Monday, February 29, 2016

The 85 MPH Speedometer

Benz Speedo. Note the 281,000+ miles!

Every time I get in my 1982 Mercedes 380 SL I am reminded a federal government folly dating back to the early 1970s.  Of course, what I am referring to is my 85 MPH top speed speedometer that is in my car, a top speed that I often hit on I-675 around Dayton, OH. For a day I replaced it with a 160 MPH version taken from another dash cluster, but in the end it didn't seem right to take the car out of its true historical context.  During days in which the federal government vigorously pushed the auto industry in all kinds of directions -- 1968-1975 -- one proposal in particular bubbled up in early 1971 that seems to be at the origin of the 85 MPH instrument I live with. That proposed law not only included an 85 MPH speedo, but a feature in which once a car hit 85 MPH its lights would flash and horn honk.  At 95 MPH, a governor would kick in limiting the speed of the car.

While the governor and flashing lights were mover implemented, the 85 MPH speedo was made into law in 1979, although it had a short legal existence, as the Reagan administration reversed the law by late 1981.  Yet, a good number of cars made in the 1980s and 90s still used these limited instruments; as I remember my 4 cylinder 1990 Mustang had an 85 MPH unit, actually in this case rather realistic!

NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook was a big supporter of this measure, and continues as an auto  safety advocate to this day.  Did the speedo change save lives? And about how many.  Do we gauge speed by reading an instrument, or is it the sensation we experience in a vehicle that provides the rush that seems so satisfying, although admittedly resulting in a number of unnecessary deaths, especially of young people?

A Mustang SVO Speedo that defies the spirit of the law!

A Olds Cutlass Speedo.Those boring dashes and instruments from the 1980s!


  1. The last picture you have labled as an Olds Cutlass speedometer is actually a Cadillac.