI engine was overhauled by California's THR Manufacturing, gaining new turbochargers, pistons, camshafts, connecting rods, and head modifications for a max output of 543 hp (405 kW) and 421 lb-ft (571 Nm) at the wheels – more than double the 210 hp (157 kW) and 207 lb-ft (281 Nm) the four-cylinder makes in the production Beetle R-Line.
"The Beetle is not the most aerodynamic car in our portfolio, so running 205 mph is a testament to the power that can be made from the EA888 TSI four-cylinder engine," says Dr. Hendrik Muth, Volkswagen of America's senior VP of product marketing and strategy. "This feat truly underscores the sporty and pugnacious spirit of the Beetle."
Volkswagen also did some heavy modifications beyond the engine overhaul, as is quite clear when looking at the salt-sweeping, bumblebee-colored Beetle. VW dropped the suspension, added a limited-slip differential to boost traction, stripped the cabin down, added a roll cage, a racing seat with harness, and a fire suppression system, and finished it off with special Salt Flat wheels and tires and a pair of parachutes for braking.
"Exceeding 200 mph in the Beetle LSR was a serious thrill," says Preston Lerner, the Automobile contributing editor who drove the car into the record books. "We had enough power to go even faster if the salt hadn't been so sketchy. But seeing 208 mph briefly on the digital readout was an experience I'll never forget."
According to Volkswagen's press release, the Beetle LSR ran in the Blown Gas Coupe, G-engine (1.524 to 2.015 L) class. Neither that press release nor the USFRA's World of Speed 2016 list of record breakers mentions a new class record for the Beetle LSR, so it appears the car's record-breaking was limited to the unofficial designation of "world's fastest Beetle." We reckon that makes a cooler title, anyway.
A very different journey and vehicle from Honda's, but also a very cool feat. Congrats to Lerner and VW of America, too!
On a related note, the Southern California Timing Association announced on Thursday that its World Finals event in Bonneville, originally scheduled for next week, has been cancelled due to the recent rain pounding the Western Utah desert.
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