There is much to be said about driving a slow car, fast—even a slow-by-today’s-standards car. I have more fun in the Orange Barchetta, my 1976 Trans-Am, than I have in the new performance cars I get to test drive, many of which have twice or even three times the performance capability.
The reason—their capability is cosseted.
The tires only slip so much before the traction nanny cuts throttle or applies brakes, keeping you from getting too sideways.
Stability control corrects your line.
Anyone can run a perfect quarter-mile because of something called “launch control”—an electronic killjoy which takes the art of the thing entirely out of the thing. The computer manages everything and holds the engine at just the right RPM, shifts at precisely the right moment. All you do is push a button and press the gas pedal to the floor.
I remember trying out the high-speed elevators in the old WTC towers in New York City. They’d vault you up 50 stories in about the time it took to read this sentence. Extremely fast and not nearly as fun as riding a home-built zip line from a tree down to the pond.
You are along for the ride as much as your passengers, and it gets boring because it’s all so tediously predictable. The drive is the same thing every time—lots of speed and no surprises. No feeling of driving accomplishment because anyone can push a button and stand on the gas.
Would anyone remember the Red Baron if anyone could have been the Red Baron?
My Trans-Am (which is lightly modified) has about half the horsepower of something like a new Corvette, but it feels and sounds as though it has twice as much. The humongous carbureted V8 (7.5 liters) doesn’t have a smooth idle. It lopes threateningly. The car shakes. When it’s cold out, you can see the V8’s heart beating through the twin-splitter dual exhaust in syncopated, slow-motion Gatling gun puffs of vapor. Left, then right—in tune with the flat tappet camshaft’s highly irregular lobe profile.
New performance cars idle smoothly, like a Camry, even the ones with 800 horsepower engines, like the Dodge Hellcat.
They aren’t nearly as scary, despite being much faster.
Anyone can drive them fast without loss of control, which is almost like giving every kid a ribbon no matter who won the game.
My car wards off the fearful. It is not for everyone as performance cars used to be.
An evil hiss, a vacuum sucking sound, complements the lopey idle. This is the sound of the engine breathing through its carburetor, a politically incorrect fuel-mixing device no new cars have had since the 1980s, the year carburetors were supplanted by fuel-injection, which made them more efficient as well as more docile.
So anyone could drive them.
The idle further smoothed out, aided by the new roller-profile camshafts that do not have the wildly elliptical profiles of the flat-tappet cam that actuates the Barchetta’s valvetrain in erratic concatenations of combustion.
The Barchetta’s gas pedal is also a steering pedal. When you floor it, the rear wheels go left, then right, and the car goes sideways or all the way around unless you back off the gas just enough to let the tires regain traction, which you learned to feel and modulate by applying more (or less) throttle.
This is what “traction control” used to mean.
And not just anyone could do it.
On the 1-2 upshift, the tires break loose again, leaving smears of black on the road. Not so much because of overwhelming horsepower but because of the absence of rubber. The TA’s tires are proportionately inadequate to its horsepower. New performance cars have more grip because they have 18, 19, and even 20-inch tires that are also several inches wider than the tires that fit on my car’s 15×7 inch wheels. But less grip makes my car seem a lot more powerful than it actually is because the power it does have is much less under control.
This is fun, as well as chastening.
You learn to respect the car’s lower limits because if you don’t, the car will make sure you do. There is also the sense of mastery that comes with competently driving a car that has limits closer to your limits. New performance cars have limits so high that unless you are at the semi-pro level in terms of your limits, you will never come close to exploring the limits of the car.
This means you can drive the car very fast, but without much challenge.
Much less fun too— you drive in the manner of a ride at the amusement park vs. amusing yourself. On a roller coaster, you can scream and throw your hands up in the air. Or you can close your eyes and take a little nap. It doesn’t matter because the ride will take you there in one piece.
In the Orange Barchetta, it’s up to you to keep it in one piece.
And that’s my idea of a fun drive.