The Old Car Experience

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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 – and feeling 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 very strong 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 – the drag, on the engine.

You could also see the temperature gauge headed toward the Hot side – cars in those days often having marginal cooling systems. Assuming your car had a temperature gauge. Most didn’t.

They had a light – which came on when the engine was already overheating.

But – the good thing – 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’ll 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.

In high performance driving schools – today – they often rig the ABS-equipped cars they use with an Off switch, in order to teach the student the things you can do in a car with brakes that can be locked up. For example, dramatic directional changes. Lock ‘em up, crank the wheel hard over, 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 – educational. It taught people to leave enough room to brake and to not 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 skill – 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. It is an old car. But it is a connected car, in ways that no new car will ever be.

Literally.

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 – and also 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 – sending 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 – also 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 being able to get 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 and the 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. 

.  . .

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50 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Eric – you following this chip shortage thing going on ? Really shines a light on so many things – how pointlessly complicated cars are to begin with (do you really need a microprocessor in something thats worked fine without for over a century!) Also hi lights how little anything is actually made in the west. I know there are jokes about crap stuff being made in China- but what is actually made in the west !!!? What most consider one of the most sophisticated (and highest value added forms of manufacturing) cant be made in the west on its own !!! WTF!! Its really shocking when I think about it….

    • Hi Nasir,

      Yup; I’ve been following the “chip crisis” – and agree that it highlights how over-teched cars have become and also how dependent on China cars have become. I like having a car without any “chips” at all. It’s survived nearly 50 years and will probably outlast me, too. In part because it has no “chips.”

      • the craziest is the “solution” you hear on the media outlets – government “mandating” chips being made (like they mandate currency made out of thin air). Or diverting the chips to car makers (kinda like they happily re-distribute others money as they feel fit).

        just imagine the fun when they make us all go to electrics – how much of the supply chain do we actually control there? Where will all the rare earth metals and other exotic elements come from ??!

        • >Where will all the rare earth metals and other exotic elements come from ??!
          Bingo!
          That is another “big deal” right now.
          many years ago, Mountain Pass mine in eastern California supplied essentially all of world’s supply of rare earth elements.
          Mountain Pass was eventually shut down due to environmental concerns, and Chinese got into the biz big time. in China they don’t (or didn’t) do EPA at all. Dirty mining? No probrem.

          Problem is, rare earths are now used in all those fancy DOD toys, which also (surprise, surprise) have chips galore. Which means the PRC have got the U.S. DOD by the short and curlies. Tickling the dragon’s tail would not be a smart move, at this point.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Pass_mine

    • ” But what is actually made in the west !!!?” – Nasir

      How about tanks, fighter jets/bombers, nuclear submarines, missiles, bombs, bullets, etc. And trillions upon trillions of digitized Federal Reserve Notes.

      • Yeh – now that you mention it I suppose that is the only thing left thats made in the west…. as Peter Schiff says many times – the biggest export the US has is dollars….

  2. Who the hell had AC?
    First car our family had with it was a ’75 Econoline conversion dad bought in 1990. Before that was windows down.

    Then I got my first car. Had AC. Didn’t work.
    But at least I had vinyl seats to allow you to produce copious amounts of sweat. Saunas are healthy, right?

    Now the brakes. Real brakes in the snow was sooooo much fun. Learn how to drive slow & pump them. Well, at least until you found an empty parking lot.

  3. I learned to drive in a 75 Dodge Dart. It was a straight six with A/C. On hot summer days it would die when I came to a stop because there was so much drag on the little 6 cylinder. Pretty embarrassing when dating. She thought it was funny. Then she married me.

    • 75 Dodge Dart… the one I had could go 15 miles, in the Summer, without coolant, before locking up.
      Those slant 6’s sure could take a beating.

      • I remember the pin in the steering wheel that would sheer as I was driving. Round and round she would go. Lots of fun, I was 17 at the time. Replace the pin and good to go. We survived it but it was fun. I loved that Dart.

        • Hi Ugg,

          I have a small collection of Ertl car models – among them a Dart 340 in yellow with black stripes. It’s one of my favorites!

        • I had a ‘75 Dart also, loved the ease of working on it since all of the equipment needing maintenance was so accessible. Wasn’t so thrilled about the ballast resistor that would randomly burn out and kill the engine. I always kept a spare in the glove compartment and have a couple still gathering dust in the garage since despite how good the engine was the body turned to rust in record time.

  4. The ice cold a/c in cars back then. Houses too. My late neighbor managed to keep her early 1970’s central air going until the end of the time she lived there (about 4 years ago). That a/c could make that house ice cold in an hour, even if the house was 90 when it was switched on. So cold it made MY knee joints ache from the cold. She would call from the airport when she was coming back home after a trip asking if I would go in her house and flip it on. It would be like an oven in there, but when she came in an hour later it was cooled down.

    I drive a 2018 Ford Focus, and it’s an ok car. The a/c will cool you after its been going a while, but it will never make you cold. It just can’t. My central air in the house can’t make it ice cold either. Its cool enough most of the time, but yeah, freon was the bomb when it came to real cold.

  5. “A General Motors Harrison AC system from the ‘70s was fully capable of turning the interior of a car into a meat locker.”

    Moms 70 Vista Cruiser and stepmoms 71 Olds 98. Both could actually put frost on the vents. Real steel chrome vents.

    I remember getting in the olds in summer once and the jet of cold air actually hurt my skin.

  6. A little roadster history:
    Did my time with MG, TR, and AH Sprites, lots of fun and frustration.
    Later, a Miata tricked out to the nth degree; no regrets there.
    Now running a Z4 and it beats them all.
    Nostalgia is entertaining, but I ain’t going back.

  7. Hey guys, The wife and I have always been muscle car people. My first car was a black 1971 Buick GS stage 1 455ci Ram Air with long tube glass-packs exiting thru the factory N-25 rear bumper when I was 14 years old.
    Drove it everyday, yes without a license. I can’t count all the T/As, Mopars and others we’ve owned since then. The last one being a 70 GS about 10 years ago. I traded that for a heavy truck thinking we had better prepair to haul ass with our big trailer after waking up to this level of corruption we are living thru.
    Some days I really want a car again, but we have two rigs now that both have trailers for our motorcycles that we can haul butt and live out of when needed. Another car would get left behind. I guess the one thing that give me pause is, and the point of this is that the most beautiful bad-ass muscle car will not bring back the wonderful times we had back in the day.
    So my custom R/T van is now my muscle car. And we feel good being ready to roll at any time. It feels like freedom.

      • Nice Eric, been reading you’re stuff for years and noticed we think a lot a like.
        I am sure we would be good friends if we lived closer to each other.

    • Hi Bear, I like your idea about having a van that functions as a place to live out of if needed. What is a R/T van?

      • Wish I could post a photo, but it is a white ’99 Dodge Ram 3500 extended van that we restored then customized with interior, wheels, visor, louvers, exhaust, R/T emblems ect. It is a beautiful ride that in the old days would have attracted the girls, but today it’s the old guys that seem to get excited about it lol. My take on the R/T van dodge should have built. 🙂

        • Thank you, sounds perfect. If we could find something of that vintage, priced right, we would consider it, even if it needs work, but probably don’t have the time or knowledge to do as much to one as you have to yours. At this point, I just want something that can sleep two plus a dog or two overnight, and maybe a little room left over. Alternatively, we might just look into a used mini-van, but would much prefer something a little bigger but not super huge. Our son who has a fair amount of experience with vehicles, including restoring them has mentioned a Sprinter van as something he would consider for himself, if ever he was to take to the road exclusively.

          • Hi Snap, the newer vans have more electronics then we want to deal with but a lot of younger folks are running them for our purpose. We watch a lot of ‘ van life’ videos and there is a ton of great videos from people living full time from their rigs. A wealth of information if you can find time to research.
            The last ‘free’ place in America is a parking spot.

            • Thanks Bear, I will look into the videos – hadn’t heard of them before. I have time to research, if that’s what I prioritize. Right now, there’s lots to do in the yard, but that hobby obviously goes away if we decide to live on the road!

  8. Regarding AC, old cars had two things that allowed it to be an option that new cars DON”T have. Floor vents and vent windows. I had a salvage titled 89 Nissan Sentra that I commuted in. The AC compressor died. A $500 repair on a $1000 dollar car. Which means it didn’t get fixed. And boy howdy, you better carry an abundant water supply while driving in the summer. Incidentally, the very first car I ever had with AC, and without floor vents and vent windows.

    • I well remember the AC in my ’60 MGA. It was called, “put the top down.”
      And bring your suntan lotion, “sun screen” not being a concept in those days.
      Vent windows? Sure, they were called “side curtains,” made of Perspex (Plexiglas), and were always vented, to some degree.
      Windshield deicer? Yep, in a spray can. Slide back a side curtain, reach around and spray deicer on the windshield in a driving Massachusetts blizzard. Try the wipers. Should get you a few hundred yards before the next application of deicer.
      it was very “green” car, though, Lucas “electrical’ systems being famous for using very little electricity.
      Lost an engine (one of several) when the braided line which was part of the oil pressure sensing system sprung a leak and dumped all the engine oil. Too busy talking to my sweetheart, driving her home late at night, to pay close attention to the (mechanical) oil pressure gauge.

      Ah, the joys of vintage motoring.

    • Remember what happened first time you opened the vent door down in the footwell, in the spring? All those leaves and dirt in your face! Been there, done that every year in a 1963 Dodge Dart.

      There is a place in the universe for simple and direct motorcars. May they always be there!

      • Back in the 80s I had a ford econoline van with a rusted out area where the pittman arm mounted. Fun to drive, not really. Had 16 inch wheels, 10 inch wide tires, weight 6000 pounds empty, small V8, manual steering. I could turn a corner with 1 hand on the wheel, and I am a small guy. No power brakes either.

  9. There is indeed a commonly held modern supposition that any improvement in technology is an improvement in function. Far from the actual effect. As a late teen through a young man, I could never afford power, so I focused on driving. To this day, I prefer handling over power. Any moron can throttle up on straight dry pavement, especially with todays traction control. As I informed an apprentice while working on the timing of a printing press, “anybody can poor ink into this press and hit the green button to start it”. Back in the late 60s , early 70s, handling a car was a challenge. Not everybody could do it. Because it WAS a challenge they were not willing to accept. I embraced it. Now I have to turn off traction control and stability control, otherwise I feel out of control. The car doesn’t do what I tell it to do. It is however quite useful on ice, especially if it’s a bit wet, which nobody can truly drive on.

  10. Keeping a mallet or club in your square body gm truck to whack the starter into operation whenever it feels like not working despite being new and having fully charged batteries….still true today for me

  11. ‘A General Motors Harrison AC system from the ‘70s was fully capable of turning the interior of a car into a meat locker.’ — EP

    In a culture founded on the notion of perpetual progress, we are quite surprised by features such as non-freon A/C, on-or-off e-brakes, windows without wing vents, etc, that are objectively inferior to the commonplace technology of fifty years ago.

    Nowhere is this phenomenon more startling than in Washington DC, where the decadent US mf-ing fedgov has so distorted the economy that Bubble Boy Biden is reduced to desperate, late Roman empire-style inflationism to quell an incipient serf revolt.

    This sucker is gonna blow, and with it the Coleridgian fever dream of a chicken in every pot and an EV in every garage.

    I said would you believe this man has gone as far
    As tearin’ Obama stickers off the bumpers of cars
    And he voted for Joe Biden for president

    Well he’s a friend of them long-haired hippie type pinko fags
    I betcha he’s even got a commie flag
    Tacked up on the wall inside of his garage

    They all started lookin’ real suspicious at him
    And he jumped up an’ said jes’ wait a minute Jim
    You know he’s lyin,’ I been livin’ here all of my life

    I’m a faithful follower of brother John Birch
    And I belong to the Antioch Baptist Church
    And I ain’t even got a garage — you can call home and ask my wife

    — Charlie Daniels Band, ‘Uneasy Rider’

    • My ‘79 Gran Prix had a a/c clutch cutout switch, factory installed. Mash the pedal to pass, the throttle bellcrank would contact the switch cutting power to the a/c clutch. Also the idle step up solenoid, activated when the a/c clutch cycled on.

  12. Wings – those triangle shaped tiny windows in front of the side windows, those were Da Bomb! And, the vents near the floorboard, pull a cable to open them and it was almost as good as AC. I sure do miss those features.

    One of my first old car mod fixes was on a 60’s something Belvedere, the gas tank had a rusted hole in it, me being too poor to replace it and the straps, rerouted a fuel hose to a used plastic gas can in the trunk. Ugly car, but kind of fun to drive.

    • I still have vent windows and floor vents and they are great on a warm day. Of course newer cars have vents in the dash, but plusbig problem with those is heat soak if the car has been sitting out in the sun.

      • Hi Jason,

        My ’76 TA has AC, but it was optional. If you skipped it, there were pull-knobs on the lower left kick panel that opened fresh air ducts. It made skipping AC feasible.

        No one offers that in a new car anymore. So as to make it necessary to not skip AC!

    • The Commander’s ‘71 Nova had wing windows and the pull open vents – add cotton beach towels so you wouldn’t weld flesh to the black vinyl seats we were good to go!
      (The Commander = wife). Another car we never should have sold.

      • The 1998 f350 in the yard still has vent windows. Probably the last vehicle to have them.

        My hunting buddy smokes and I don’t. These windows work great. My side with it fully rotated to force air in, his side with it cracked to suck air out. I can’t even smell smoke like this.

  13. My 1973 MGB needs only spark and fuel to run, maybe not run well, just run. Testing for both requires no more than a wrench to temporarily disconnect the fuel line and/or a ground to check for spark.

    I chuckle reading the articles that thousands of newly manufactured vehicles cannot be delivered due to a “chip” shortage.

    What do potato chips have to do with delivery?

    • And a wheel wizard with which to smite the SU ticker pump in (or under) the boot! I upgraded to a 1979 Hitachi ticker pump in my 67 MGB, no more thwacking under the car in the pouring rain when Mr Skinner’s Union comes calling.

  14. 1968 Rambler American: 2 door, 199 cu.in. in-line 6 cyl., manual steering, manual brakes, manual transmission (“three on the tree”), vacuum windshield wipers and a rubber bulb on the floor which was stepped on to squirt washer fluid. No air conditioning, no radio, no clock, no crank mechanism on the rear windows. It was the best car I’ve ever owned.

    • Those were great basic cars with very little to go wrong with them that could not be fixed with simple hand tools. (You had windshield washers? Must have had the upscale deluxe model! 🙂 )

  15. Brings back memories of my first car, a 69 Chevelle. I had two gearhead brothers who picked it out for me. One of whom still has his 69 SS Chevelle, the other had a 72 Nova.

    Loved that car. Mostly stock, and the AC was COLD.

    Those were the days…

  16. Dad loved AC. When we’d go on vacation the first thing that happened when entering the motel room was mom heading to the bathroom and dad turning the AC on to high cool. And there it stayed until we checked out. When we got the 76 Charger it was ordered with AC. First car we owned with AC, a sign of success, I think. As soon as the snow melted the AC was on, and it stayed on all summer. That is, until 79 and the Iran revolution drove up the price of gas. Then it was only for special occasions. Grandpa’s Grand Prix had AC but they lived in Florida so it was required. As soon as we piled in to head to the beach grandma would light up, and blast the AC on recirculate. Then when we got to the destination the wave of heat that hit as you opened the door was overwhelming. To this day ice cold air that smells like cigarettes out of a vent reminds me of those trips.

    Then there was the bare-bones Omni. Vinyl seats and no AC. We took it to Florida one summer. Mom threatened to divorce dad if he ever bought another vehicle without AC. What changed? After all, we had non-AC vehicles before the Charger. Well, for one thing the vents disappeared. And the cars got smaller, the windows didn’t open as far and we got bigger.

  17. Nice video, Eric. But yikes, those corners @ 60mph? Yeah, no 😬 Fun to watch someone else though, who knows what they’re doing.

  18. Yes, I miss those days. Long ago, before I was really mature enough to appreciate it, I learned how to do a power reverse 180, James Bond style, in a rear-wheel-drive 4WD vehicle with an automatic transmission (you start by backing up quickly, let up on the gas, crank the wheel hard to turn the vehicle while simultaneously shifting into D, then floor it when you get turned around and away you go!). I haven’t tried it in a more modern FWD vehicle, but I’d bet you couldn’t do it today, since everything’s so “connected” as you described. The transmission probably wouldn’t let you shift to D while you’re doing the maneuver, and FWD probably would mess things up.

    Just think what kind of cars (and what kind of fun!) we could have today if it wasn’t for Uncle.

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