There are many ways to describe the experience of owning and driving an old car. If you're like me and you're on your 26th year of owning a now 50-year-old automobile, there's a myriad stories to be told, some enjoyable and some outright awful.
Among those stories, the word ‘vulnerable’ is bound to pop up, because it is evident that with today's commercially available technology, my 1968 Volkswagen Type 3 Fastback is decades behind. Not that it makes the experience of driving it any less, but it certainly makes it different. Here are five things to keep in mind if you've recently jumped into owning and driving an old car.
1) No anti-lock braking system (ABS). The first production versions of ABS weren’t available until 1978; a full 10 years after my car rolled off the assembly line. That means that in an emergency braking situation, my wheels are more likely to lock up, without the ability to steer the car away from trouble. This doesn’t mean my brake systems are unsafe, but it does mean that safety margins are way below what modern cars provide.
Even though it’s a light car, with only the power output of roughly 40 horses, I still have to be mindful of how I step on the brakes. Driving in our country is challenging stuff, and the last thing you want to deal with is a lock-up as you try to avoid that fast-food delivery bike darting in from the side street. So I always drive neat, with decent speed and with the car’s weight balanced, so that if I do need to step on the brakes, I have time to apply gradual pressure so that a lock-up doesn’t happen.
2) No power steering. Pawis steering is more like it. This isn’t really much of a problem the moment the wheels start rolling, but I always keep in mind that my reaction input when avoiding obstacles (see number 1) isn’t always equal to the steering output because of the relatively higher effort required to turn the wheels. Shuffling between a modern car and my old car on an almost daily basis really magnifies this effect, so it’s something both your mind and body have to be conscious about.
3) No airbags. Nada. Zilch. In the event of a collision, all you can rely on is a standard three-point belt to keep your noggin in check. Having no airbags means I’m very careful not to get into an accident, knowing that if I do, my seatbelts might not be enough to keep parts of me pain-free. With heavier and faster vehicles on the road becoming the norm in today’s driving conditions, my sardine can of a car won’t likely come out of a collision unscathed—just imagine what that could do to me. Add the fact that my car’s interior has exposed steel areas, and well...ouch. So I always keep alert and drive with a steady rhythm on the road, consciously avoiding any mishaps.
4) No power windows. This isn’t really much of a big deal as long as you’re taking care of your window channels and riser mechanisms, ensuring that your glass rolls up and down easily. There are a couple of instances though when one is required to lean and reach over to the passenger side window. Like when saying hello to a friend who happens to be on the right side of the car, or having to deal with the oddly and inconsiderately placed guard booth. There’s not much you can do about it except to suck it up and accept the fact that you are of the old guard, keeping the art of the lean-and-reach alive for future generations to, um, laugh about.
5) Spare parts to-go. Modern car drivers only think about spare parts when their preventive maintenance schedule comes up on their calendars. With an old car, it’s more common to have spare parts in the trunk, neatly hidden away in a box. Old car drivers go out on the road accepting the fact that a breakdown is a real possibility, so we pack things like fan belts, fuel pumps, fuel hoses, spark plugs, condensers, contact points and even distributors. If there’s anything that the Boy Scouts and MacGyver have taught us, it’s that one always has to be prepared.
Owning and driving an old car is a marvelous thing. You are treated to the sights, sounds, and vibrations of a bygone era, all while trying to navigate today's modern motoring mess. It is a joy brought about by a simplicity and a feeling of direct involvement with your car. As much as I enjoy the convenience, speed and luxury of modern rides, I will happily chug along to the clinks and clangs of my 50-year-old treasure. At the end of the day, we all just want to enjoy the ride.
Happy motoring and honk if you see me!