Really old cars are becoming popular again – not so much because they are collectible but rather because they are practical.
Some are capable of exceeding the highest-mileage figures posted by any new car – because they are much more efficient than any new car, being so much lighter.
None of them are “connected” cars. All of them are vastly simpler cars than any new car, which means that even though they do usually need more in the way of maintenance than new cars, almost anyone can maintain them.
This also means they are less disposable. If you’re willing to learn how they work – and willing to work on them – you can keep one of these things on the road for decades.
However, these cars are now more than four decades old – the youngest of them – if we are talking about cars made before cars came with computers and without any “safety technology” – besides seatbelts. This means that most people in their 40s (and younger) today are unlikely to have ever driven a car that was not only built before they were born – but built in a different time.
The years pass and models change, but a sea-change occurred in car design around the time that Ronald Rrrrreagan was first sworn in. Before that time, year-to-year changes were incremental and mostly cosmetic and mechanical. A 1979 car wasn’t that much different from a 1969 car – and the ’69 wasn’t that much different from a ’59, beyond the visuals.
If you knew how a ’59 worked you could easily work on a ’69 – and a ’79.
With a small handful of specialty car exceptions, all of the cars made since the beginning of the car era more than 120 years ago had mechanical fuel delivery systems, without any electronic systems except the ignition system, which was as simple as a distributor turned by a mechanical gear that triggered spark summoned by a coil sent through four, six or eight (sometimes, twelve) wires – one for each cylinder – to the same number of spark plugs.
And that was largely it.
Over the decades, there were improvements. The ignition system went from 6 to 12 volts and mechanical points that had to be periodically gapped gave way to transistorized ignition that was maintenance-free. Brakes went from single to dual master cylinder and all drums to drums and discs (up front). Radials replaced bias-ply tires.
But all-in-all it was more-or-less the same.
Thus, even though a car like my ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am was made years before I was old enough to legally drive it, when I bought it in the early ’90s, I knew how to work on it because it was still fundamentally the same as the cars I grew up fiddling with in the ’70s and ’80s.
But today, my Trans-Am has little in common with any car made after the ’90s, other than having four wheels and a windshield. Someone who grew up with the cars of the ’90s – with electronic fuel delivery systems and computers – is not likely to have had much experience with really old – and really different – cars like my now-almost-50-year-old Pontiac.
Carburetors – which almost every car made since 120 years ago up to about 40 years ago came with – have to be cleaned and adjusted fairly regularly, in part because unlike electronic fuel injection, they cannot self-adjust. Which is necessary when – as an example – the Biden Thing causes what was once gasoline to be adulterated with ethanol alcohol. This leans out the air-fuel mix and will cause the engine to run hotter and probably not well – if you don’t make the necessary adjustments (viz, mechanically richening the air-fuel ratio by changing out the jets and metering rods).
You will want – you will need – to become familiar with how mechanical fuel delivery systems work, in part because many mechanics under 40 today haven’t ever worked on mechanical fuel delivery systems and don’t know how. Part of owning an “unconnected” old car is not being dependent on such “connections.” But once you know, then you are freed from just such “connections” and the empowerment that comes from that is among the most satisfying benefits of owning an “unconnected” old car.
Ignition systems – with points, which most cars came with through the early-mid 1970s – have to be gap-checked (and adjusted) about once every six months, assuming regular driving. The points wear because they are physical, like brake pads. This wear eventually alters the gap between the points – which affects the spark. Enter the adjusting and (eventually) the replacing. It is not a difficult thing to do because you can see the gap – and make the adjustment by hand. But – just like jetting a carb or setting a carb’s choke – it is an ancient skill that you may have no knowledge of, if you aren’t ancient.
Engines – in ancient American cars like my ’76 Pontiac – often require specialty oil (or additives) because almost all of the readily available oil you can find in auto parts stores is designed for modern car engines, which are designed to meet modern emissions control standards. These oils aren’t suitable for use in ancient car engines and may damage them. You will want to find out about “ZDDP” – and whether the ancient car you’re thinking about owning has an engine with a flat tappet camshaft that requires this additive – or specialty oil that already has it added to it.
You will also be changing oil much more regularly – because of the car’s mechanical fuel delivery system. It is not as precise as EFI and also flows wet – meaning, liquid gas – and some of that will inevitably seep into the engine, especially when it’s not running – and into the oil. The usual practice was once every six months or 3,000 miles.
There are also things to know about driving an ancient car, including the fact that the brakes will lock up the wheels – and you will skid, if you don’t ease off the brake pedal – because cars made before the ’80s didn’t have anti-lock brakes. If the car does go into a skid, it will be up to you to recover. The “traction control” is your right foot.
There are no air bags, either (with a handful of specialty car exceptions) which means you’ll have to rely on your driving to “keep you safe.”
But – aye! – there’s the point of the thing!
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