By Eric Peters
Maybe you’ve been thinking about buying an older car as a way to avoid some of the hassles, expense – and Big Brother-ish – aspects of owning a new car.
These are all-too-real. Especially the Big Brother-ish stuff, which is becoming insufferable as well as all-but-unavoidable. Good luck finding a new car without at least six air bags, an Event Data Recorder (EDR) and some kind of send-and-receive “telematics” (e.g., GM’s OnStar) that can – and will – be used to narc you out to either the government or the insurance mafia.
Or the merely aggravating – saaaaaaafety systems that pre-empt your decisions or scold you for the decisions you make.
This stuff is waxing much worse as the car companies fall over each other to double-down on electronic idiot-proofing systems such as steering “assist” which countermands your steering inputs, if the car doesn’t like the way you’re steering. And Lane Departure Warning, which pecks at you with lights and buzzers if you dare to change lanes without signaling first. And – the worst of the lot – Brake Big Brother. That’s not what they call it, but ought to. It peremptorily slams on the brakes (and hits you with flashing warning lights) when the car thinks you’re not slowing down sufficiently or in sufficient time.
Older cars – especially those made before the mid-late 1990s – do not have most of these features and some have none, if you go back before the 1990s. Such cars expect you to drive them, do not “correct” your driving and cannot narc you out to the government or the insurance mafia.
To drive such a car is to be transported back to a better time, in many very real ways. Despite all the convenience of modern cars, the idiot-proofing and Big Brother-ism can be (and is) suffocating and even infuriating.
But, before you commit to buying an older car as an end-run around the not-so-great things about owning a new car, there are some things you probably ought to know about old cars, too:
More frequent maintenance –
You will need to change the oil and perform (or have performed) minor service/adjustment more often. For example, if the car has a carburetor, it will be necessary to check/adjust the choke, idle speed and clean it every so often to keep the engine running right. There will be regular tune-ups. Belts (not serpentine and self-adjusting, as is the case with most new cars) will need occasional tightening.
The upside is that most of this maintenance is pretty simple and can be competently performed by almost anyone who is mildly handy, with basic hand tools and the willingness to read a service manual and follow the instructions. It can be fun – and empowering – to take charge of your vehicle’s care, to be independent of the dealer/shop – to know you are capable of taking care of most issues that come up. As opposed to the helpless feeling that comes up when a new car just stops working and you have to take it to the dealer to deal with it.
Also, while this maintenance will be more frequent, it will usually be small potatoes as far as your wallet is concerned. Mechanical systems that need occasional adjustment – or which can often be rebuilt, by you, with inexpensive kits – as opposed to expensive electronics that cannot be be fixed by anyone and which you throw away and replace with an expensive new part.
The downside – if you aren’t handy or willing to learn – is having to find a shop/mechanic with the knowledge necessary to competently work on older cars. And having to spend the time going to and from the shop . . . waiting for them to fix your car.
But if you can turn a wrench – or learn how to turn a wrench – you’ll be free again.
And, have money again.
The “stereo” will suck –
It’s a radio, really.
One thing about new cars that it’s hard to say anything bad about is their audio systems. Some are better than others, but few suck. The least of the 2017s comes standard with six speakers and a decent digital tuner that is (usually) both Bluetooth and satellite radio-ready.
Many new cars offer surround-sound, 8-12 speakers and sound reproduction that was literally technically not possible in a car even as recently as ten or so years ago.
In the old days – this is before the early 2000s – pretty much the first thing you did after you got your new car home was take it to the stereo store the next morning. This even included “luxury” cars, which (by current standards) had vile playback equipment from the factory.
If you buy a car from those days, you will also probably be headed to your local stereo shop the next day. The upside is you can get a really good custom rig installed in whatever old car you buy, with exactly the features and capabilities you want and potentially just as good as the factory-installed stuff in a new car.
The downside is this can get very expensive. Also, you may have to upgrade the car’s electrical generating equipment (the alternator/charging system) to handle the load, if you have to have a serious system that uses serious juice.
Old cars (this is most cars made before the mid-’90s) had sealed beam headlights in generic round and square shapes. These have the virtue of being really easy to replace when they burned out – usually, just a couple of retaining/trim screws and a simple (and easy to reach) plug in the back.
And, they are inexpensive.
Even today, they generally cost about $25 each – vs. as much as several hundred dollars each for a modern car’s plastic, projector beam or High Intensity Discharge headlight assembly.
But, the illumination produced by the old sealed beam headlights – even “top of the line” halogen ones – is pitiful in comparison with the change-night-into-daytime capabilities of many new car lighting systems. You will have to drive more carefully at night – and also reduce speed because the old-timey sealed beam lights just don’t reach as far ahead and won’t give you as much time to react if, as a for-instance, Bambi steps out in front of your car.
But – as with audio systems – you can easily upgrade an older car’s lighting system to modern spec. It’s actually a neat thing, being able to choose, a la carte, the useful technical advances without having to buy into the ones that aren’t.
Which you can’t do with anything new.
You will have to drive the thing –
Modern cars are Big Brother-ish because people have become child-ish. They need help performing even basic behind the wheel competences such as backing out of parking spaces and parallel parking.
The old stuff will not help you parallel park, will not relieve you of the necessity to look behind the car before you put the car in reverse and take your foot off the brake.
It will not have Blind Spot Warming or Lane Departure buzzers.
If you follow the car ahead too closely and are not paying attention and the car ahead brakes suddenly, the old car will not pull your fat out of the fire.
While there may be cruise control, it will not be “adaptive.” You will have to keep track of your speed in relation to the traffic around you.
You must remember to pay attention.
But there will be no air bags, no seat belt buzzers to heckle you. None of your “events” will be “recorded” and the car can’t narc you out to the insurance mafia or the government.
It does exactly and only what you want it to do, unsupervised and uncontrolled.
Doesn’t it make you want to go shopping for one right now?
Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at ericpetersautos.com.
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2017 Southern Arizona News-Examiner