Since the invention of the first horseless carriage, mankind has spent untold fortunes in the pursuit of going just a little bit faster. Why? Because there's nothing quite like a good old-fashioned bar fight over whether Car A counts as a production car, or if Car B is really faster using a special setting. The way it works around here is simple: if in the car's day, you could pick up the phone (or send a telegraph), promise a small-to-mid-sized fortune, and take delivery of your very own crazy-fast car, it counts as a production car. Ridiculously fast one-offs never meant for public consumption? Not so much.
Knowledge is power, and when that inevitable bar argument occurs, you'll do good to know your history. Here are the fastest production cars the world has ever seen, by decade. Some of them won't surprise you in the slightest, and others might be conspicuous by their absence.
1880-1889 | Benz Motorwagen | 10mph
Technically, a horse-drawn carriage could go faster, but that's not really the point, now is it?
1890-1899 | Stanley Runabout | 35mph
The Stanley Runabout was steam-powered -- you've no doubt heard its more common moniker, Stanley Steamer -- and unlike the much more technically advanced and historically relevant Benz that came before it, the Stanley was fast. At least, fast enough for drivers to be annoyed at little old ladies driving too slow in their one-horse carriages. Some things never change, right?
Quick note on the above photo: the vehicle pictured may or may not be a Stanley Steamer, but it's definitely a steamer, and visual proof that people have been flipping each other off in traffic for over 120 years was too good to pass up.
1900-1909 | Mercedes-Simplex 60hp | 73mph
Originally built as a race car -- of which it was decidedly not the fastest of the decade -- the 60hp was one of the earliest Mercedes-branded production cars, and squeaks through as champion of the aughts at a surprisingly brisk 73mph. Now wrap your mind around the idea of driving down the interstate, at the speed limit, and getting passed by a car that was built more than a century ago.
1910-1919 | Austro-Daimler Prince Henry | 85mph
Like the Mercedes before it, this was originally a race car. None other than Ferdinand Porsche developed the engine, and the Prince Henry went into road-car production with no major changes. It's worth noting that, while some of its contemporaries were eventually developed into faster automobiles, as of the end of the 19-teens, this was still your top-speed champion.
1920-1929 | Duesenberg Model J | 119mph
There's a reason "It's a Deusy" is generally used to connote something of an astounding nature. When Duesenberg rolled out the Model J in 1928 it was a source of American pride. The best and fastest cars in the world were officially made in Indiana, the Great Gatsby had his dream ride, and Rolls-Royce had to take a (still very, very cushy) backseat to the Yanks.
1930-1939 | Duesenberg Model SJ | 140mph
Four years after making the Model J, Duesenberg participated in the most time-honored of gearhead traditions: it souped the hell out of it. The supercharged Model SJ that debuted in 1932 could do 140mph, and a speciall -prepped one-off called the Mormon Meteor wound up topping 170mph, and held the record for highest average speed over a 24-hour period until 1990.
1940-1949 | Jaguar XK120 | 126mph
After World War II, Jaguar's rise to prominence took the form of a then-state-of-the-art straight six engine that would serve the company well for decades. When dropped into the timeless XK body, it could top 120mph, hence the name. As legend has it, if you folded down the windshield and covered the passenger seat, the reduction in drag was enough to bring the top speed closer to 135mph.
1950-1959 | Aston Martin DB4 GT | 153mph
The Italian-bodied DB4 GT and its DB4 GT Zagato sibling were the epitome of grand touring. With a combination of supreme class and a top speed that meant no one could possibly pass or even catch you on a long, straight highway there's little wonder this car's successor was Bond's first Aston.
1960-1969 | Ferrari 365 GTB/4 "Daytona" | 174mph
With a V12 nestled in front, under the hood, the Daytona is a classic Ferrari in every possible sense... right down to taking the "world's fastest car" title away from rival Lamborghini's 171mph Miura.
1970-1979 | Ferrari GT4 Berlinetta Boxer | 175mph
Lamborghini launched the Countach and said it could do 200mph... but it couldn't. Ferrari launched the BB and said it could do 188... but it couldn't. In various tests, however, it did reach speeds between 174 and 175mph, which still makes it top in the decade... albeit barely.
1980-1989 | Ferrari F40 | 202mph
When the Porsche 959 debuted as the world's fastest car, you have to wonder what went through the engineers' minds when they realized the car was just a fraction slower than 200mph. When the F40 followed suit shortly thereafter and became the first production car to eek its way past the 200mph barrier, it ignited the endless debate over which was the supercar that defined the 1980s.
1990-1999 | McLaren F1 | 240mph
The McLaren was so powerful and so aerodynamically slick, that wind resistance isn't what stopped its acceleration -- the only reason 240 was the top speed is because the engine could only rev so high. To put that kind of speed in perspective, the McLaren had to be made significantly slower and less powerful in order to be eligible for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Unperturbed, it proceeded to win not just in its own class, but the overall race, too, against the virtual spaceships that make up the prototype classes. To this day, it's considered one of the most spectacular feats in motorsport.
2000-2009 | Shelby SSC Aero | 268mph
The Shelby (no relation to Carroll) SuperCars SSC Aero was built for the sole purpose of becoming the fastest production car in the world. For a brief time while arguing back and forth with Guinness over the nuances of what constitutes a production car vis a vis a special version of the Bugatti Veyron, it was.
2010-Current | Hennessey Venom GT | 270mph
Like the SSC, the Hennessey is sometimes not considered a production car because there are very few in existence. But the fact is, you can order one today if you have the means, so it counts here, even though Guinness currently officially recognizes the Veyron. A quick note on the Koenigsegg One:1, though. Theoretically it's capable of 273mph -- which would obviously knock the Hennessey off this list -- but if it has hit such speeds in the real world, Koenigsegg has yet to make an announcement. No proof, no prize.
In case you weren't counting at home, that's five decade winners for the USA... at least for now.
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