Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Do Old Cars Have More Soul?

This topic is related to my recent post about the various forms of music playback that I experienced and/or enjoyed over the years. Just like how I care more about the listening experience that vinyl records offer than their actual age, I find old cars appealing because of the driving experience offered by cars produced during a certain time period. It just so happens that the vehicles I prefer are old and the history of the antique object is an added bonus. This applies to my bikes, too.

Video by Hooniverse.  Skip to 1:15 if you're short on time

Anyway, I sent the message below to Hot Rod Magazine after reading a blog post by them that contained the video above.  This was last year so I hadn't yet turned eighteen to be able to comment directly to their blog.  There is something like a disclaimer after the end of this message.

I just read the "Do old cars have more soul" and watched the video and my answer is, of course, yes. I apologize in advance for this long message.

I believe classics have more soul for all the reasons he mentioned in the video, such as there being the noise, rumble, and the need to do work to make the car work for you. These classic cars load up all of your senses, something that newer cars don't do. There's a certain noise, smell, vibration, and feel for everything that isn't the same (or just isn't there) in new cars. It isn’t just oldness that makes them good in this way; it’s just the way they are. These cars demand something from you. People may complain that old cars are temperamental in weather and whatnot, but that makes them more lifelike. You don't wanna get up and go on a cold morning? Welp, neither does your car. The whole experience makes you more connected with the car. You know what noises are okay to hear and what noises you shouldn't hear. You also get feedback during your drive. All of the things that the road does to your car are amplified to your senses, rather than dulled or cancelled out. Your engine tells you how hard you're pushing it, and you can know your speed just by the wind noise and pitch of the engine. Ease of modification is another: you don't need a degree in electrical engineering and computer science to take apart a classic. Oh, and classic cars also don't do things for you like parallel park, take phone calls, and tell you where you're going. They certainly are not forgiving if you make a mistake.

As an example, I drive a well-cared for '99 Mercury Sable wagon which is of course NOT AT ALL a classic. My dad bought it new and gave it to me more than a year ago. However, compared to my friend's '12 Taurus, the same car with a 13 year technological gap, the difference like night and day. Fully loaded with options, I have less than a base model new Taurus (plus leather seats). My sable is powered by the optional 3.0L 24-valve V6 that makes just enough to power for this wagon, so my eyes are on the tach more often than the speedo. I know exactly what rpm it should read at which speed and I modulate the gas pedal through gear shifts to get more acceleration without pushing it too hard. I can hear the engine very clearly through the small amount of insulation provided. All of the little bumps (or big, because I live in Michigan) are felt directly in my hands and elbows and the vibration of the engine is felt through the pedals and steering wheel. People behind me must think I'm strange, weaving between holes in the road but what they don't realize is for each dull thump they feel in their car, I feel a crash and wonder if my car will hold up. Of course it will; it just isn't happy. The car also feels, sounds, and works differently on winter mornings, unlike the new cars. Winter is fun. My ABS broke [a few years ago] so I had lots of fun flinging it in the snow around corners and such with bald tires, learning the limits of my car's control. If my car understeers, I know that if I hold the hand release and kick the parking brake, it'll go where I want it to. I haven't lost control on a snowy road yet because I know my limits but if by chance I am thrown out of balance, I have some knowledge that may help with the situation.  New car owners wouldn't think about this because traction control takes care of small situations like this.

Again, I know I don't drive a classic, but from what I've read (mostly from this magazine), seen, and experienced, I know that older cars have much more soul than new cars. When I grow up, the newest car I'll regularly drive is my Sable wagon. This is not really for the sake of operating an old vehicle, which is still cool, but more for the unique driving experience that these sort of machines provide. By the way, when my friends ask me what is so good about old cars, my answer is along these lines.

'66 Ford F-100 with a 460 c.i. V8 dropped in, found at a car show, essentially my dream car

Besides the more lifelike operating characteristics of old cars, I do find the technology and designs of those times to be more suited to my tastes. I like big, pushrod V8 engines that offer a tremendously fat torque band that starts just above idle. I like bench seats and column shifters if a car has an automatic transmission although I do prefer manual. Conversely, I’m not so much a fan of tiny engines that must scream past 4,000 rpm to generate any sort of usable torque and I think console shifters for automatics take up otherwise useful space. I also like being surrounded by large windows when I drive. New cars look thick from the outside because of a high belt line. The back seat area of a new Taurus feels like a cave because the door goes up to my shoulder. In comparison, my old Sable is like a greenhouse. The windows are tall and the pillars aren’t tremendously thick. Visibility is great, which allows me to be more connected to the environment I am driving through.

Ah, daylight!

However, this is not to say that the rather undesirable driving experience of most new cars is entirely bad. Not only do I applaud engineers and others involved for the advances in technology, but this reality is unavoidable even for the most driver-oriented sports cars because of all sorts of safety regulations, emissions laws, etc. That’s not to mention that people expect different things from their cars now than they did fifty years ago. The entire car culture has changed; rather, culture as a whole has changed and vehicles are merely adapting to it. While I myself would prefer not to buy a new car, I’m not losing my faith in humanity (or however one might say it) just because people expect their cars to do more things for them. It's just that I'd be a bit concerned when those "helpers" start to fail after a certain age.  I’m also not against other people owning autonomous cars in the future because that just means the chance that other gearheads or I could get in an accident due to someone else’s error would be reduced.