Back when the third millennium was still a novelty, I had an old Saab 900 with nigh on 300 bhp. Now that might not sound like a lot today, but this was back when a Focus RS, which had so much development and expensive, motorsport-derived hardware spent on it that the Blue Oval allegedly lost money on every one they sold, made rather a meal of transferring 212 bhp into forward motion using just its front tyres.
That car, known within the Saab community as 'Saabine', was noted for its relatively considered engineering approach in those days when every Tom, Dick and Harry would take a hacksaw to their front crossmembers, throw in a front mounted intercooler from a junked Saab 9000 and turn up the boost sky high, then wonder why they'd go through gearboxes every fortnight when they 'only' had two hundred and a bit horsepower. Saabines engine was properly built by an outfit that raced and rallied Saabs (after the first 'enhanced' one went in a spectacular fashion just after having run it in). It had very stiff suspension, an anti-roll bar at the rear but none in the front for traction and balance, uprated brakes and specially imported Toyo semi-slicks on 9000 Aero wheels. No one would have given it a second glance if it had 220 or so horses under the bonnet. It (and myself) gained notoriety in Saab circles because it was a 300 horsepower Saab 900 - and walked the walk on a forum rolling road day - simple as.
Was it fun? Yes, sometimes. Four wheel drifting out of corners at Zandvoort was a riot - if not a particularly quick or efficient way to go round - and seeing the world around you - including that Golf VR6 that had been taking a particular liking to an old Swedish rubber rear bumper split seconds before - go into reverse when you buried the throttle on the motorway was hilarious. Realising you'd be in deep doo-dahs if you got flashed at the sort of speed you'd quickly and effortlessly hit when doing so, was another matter but I disgress. Somehow I managed to get away with being a bit foolish every now and then. Overtaking on a narrow heavily cambered English country road could also be a bit exciting as the steering would sort of get a mind of its own the moment the boost kicked in hard.
With hindsight I realise that I would have had an overall nicer car, had I restricted myself to 250 bhp or so, put in that Quaife diff that I never really had the funds left for, left the car on the smaller (lighter) wheels and tyres with the standard width and offset (Saab lowered the ET values of their accessory/upgrade wheels with half the extra width so that they'd still fit in the wheelwells on the inside) and took a somewhat more profound and detailed approach to all the little things that contribute to being a good driving machine instead. Which is what I would do now if I ever built a 'restomod' Saab.
What is it that makes people go for the biggest numbers when upgrading, modifying, restomodding cars? Simple one-upmanship, ego - or simply 'in for a penny, in for a pound' - the sense that you'd regret not going for the biggest and baddest option somewhere down the road, the notion 'I've spent £ xxxx so far, I'd feel silly if I didn't have significantly more power than the guy who just has a chip and an exhaust?' Looking back, for me it probably was a mixture of all these things. Whatever it is, it seems to be getting out of hand quickly. Restomod muscle cars at the top end of that particular niche routinely sport a four figure number of horses. Porsche tuner 9ff can build you a 911 with 1,300 bhp or so, depending on the size of your wallet and your appetite for a fiery death. What's up with that - Porsches are well engineered, grated, but no one at Weissach or Zuffenhausen ever considered the option of having more power than about half of that. First, second and arguably third gear will be pretty useless, the sophisticated electronic stability controls will be rendered little more than a token gesture towards your survival and you WILL break very expensive German bits sooner or later if you throw caution in the wind and endeavour to get your money's worth from your mods instead of being content with having the largest member of all your Porsche buddies. And after overcoming the inevitable traction limitations, you'll finally be able to run away from a car with half the power... from speeds that equate signing your life away if you ever got caught - I should say 'when' in this day and age, a fairly significant number of members of the public won't take kindly to your bewinged, steam roller tyred beacon of conspicuous consumption even if you were driving Miss Daisy.
The kicker is this - let's suppose for a moment the car is thoroughly engineered to take the beating that the power of a small nuclear plant will subject it to. An industrial strength clutch and gearbox, prop- and driveshafts, bearings, those steamroller tyres, suspension that must cope with far greater forces in roughly the same travel... and at the very least traction control that will tightly reign it all in, lest you end up in another time zone the moment after you've lost it. A feelsome and interactive experience a drive won't likely be, just naked fear to keep things 'interesting'.
It's fair to say that the state of the art, dealing with iconic and valuable classics, has picked up on this. A Singer Porsche or an Eagle E-Type that is being commissioned for anything up to half a million pounds or more, might have an engine that's significantly more powerful than what the car originally had - but not ludicrously so. Same for the aircooled Porsche 'outlaw' c.q. R-Gruppe inspired scene. Finely honed, naturally aspirated response and 'feel' are more important than outright power and performance; the builders are looking for a balance where not one aspect of the car dominates the experience, but it works as a whole for an immersive experience practically regardless of how fast you are going. What value the ability to go way too fast for the road rather than too fast, when it comes with the penalty of a muted, sanitised or - as with many 'radical' builds - even unpleasant experience when you're not going way too fast?
Sadly, the TVR world doesn't see it this way yet - as a quick trawl through the relevant forums will show. Don't buy that multithrottle intake system that only gives you like 15 horsepower (but vastly improved throttle response and lower weight) - bolt a turbo to your car so you can get over a hundred. Or better still, put a Chevy or Ford crate engine in your car so you can take advantage of cheap performance parts from over the pond and get 600 horsepower in a chassis that's barely adequate for half that... Don't bother with expensive suspension, but do score a set of BMW E38 Brembos from Ebay with dinner plate sized brake discs that weigh twice as much as the originals and only just fit under 17-inch front wheels (the originals are 15" for a reason). Never mind that the sprung/unsprung weight ratio on these high-powered, lightweight cars is already on the unfavourable side and that you'll never be able use the heatsink capability of those comparatively huge brakes... Traction problems? Stick some R888s under it, after all it's well known how well TVRs handle standing water at speed. ;) Bigger is better, more is better, and 'upgrades' are being solely judged in how much bigger you can get for as little money as possible. And then to think there are so many aspects on these cars that could do with a bit of extra development from where the factory called it a day, instead...
Of course, if you're building a car for a narrowly defined application - like drag racing for instance or a pure track car that can just about be driven to and from the venue, some compromises will be in order. Apart from that, however, I'd say it's about time we stop the far peeing contests so we can concentrate on what makes cars memorable to drive for all the right reasons, instead. By all means, measure what's important, but don't make the things you can measure the most easily, the most important!