More from Books

High-speed trains, planes and automobiles are increasingly redundant

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

The History of Speed: The Quest to Go Faster, From the Dawn of the Motor Car to the Speed of Sound Martin Roach

Simon & Schuster, pp.256, 25

Should the world be faster or slower? This is a question relevant to global economics, politics and culture. But not to Martin Roach. The History of Speed is a one-dimensional book — if it has any dimensions at all.

Speed and pace are often confused. One is distance over time, the other is time over distance. A snail’s pace is actually a snail’s speed, or about 0.002 mph. At the other extreme is the speed of light: 671,000,000 mph. The shelled gastropod is nearer to the average speed of London traffic today, about 7 mph if you are lucky.

Roach, who has written bestsellers on boy bands, suffers no sort of confusion over his subject. Indeed, his focus is hard and sharp. The History of Speed is singularly dedicated to kinematics, especially those concerning wheeled vehicles. Richard ‘Thrust’ Noble, for a long time a Battling Brit with a jet-powered land-speed record, has written the foreword, and the dedication is to Jessi Combs, the Fastest Woman on Earth — at least until last year, when she died after her front wheel collapsed at 522.783 mph in Oregon’s Alvord Desert.

It was Galileo who first measured speed scientifically. Until then it seems not to have occurred to anybody to take much interest in what is technically defined as the magnitude of change in a body’s position. Going fast can be disorientating. Both Dr Johnson and Aldous Huxley feared physiological or psychological disintegration at speeds which today we regard as unexceptional.


The acquisition of ever greater speed has been one of the defining imperatives of recent times, uniting engineering with culture. Ever since Karl Benz frightened the horses in Mannheim in 1885 with the world’s first puffing and farting car, there has been a romantic inclination to go faster. The Futurist Marinetti raved about a racing car being as beautiful as the Louvre’s ‘Nike of Samothrake’, but his points of reference were modest. The first land-speed record was held by a cranky Belgian called Camille Jenatzy, who reached 41.42 mph in Yvelines in 1899. Before long, Campbell and Segrave upped the game.

Einstein once asked the child psychologist Piaget whether perceptions of speed or time came first in a child’s intellectual development. Speed certainly comes first in modern business’s estimation of priorities.

Jaguar’s reputation is based on a publicity stunt of 1949, allowing the PRs to claim the fastest production car in the world. There being no suitably straight road in Britain, Jaguar used the Ostend–Jabekke highway in Belgium for its XK120 to reach 126.488 mph — at a time when a family car would struggle to do 60. Overhead, Sir William Lyons, Jaguar’s proprietor, circled rather grandly in a DC-3.

Computers compete on speed. Amazon’s raison d’être is based on it, as is McDonald’s. But there may now be a Darwinian imperative for going slower. The first public act of Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, was to protest outrage at the arrival of Ronald McDonald’s fast food in Rome’s Piazza Spagna. Petrini believes only two things are necessary for mankind’s survival: food and sex. And each, he says, is best done slowly.

How quaint speed records now seem. Once the pursuit of dashing and debonair types, those Campbells and Segraves, heroes of Roach, are nowadays, sociologically speaking, more a subculture of scuzzy American non-college white redneck hot-rodders. And how quaint HS2 also seems. WFH makes rushing to Birmingham seem unnecessary. Speed alone no longer justifies the expense involved in achieving it. If it did, the unsurpassed Concorde would still be flying.

‘Speed’ has been assumed into street talk for amphetamine. Andy Warhol’s one-time lover John Giorno said: ‘If you give speed to a stupid person you get a lot of dumb ideas, and if you give speed to Andy Warhol you get a lot of great ideas.’ I am not saying that Roach has a lot of dumb ideas, but there is a better book to be written about this subject. Evidently designed to look like a Boots gift package, it is more a work of assembly than of literature. It is to erudition what Swarfega and WD-40 are to nutrition.

But Roach’s enthusiasm has an innocent charm: his breathy account of the current Bugatti, probably the fastest road car that will ever be made, has the cheerful spirit of a good school project. However, wiser heads might be inclined to describe this 261 mph, €2.4 million nonsense in terms of existential futility — a vanity project of pharaonic excess, conceived before the reputation of Bugatti’s parent company Volkswagen was mired in criminality and diesel particulates.

‘Dude, this speed has kept me awake three nights straight’, the crackhead says in the film. This book would be a nice remedy for insomnia. I found myself speed-reading. And the date of the Lohner-Porsche, an early electric car, is wrong.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
Close