I’ve always wanted to own an old car. Growing up, my dad and I would talk about buying a beater early 1970s Chevrolet Chevelle to repair and fix up ourselves. When I was older and shopping for my first car around 2009, I looked at countless ’80s Porsches, ’70s Mercedes, and unloved ’60s muscle cars before settling on a decidedly newer 2000 Ford Mustang GT. I’m glad I did because as I learned during MotorTrend’s 70th Anniversary Ultimate Car of the Year celebration, old cars will only break your heart.
Ultimate Car of the Year was supposed to be a celebration of 70 years of MotorTrend. We’d gather up the most important Car of the Year winner from each decade and evaluate them back-to-back. From the ’40s, we had the first ever Car of the Year, a slick black 1949 Cadillac Series 62 Sedanette. The ’50s were represented by a beautiful turquoise-on-white 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. For the swinging ’60s, we had none other than the GOAT: a 1968 Pontiac GTO. The ’70s were represented by a 1973 Citroen SM, the first foreign car to ever win COTY. Speaking of, from the ’80s we had a noteworthy Import Car of the Year winner, a 1988 Mazda RX-7. From the ’90s, we had a 1996 Chrysler Town & Country (representing that year’s winning Dodge Caravan), while the ’00s had a 2004 Toyota Prius. Last, but certainly not least, was a Tesla Model S representing our 2013 Car of the Year.
Staged atop an abandoned nuclear missile site high in the hills above Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, our seven immaculately-preserved Car of the Year winners sat gleaming in the sun. I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel. By the end of the day, I couldn’t hand the keys back to their very kind owners quick enough. Although I won’t lie and say that I didn’t appreciate having the GTO’s 6.6-liter V-8 burbling in front of me, or enjoy leaning into corners with the SM, the experience was marred by how poorly—by modern standards—older cars drive. Slow acceleration, mushy brakes, vague steering—how you Boomers survived being driven by your parents and your teen years behind the wheel is beyond me (more power to you, though).
That’s not to mention the multitude of mechanical and electrical gremlins we experienced throughout the day. The Bel Air, for instance, was limited to 15 mph due to a tuning issue. The Prius’ electronics, somewhat ironically, didn’t work. And, by the end of the day, all cars save for the Tesla and RX-7, had dead batteries.
Counterpoint: Old Cars Rule
Modern cars, meanwhile, just work. Their engines fire up on the first try; they burn relatively cleanly; and they make significantly more power than their predecessors. They can also be more engaging than their forefathers. Take what was probably my favorite car of the day, the GTO, for instance. Although I can find absolutely zero fault with its 350-horsepower V-8—an engine seemingly designed primarily for turning hydrocarbons into noise and bias-ply radials into smoke—its mushy drum brakes and overly-boosted power steering are woefully inadequate for a car with that sort of straight-line performance.
Now there are obviously no direct descendants of the GTO today, but I’d argue that a car like the Dodge Challenger Hellcat Red Eye are spiritual successors to the GOAT—loud, fast, childish, and powerful. The Challenger is engaging in ways that its predecessors—even upgraded with modern technology—just can’t match. It makes more than twice the power of cars like the GTO, has a smart and quick-shifting automatic transmission with double the forward gears, and, though the Challenger isn’t exactly best-in-class when it comes to braking or handling, steering is still engaging and relatively accurate, while the brakes at least have some bite to them.
Yes, modern cars are bigger and heavier, and for better or worse, more technologically advanced than their forebearers, they’re not only more engaging than old cars, but they work reliably, too. I get the appeal of old cars, but I’m convinced they’re only going to break your heart.