Six Things We Love About Old Cars
Updated: Dec 14, 2021
Nostalgia is a funny old thing. We filter out the stuff we are less keen on - like the casual racism, sexism and regular power cuts - and remember what made yesteryear better. And there were quite a lot of ways in which life back then was actually better.
Before we disappear down a reverse camera black hole, lets focus. Old cars. Yes, there are lots of things about new cars that are so much better. But old cars did - and still do - some things that were just better.
Here's a list of our favourite things that make driving old cars just great.
Buttons & Switches
Before touch screens our user interfaces actually had handles and toggles and buttons and switches. With the Mk2 in the photo above, to operate the wipers you had to flick a toggle switch, a definite, positive action that created a definite, positive result. That it was reassuringly similar to a Spitfire pilot switching on the rotors before shouting 'Chocks Away' certainly added to the sense of satisfaction.
The switches and toggles were also the sole preserve of the driver. Usually, such were the times, a Dad. Unlike in modern cars, where anyone can faff about with the touch screen, moving the controls in the centre of the car was the sole preserve of the person in charge. Which lent them an air of mystique. Perhaps one day we'd get to control them too...
A car's buttons and switches were part of its character, an intrinsic element of the particular style and magic of individual car makers. For a while in the 80s manufacturers went switch crazy like the Subaru SVX below, which perhaps represents peak switchery.
Switches established the driver's place in the motoring hierarchy - the more switches that worked, the higher you'd risen. For the rest, blank switches shone out of the dashboard like a sort of automotive sandwich board, a simple and dire warning of what might happen if you didn't work hard enough at school.
Perhaps its the lingering smell of old woodbines, the slow decay of glues and plastics and timber undercut by a hint of damp, but old cars smell great. I mean, really great.
Wine and whisky afficionados wax lyrical about notes of this and hints of that and blooms of whatever. Old cars, if you take a moment to savour them, offer smells just as complex.
None of which explains why my Alfasud - even after a full restoration - smells exactly like the Fiat 500 my mum had when I was 4. But it does, and I’m very glad it does.
Wherever two or more car enthusiasts gather and nostalgia is in the air, it will be a matter of mere minutes before manual choke levers crop up in conversation. There is nothing about a manual choke that is objectively better than its modern contemporary - ie not having a manual choke - and yet so much about it that suggest the complete opposite.
For those born after 1990, manual chokes were a double espresso for cars: an early morning burst of high octane fuel that enabled them to wake up and get going on the commute to work. Simple.
For drivers The Choke was a symbol of the skill and dexterity required to master the art of motoring. Because operating a choke was not a simple process of pulling it out when it was required and pushing it back in when it wasn't. To avoid the horror of 'flooding' your engine - which likely meant a long walk to work - you had to know how much choke your car needed, a subtle art that involved fiddling around with the lever for interminable minutes as your occupants froze to death, and then knowing at just exactly what point to start gently reducing it. This involved carefully 'listening' to the engine - in reality, not that hard on a whining 1975 Maxi - and, over time, building a rapport with your particular car that would gradually cut down the amount of time your passengers spent freezing and the amount of time spent 'listening.'
Operating the choke was quite like learning to master a very delicate piece of scientific equipment. Sadly car makers didn't manufacture them with quite the same degree of precision. Quite often the locking function of the choke lever - which enabled the driver to 'hold' the choke at a particular point - would stop working, usually not long after you'd taken delivery of your new car. Which meant you either had to hold it in place as you drove along, risking certain death, or use a clothes peg or two to hold it in required position. Then you simple removed the pegs as the car required less choke.
Over time posh cars got automatic chokes, which were obviously better. Manual choke afficionados, of course, knew that such things were clearly only required by people who lacked the patience and skill to actually operate a choke themselves. Such as managers and bosses.
Cheers to chokes. I'm choking up just thinking about them.
Before air conditioning we had quarterlights, a sort of wind break for cars. Besides making side windows look quite nice, quarterlights were a really simple and effective way to cool a car without having to open a window and suffer a force nine gale swirling around your passengers.
Quarterlights did a clever job of directing airflow around the window - so you could have the main window open with less buffeting - and into the car. They directed airflow across the front of the car’s dashboard, keeping front seat passengers cool and the driver's hands less clammy on the wheel (so a sort of safety device at the same time).
Quarterlights were phased out because they cost car makers more money to make and nobody really knew how to use them anyway. There was probably a safety issue in there as well around sharp pieces of glass flying around in accidents. Whatever the reason, we miss them because they were a great example of a very simple idea that worked really, really well.
Modern car makers work very hard to capitalise on the sense of occasion and ownership that car fobs convey. But for all their marketing hutzpah they fail to deliver the rugged sense of possession that comes with an actual, old fashioned key.
Perhaps its the physicality of fitting and turning a key in a lock to open a door. Of settling in the seat, inserting the key in the ignition and listening as a simple twist brings the car to life. Perhaps, as in early Mk2 Jaguars and E Types, there is also a starter button, just like a modern car. But there is a process. A procedure. It is tactile and engaging in a way that simply pressing a 'start' button isn't.
Undoubtedly power steering has made driving better and easier. And, crucially, much more relaxing. But it has also robbed it of some of the sensation of man and machine in harmony. Put simply, inserting electrical power between the steering wheel and the road wheels more often than not robs the driver of feel and intuition.
In old cars with unassisted steering it is impossible to avoid the messages that the front wheels are telling you. And when you make a steering input, you can be pretty sure how it will translate through to the wheels. With less effort and therefore concentration required, that sensation is reduced.
Power steering has also enabled car makers to manufacture cars with less attention to steering feel and - of course - weight. When physically turning the wheel was solely the work of the driver, engineers paid considerable attention to how this happened to ensure it did so relatively easily.
For drivers, unassisted steering meant paying much more attention to the road and to steering inputs. When fast cornering had a physical consequence, you were more liable to think twice about cornering too fast.
I am glad modern cars have power steering. But I enjoy returning to old cars for the proximity they provide between man and machine.
That's our list of our favourite classic car features. Tell us yours in the comments.
You can, of course, experience all these features on our range of 20 classic cars from the 1960s to 1990s. Click on the link below to find out more.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733