The Old Car Experience

If you’ve never driven an old car as opposed to a used car, you have probably never experienced certain things that were once part of the experience of driving a car.

Like turning on the AC—assuming the car had AC. Many did not before AC became a given thing in the ’90s. You could feel the engine stagger under the load. It was as if someone had just hooked up a heavy trailer to the bumper, and you were trying to climb a hill. In a way, this is just what had happened.

In old cars (the cars made before the ’90s and especially before the ’80s), most engines weren’t powerful, while AC compressors were very demanding. If you looked under the hood of a circa ’70s-era American car that had AC, you’d see a compressor almost as big as the engine. And it took a large chunk of the horsepower made by the engine to turn it. So when you turned the AC on, you felt it—not the cold breeze, but the drag on the engine.

You could also see the temperature gauge headed toward the hot side. Cars in those days often had marginal cooling systems, and that’s assuming your car had a temperature gauge. Most didn’t.

They had a light, though, which came on when the car was already overheated.

But the good thing is those old car AC systems all used Freon, and that stuff has never been equaled in terms of its ability to cool you. A General Motors Harrison AC system from the ’70s was fully capable of turning the interior of a car into a meat locker. If you weren’t there, you’d never know what cold once meant.

Or skids.

Old cars had brakes. They did not have anti-lock brakes. Which meant they’d lock up if you stood on the brakes. And that meant a skid.

But this wasn’t necessarily bad.

Today, in high-performance driving schools, they often rig the ABS-equipped cars they use with an Off switch, teaching the student the things you can do in a car with brakes that can be locked up like dramatic directional changes. Lock ’em up, crank the wheel hard over, and then let ’em up. Shazam! You’re headed back the way you came.

That was fun!

It was less fun, of course, if you skidded into something, like the car ahead, that suddenly braked, leaving you not enough time to brake without skidding. But that was chastening and educational. It taught people to leave enough room to brake and not to expect the car to save them from the consequences of their poor driving, including tailgating, of which there is more today than there was yesterday.

Arguably because of ABS. Skids are fewer, but driving skills and courtesy are lower. It’s also a lot less fun.

And connected.

I took my ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am out for a drive yesterday. Even though it is an older car, it is a connected car in ways that no new car will ever be.

The first thing you do before you turn the key is push the gas pedal down to the floor and then let it up. This sets the choke, a kind of air valve on top of the carburetor that restricts airflow when the engine is cold, to richen up the air-fuel mixture so that the engine will start. You can feel the process because your foot is connected to the carburetor via the pedal, which is connected to a cable, which pulls on the throttle arm of the carburetor, triggering the choke spritzing some fuel into the carb’s throat.

New cars are disconnected. Your foot is connected to nothing other than the pedal. It sends a signal to a computer, which then sends a signal to the engine. And instead of turning a key and holding it turned until the engine starts, you push a button in a modern car that sends electronic signals to the starter motor.

Speaking of keys—remember when you unlocked the doors with a key rather than a push?

Sometimes, the door locks would freeze literally. A little water would get in them. Then it got cold. Then you were locked out since an old car’s locked door won’t open no matter how many times you press the key.

A little isopropyl alcohol spritzed inside the lock would usually unlock the frozen lock. And there was the upside of getting a new key cut at any hardware store for $5 or so, which you can still do today, as opposed to going to a dealer and paying many times that sum for a fob reprogramming thereof.

Different times, different problems!

Were things better then or worse, now? Probably some of both. Nostalgia can be a one-way street.

But the future isn’t always an improvement, either.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Not an NMA Member yet?

Join today and get these great benefits!

Leave a Comment