Friday, July 4, 2014

Driving a Vintage Motorcar in the Modern World

It looks cool, but how does it drive on the highway?



That is a question I hear every time someone considers acquiring a vintage car or truck for the first time.  What they are often wondering is how an antique car or truck will fit into their modern world.  Each of us must answer that for ourselves.  Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter . . . 

Consider how much our environment has changed since the typical vintage car was manufactured.  Definitions of “vintage” vary, but according to motor vehicle departments, a car is an antique when it’s 25 or 30 years old.  By that standard, with 2015 models going on sale now, 1980s cars are now antiques.  How does your world of 2014 compare with the environment you knew in 1984?

There’s much that’s the same but even more that’s different.  Satellite radio, cup holders, pushbutton entry, Bluetooth phones, and built in navigation are just a few of the things we take for granted in todays cars.  None of these “essential features” even existed 30 years ago.  Some of us have withdrawal if we're without them for a moment.  Others rue the day they were invented.

Engineers at Mercedes and Rolls Royce both opposed cup holders.  "You should not drink in a car," was their answer. Bentley engineers made their side windows stop 1/2 inch above the window frame. Why? To make it uncomfortable for slovenly drivers to hang their elbows out the window.  Motoring in the previous generation was an experience in itself, to be undertaken by proper drivers in correct attire with suitable attitude.  You comported yourself to the car, and the car accommodated the road, both as best you could.  Today all that is lost in the new cars in our dealer showrooms.  That's one thing that draws modern men and women to don the driving gloves and fire up that antique roadster.

Anyone with money can go buy a new Bentley.  It takes a special kind of person to show up at your home in a 1928 Speed Six.  The average driver today has no idea how to start such a car, let alone make it move.  The fact that it isn't a reliable daily driver is irrelevant.  Its magic shines through, and marks its driver as someone special indeed.  The new car says "Wall Street" and "money." The old one exudes mystery and the scent of James Bond.  Which would you prefer?

In any case, accessories are not what makes a car a car.  Most vehicles from the 1980s are perfectly usable in the modern world, assuming they are in proper repair.  These vehicles were engineered for American interstate highways, and  fitted with cooling systems that handle the rigors of modern traffic jams.  They burn the fuels of today with little complaint and are similar enough to the cars of today that repair is relatively easy.  Many generalist garages work on cars of this vintage in the normal course of business.

Most cars of this age are not restored. Rather, they are maintained in various states of disrepair as they slide toward recycling or restoration in the coming decades.  It’s still possible to buy pristine original cars from this area, though they are getting rare and prices are rising.  In most cases, a flawless 5,000-mile example of any 1980s car will sell for more today than its original sticker price.



Anyone who buys an old car is faced with the choice of bringing it back, or taking a chance on a thousand potentially imminent failures.  Some will address that with pre emptive restoration.  Others will maintain extensively, employing a shop like ours to use a schedule similar to what's employed on older aircraft.  A few will never learn and drive from one breakdown to another.  My grandfather had a phrase for that.  "Son,' he said, "some men always have to pee on the electric fence for themselves."

1980s cars tend to have modern air conditioners and engines that run along at 75mph without complaint.  Most parts are readily available.  The best cars of this era will still outperform most cars of today in many key ways.  A 1989 Porsche or Ferrari – for example – remains a very high performance machine by any standard.  A 1989 Range Rover will still outdo most four wheel drives of today when the going gets rugged.



With attributes like those, it’s easy to see how people imagine they can drive a car from the 80s every day.  “My dad used to do it,” is a common refrain at this point.  For some of us, “I used to do it,” is a hopeful memory.  We see a 1985 Porsche selling for less than a brand-new subcompact, and the proposition is tempting.  If that’s your motivation – think again.

Also remember that not all cars are like that. Some were never designed for interstates or traffic jams. The Land Rovers we used to see in National Geographic may have crossed Africa and Asia, but they did so at very modest speed and with continuous tinkering. That part of the story didn't appear in the magazine, though.  You may have dreamed of owning such a beast, but here in America its life will mostly be spent on paved highways, and the fact that it only goes 45mph in comfort limits its unity going to the mall.  Nothing limits the fun you can have with it once you get to Moab National Park though, and it's a blast on beaches or forest trails everywhere.  And nothing limits its capability when its in its element, even when 40 years old.  It will still go where mountain goats fear to tread, if you're brave enough to be there at the controls!



Wise investors buy fine antiques they they care for and cherish.  Wise motorists look at old cars the same way.  A forty-year-old BMW is not just a 90%-depreciated new Bimmer.  It's it's own thing, a collectible piece that may well rise in value just as rapidly as your 2014 535xi declines.

As a long time service manager, and one who specializes in vintage high-end vehicles, I can tell you that the biggest problems with "daily driver" thinking are going to be reliability and serviceability.  Neither of those things are a big deal to someone who buys a vintage car for weekend tours, car shows and fun.  But they can be deal killers for someone who wants a car to commute to work in.

Yet it can be done. If you choose a simpler car, and maintain it like it's an airplane, and tend to EVERY issue the moment it's noted, you can make an old car as reliable as an old plane.  And you can commute in that, but you're still wise to have a newer car on hand too.  

One thing today’s drivers don’t often consider is how reliability standards have changed in 30 years, and how much more we drive.  Back when these cars were new 3 months or 3,000 miles was the most common service interval.  Today’s service intervals are double that or longer.  Overall reliability is vastly improved, to the point where the as-delivered reliability of many 1980s cars would be totally unacceptable to buyers of those marques today.  A prime example of that would be Jaguar.  If a car was unreliable when new in 1985, how reasonable is it to expect solid daily reliability from that car in 2015?  Fish don’t dance, folks.

Even though we can fit improved replacement parts, and fix problems that were recognized after a car was manufactured, overall attainable reliability tends to decrease with vehicle age. Even the best restorations seldom deliver the reliability of the original products. Motor vehicles are complex things.  As parts get old, they stick, jam, get sloppy, and break.  No matter how carefully we go over a car, there is always something we cannot renew, either because it’s inaccessible, the part is no longer sold, or it’s simply one part too many for a restoration budget. For that reason, it’s simply not possible to make a car from 30 years ago as reliable as even the most pedestrian car of today.  You’ll repair the engine oil leaks, and the air conditioner will fail.  You’ll fix the air conditioner and the power steering line will blow.  On a vintage car you will be chasing one issue after another as long as you own it.  Most of these things won’t be life threatening, but they will be nuisances you wouldn’t have if you were driving a newer vehicle in good repair.

One final thing to keep in mind is that motorists of yesterday were much more forgiving than drivers of today.  Cars bucked and stalled when cold, and the dealer said “That’s just how that model acts.”  People lived with it.  Other cars had oiling systems that dripped on the ground the moment they were first filled. “Some leakage is normal,” was a feature of many owners’ manuals. Indeed, on an older car we still talk of "normal" leakage and "excessive" leakage, and sensible owners understand. Then there was the smoke from the tail pipe.  In a world where people drive 7,500 miles without once checking the oil, it’s hard to believe a quart of oil in 500 miles was once “normal consumption.”

Don’t expect a vintage car to be something it never was.  A thirty-year old car's place is winning shows or vintage races, not winning the commute to the office.  Any car can be a commuter (until it breaks.) It takes a special car to win a show.



Instead, think of cars as symbols of another life and time.   I’ll always remember curling up behind the back seat of my parent’s 1962 VW Beetle, my face warmed by the sunlight.  I’ll never forget the way frost used to form on the AC grilles of my grandmother’s Buick Electra 225, and how I’d never been in a car like that before. 

The best way to approach vintage motorcar collecting is with good humor, patience, an extra car and a great love of fine vintage machinery.  And the time and money to support the hobby of course.

If your vintage car is driven on weekends, most of its issues will not be a big deal.  If you rely on it to commute 50 miles to work the situation will be very different – you’ll be fixing things all the time.   When you go to repair a common problem – like a leaky water pump – you will be slowed down because the parts are not in stock, in town.  You’ll be slowed down because only “old Joe” remembers working on cars like yours.  And you’ll have additional time and cost when little pieces alongside the water pump also need attention, because they are 30 years old.  Those complications don’t generally occur on a 4-year-old car.



Many parts of a car are designed to be in place for the life of the vehicle.  But after 30 years, those “lifetime” parts become common sources of failure.   Doors won’t latch because the hinges are worn out.  “Permanent” stainless steel exhausts fall apart, and cost $3,000 to replace.  Seat frames collapse and you feel like you’re sitting on a rock pile.  Issues like those can always be resolved, but they add cost and trouble that you won’t have on a new vehicle.

If you want the car you drove when you were younger, and you have a daily commuter, I say go for it.  If you want your dad’s Lincoln restored for weekends, that’s great.  If you want an old Land Rover for the beach or woods camp, nothing could be better.  Running antique sports cars in vintage races can be just as much fun as Formula 1, and a whole lot cheaper!  Just remember to keep the true capabilities of these fine old machines in perspective.  Make them as good as they can be, and don’t expect more than they can deliver.


Enjoy our motoring heritage, and do your part to help preserve it.

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service, independent restoration and service for Land Rover, Jaguar, Mercedes, BMW, Bentley, Rolls Royce, and other fine motorcars in Springfield, MA  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or on the phone at 413-785-1665

1 comment:

Fiesta Cranberry said...

Excellent article! My car is 43 y/o, and what you are saying is absolutely true.