Why do gearheads like noisy vehicles?

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Ferrari F40A few months ago the Badger turned me on to the long-running British automative TV program Top Gear. As everybody in the world except me seemed to know already, the show is a fantastic combination of pure car porn and wry English humour, quite unlike typical bone-dry, boring car shows on television.

One thing puzzles me, however. All three members of the team that presents the series—like petrol-heads everywhere, it seems—really like the noise that fast cars make, the louder and more obnoxious the better. Through Top Gear I discovered that many modern high-end sports cars have a "Sport" mode. At the push of a button, useful things happen: the suspension stiffens, automatic traction control is reduced for more feel and direct control of the vehicle, the transmission becomes more aggressive—all sorts of useful things for someone throwing a car around a track or a fast racing road.

"Sport" mode also does something else, though: it opens some valves to make the car's muffler less effective, so the car is noisier on purpose. I've never understood that. When a pack of Harley riders drives by with their brapping V-Twin engines, it doesn't sound macho and cool to me: it sounds like they're all drastically amplifying their farts. When a lowered tuner car or a Lamborghini or a big American V8 muscle car revs its "look at me" growl and then takes off into the distance, here's how it sounds to me:

Asshoooooo... [shift]
...ooooooooooo... [shift]
...ooooooooooo... [shift]
...oooooole...

Like any guy, I appreciate a beautiful, fast car with good performance. I'd love the chance to drive a Ferrari or an Aston Martin or a similar rocket—though I'd probably need some lessons, since I've never owned a vehicle that powerful or potentially dangerous. (I saw my first modern Aston Martin in a mall display downtown a couple of years ago, and yes, even with the engine off it was quite drool-worthy in person.) But I'm of the mind that a car that could blow past everyone else in subtle near-silence would be way cooler than a belching, revving monster. If you're going to show off a vehicle, show what it does, not what kind of foul sound it can make.

20 Comments

My first reaction's that there's a mental link between noise and car performance. An exhaust system / muffler / silencer restricts the outflow of the exhaust gases and by doing so reduces the power output of the engine. Which is why racing cars are loud. So if someone sticks a cheap 'performance' exhaust on their Civic they think it's now a performance machine even though the after-market part is more about making more noise than about adding an extra 2HP. "My car SOUNDS like a race car so it must be fast... right?"

But thinking about it, the like of loud noises goes beyond just cars. Louder home sound systems, amplifiers that go up to 11, concerts loud enough that you can feel the music. Not everybody enjoys them but I think for the majority of people, if it's a sound you enjoy, making it louder makes it more fun (until it hurts!).

PS Top Gear goes all the way back to the 70s and used to have a much less testosterone-driven format. It's only since Jeremy Clarkson got involved in the 90s (and very much more so since the change of format & relaunch about 10 years ago) that it's been so much "phwoar... let's see how fast we can go"

The only blog post that I've ever written that has elicited actual death threats is entitled "Who’s the Bigger Asshat, the Harley Rider or the Hummer Driver?" (http://bit.ly/csu7Vy).

This may have the been the problematic paragraph:

"It’s a little ironic that Harleys are associated with being tough and thuggish, when really they scream “please, everybody, look at me! I’m desperate to be the centre of attention!” When I see Harley Davidsons on the weekend, I always assume that the drivers are, in fact, accountants and lawyers playing their own peculiar and expensive game of dress-up. It’s really only another small step to full-on drag."

Derek: come on...

Last I heard, you've played a little rock and roll, right?

Why rockheads like noisy music?

For many, it's not simply about the decibels: it's about the sound.

Air is part of the fuel that internal combustion engines burn. Devices on both "ends" of the machine (e.g., air filters; mufflers) restrict air flow and therefore reduce the engine's ability to make power. "Opening" or eliminating these devices allows the engine to make more power (as do devices such as turbochargers and superchargers, both of which increase air flow). Some of these things result in more noise, sure, but that is not (always) the primary purpose. That Sport-mode valve-opening you reference is surely intended to allow the engine to make more power, not to create more noise.

(Not to say some don't have noise as the primary intent. Those kids driving around in gutless Japanese cars with big, open mufflers are all about the noise, and don't seem to notice or care that the modification does not result in any performance boost in an engine that is unable to use the additional air flow.)

I remember the episode that Derek is talking about.. one particular car (can't remember which) has valves in the exhaust STRICTLY to make it sound awesomer... performance increases are secondary to that sweet, sweet high-RPM V8 sound. :)

My own car has in it's design history an exhaust-tuning speciaist and custom exhaust parts to get the throaty burble to hit at specific volume and tone... driving around day to day it's quiet and dignified, but putting the hammer down and pushing the RPMs up makes it snarl like a wild beast. :D

When I was a teenager (driving a Hyundai Stellar--SO not stellar) a friend of mine bought/built an old Datsun 280Z with triple carburetors, custom air intakes and exhaust. One night next to me at a traffic light, he blipped the throttle and it sounded AWESOME. :) It wasn't necessarily OMG LOUD, but it sounded almost musical.

I do agree with Derek and everyone else about jackholes on Harleys with straight-pipes though, that's just anoying volume.

"Asshats" is right on the money. We have a neighbor who, 7 months of the year, courteously rolls his Harley down his driveway (towards our house) so as not to wake his own family at 4:30 am (!!!!!!!!!!) most weekdays. He then lets it idle for about 5 minutes. I managed to suppress my rage and attempt to have a calm talk with him one day. He seemed as though he could not care less. We then spent about $3,000 on triple paned windows (utilizing a $1,500 tax credit, thankfully) in an attempt to deaden the sound. It helped but he still wakes us up. Oh, and he also mentioned how lucky we were that he didn't ride his other Harley - that one is really loud!

On the bright side, I did learn some interesting things about the science of soundproofing. Apparently the low frequency sounds (like a Harley) are the toughest to attenuate.

I had to laugh when, after talking to a few Harley riders at work, I heard the argument that the loud noise is a safety enhancement for the motorcyclists. My response was to suggest they get some of those Radio Shack whirling lights for their helmets and drag some tin cans. Or, maybe, if safety is a big concern, don't ride a motorcycle!! At least we will recognize the older Harley riders by their deafness.

Your description of the Harley exhaust sound as amplified farts is brilliant!

I think people riding Harley choppers (especially ones with long front forks) are compensating for length deficiencies elsewhere, if you catch my meaning :-)

The one thing most people do not understand is when one real car guy hears the right exhaust "note", and i do not mean loud. But the sound of a choppy eng "large cam" or "big turbocharger" and a well modified/tuned car its like a song that you know the "notes" to. One real car guy can describe every thing about that car to some one eles without ever even opening the hood. Its like the a great work of art some one else worked so hard to make, to the ones who know the kind of masterpiece right away....but on the other hand loud for the sake of loud is even more annoying to us.

You truly are the man, excellent explanation-not just noise-depending on the vehicle-but actual performance purposes. My muscle cars I had back in the day were pretty loud when stomping on the gas but only rumbley when cruising.On my street bikes, not Harleys though I do like some Harleys and may buy one some day,mostly inline 4 sport tourers, they are pretty mellow until wound tight then wail like an F1 car and they have the power and speed to back up the sound. The right balance of speed and sound in or on any vehicle is magical.

I ride a Yamaha FJR1300A sport tourer, which isn't particularly loud until wound really tight, then it kind of wails and accelerates so hard it almost makes me dizzy. In just normal riding, it's not very loud at all and has a quiet, yet muscular sound. Some of the guys I ride with have Harleys bone stock except the straight pipes. I can hear them oer the wind noise if they are within about 20 feet at road speed and it is annoying. The Harleys I've ridden had stock exhausts and while not quiet, aren't overly loud and still sound healthy.

I am definitely one of those petrol-heads that the show always references. I see where you are coming from with relation to Top Gear specifically as Clarkson does seem to comment on the "brilliant exhaust note" on pretty much every car he drives. I know where he is coming from on some but not necessarily all of the cars he references, some sounding raucous and overly loud. But for those that I do enjoy listening to, I enjoy because next to actually being in the car and feeling it, there is no better way to know how well the engine is running than to listen to it. Even if you can't diagnose pretty close to what exactly might be wrong if something breaks, an attentive person should still be able to tell when the engine doesn't sound as it usually does. It also helps you feel more confident that the car will do exactly as you tell it. We recently had a BMW HD Radio plug here in the States that said "If you must listen to something other than the finely tuned engine of your new BMW, we reccommend HD Radio." Kind of inspires you to turn off the stereo and just listen to your car every once in a while. And I'm sure it helps that I drive a BMW as well.

I never was a petrol head until i got a BMW... After you own a 300+ hp car, you'll know why the sound is so important

Look it's simple. The noise is to let you know you have to get out of the way...

Well, Derek...you'll be happy to know that the Chevy Volt also has a sport-mode...and with a lack of exhaust -- you don't get that nasty sound you seem to hate so much.

However...I'll continue to let those valves open up...and maybe scratch the mufflers altogether -- because it's what I like to hear...if you don't, keep it to yourself.

Otherwise, heck -- it doesn't matter, my exhaust is too loud to hear you complaining!!!

I'd attempt to explain, but it would be like trying to explain to a 3rd grader the merits of intercourse.

But I believe you can be saved. But you must get behind the wheel of something with 8 or more cylinders ASAP. Per the analogy, you won't be able to explain why, but you'll love it for good.

Derek,

It's not something that can be explained. If you didn't grow up in the muscle car era and have the sheer joy of working on your own car, personalizing it, tuning it, making it growl, you will NEVER "get it".

Nothing bad needs be said about either school of thought - those that love the sound of power will always love the sound of power, those that don't will never be turned on by it.

By contrast, when I see a big V-8 muscke car drive by me and takes off into the distance, I feel just the opposite of you. I think "man does that car sound great! I wonder what he's done under the hood?"

That's the thing Derek, most car guys, like me, aren't that concerned with fuel economy. We are concerned with power. A louder, more free, exhaust usually means more power. I'm the kind of person who doesn't like pure loudness. I like a tuned sound, like someone mentioned earlier.

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