How old cars can improve new ones

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TThe fact that they “don’t make them like they used to” is definitely a good thing. I had an unexpected time in old cars recently and while they were charming and brimming with nostalgia, I came away reassured that modern machines are infinitely better.

A recent article in the magazine about Best New v Used Deals also got me thinking. Usually when I debate these things with friends in bars, I will fiercely argue that the option I use is the smarter choice because you will often get more (and usually a better) car for your money.

But when it came to putting the story together and I had all the facts (and costs) in front of me, I found myself leaning into the new options. It boiled down to a simple logic: identically, everything that is built today is better than what was built yesterday.

Peter Robinson, the world’s greatest automotive journalist, would also pick the new car every time. Peter is a shameless modernist, which is surprising considering he has driven Ferraris F40s, Porsche GT1s and McLaren F1s, but he doesn’t want the rose-tinted glasses so much that he crushes them under his heel.

He once wrote “old cars are garbage” on this same site and when we asked him to name his top 10 Ferraris, the top three were all from the modern era: F12, 458 and LaFerrari.

The F40 ranked ninth.

And yet… as I drove home in my modern car with its sophisticated infotainment system and unwavering reliability, something crept in the background. After spending much of the day in a VC Brock Commodore, and the previous week driving a Citroën 2CV, I realized that I was starting to feel a bit stuck.

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Why is the vision of modern machines so poor compared to the cars of yesteryear? And why don’t the management gossip in the same way? And why aren’t the seats so comfortable? And why could I suddenly feel every bump and expansion joint instead of floating with a relaxed gait?

I know why, of course, but instead of finding comfort in my modern crash rate, I felt irrationally upset that we no longer had retractable headlights.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while we have gained a lot with modern cars, we have also lost something along the way.

Cars today may be safer, faster, more connected and more powerful, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better to drive.

They are certainly not that pleasing to the eye. Modern safety regulations are mostly to blame here, but there’s no denying that much of today’s metal is bigger, heavier, and inherently uglier. Do not believe me ? Compare BMW’s current range with its range from the 80s and 90s …

Center console HDT VC Brock Commodore

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So what is the solution ? Well, obviously you could buy a resto-mod like a Singer 911 or an Alfaholics GTA-R. There are many companies that outfit old cars with modern parts, which is a bit like buying a 400 year old house with plumbing that actually works.

I realize, of course, that this is not really an option. Resto-mods are horribly expensive.

So here is an idea. Instead of just looking ahead, what if today’s manufacturers stop for a moment to look back. Instead of an old car with modern bits, imagine a modern car with old bits. It would be an inverted resto-mod.

It sounds terrible at first, but think about it. Imagine ticking off a “classic pack” on a Toyota Corolla that added smaller wheels with chubby sidewalls, plush suspension and pillow-top seats.

HDT VC Commodore center console

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Or buy a modern BMW 850i with the hydraulic steering, analog instrument cluster and relatively smooth ride of an E31?

What if you could convince BMW or Ferrari to equip their current models with flagship engines of yesteryear? Imagine sliding into an F8 Tributo and finding a shimmering 355 shifter in the middle? Or start an M2 competition and hear the grater reminiscent of an S54 inline six from an E46 M3 CSL?

All of these cars would be slower, have less body control, and objectively lose to tougher, sharper and faster rivals. But in my eyes, they would also be better. Often, the pursuit of progress prevents us from realizing that in some areas we have already almost succeeded.


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