When did cars stop getting old? I used to hold the view that anything with plastic bumpers was a modern, but that viewpoint is now hopelessly out of date. Maybe it’s an age thing, but all of a sudden time seems to have shifted abruptly and disrupted all my motoring reference points.
I was musing over a high-performance hatchback recently. With 227 bhp and four-wheel-drive, it will hit sixty miles per hour in under six seconds. It’s got ABS brakes, an airbag, air conditioning and a catalytic converter. It’s economical, reliable and practical. It’s also a quarter of a century old; the Ford Escort Cosworth. This train of thought was further extended when encountering a Ferrari F40 a few weeks ago. How can this missile be 30 years old? Kevlar composite bodywork aside, there’s actually very little futuristic about it and the chassis construction didn’t break any new ground, but it still looks the part. It certainly doesn’t seem feasible that a showroom standard 2018 Golf R can match it to 60 mph. Meanwhile, the Escort Cosworth driver would still be waiting for the turbo to wind up.
The problem is not so much that time moves on, as I will have to eventually come to terms with that for a variety of reasons. It’s more to do with the shifting definition of the classic car experience. Drive a typical saloon from the mid 1970s, and you’ll be fully aware that you’re in an old car. Starting it will involve pulling the choke out, and you’ll still need to let the engine warm to guarantee a smooth getaway. The controls will be heavier than your modern daily, the brakes will need a shove, and although it will stop well enough you need to plan ahead a little. The unassisted steering will probably be quite slow from lock to lock in order to keep the weight manageable. It may have a steering box rather than rack and pinion, and then you’ll really notice the difference. The ventilation may be marginal, but you’ll crank open the quarterlight to let some air in. Overall, it’ll play the part of a car quite competently, but you’ll always be aware that you’re having to put some thought and effort into driving it. That’s a good thing though – it’s the classic car experience – and that’s what sets it apart from the surrounding traffic. Even the casual pedestrian will recognise that you are driving something from another era.
Plastic bumpers galore.
Now step forward a decade and put yourself in the equivalent from the mid 80s. Your fuel is injected and managed by a computer chip. Your steering is probably powered. Your bumpers are certainly plastic. Car development leapt forward to such an extent during this time, that describing it as an evolutionary process barely seems to cover it. Suddenly there were low drag aerodynamics applied to the mainstream, fared in door handles and no guttering, whilst under the skin there were the beginnings of true platform sharing. In terms of design, materials and production techniques, there was a purposeful step forward. Think of the C3 Audi 100, the Ford Sierra and the Saab 9000 versus the generation that came before. Step into a car from this era and it will be very familiar to the modern motorist. Ok, it won’t have integral sat nav, hill hold, adaptive cruise control, autonomous braking or touch screen controls for the radio (thankfully), but it will have effective halogen headlamps, good rust proofing and maybe electric windows. There’s a good chance of ABS brakes and maybe even an airbag if you’re in something flash, all the essentials I’d want in an all-weather daily but none of the rubbish. To my mind, car design reached its peak in the early 1990s and has gone downhill ever since. For reference, the last proper car was the BMW E36, just so you know.
More plastic bumpers.
I very rarely hand over money for a classic car publication as it’s cheaper to read them whilst standing in the supermarket, but I bought one of the weekly classic car newspapers recently as I was spending the evening marooned on my own in a frankly disappointing budget hotel. It’s stashed full of features on cars which I would categorise as “used” rather than classic, barely even meeting the agreeable continental definition of “youngtimer”. Amongst the pages there’s an MGF buyers guide, MG ZR and Volvo 940 running reports and Mazda MX-5 content. A casual flick though the classifieds reveals that amongst the usual fare is a low mileage 1992 Mk3 Golf, very original and with a fully stamped service history for £1,495. That seems fine if you want that sort of thing, but I wasn’t expecting to find it advertised there. It’s not particularly old, barely retro and definitely not ViaRETRO.
The same market that gives someone the confidence to ask £21,000 for a Morris Minor Traveller, has encouraged a very humble looking 1990 five door Vauxhall Astra with no MOT and 180,000 miles (yes, one hundred and eighty thousand) to be on for £4,000… yes, four actual grand! Having considered this trend for some time, the best (publishable) explanation I can come up with is, in somebody’s head an intergalactic mileage 1990 Astra is a desirable classic car deserving of some recognition. I wouldn’t hold out much hope of someone being a big enough glue sniffer to actually hand over that much cash for it unless they’ve made it themselves with their best crayons, but maybe it’s me who is increasingly out of touch. It is 28 years old after all, and if all you’ve ever known is integral sat nav, hill hold, adaptive cruise control, autonomous braking or touch screen controls for the radio, it probably feels positively prehistoric, or in other words, “a classic.” I’m certainly not sniffy about brands and pedigree, my Northern inverse snobbery sees to that. I’d be far more excited at spotting a Yugo than a Lambo. I know quite a lot about run of the mill cars and shockingly little about exotica, and I’m proud of that. However, I would never be talking the Yugo up into something it isn’t.
And even more plastic bumpers!
I suppose I can cope with the likes of the Escort Cosworth being 25 years old, and I can see why they’re worth good money. If anyone was daft enough to lend me one I suspect I’d report back on how competent and modern it still feels, and how quickly the tyres wear out. I can also accept that a Mk2 Astra is now a rare sight, and if (gently) rising values mean that some are saved, I can’t argue with that. Such everyday transport is part of our cultural history. I can just about believe that the Porsche 924 has now had its 42nd birthday, but that always seemed ahead of its time to me so doesn’t really count. Liking cars of this generation is more about my reluctance to embrace 21st century motoring, rather than seeking to recapture the recent past, and to me that’s a clear distinction. Admittedly, there is a little nostalgia involved, but they are generally very capable and completely usable on a daily basis. Maybe it’s an age thing, or possibly car design and my own experiences just happened to come together in some sort of perfect convergence. Perhaps the 1980s cars I grew up driving were just too competent meaning they still feel fresh today. Surely the leap forward in technical advances around then serves to dispel any thoughts that I’m just imagining it. Perhaps it is only when our choices are limited to autonomous hybrids, that the exact nature of the physical driving experience won’t be such a differentiator. Having any driving experience at all will become sought after in its own right. It’ll be a very long time before we’re writing about Mk3 Golfs here, but the only certainty is that the old certainties are less certain than ever.