Classic Car Pros… and Cons

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It’s fun to own a “classic” (read, pre-modern) car. It can also be a hassle. Before you dive in, it’s a good idea to know what you’re in for, both good – and bad.'67 Riviera pic

The good:

Pre-modern cars have personality; they’re interesting – something homogenized, same-same modern cars aren’t. Cars built in the ’70s and before were designed largely the way designers – rather than government bureaucrats – wanted them designed. Hence the wild fins, the jutting angles, the instantly recognizable differences between say a Chevy and a Ford (today, you tell them apart by the shape of the grille). Even such mundane-today things as steering wheels were distinctive to each brand/model back in the day, because back in the day there was no air bag mandate – and so, no fat blob of plastic in the center of the wheel, as today. If you have a classic car, you possess a piece of industrial art, a relic from a different time that’s more than just a two-dimensional photo or print.'70 Superbird pic

Pre-modern cars also have meaningfully different operating characteristics. Functional diversity was much greater when a Chevy had a Chevy engine (designed and built by Chevrolet) and a Pontiac (RIP) had a Pontiac-designed and built engine. Which differed greatly from a Ford small block. Mopars starters had a unique sound when you keyed the ignition; Porsches and VWs (air-cooled, back then) could be identified by ear long before you actually saw the car. It’s an experience to drive these relics; even to just see them. Which accounts for the affection so many feel for them – a phenomenon that’s pretty much died off for modern cars, which are for the most part, appliances to be used for a period of time, then thrown away.'67 L88 engine

Driving a pre-modern car also involves much more actual driving. You are much more an active participant than a passive lump along for the ride.

In a high-powered pre-modern muscle car, for instance, the rear end will fishtail all over the road if you punch it when the light goes green. You must learn to modulate the throttle; find that balance between traction and acceleration.

It is easy to lose control of the thing if you’re not skilled – which is actually part of the fun.

While modern performance cars are much more powerful – and quicker/faster – than almost any ’60s or ’70s muscle car was, the experience in the modern car is anesthetized by all the electronic assists, from ABS to “launch control.” The element of driver skill has largely been removed from the equation. Almost anyone can put a new Corvette’s gear selector into D, floor the gas pedal and run a 12 second quarter mile. Very few people could drive a ’68 L-88 427 at all, let alone full-tilt down the quarter-mile.Super Bee slide

Pre-modern cars are also comparatively simple. While in some cases there may be vacuum hoses to deal with, the wiring is minimal and of course there will be no computer at all. Working on these cars is about turning wrenches, not parsing “trouble codes.” Even fairly big jobs such as removing/rebuilding the engine is a walk in the park compared with attempting the same job in a modern car. And smaller jobs such as brake work are vastly simpler, easier to do – and (typically) a lot less expensive, because there are fewer parts involved and no electronics at all. A “hands on” person can learn to do almost all routine service (and graduate to more involved jobs) themselves, which is empowering as well as fun.girl working on engine pic

Finally, most pre-modern cars actually are “investments.” Due to their collectibility (and the fact that no one’s making more of them) whatever you buy will probably be worth at least what you paid for it – and usually, more – as the years roll by. This helps justify buying the thing to begin with – and also eliminates much of the risk. If you get tired of it, if you decide it’s not for you – you can sell and recover most if not all (and then some) of the money you spent.

The bad: 

Pre-modern cars are… pre-modern. If you yourself are not – and don’t have personal experience driving pre-modern cars – it may come as a shock how finicky and maintenance-intensive they can be. Do you know how to set a choke? Can you deal with a part-throttle stumble caused by a sticky power valve? How about leaks? Be prepared for those, if you buy a pre-modern car with a sunroof (or T-tops). Generally, the brakes are marginal. You will have to adjust by keeping your speed down or by leaving yourself plenty of space (and time) to stop. Pre-modern cars can be handful to keep under control in the curves, too. Minor errors of input (a too-hard stab at the brakes; a bit of oversteering) can easily unsettle one. And – remember – there are no eNannies to safety net you out of trouble.McQueen burnout

Oil and filter changes, ignition timing (and carburetor) adjustments must be done much more often. This involves both money and time. If you can’t keep up with it, expect the car to run badly and deteriorate more rapidly. If you have to turn to someone else to maintain the car, you will need to find someone who knows how to wrench on old cars – which is harder than it sounds given that carburetors and points have been out of circulation for 30 years-plus and many mechanics have never touched either. Parts can be hard to find, too – especially if you go for an orphaned model (like my Pontiac) whose parent company no longer exists. It is a very good idea to talk with owners of whatever make/model it is you’re thinking about before you become an owner. Ask them about parts availability – and about weaknesses/problems that particular car may have. Just as an aside, there is a weird old motorcycle I have thought about buying off and on. One reason I haven’t is that its rotary engine  (yup!) has a very special – and very expensive (and almost impossible to find) spark plug. Which you kind of need for the thing to run

You will need specialty insurance coverage, too. Which will often have “limited use” provisions – and may require the vehicle be kept stored indoors, in a secure garage.

Bottom line: Buying – and owning – a pre-modern car is not unlike buying – and owning – a specialty-breed dog that has, uhhm, unusual needs. It can be very rewarding. But it’s rarely cheap  – and comes with its own set of challenges.

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29 COMMENTS

  1. As I was finishing up my ’68 Cutlass S this summer, I had to special order several parts for the 350. My brother kept joking that I would’ve finished it 3 months earlier if I would’ve dropped a Chevy small block in it instead of the original Olds powerplant.

    Since I finished the car, she is simply a pleasure to drive, and a big part of the experience is the simplicity of the car. There is one single switch in the interior for the heater fan setting. The only knobs are for the radio, the wipers, and the headlights. The only forward gears are “L” and “D”.

    People appreciate the old girl. I get all kinds of waves from total strangers. Anytime I fill her up, somebody walks up and starts a conversation.

    I have also found some old time mechanics who will almost work on her for free just because they haven’t set points or used shims for a front end alignment in decades.

    I can’t wait to hit the local cruise-ins when it warms up. 90% of the vintage cars around here are Ford or Chevy, especially Mustangs, Camaros, and Chevelles. A little variety will do them some good.

    • Great car, Rick!

      The Olds V-8 (as you probably already know) shares some similarities (though not parts) with the Pontiac V-8. Olds, like Pontiac, didn’t make “big blocks” (or “small blocks”) but altered displacement of the same basic design via bore and stroke. A 326 Pontiac is hard to tell apart – at a glance – from a 455 Pontiac. And a 350 Olds is not much different – externally/by outward appearance from a 455 Olds.

      Both Olds and Pontiac V-8s were admired (rightly) for their generous torque and the worked really well in heavy cars with automatics.

      PS (and as you, being an Olds guy, surely know): The much-maligned 403 Olds of the mid-late ’70s is making a comeback in classic car circles. The 403 is pretty much a 350 with an overbore (same stroke as the 350), similar to the way a 455 Pontiac is a punched out 428, with the same stroke!

      • The 403 is ok for a stocker that runs on 87 octane but doesn’t make a good performance motor.
        Windowed mains make the bottom end inherently weak and not suitable for high rpm use. Not supposed to take them more than .040 over on the bore (siamesed cylinders) and they have a reputation for poor head gasket sealing.
        Oh yeah, better not skimp on the cooling system either….
        Guess you could add me to the list of those that think the 403 Olds is pretty much a boat anchor. Pontiac 400 > Olds 403 any day of the week.

  2. I got into VWs in high school (in the 80’s) and have been driving the same bug ever since. I know the car from bumper to bumper, rebuilt the engine, restored and rewired it.
    I can tell if something is not right by ear. Now that gas is down it only costs 15 bucks to fill up on gas. My bug may be a go-cart by todays standards but I built it and can fix it forever on the hoard of parts I have accumulated. On a side note I also got into collecting split window busses in the 90’s when they could be had for 200-500$ , now that same 200$ bus will fetch 10-20,000$. I’ve sold a few and I have 4 left, they seem to be good investments.

      • I have a ’74 Super that I have to spend some time on. At the moment it is getting gas, and turning over, but there is a gremlin in there that is keeping it from firing. Just gotta find the time to get out there and take care of business.

        • Hi Jim,

          Yup – been there/done that (many times)!

          In your ’74’s case, the issue should be easy to isolate. Are you getting any spark at the plugs?

          It’s not necessary to remove them to find out; find a spare, pull each plug wire – one at a time! – insert the spare plug, ground the electrode end on the engine/frame (cast iron, not alloy), crank the engine and see how the spark looks. Oh, yeah. Wear rubber gloves for this or you may get shocked!

          If it’s strong and bright blue at each of the engine’s cylinders, your issue is probably something other than ignition. First thing I’d check in that case (assuming you’re sure there’s fuel in the carburetor and the fuel pump is flowing fuel) would be initial ignition timing. It’s possible the timing’s way off, which could and often does make a car very hard to start, if it will start at all. You can “redneck check” this by loosening the clamp at the base of the distributor that holds it in place just enough so you can rotate the distributor by hand. Now have someone crank the engine while you turn the distributor – very gradually and not too much – in one direction and then the other. It may try to fire as you do this, which suggests the timing was off and you got it within spitting distance by rotating the distributor. Figure out which direction of rotation helped it to almost-fire (or actually fire) and – if you can get it running – clamp it down at that point, then use a timing light to get it where it needs to be, per the factory specifications.

          If the spark is weak/yellow, things to check include the coil, the plug wires and the distributor. I’d also check the plugs themselves and replace with new if questionable.

  3. If autos are judged by the qualities that make for enjoyable, reliable, performance, the “golden age” is now. It’s truly amazing, that with all the detrimental mandates, the vehicles are as varied as they are – from a Prius to a Hellcat.

  4. I’m sure I’m not alone in this but I’ve decided I really don’t like gizmos and gadgets. Don’t want any more computers in my rigs. Electronic ignition is enough. EFI is nice but ugly and finicky. Yes, finicky. If my carb clogs up in the middle of the Mojave I can clean it beside the trail and go on, if the EFI dies I probably would too!

    OHC and rubber band drives suck. Flatheads are fun and OHV is efficient enough, and bending valves only happens after real abuse.

    I will never buy another new car.

    Most of my fun stuff centers around 1949, practical, comfy, low maint and practical. Flat windshields, since it’s too hard to get older windshields. I learned that the last time a damned farm truck smashed the windshield in my Allante, and after checking price on a 61 MB diesel windshield.

    The jeeps, the F1’s, the Jag saloon all are pleasant and practical. None have seat belts or air bags. Stay out of cloverrific city traffic and 65 year old drum brakes work great.

    Life is just better in an oldie. Cooler too. And you don’t need to go 150 to enjoy it, a well maintained buggy spring and drum brake setup will work surprisingly well at 70 (though wind noise gets old)

  5. The maintenance problem is about the only reason I don’t own a GMC RV, an amazing vehicle that was killed off because the accountants at GM decided it wasn’t profitable enough. There are lots of them around, usually fairly inexpensive too, but owning one isn’t for the guy who doesn’t have a lot of time to maintain one.

    I just hope that in a few years, when I’m ready and able to keep one, they’ll still be around.

  6. Designed in the late 60s, my 1988 Suburban was a premodern vehicle equipped with electronic ignition, fuel injection, disc brakes and automatic overdrive. Solid improvements over battery ignition, carburetor and drum brakes that everything prior to 1970 created most of the frequent maintenance requirements and performance problems. Aside from the locking torque converter, the 700R4 wasn’t as good as the Hydramatic that GM built in the late 1950s.

    • C C, late ’50’s Hydramatic? I had one, a 4 speed, in a ’55 Chevy pickup, nothing to write home about but now, a TH 400 is virtually indestructible, so much so, that people in the transmission game refer to it as the “forever” transmission. I still have one in an ’83 Chevy 3/4T 4WD 454 pickup. You couldn’t kill the engine or transmission or the rear-end I robbed out of a 1 T crewcab and I would have rebuilt that truck from ground up if I could have bought the door latch and hinges parts. It needed them from many years of terrible abuse. Hell, even the bumper, the factory chrome bumper would knock down trees and still doesn’t have a dent on it. The bed is galvanized and will outlive me by a longshot.

      • The 4 speed 700R4 has a documented reputation for numerous design weaknesses that the Hydramatic did not. Considering the THM automatics that preceded the 700R4 were bulletproof, there wasn’t a valid reason for GM to cheapen the drivetrain except to satisfy beancounters. Hydramatic helped cement GM as a great automotive manufacturer, the 700R4 contributed to it’s decline.

  7. Nice post. My best first ride at 16yrs,of age.. ’67 Ford Galaxie 500 two door fastback, 289 with a four speed and a tall rear end. At 70 mph it practically idled. (27 mpg as well!) I learned how to do everything that car needed, and loved doing it.
    The night I graduated high school Dad handed me the extra keys and said..”It’s your car now.” Then….”And here’s your insurance bill.” A gift and reality check at the same time. I miss my Dad for that. I miss the car a lot as well. It wasn’t quick but it sure was fun.

    • nils,

      I built a 1968 Mercury Cyclone GT from the ground up. 390 ci with 428 cobra jet heads, Edelbrock dual quad intake with two 3 barrel racing carbs made by Holley with progressive linkage.
      The ignition system was made by Excel with a dual point distributor and dual Excel coils.
      I had a 292 Pontiac rear end put in place of the standard fomoco re and had a friend of mine with Borg Warner design a 5 forward with one rear manual tranny.

      Now mind you I was playing in a band and had loads of cash at hand. The engine got a steel crank for all my effort.

      Just to let you know, the cam had a .308 intake duration. Damn that car ran sweet.

      Got drunk one night and bet the car against 100 bucks I could clear 10 miles in 3 minutes. At that age I was insane… LOL!

      I just want to add, I had racing GXF added to the car. Front Air Dam and a rear deck spoiler that actually pushed the rear end of the car down.

      Stupid me at the time had the car painted white with a red and blue wide racing stripe for the entire car.

      To make a long story short, the guy that bet me rode in the car while I was insane. LOL!

      Suffice to say, I asked for a 1/2 mile running start before the state line. The rest is history, I cleared the 10 miles and won the bet. However, the person that lost refuse to ever ride with me again! LOL!

      True story you know. About 15 years after it happened, me and the wife were traveling through that city and lo and behold that car appeared on the freeway. I pointed to the car and I told the wife “Hey! There is my car!” Of course, she was confused as hell. LOL! She never heard the story. Sigh.

      I sold the car to a chap who promised to sell it back if I got back alive from Viet Nam. He lied, what can I say? Go figure…

      David Ward
      Memphis, Tennessee

      • Hi Dave!

        I have similar tales of teenage/twenties insanity to tell… here’s one:

        A high school friend of mine of mine – Stu Monster was his nickname – owned a ’71 GTX 440. Somehow, he got his mom to front the money to buy the thing (this was mid-late ’80s, when such cars were still affordable).

        We were out one night, prowling for prey. Squared off (me driving) against a new Tuned Port Injection Corvette. This was on the I-495 DC Beltway at around 10 at night. Back then, the Beltway at night was fairly quiet. Anyhow, the GTX lost the Corvette and when I looked down at the speedometer, it registered almost 140 and I could feel the air (and increasing lift) under the nose. It had reached V2 – and we were about to “rotate” … I eased off the gas oh so gently…. trying to keep that all over the map steering wheel centered and the car too. Gradually, we bled off speed and the GTX settled down, became controllable. At this moment – when we realized we were going to live – the conversation that had ceased resumed… nervous at first, then elated hoots of victory.

        Ah, to be 17 again – and behind the wheel of a ’71 GTX!

        • A friend of mine, a couple years older, had a ’54 Mercury that had been fitted with a ’57 T-Bird 312 4-bbl and overdrive trans.
          At lunch one day (he was in HS) some of the guys were BSing w/the Occifer that was assigned to keep the parking lot under control. Of course they were talking about how fast their cars were. Rusty was the quiet type, but one of his friends started bragging ‘for’ him. Cop says, ‘I’d like to see what that will do.” He was driving a brand new (’66) Dodge Interceptor. I-29 through north KC was basically finished, but not yet open. So out they went.
          Rusty’s speedo pegged at 120, the needle broke and just started going in circles. Just as it shifted into overdrive, he noticed in the mirror that the cop car was falling back. Said “I guess he’s seen enough.” and brought her to a stop.
          Cop comes up and says to him, “My calibrated speedometer was reading 130. It wouldn’t go any faster. And you were pulling away from me.”

  8. I miss the simplicity of pre-computer cars, but I don’t miss driving them. Lousy handling, most of them, with sloppy steering, barely functional brakes, and sub-par suspensions. And all that power? I don’t see the point of laying down patches of rubber and smoke when doing so necessitates buying new tires every few thousand miles. My generic Toyota or Honda sedan may not look like much, but it handles and brakes well. The steering is tight and the power assist is done in a way that feedback from the road is not lost (remember power steering back in the day? You couldn’t feel the road at ALL).

    It’s true that modern cars don’t have much character. But I find them more fun to drive than the cars of yore.

  9. There’s not a new car out there that makes my heart race like my dad’s 1962 Chrysler 300H with the dual-quad 413 used to. That was our family car, and it was a big family. Such, such were the days.

    • Amen, Ross.

      Hell, I miss the watered-down stuff I grew up with in the late ’70s and early ’80s…. flipping the air cleaner lid on the top of my mom’s ’83 Olds, so you could hear the Q-Jet’s secondaries moan…. all gone now….

      • eric, I can’t address where that sound might end but I drive a company 2500HD pickup and it still has “that” sound even though it’s FI. Tromp on it and shit happens. I don’t put my foot into it often but when I do I can’t help but smile. Bwwaaaahhhhhhh. My older Silverado’s sounded like they could suck the hood in and probably would have if close enough. A friend and I always kept our Q-jets in fairly much perfect tune. If we pulled alongside each and talked, we’d both say “Damn, these old GM’s take so long to start” as we’d just barely turn the starter and they’d be idling toot sweet. I still recall the sound of the Mopar’s in the parking lot of the dorm I first lived in. Early morning and cold as a well diggers butt, eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee brumph…….eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. I’d sit there and grin. After a dozen or so attempts they’d eventually start and if you could do the right things with the throttle, your mouth and hold your head just right, they’d smooth out and not die. And when they warmed up and they could nail the throttle, you’d be in for a hell of a ride in that Conestoga handling, curb to curb wandering, banging suspension. 100mph in my Malibu was smooth and quiet(not the engine so much). 100mph in that Mopar and you’d swear it was 150.

        No matter though, they all had 11.5-1 compression so picking up revs was never a problem. I miss hell out of that. Lots of old restored cars here and some in process. Those old engines with new type cams are even badder than ever.

        I miss dropping by the welding supply and buying a big bottle of nitrous.

        • I remember opening credits on the 1st season of Marcus Welby. He’d go out and crank that Imperial. 2nd and later seasons they cut that from the sound track.

  10. The clover mentality is ‘make the other person yield’. Usually more out of laziness and entitlement than malice. The problem is that clovers think old cars can brake the same as modern ones. I wouldn’t drive an old car frequently without upgraded brakes these days. If people drove correctly its easily dealt with by following distance, but when people feel they are entitled to make you brake, well….

    • And if you are in heavy traffic on a multi-lane, leaving a correct following distance just means someone else will cut in front of you.

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