Don’t get me wrong: I love new cars. Over the years, I’ve been asked many times which is best car I’ve ever driven, and my answer has always been: “The next one.” The auto industry’s ability to recreate, reinvent, and reimagine the automobile, while working within the most exacting regulatory framework applied to any mainstream consumer product, has never failed to fascinate me.
But if you want to make a visceral connection with the art of driving, to truly experience the interface between human and machine, you need to get behind the wheel of an old car. An old car will teach you things you can never learn behind the wheel of a modern car. There are no electronic laminae between you and the hardware, tweaking and taming the laws of physics. An old car is elementally mechanical; Archimedes meets Isaac Newton.
Of course, modern cars like a Porsche 911 GT2 RS or a McLaren Senna are seriously involving to drive, especially when you start to tease the edges of their prodigious performance envelopes. The electronics are still running interference, of course, but the power and the grip these cars have, the sheer speed they can carry through any corner, demands your absolute attention. And, like car designers who’ve learned to sketch on computers, we’ve become digitally calibrated drivers; we can sense the modern car’s neural network in action and work with it.
Counterpoint: Old Cars Suck
But just as car designers still love the analog experience of sketching with pencil and paper, the analog driving experience of an old car is equally involving, and at a fraction of the speeds a modern supercar needs to capture your attention. James Hunt well understood this. Yes, that James Hunt. The 1976 Formula 1 world champion. Girl on each arm, cigarette in one hand, bottle of champagne in the other. ‘Sex, the Breakfast of Champions’ badge sewn on his race suit.
When Hunt went broke in the early 1980s, his Mercedes 450SEL 6.9 was often up on blocks in the driveway, as he couldn’t afford to run it. Instead, he drove an Austin A35 van, a pint-sized panel truck you could just about park in the bed of an F250.
The little Austin had all of 34hp—on a good day—but Hunt reckoned its rear-wheel drive, skinny tires and light back end made it more fun at real-world road speeds than many modern cars. One of his party tricks was to overtake Ferraris through a traffic circle near his London home, the A35’s late night, wet road, maximum momentum drifting chops enhanced by its bald rear tires.
Hunt loved the car, and he still owned it when he died in 1993. Take it from James: Old cars rule.