The quest for speed: 0-100km/h through the ages

The sprint to 100km/h. It’s been a performance benchmark since, well, since cars could reach the ton. That triple-figure benchmark happened quite quickly too.

The early years

After a sluggish start with the Benz Patent-Motorwagen of 1885, which had a top speed of 16km/h by the time it had been refined into Model Number 3 in 1888 (a horse-drawn carriage could travel faster), engineering development soon saw cars capable of hitting 100km/h or more.

The first driver to reach triple figures in an automobile was Belgian Camille Jenatzy, and in electric car no less. Jenatzy set a new land speed record of 105.882km/h in 1899, driving his own La Jamais Contente (The Never Satisfied). The car itself was purpose built for the land speed record and featured a light alloy streamlined body. Power came via two direct-drive Postel-Vinay 25kW electric motors drawing 124A each. Total output was rated at 68hp.

Performance numbers from the earliest days of motoring are sketchy, and even then, top speed was trumpeted as the measure of a car’s performance. But, by the time the 20th century rolled around, cars were – unsurprisingly – becoming ever faster.

The first ‘production car’ to reach what must have seemed like such a mythical figure is widely regarded as the Mercedes Simplex 60 with a top speed of 109km/h, making it the fastest production car in the world when it came out in 1903. As an aside, that car also set a pattern for Mercedes, the first proper top-of-the-range luxury car from the German brand, recognised today as the S-Class.

The name Ferdinand Porsche pops up in the next decade, as the designer of the Austro-Daimler Prince Heinrich, which, in 1911 became the fastest production car in the world with a top speed of 136km/h from its 5.7-litre four-cylinder engine with 70.8kW. A historical footnote here. Austro-Daimler was, as the name suggest an Austrian car maker, a subsidiary of Deutsche DMG (Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft), makers of Mercedes cars, which merged with Karl Benz’s Benz & Cie. to eventually become Mercedes-Benz in 1926.

Nought-to-100 times begin appearing in the 1920s, although they remain apocryphal or estimates at best. In 1928, Duesenberg released the Model J with a top speed of around 190km/h. Further, there are suggestions it could hit 100km/h in around 12 seconds. It was the fastest (and most expensive) American car at the time, powered by a 6.9-litre straight eight pumping out 198kW.

Duesenberg followed the Model J with the Model SJ in 1932. With an advertising slogan that read, “The only car that could pass a Duesenberg was another Duesenberg – and that was with the first owner’s consent”, the Model SJ didn’t hang around, its top speed an astonishing for the time, 225km/h.

Thanks to supercharging (the ‘S’ in ‘SJ’ stood for supercharged) the 6.9-litre straight eight under that long bonnet, the Model SJ could bellow from 0-60mph (97km/h) in 8.0 seconds and roar from 0-161km/h in 17.0 seconds. Make no mistake, this was seriously quick car for its time, certainly in a straight line. It was, in the 1930s, the fastest production car in the world.

With World War II putting serious automotive development on hold, it wasn’t until the late 1940s where the pursuit of speed was once again the focus of engineers everywhere.

In 1948, British company Jaguar released the gorgeous XK120 Roadster which could hit a top speed of 120mph (hence the name). Further, independent tests in the UK confirmed it cover the dash to 60mph (97km/h) in 10.0 seconds.

The 1950s

Jaguar again took the mantle the following decade with the D-Type. Although technically a purpose-built race car, the D-Type was nevertheless offered as a road-going version, albeit briefly, with only 53 cars rolling off the production line.

And it was quick. Jaguar won the Le Mans 24 Hours three years straight – 1955, ’56 and ’57 – with the D-Type, one of its hallmark its stupendous acceleration. How stupendous? Try 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds. Astonishing.

The 1950s saw rapid engineering development, reflected in 0-100km/h times tumbling even as top speeds increased. And it was Europe leading the way, with four of the five fastest cars to the benchmark ton.

While the D-Type was the only car to cover the sprint in under five seconds, by the end of the decade three production cars could complete the dash in under six: the 1959 Ferrari 410 Superamerica Series 3 needed just 5.7 seconds, eclipsing its Ferrari 410 Superamerica Series 1 sibling by 0.1s.

Loud and proud, the 1957 Chevrolet Corvette C1 completed the trio of cars with under-6.0-seconds 0-100km/h times with a 5.9-second claim.

Showing just how rapidly engineering developed in the 1950s, at the start of the decade one of the fastest cars to 100km/h was another Ferrari, the 1950 Ferrari 195 Inter with a time of 10.3 seconds.

At the other end of the scale, another Italian brought up the tail, the 1953 Fiat 1100 stopping the clock at a glacial 33.8 seconds.

1954 Jaguar D-Type 4.9s
1959 Ferrari 410 Superamerica Series 3 5.7s
1955 Ferrari 410 Superamerica Series 1 5.8s
1957 Chevrolet Corvette C1 5.9s
1959 Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato 6.3s
1959 Aston Martin DB4 GT 6.6s
1959 Maserati 5000 GT 6.7s
1959 Ferrari 250 GT SWB 7.2s
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing 7.2s
1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster 7.5s

The 1960s

The 1960s saw the rise of the muscle car. So dominant were these American creations, that nine of the first 10 spots on the table are filled by Yankee muscle, proving the old adage ‘there’s no replacement for displacement’. Further, even the fastest Italian and British creations of the day were powered by American-built Ford and Chevrolet engines. In fact, pretty much every car that covered the benchmark dash in 6.0 seconds or under was powered by Yankee V8 brawn. It’s not until you get to 6.1 seconds that we see Italian flair, the 1968 Lamborghini Islero with its 3.9-litre V12.

Sure, you wouldn’t want to drive through the Italian Alps in some of those straight-line American muscle warriors, but there’s no question when it came to acceleration, these big block V8s rumbled their way to 100km/h like nothing from Italy. Or Germany. Or pretty much anywhere else?

So how fast were these American gas guzzlers?

Topping the charts with a scarcely believable 4.3 seconds was the 1966 AC Cobra 427, its 7.0-litre Ford-sourced V8 making 370kW and 671Nm. In 1966! Top speed was 264km/h.

The Cobra edged out the Chevrolet Corvette C2 Stingray, itself shod with a 7.0-litre V8 and which could complete the run to 100km/h in 4.9 seconds.

From there, the list of makes and models is familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the nascence of American muscle, with only the British-built AC Frua Coupe making the cut, although it had the beating heart of Uncle Sam’s Ford 7.0-litre V8.

1966 AC Cobra 427 4.3s
1966 Chevrolet Corvette (C2) Stingray 5.0s
1969 Ford Mustang Boss 429 5.3s
1968 Plymouth Road Runner 426 Hemi 5.5s
1967 AC Frua Coupe 428 (GB) 5.6s
1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 428 Super Cobra Drag Pack 5.6s
1969 AMC AMX 5.7s
1969 Buick GS 455 5.7s
1966 Chevrolet Chevy II Nova SS 327 5.7s
1968 Chevrolet Corvette C3 (convertible) 5.7s

Showing how rapidly engineering advanced, at the start of the decade, 1960, the Chevrolet Impala took 7.4 seconds from 0-100km/h. By the end of the Swingin’ Sixties, performance cars were regularly dipping into the 6.0-second bracket, with at least 49 makes and models completing the benchmark in under 7.0-seconds.

At the other end of the scale, even the slowest cars were getting quicker, the 1961 Triumph Herald 1200 taking 29.6 seconds to reach triple figures.

The 1960s were notable too for the first appearance of Porsche 911 (8.3s), while its spiritual forebear, the Porsche 356 makes the cut with a time of 13.9 seconds.

The 1970s

If the 1960s belonged to America, then little changed in the 1970s. The fastest production car of the decade was an Italian, but it had the soul of GM’s finest 454ci (7.4-litre) V8.

The 1970 Iso Grifo Can-Am, a beautifully-styled Italian grand tourer, remained the ultimate evolution of the breed. With its 7.4-litre Chev V8, the Iso Grifo had a claimed top speed of 300km/h and could run from 0-100km/h in just 4.9 seconds. That’s blistering in any era.

When is a ute not a ute? When it’s a super ute. Enter the 1970 Chevy El Camino SS, a performance monster fitted with Chevy’s fabled and famed LS6 454ci (7.4-litre) V8 pumping out 336kW and 678Nm. The El Camino was the General’s take on car-based utility vehicles, inspired by our very own obsession with same.

In SS trim, the El Camino could out-drag anything the world could throw at it, bar the Iso Grifo Can-Am, stopping the timer at 100km/h in a ridiculous 5.2 seconds. That’s 0.2s quicker than the next car on the list, the 1977 Porsche 911 Turbo which took 5.4 seconds to get up to speed.

Much like the 1960s, American muscle dominated the upper reaches of the 0-100km/h charts, although Italian supercars (with Italian engines) began to make their presence felt.

The 1973 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona (5.7s) just edged out the wild-for-the-time-and-still-wild-now 1974 Lamborghini Countach LP400 (5.8s) while notable appearances came from the gorgeously-wedged 1978 BMW M1 (6.0s), 1974 Lancia Stratos (6.2s) and quite possibly the first appearance of a hot hatch, the 1978 Renault 5 Turbo Phase 1 recording a time of 6.9 seconds absolutely annihilating the original 1976 Volkswagen Golf GTi, its 9.2-second claim positively pedestrian by comparison.

At the bottom end, the evergreen Ford Grenada rep-mobile stopped the clock at 27.0 seconds in 2.1-litre diesel trim.

1970 Iso Grifo Can-Am 4.9s
1970 Chevrolet El Camino SS 454 5.2s
1977 Porsche 911 Turbo 5.4s
1971 Chevrolet Corvette C3 ZR2 Stingray 5.5s
1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 426 Hemi 5.6s
1979 DeTomaso Pantera GT5 S 5.7s
1973 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona 5.7s
1973 DeTomaso Pantera GTS 5.8s
1974 Lamborghini Countach LP400 5.8s
1970 Plymouth Barracuda 440 5.8s

The 1980s

If Yankee muscle ruled the previous two decades, then the Euros fought back in the 1980s. Thanks to the 1970s oil crises, displacement and grunt took a back seat to turbocharging and precision engineering. And ruling the roost above them all was a Porsche. And not just any Porsche.

Enter the technological tour-de-force that was the Porsche 959 Turbo. The most technologically advanced car of its era, was also the quickest, completing the run to 100km/h in just 3.8 seconds. That sub-4.0-second time was a portent to future generations where performance cars posting time under 4.0-seconds has become commonplace. Not so in the 1980s, with just two cars managing the feat, the Porsche 959 edging out the Ferrari F40, its 3.9-second time just 0.1 shy of the all-wheel drive Porsche.

Another Porsche occupied third place in the 1980s, and this one’s a doozy. Introducing the 1987 Porsche 911 Ruf CTR Yellowbird which, thanks to the 345kW and 550Nm pumped out by its twin-turbo 3.4-litre flat six, could complete the dash in 4.2 seconds.

And yet, while it was bested by both the 959 and F40 to 100km/h, when pushing on there was only one champion, the Yellowbird outsprinting both to 161km/h (6.71 seconds), 200km/h (10.5 seconds) before reaching a top speed of 342km/h (tested) against the 959’s 339km/h and the F40’s 321km/h.

The Yellowbird made the 1985 Lamborghini Countach LP5000S QV’s 4.8-second time seem glacial, itself just 0.2s quicker to the benchmark than the next car on the list, the 2.2-litre, five-cylinder, 1984 Audi Quattro Sport. With a sprint time of 5.0 seconds, the Audi Quattro was as quick as the next car on the list, one with over three times the displacement and twice as many cylinders.

Other notable inclusions for the decade of excess include the third-generation 1988 Toyota Supra with a time of 6.4 seconds and the 1988 E30 series BMW 3 Series M3 Evolution (6.6s).

At the other end of the scale, the slightly awkward 1980 Skoda 120L 1200 took 18.1 seconds to reach 100km/h, showing that even the slowest cars were getting faster.

1987 Porsche 959 Turbo 3.8s
1987 Ferrari F40 3.9s
1987 Porsche 911 Ruf CTR Yellowbird 4.2s
1985 Lamborghini Countach LP5000S QV 4.8s
1984 Audi Quattro Sport 5.0s
1984 Ferrari 288 GTO 5.1s
1988 Lotus Esprit S3 Turbo SE 5.1s
1985 TVR 390 SE 5.1s
1985 Ford RS200 5.2s
1986 Porsche 911 Turbo SE 5.3s

The 1990s

A trio of race and concept cars head the list for the 1990s, the 1996 Ferrari F50 GT1 stopping the clock at 3.0 seconds, a time matched by the brawny (and ugly) 1997 TVR Speed 12. In third place, a concept car, the Ford GT90, its 6.0-litre V12 helping shove it to 100km/h in 3.2 seconds.

To find the fastest production car of the 1990s, you have to look down in fourth-place on the table. And it’s a beauty, and remains an icon to this day. The McLaren F1 stunned the world when it first appeared in 1994, not just for its gorgeous design, but also its breathtaking performance. A zero to 100 time of just 3.3 seconds was testament to its engineering while Gordon Murray’s classic design has not aged one bit even now, over 25 years later.

As pretty as is the McLaren was, and remains, the same thing could not be said of the next car on the list, the 1992 Bugatti EB110 SuperSport. But, what it lacked in aesthetic charisma, it made up for with an astonishing turn of speed, scooting to 100km/h in 3.5 seconds, a sign of things to come in the next decade from Bugatti.

How about 0-100km/h in 3.6 seconds in a car powered by a 2.0-litre Vauxhall engine? Sound ridiculous? Not when that car is the 1993 Caterham Super 7 JPE, which took the mantle of world’s fastest accelerating production car from the venerable Ferrari F40 and held it until the McLaren F1 came along.

It helped that the 2.0-litre Vauxhall engine came straight from that manufacturer’s Super Touring race car and was good for 186kW. It helped too that the Caterham Super 7 JPE (Jonathon Palmer Evolution, after the former F1 driver) weighed only 530kg. And it helped having a first gear rated to 106km/h, meaning no pesky time-sapping gear changes for the record-setting run, ratified by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1993.

To emphasise just how fast the little Caterham was in the sprint to triple figures, you only need to note the next cars on the list: 1991 Jaguar XJ 220 (3.7s); 1995 Porsche 911 GT2 993 (3.7s); 1995 Ferrari F50 (3.8s); and the road-going, limited production 1998 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR which used its 6.9-litre V12 with 450kW and 775Nm to hit 100km/h in 3.8 seconds.

The ’90s also saw the rise of Japanese homologation specials, the humble small sedans from Mitsubishi and Subaru posting some astonishing numbers. Fastest of them all was the 1996 Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IV RS with its 4.4-second run to 100km/h, besting arch rival Subaru Impreza WRX STI V3 from 1996 by 0.2s.

At the other end of the scale, the 1994 Toyota LandCruiser in 3.0-litre turbo-diesel could only muster 16.9 seconds for the benchmark sprint. Must have competed its run on sand.

1994 McLaren F1 3.3s
1992 Bugatti EB110 SuperSport 3.5s
1993 Caterham Super 7 JPE 3.6s
1991 Jaguar XJ220 3.7s
1995 Porsche 911 GT2 993 3.7s
1995 Ferrari F50 3.8s
1998 Mercedes CLK GTR 3.8s
1995 Porsche 911 Turbo 993 4.0s
1998 Porsche 911 Turbo S 993 4.0s
1997 TVR Cerbera Speed Eight 4.0s

The 2000s

Speeds became ridiculous in the Noughties. Where a 0-100km/h time of 5.2 seconds or under was enough to crack the top 10 in the 1980s, and where 4.0 seconds or quicker was required to make the list in ’90s, the Noughties called for something else again. Sub-3.0 seconds was now the order of the day, and at the top of them all was the Ariel Atom 500 with its, frankly quite ridiculous 2.4 seconds, garnering it the fastest accelerating production car in the world mantle in 2008. With 353kW emanating from its 3.0-litre V8, it’s little wonder the 550kg Ariel Atom could outsprint anything the automotive world could throw at it.

It was a similar formula adopted by the 2007 Caparo T1. Light weight plus big power equals fast. How fast? Try 2.6 seconds. That performance came from its 429kW 3.5-litre atmo V8 married to its svelte 550kg frame. While the company ran into trouble, forcing it to cancel its scheduled production run of 100 cars, 16 did make it out of the factory, earning it a place on this list ahead of another low-volume special.

The mid-engined Ultima GTR was good for 537kW and 855Nm from its Chevy V8 and with a kerb weight of just 990kg, it’s little wonder the British supercar could complete the sprint to 100km/h in just 2.7 seconds back at the dawn of the Millennium.

Even the 2005 Bugatti Veyron, with its 2.8-second time couldn’t match the Ultima to 100km/h. We’d wager though the W16 of the Veyron would continue to propel the Bugatti way beyond anything the Ultima could muster. The Veyron’s place on this list from the Noughties is noteworthy as it is the only car from a traditional manufacturer in the top 10.

Case in point? The next car on the list, the 2008 SSC Ultimate Aero TT, a low-volume American hypercar with outputs to make your eyes water. Its rear-mid-mounted twin turbo V8 could produce a staggering 960kW and 1508Nm, helping to hurl it at the horizon and triple figures in a scant 2.9 seconds a time matched by the TVR Cerbera Speed 12.

Other notable entries on the list include the 2009 Tesla Roadster electric vehicle and its 4.0-second dash while Holden earned a place thanks to the 2002 Holden HSV GTS, based on the VY Commodore, and a claimed 0-100km/h time of 4.6 seconds. Just 100 examples were built and it remains a highly-prized HSV.

In the slow poke stakes, the prize goes to the 2005 Citroen C1 VTR, the three-door hatch needing 14.2 seconds to hit the ton.

2008 Ariel Atom V8 500 2.4s
2007 Caparo T1 2.6s
2000 Ultima GTR 720 2.7s
2005 Bugatti Veyron 2.8s
2008 SSC Ultimate Aero TT 2.9s
2000 TVR Cerbera Speed 12 2.9s
2008 Caterham 7 RST-V8 Levante 3.0s
2009 Caterham 7 Superlight R500 3.0s
2008 Koenigsegg CCX R Special Edition 3.0s
2009 Porsche 9FF GT9R 3.0s

The 2010s

Having been shown up by the small-volume garagistas the previous decade, the mainstream manufacturers fought back in the 2010s. In a big way. And at the top of the charts is a surprise inclusion.

Say hello to the 2017 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon and its 2.4-second 0-100km/h time. Dodge took what was already a pretty outrageous Challenger SRT Hellcat and its 3.7-second 0-100km/h, stripped out some weight (90kg… passenger seats, who needs them?), and heavily revised the Hellcat’s supercharged 6.2-litre Hemi V8 to belt out 626kW and 1044Nm. The end result was, according to Dodge, the most powerful production V8-powered car ever.

On top of its blistering acceleration, the Demon was capable of covering the quarter-mile in a NHRA-certified 9.65 seconds, promptly earning it a ban from the same NHRA, who deemed it “too fast for the drag strip”, which kinda missed the point of the car, in our mind.

The Demon’s ascendency to the top of the charts ended the reign of the 2016 Bugatti Chiron, its quad-turbo W16 helping hurtle the hypercar to triple figures in 2.5 seconds.

Ferrari’s first-ever hybrid, the 2019 SF90 Stradale also covered the benchmark in 2.5 seconds, ahead of a gaggle of 2.6-second cars headed by the Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse from 2012.

In all, nine cars could claim 0-100km/h times of 2.6 seconds including, it should be noted, the 2014 Tesla Model S P100D in Ludicrous mode. Further, a total of 43 cars were good for sprints 2.9-seconds or under. Remarkable.

Other worthy mentions include the 2016 Ford Focus RS (4.6s), a time matched by the eternally strange 2011 Morgan 3 Wheeler, while a sprinkling of high-performance SUVs began to make their mark, led by the Lamborghini Urus and its 3.6-second time.

At the bottom rung of the ladder, the two-cylinder Fiat 500 TwinAir dragging its wheels to 100km/h in 12.1 seconds.

2017 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon 2.4s
2016 Bugatti Chiron 2.5s
2019 Ferrari SF90 Stradale 2.5s
2012 Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse 2.6s
2010 Bugatti Veyron Super Sport 2.9s
2010 Hennessey Venom GT 2.6s
2015 Koenigsegg Agera RS 2.6s
2019 Koenigsegg Jesko 2.6s
2014 Koenigsegg One 1 2.6s
2015 Koenigsegg Regera 2.6s

So where to now for acceleration? It seems almost inconceivable cars could go faster still. With 2.4 seconds now the benchmark, the Dodge Demon’s time has been matched by an electric car, the 2020 Porsche Taycan Turbo S. So have we reached peak acceleration?

Science dictates there must be a finite end to the quest for speed, a point where nothing can accelerate faster. But where that end-point is remains a glorious mystery, one we can watch from the sidelines with wonderment and anticipation. Sub 2.0-seconds anyone?

A note on the 0-100km/h times. We have gleaned these from a variety of sources, including manufacturer claims and published and reputable independent testing.

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