05 May 2015

Some People Prefer Old Cars

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1992_toyota_land-cruiser
1992 Toyota Land Cruiser. The paint on ours is a little rougher, and I’ve mounted a 1920s Alvis Hare hood ornament on it.

Sam Smith, in Wired, explains why many enthusiasts are collecting old pieces of crap, instead of buying new cars.

[A]s far as I can tell, this affliction is rooted in what we’ve lost. Call it simplicity or purity, maybe even character, born not of wear or time, but of freedom of design. And an obsession with the fundamental quirks that give a car personality. Things like floor-hinged pedals, gated shifters, or doors whose latches feel deeply mechanical, like the cocking of a gun. And if you drive a lot of new cars, you realize that stuff is growing rarer by the minute.

It is a byproduct of progress. On paper, a new BMW M3 is superior to any before it. The modern car accelerates harder, stops quicker, and is quieter and more comfortable than an M3 built in the 1990s. Any engineer will point to it as a less compromised product. But compromise is character. The older car is simpler and smaller. It was built to less aggressive crash standards, so it has thinner pillars and weighs less. You can see out of it easily, and the lack of weight helps the car give you feedback, so it’s more fun to drive at legal speed. The new one feels like a city bus by comparison.

Modern can be better, but it isn’t necessarily.

This isn’t a unique opinion, and these aren’t new arguments. Twenty years ago, people were looking to the vehicles of decades prior and bemoaning the increase in weight and complexity. In the late 1800s, the first automobiles were viewed as atrocities, far less civilized and romantic than horses. Rose-tinting the past while moving forward is human nature.

But looking back still has value. Many analysts, for example, now believe that the recent boom in classic-car values is due to the arc of new-vehicle development. Take the current Porsche 911 GT3: a fantastic car, but complex by the standards of even ten years ago. The electrically assisted power steering is distant. The car’s newly elongated wheelbase improves stability and ride, but at the expense of a cozy cabin and compact footprint. It’s also available only with an automatic transmission—a piece of equipment that takes an engaging job out of the driver’s hands.

Previous GT3s were deeply involving to drive and only available with manuals. When the new car was announced, older examples—even relatively recent models—saw a noticeable increase in value.

What have we gained? Everyone knows that restrictive legislation killed the grossly unsafe or heavily polluting car. That is inarguably good. As is the glut of durable, crashable and recyclable vehicles filling showrooms. We are living in something of a golden age of automobiles—more performance and relative fuel economy than ever before. And while new cars still break, statistically, they’re more reliable and efficient than at any point in history. The inevitable march toward perfection has given us direct-injected, turbocharged engines with fantastic performance and wonderful fuel economy, dual-clutch transmissions that deliver shifts in the blink of an eye, and electric cars virtually free of excuses.

Part of this is simply time. Computer-controlled engines have been common for over 30 years. Crash safety has been a science for longer than NASA’s Apollo program existed. Even the simple rubber tire is over a century old. Those are just three pieces of a complex machine, but cumulatively speaking, each has received more development hours than the Manhattan Project. Given similar time and engineering attention, anything would evolve to be good.

But if humanity is an assemblage of flaws, we’re slowly engineering the human out of the automobile. And the more new cars I drive, the more I find myself drawn to the “bad” old ones.

We bought the faster, most loaded 3-series BMW a few years back. The bloody thing actually came without a spare tire. BMW was cooperating with Big Brother and saving energy. The driver, you see, was supposed to not need a spare anyway, because BMW thoughtfully provided original equipment run-flat tires.

Those tires, mind you, were noisy and had an extremely bad grip on wet roads and dirt roads, and wore out after 10,000 miles, and cost a fortune to replace (I bought non-run-flat replacements), but you’re supposed to be happy that you’re saving the planet.

The car is fast as hell, but it has a lousy first gear. You really have to crank the revs up, or you will stall out. BMW included a new sort of turn signal switch as well. Move it left or right, and you don’t get a positive setting. You get a mushy sort of feel, and it blinks a few times and then goes back to off. You have to move it again to get it completely on. This, too, is supposed to be an improvement.

The radio, of course, was designed by some 13-year-old Oriental. You poke your finger at various illuminated bits, all of which do multiple things potentially.

What really torched me off was going out to check the oil, and finding that this car was built without a dipstick. The owner is intended to rely on his computer, the same computer (which if the battery ever get a little low) warns him emphatically that the car is dying and will momentarily blow up, the same computer which issues constantly all sorts of emoji symbols telling you that a bulb is out somewhere or your tire pressure is under 25 lbs.

My reaction was to swear a great oath that I’ll never buy a new BMW again. But, really, I don’t like being told what to do, and I’m coming to the conclusion that I may never buy a new car, period, again.

In the good old days, before we were born, a chap could go to Morris Garages in Oxford, England, and tell the nice men what sort of car he wanted: what kind of engine, supercharged or not, what kind of body style, what color, and he could specify all the little conveniences and accessories he desired. “I’ll have Brooklands windscreens, please!”

Today, federal cabinet departments conspire with enormous car manufacturing corporations to make all our decisions for us, for our own good.

Who would voluntarily pay several thousand dollars to put explosive airbags all over his car, knowing that there is an inevitable hazard that one of them might go off and knowing that one of those infernal devices might injure you or kill a kid? Possibly some mental defective living in California, but not you or me. But we have no choice. Some bureaucratic committee in Washington decided for us, and we get to pay. Next, we will be getting a grand or so worth of rear video camera and backing-up-to-park assistance.

And, that’s why a decent new car today costs $40,000-$50,000. My father used to go out, circa 1960, and get a shiny new car for $2000.

Karen had an unfortunate encounter with an oak tree atop the Blue Ridge, trying to come home in a howling blizzard a few years ago, and she totalled our SUV. I thought about it and bought an ancient (1992) Toyota Land Cruiser off of Ebay for $4000. That Land Cruiser was precisely what Sam Smith would describe as “a piece of crap.” Just about everything that could be wrong with a car was wrong with it, except for the body and the engine which were both just fine. Naturally, I had to drop a few more thousand into it immediately, but it runs, and it is spectacular at lumbering its way through mud and snow. I’m basically planning to keep it forever.

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4 Feedbacks on "Some People Prefer Old Cars"

Dominique

A personal suggestion of a radical answer to this problem. Much less than $100,000; 0 to 60 in about 3 sec. (2.7 sec. with the best version); four cylinders only that sip fuel like a camel with regard to amazing performances; mechanically reliable as a Camry; no electronic, no comfort at all, exactly like almost a century ago. Well, see by yourself what it is and enjoy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CRdQA7R9xs



Surellin

I recently bought a 1995 Wrangler. It’s uncomfortable, underpowered and generally a piece of crap, but I love it dearly.



bwayne

you consider 1992 as ‘ancient’???
My newest car is a 1966 and I rarely drive it because I prefer older cars. I have driven my 1939 Ford every day for 17 years, my 1947 Mercury for 14 years and my 1957 Chevy for 25 years.



JDZ

Which do you like best?



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