Since the invention of the wheel, humans have had the desire to go fast. From the horse-drawn carriage to Henry Ford's Model-T and into the present day, the speed at which we travel over the roads has increased at incredible rates. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that modern engineering and technology made the possibility of going more than two hundred miles per hour even conceivable.
So, what was the very first car to hit 200 mph? Well, that depends on what kind of car we're talking about. The first land speeder to travel that fast was tested in 1929. The first racecar to achieve this speed was built in 1969. And the first commercially available car to hit 200 mph, the Ferrari F40, as recently as 1986.
Let's look at the history of these three incredibly fast cars.
First Land Speed Racer - The Sunbeam 1000 HP Mystery
Referred to as "the slug," the Sunbeam Mystery was the first ground car to break the 200-mile-per-hour mark, way back on March 29th, 1929. But it wasn't your average road car. As a matter of fact, it had two 22.4-liter aircraft engines powering it to those speeds. The Sunbeam was designed by Jack Irving and driven by Henry Segrave to a record-breaking 203.79 miles per hour.
Setting land speed records was a dangerous hobby, especially over a century ago when much of the technology was so new. There was actually a fatal accident a few weeks before the Sunbeam's run when driver J.G. Parry-Thomas was killed when he overturned his land speeder, nicknamed “Babs.”
The Sunbeam was built for speed, with an all-encompassed aerodynamic shape designed to cut the air. It featured tires that were designed to withstand break-neck speeds, but it's worth noting that they were only guaranteed for just over three minutes.
Today, the Sunbeam is on display at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, in the United Kingdom. It recently celebrated ninety years since its historic, record-breaking run as the first land-speed car to hit 200 mph.
First NASCAR Racer – The 1969 Dodge Challenger Daytona
In 1970, the brand-new 1969 Dodge Challenger Daytona became the first NASCAR vehicle to break 200 miles per hour. Under the hood was a 426 Hemi V8 engine boasting 575 horsepower. Known as the “blue car” It was the first of its kind and helped pave the way for future race car designs.
Driven by Buddy Baker during its record-breaking run, the Dodge Challenger was the first car to set such a record on a closed course, going 200.447 mph at NASCAR’s Internation Motor Speedway in Alabama. The race car was originally a Charger 500 and was used as a touring car for Dodge’s press tours. It was stolen and recovered before being converted into a NASCAR racer.
The Dodge Challenger, known as DC-93, was driven in two races before Baker set his record, coming in at 199 mph during its qualifying run of the very first Talladega 500. The car was lost for some time after making the transition to stock car racing. It has since been recovered and restored with its original blue and white paint job.
The legendary Dodge Challenger is set to be auctioned off in May 2022. It’s expected to fetch at least seven figures.
First Street-Legal Production Car – The Ferrari F40
In 1987, Ferrari released the F40 as a challenger for the Porsche 959. The F40 was conceptualized by Nichola Materazzi, Ferrari’s head of development, with a body designed by Pietro Camardella. Originally conceived as a faster version of the Ferrari 288 GTO, it was designed to be a Group B racer.
When Group B racing was officially banned in 1986, Ferrari wound up with five development cars without a purpose.
Enzo Ferrari agreed to a top-secret project to turn the racecar into a road-worthy vehicle in honor of Ferrari's 40th anniversary. With an original ticket price of $400,000, it was Ferrari's most expensive car in its fleet. It was the last Ferrari design to be approved by Enzo Ferrari himself.
The F40 has a 2.9 Liter, twin-turbocharged V8 engine and 471 horsepower. The F40 was unveiled on July 21, 1987. It had a top speed of 201 miles per hour, going 0-60 in 3.8 seconds. The F40 was manufactured until 1992, with a total of 1,315 models produced.
Most of these Ferrari F40s are in the hands of very wealthy or very lucky private owners. The irony is that for the fastest car in the world during its time, most of these cars were hardly driven. Collectors tend to buy them and then garage them. There have been several fully restored and well-cared-for F40s on the market, selling for an average of 1.2 million dollars apiece.
What’s the Fastest Car Today?
When the first cars broke the 200-mile-per-hour record, it was big news. Chances are, nobody back then would be able to guess that it wouldn’t be long before the new record to beat was 300 miles per hour. And there are many cars in production today that can blow that number out of the water (or off the road, so to speak).
Currently in development, the Devel Sixteen has a claimed top speed of 347 mph, with 5007 horsepower and an 81 mm Quad Turbo 12.3L V16 engine. And there is a long list of cars on the market that come pretty close to those numbers.
Where Do We Go from Here?
There's no doubt that humankind likes to go fast, whether it's on land, on the sea, or in the air. When it comes to testing the limits of propulsion, the only place to go from here is faster. When considering the first car to top 200 mph, it's easy to wonder how long into the future it will be before 400 mph is the new 300 mph. The only thing left to say is, "buckle up!"