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The 5 fastest cars in the first 50 years of automotive history

24th Mar, 2021

Cars have been around for such a long time now that it’s difficult to imagine a world without them. Most of us have known them all our lives, so we’ve had plenty of time to get used to the idea of exactly how fast they can go. But that wasn’t always the case. Hypothetically, if you were to pluck a Victorian from their leisurely horse-drawn carriage and stick them in the passenger seat of a modern car, it’s likely they’d see the car as exactly what it is – a metal box with wheels powered by tiny explosions, roaring along at speeds several times faster than evolution could possibly have prepared us to go.

Looking at it in that light, even 60mph is an incredible speed when you think about it. In fact, even what we’d class as relatively light bumps would be absolutely terrifying to our notional Victorian friend, especially if they leave you thinking – I need to scrap my car.

And we didn’t reach these speeds from a standing start – it took decades of ingenuity and innovation for us to develop machines that could travel at that pace. Allow us to present to you five of the most innovative vehicles that spearheaded that charge, starting right from the very first page of automotive history.

The Benz Motorwagen (1881 – 1890)

With a top speed of 10mph, the Benz Motorwagen could be easily outpaced by a horse going at a decent canter, so at first glance it may not have seemed that much more practical than the already established forms of transportation at the time. But you’ve got to cut it some slack for lacking a bit of raw speed – after all, having been completed in 1885, it’s almost universally regarded as the very first automobile in history, so much so that its patent has been referred to as ‘the birth certificate of the automobile’.

That patent was filed in 1886 by none other than Carl Benz, a pioneering engineer and automotive legend who remains a household name today. His brainchild was a lightweight, three-wheeled car that was powered by a gasoline engine, and utilised a compact high-seed single-cylinder four-stroke engine.

Interestingly, it wasn’t just Benz himself who helped to make the invention famous. His wife and business partner Bertha Benz also did her fair share – for starters, it was her dowry that financed their enterprise. She also took it upon herself to take an improved version of his Motorwagen for a cross-country spin in 1888, with their two teenage sons Richard and Eugen tagging along. Their impressive Ausflug got the company its very first sales, and was partially notable for the fact that Carl basically wasn’t involved at all. In fact, he had no idea where the car had gone until she notified him by telegram that she’d completed the journey, several days later.


The Stanley Runabout (1891 – 1900)

You don’t hear much about steam cars these days, but back at the turn of the 20th century, they were more viable forms of transport than you might think. Enter the Stanley Runabout, or Stanley Steamer, with a top speed of 35mph. It was invented by American twins Francis Stanley and Freelan Stanley, who made their first car in 1897 after selling their previous enterprise – a photographic dry plate business – to Eastman Kodak.

Sometimes nicknamed ‘the Flying Teapot’, the Stanley Steamer got its name from the steam that was generated in a vertical fire-tube boiler underneath the seat, with a vaporising gasoline burner underneath. In case that sounds like a driving seat you wouldn’t willingly hop into these days, especially with the general health and safety attitudes of the day, it’s worth us mentioning the fact that the boilers were fitted with safety valves that by did their job extremely well by all accounts. In fact, to this day, there hasn’t been a single documented incident of a boiler exploding. (If that doesn’t reassure you, we don’t know what will.)

Steam cars were typically made with fewer than 25 moving parts, and the Stanley Steamers are perfect examples of what can be achieved with a simple concept with complex execution, making them capable of some quite impressive feats. In 1889, Freelan and his wife Flora drove one of theirs to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. While it’s not quite on the level of Britain’s most dangerous roads, it was certainly a pretty challenging climb for the vehicle, and mainly achieved by putting the steamer in low gear and making liberal use of the brakes.

The Mercedes Simplex 60hp (1901 – 1910)

Now we’re kicking things up a gear. Barely two years into a new century, the Mercedes 35hp roared onto the scene. It was first built as a race-car, although later developed for normal road use. Its successor was the Mercedes 60hp, and as one of the earliest Mercedes-branded production cars, it’s today regarded as the world’s first modern car.

Similarly designed as a race-car first, and consumer vehicle second, it almost immediately trumped its older 35hp brother with a top speed of at least 68mph, and possibly as fast as 73mph. That instantly made it the fastest car of the decade, and for a number of years, the fastest one of the century.

It achieved these speeds thanks to the powerful engines which ranged from 40 (at 1300rpm) to 60 horsepower, and a then-revolutionary magento-electric spark ignition system and a single spray-nozzle carburettor. As a top of the range model, it was an instant hit with the higher echelons of society, such as royalty and nobility, and only four remain in existence today. Arguably, it was a pivotal factor in Mercedes’ ability to establish its dominance over the automotive world, a dominance that continues to this day.

The Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrich (1911 – 1920)

Austro-Daimler’s distinctive Prinz Heinrich shares some characteristics with the Mercedes Simplex 60hp in that it was originally developed as a race-car, with its engine having been designed by one Ferdinand Porsche. (That name sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) The Prinz Heinrich utilised an overhead cam 5714-cc four cylinder engine, which allowed it to achieve a quite zippy speed of 85mph.

Now, the Prinz Heinrich was first released in 1911. Let’s be honest, you don’t have to be a particularly avid history buff to recognise one of the biggest impending obstacles to production, looming large on the horizon. With the onset of the First World War, the largest conflict in known history at that point, Austro-Daimler’s 4500-strong workforce moved to a war production footing. Then in the waning days of the conflict, those same employees made up a decent proportion of the dissatisfied workers demanding change in the 1918 Austro-Hungarian strike.

So throughout all that time, it’s safe to say that production of the Prinz Heinrich model wasn’t everyone’s top priority. Even when the war ended, growing financial difficulties meant that Austro-Daimler never quite reached the scale of its previous levels of production. It was eventually dissolved in 1934, but the Prinz Heinrich remains an enduring testament to the company’s luxurious golden age of automotive production.


The Duesenberg Model J (1921 – 1930)

The dawn of the 1920s was marked by a key milestone for another major player in the international automotive industry. America had been a pioneering force in the automotive world almost since its inception, with the Ford Motor Company becoming a global leader within just a decade of its launch. With a rich and rapidly expanding automotive culture, more US manufacturers were now getting in on the race to build the world’s fastest car, and in 1928 Duesenberg managed to edge out ahead with its model J, capable of reaching a staggering 119mph.

The Duesenberg Model J achieved this with a notably compact engine which generated 265hp, enabling it to easily compete with – and triumph over – the fastest and most elegant cars of its time.

Unfortunately, the famously luxurious car was hobbled slightly by the timing of its release, which coincided with the stock market crash of the Great Depression. You don’t have to be an economist to know that it’s not an ideal environment in which to sell a tonne of cars. (It wasn’t the last time such a thing happened either – just ask Ford, who found itself at the centre of similar misfortune with the launch of its Edsel car a few decades later.)

Despite its inauspicious start, the Duesenberg Model J still managed to cultivate an impressive appeal amongst some of the most famous names and faces of the era. Some of its more high-profile drivers include Al Capone, Greta Garbo, and Clark Gable.

And speaking of cars with famous owners, if you liked this post, you might be interested in what happened to James Bond’s Aston DB5 – which we’ve explained in our post about scrap cars lost to history. Alternatively, if you’re ready to scrap your own car right now, we can help with that too. We’re excellent at getting you the best possible deal with you scrap your car with us – just click here to get an instant scrap car quote, and find out how much yours is worth!

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