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A modified Corvette ZO6 in the paddock area at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. The ZO6 can be equipped with a variety of motors. The least powerful version has 505 horsepower, but that's merely a starting point for tuners who have modified the engines to produce 700 horsepower and more. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
A modified Corvette ZO6 in the paddock area at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. The ZO6 can be equipped with a variety of motors. The least powerful version has 505 horsepower, but that's merely a starting point for tuners who have modified the engines to produce 700 horsepower and more. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

How much horsepower is too much? Add to ...

No one actually needs a 50-room mansion or a 400-foot yacht with a helicopter pad. The same goes for a 700-horsepower car. And yet there are moments when you long for one.

Like last week. I was on the racetrack, doing 235 km/h up the back straightaway and feeling pretty good about my car setup and lap time. Then I saw a modified Corvette coming up behind me like an air-to-air missile gaining on a helpless MiG. Uh oh. My gas pedal was hard against the floor, but I was facing an unstoppable force – the Corvette blasted past, leaving my Lotus rocking in its wake.

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What could I do? My car had 345 horsepower. The Corvette pumped out more than 600. As cars went, the Corvette was a steroid-abusing lout that kicked sand in people’s faces. I tried to be philosophical about my trouncing. My Lotus was genius through corners. It was small and elegant. The Corvette represented the other end of the scale – bringing it to the track was like coming to an Olympic fencing match with a double-barrelled shotgun.

Like many sports car enthusiasts, I’ve always considered excess horsepower déclassé. And yet a part of me still wondered what it would cost to bump my Lotus up to 700 horsepower, just so I could come back and slap that Corvette around a bit. (These are terrible thoughts, of course. What can I say?)

Like money and sex, horsepower does strange things to people. We lie about how much we actually have. We always want more. And horsepower begs a question that reaches to the core of our humanity: How much do we really need?

Henry Ford’s Model T had 20 horsepower. Today, a car with 100 is considered woefully underpowered. One of my car acquaintances is modifying his Shelby GT-500, because the 550 horsepower it comes with just isn’t enough. (He’s shooting for 1,000 or so.)

If you had told me when I was 17 years old that I would some day own a car with 345 horsepower, I would have been in disbelief. And if you had told me that I would long for even more power than that, I would have laughed out loud. But here we are.

My automotive journey has been a slow climb up the horsepower ladder. The first car I owned was a Fiat 600 with a rear-mounted engine that looked like it had been stolen out of a model airplane (I think it produced 25 horsepower). From there, I moved on to a 50-horsepower VW Beetle (which felt like a top fuel dragster after the Fiat).

By my late teens, I was an obsessed gear head, desperately trying to turn my Beetle into a poor man’s Porsche by improving its chassis and boosting its power. I collected Weber carburetors and high-lift camshafts in sprees that resembled Keith Richards’s heroin-purchasing patterns. After numerous failed experiments, I emerged from my dim workshop with a high-tuned Beetle engine that made nearly 200 horsepower. Or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. Since I didn’t have access to a dynamometer (a device that measures an engine’s actual output) I could only estimate how much power my motor produced. My “200-horsepower” Beetle engine was probably lucky to produce 150 – or maybe 120.

It felt fast enough for me, anyway. And my trick Beetle surprised a lot of muscle-car drivers – at least until the engine blew up like a gasoline-powered grenade. This was one of my early (and expensive) lessons on horsepower – when you try to multiply a motor’s power, something will give (starting with your bank account).

My horsepower quest was put on hold through the years I spent raising kids. Our car’s engines remained absolutely standard, mainly because the cost of swim lessons, daycare and hockey meant there were no funds left over for stroker cranks or turbo kits. Our Honda Civic had 88 horsepower, and that would have to do.

Although it doesn’t sound like much, 88 horsepower was enough to carry our family everywhere we needed to go (even with four bicycles and a hang glider on the roof). But power requirements have changed over the years. The motor in the current Honda Civic makes 140 horsepower – more than 50 per cent higher than the one we owned back in the 1980s. And many drivers consider 140 inadequate.

Despite the pressure for better fuel economy, we are in age of soaring horsepower. Today, you can buy a family vehicle that makes more horsepower than a 1960s muscle car.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. When emissions controls were instituted in the late 1970s, enthusiasts believed the Golden Age of Horsepower was over, killed by strangled plumbing, nanny-state exhaust systems and fuel-economy edicts that would put tiny, gutless engines under every hood.

Wrong. Engineers have come through with engines that meet emissions requirements while producing more power than the old-timers dreamed possible. If you have enough money, you can buy a Bugatti Veyron that makes 1,184 horsepower. Even a Honda minivan now comes with 250 horsepower.

In the real world of street driving, my 345-horsepower Lotus seems ludicrously fast. And I have always told myself that I’m not really a horsepower guy. My favourite cars tend to be the automotive equivalent of Audrey Hepburn – lithe, elegant and beautifully balanced. I’ve never been a real fan of cars like the Corvette or the Dodge Viper (a thunderous, V-10-motored sled that reminds me of a swollen Second World War torpedo fitted out with headlights and a windshield).

But like it or not, there is a brutal effectiveness to those cars – and on the back straight at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, their attributes are only too clear. As a car accelerates, it encounters a wall of aerodynamic resistance that increases as the square of velocity. Once you hit 200 km/h or so, you will need hundreds of horsepower to make much progress.

And then there’s the ridiculous yet undeniable matter of bragging rights. The Corvette and Viper drivers command pit lane, secure in their power in the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger used to be as he rested between bench press sets at the gym.

And so it is that I have spent the past few evenings perusing the Lotus racing catalogue, wondering if I could come up with the money for a four-litre engine block, forged titanium connecting rods and higher-compression pistons. A bigger supercharger might help, too. If I asked my son to drop out of university, I could probably swing it.

You know what they say – power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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