Driving an old car in modern traffic is a unique experience, one that can be fraught with anxiety.
Does the person beside me in their enormous SUV actually see me, or am I swallowed by their blind spot? Is my cooling system strong enough to handle this endless bumper-to-bumper? Is my fuel gauge accurate or more of a “suggestion?”
Doing it on a regular basis is something else entirely and requires not just faith in the collective driving ability and attention spans of the people around you, but also a willingness to put in the maintenance required to keep your vehicle running like a top, as well as the endurance to deal with the inevitable hassles of classic car ownership. It’s rewarding, it’s trying, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I get behind the wheel of my classic every chance I get, and here’s a taste of what it’s like to regularly navigate the roads of today in yesterday’s ride.
People Talk to You All the Time
Park at a gas station, have a conversation. Slide into a spot at the mall, time for a talk. Get pulled over because your “third brake light is broken,” and it’s a teachable moment for younger members of law enforcement. Although the lane-changing habits of the people around you might not reflect it, driving a classic sports car makes you hyper-visible against the sea of grey, silver, and white commuter-mobiles that rule the streets, which means you’ll be approached by a wide variety of people who just want to talk to you about your vehicle.
I personally feel it’s the duty of anyone who owns an old car to be gracious and accommodating, at least to the degree allowed by your schedule, when dealing with these kinds of conversations. For every individual who wants to tell me that they “had one just like it,” (which inevitably ends up being a newer model, or something completely unrelated), there’s a 6-year-old kid who wants to sit inside, or a younger person interested in buying their first antique who has questions they want to ask you. Without fresh blood and good will, the hobby dies and these cars disappear, so it’s up to owners to act as ambassadors for their passion.
It’s Not Comfortable, But It’s Not Torture
My car doesn’t have air conditioning, which is fairly common for many classics (especially imports). It also has a design flaw whereby rolling down the side windows creates a vortex that sucks exhaust gases from the rear of the car in through the hatch, choking you out with a mixture of carbon monoxide and gasoline vapor.
Choosing whether to bake or choke on a hot summer day is only one of the ways my car’s comfort level differs from that of a modern ride. It’s also fairly loud on the highway thanks to its low-restriction exhaust and header, and a bit noisy because it’s riding on polyurethane suspension bushings. It also lacks power steering, which can beat you up when parking. Still, the seats and seating position are decent, and the ride can be softened by my adjustable shocks (although in truth it drives smoother in its stiffer settings). It’s not a torture chamber, but you definitely don’t feel as refreshed when you arrive at your destination after five hours behind the wheel as you would in practically any vehicle built after the year 2000.
You’re Scared Every Time You Park
I worry about two things when I park: theft and damage. The first because any old car is laughably easy to steal, although its manual transmission might give pause to younger thieves unused to this strange mechanical voodoo. The second is due to the lack of front and rear bumpers on my car, which means I rarely street park since I’m all too aware of the bump-and-nudge parallel procedures used by too many city dwellers. This means I have to be strategic in choosing a spot to leave the car, seeking out well-lit, protected, and patrolled berths whenever I can.
One evening, my low-beam headlights just stopped working. Two weeks later, they were back again. I’ve had a water pump fail with no warning, the cooling fans refuse to turn on, a stainless steel clutch hose burst, and a leaking rad hose spike engine temps, all over the course of a single summer. Some of these parts were brand new and recently installed, others were of uncertain provenance, but the general lesson is you have to expect the unexpected, keep a set of tools in the vehicle, and makes sure your CAA/AAA membership is up to date.
Crash Safety is Always in the Back of Your Mind
There’s no question in my mind that I will come out on the worst side of any collision in my classic. The thin steel, vestigial crash protection, and lightweight design of my car guarantee that anyone caught inside of it in a serious accident is going to be injured or killed. I can’t say that I actively think about this on a daily basis, but it’s always lurking in the back of my mind when I’m out on the road, and it has caused me to change my driving habits to be considerably more defensive than they would normally be when piloting a modern vehicle.