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Sound experience

June 16, 2005

(If you hate powerful, gas-guzzling cars, you might want to skip this post.  I promise I am well aware of the environmental issues…)

I had the windows all rolled down, driving to the gym this evening, on account of perfectly wonderful weather.  So I could hear various engines near the car.  Despite being somewhat hard of hearing I’ve always been attuned to the sound of internal combustion engines.

A Ford Mustang was nearby for a number of traffic lights.  It had a 302 V8 but it had to have been customized from crankshaft to tailpipe to sound like it did – a deep and friendly rumble, sonic harmony of components and combustion that spoke of kingly authority.  Louder than other cars, yes, but musical.  You can’t get that by bolting a cheap “performance exhaust” on a stock engine. 

(The 302, while not huge, was the starting block for one of the fastest – and coolest-looking – cars ever made, the Shelby Cobra 302 GT, which inspired Bill Cosby’s routine; “Fast Car.”  Ford used their American-made 351 for its mid-engine Ghia-styled aluminum-bodied Italian Pantera back in the ‘70’s.  I could never understand why it didn’t simply push the Corvette off the market.)

A Harley roared by, its rider a nerdy fellow in jeans and a polo shirt with cell phone and pager on his belt.  It sounded like a two-wheeled version of the Mustang.  No wonder the Harley-Davidson company tries to sue companies that imitate that sound.

A high-performance Japanese “rice-rocket” motorcycle screamed past.  Not quite as loud as the Harley but sounded like absolute crap.  Imagine mechanical dissonance revved way up and amplified on a cheap stereo system.  The rice-rockets are also severely overpowered for a motorcycle – really racing machines that are dangerous on the street.  I’ve heard emergency-room people call them “donor-cycles.”

Several small cars of different makes with round stainless straight-through mufflers in place of the original (much quieter) mufflers were buzzing around.  My son calls these aftermarket mufflers “loudeners” – an apt description.  They are not well-engineered, they sound awful, and the owners wasted their money.  Most small cars (especially Japanese) are better off with the quietest mufflers available.

I heard a Ferrari once – beautiful.  There must be as much art as science to making an engine sound like that.  It sounded … mighty. 

An engine need not be large to sound beautiful.  Other engines that sound “right” to me are the early Porsche 911 and its smaller counterpart, the VW 1600 (especially when fitted with a high-quality glasspack exhaust).  The Fiat Spyder 124.  My friend’s VW Passat.  An old BMW motorcycle I once rode.

Sorry, I have never heard a 428 Hemi that I liked, stock or custom.  But it does have fans, and is the only engine (to my knowledge) to inspire the Chilton’s manuals to use the word; “awesome.”  I don’t much care for the way large-block Chevvy engines sound, either.

I wonder why automakers don’t pay more attention to the quality of the engine sound.  It certainly is a major part of the driver’s experience, so it has tremendous economic importance.


Categories: Design, Geeky
  1. WeeDram
    June 17, 2005 at 21:03 | #1

    Once I heard (and saw) a Lamborghini on the lot of a friend who was an automobile dealer.  Glorious.  All these have no environmental or practical justification for their existence, as you hint, and I could wish for a world with only clean and efficient cars.  But if there are going to be exotic cars, let them be beautiful.


  2. June 28, 2005 at 01:15 | #2

    The sweetest sound that I’ve ever heard come from a vehicle was from the tail end of a Lamborghini Diablo.  I was actually jay walking at the time and not really paying attention when I noticed what felt like a very large animal breathing on my leg, I looked up and saw that I was standing directly infront of the tail pipe of a Diablo.  As it revved up to go through the intersection it made the most melodic growl. 

    I agree with you, people who drive around in little cars with tiny four-banger engines shouldn’t have the “racing” mufflers.  It just makes them seem silly when their car whines when they accelerate.  If you’re going to have custom pipes, at least have a decent engine to provide the exhaust volume to make it sound nice.

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