The Appeal of Old-School Cars

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Apr 16, 2021 | Column | Posted in Columns | From the Aug. 2014 issue | Never miss an article

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

An old car has a certain mystique, a charm that’s tough to capture. It’s about chrome and steel instead of cup holders and plastic. It’s the automotive equivalent of your favorite jeans. Nothing smells like an old car on a rainy day.

Old cars can also be a pain in ass, and this is coming from a guy who owns a few cars that predate the 1976 Olympics. You don’t always buy an old car for the measured performance, though, you buy it for the experience. A Nissan Versa can probably roll my Mini Cooper–yes, I own one of the originals designed by Sir Alec Issigonis–but which one turns more heads or transforms every outing into an adventure?

In honor of our annual old-school issue, here are a few vintage favorites that can supply nostalgia to those who grew up with fuel injection and radial tires. Not only are they relatively easy to care and feed for, but prices are currently rather attractive.

MGB

It’s not the first, the fastest or the freshest, but the MGB is the Miata of the classic sports car world. British Leyland built a zillion of them, and you can still find them for fair money–figure $5000 or so buys a pretty decent example.

The earlier, chrome-bumper cars get the most attention, but the rubber-bumper examples still capture the same magic. Some say these later cars make better daily drivers, too. A stock Miata may well outrun an unmodded MGB, but the B offers extra character: a banjo steering wheel, mini tail fins and those timeless Smiths gauges.

VW Rabbit

When I bought my ’84 Rabbit GTI back in the day, it was just an old car ripe for fixing up. Today, I’d put it down as a bona fide classic–one worth preserving, in fact. It helped usher in the hot-hatch era of the ’80s and ’90s, while the Giugiaro-designed shape has aged well.

Adam Saal, PR man for several road racing teams, drives a clean diesel Rabbit. When I encountered it in the media parking lot at Daytona International Speedway, I had to stop and take some photos.

Don’t be deterred by the fact that the GTI makes less than a hundred horsepower in stock form. The close-ratio gearbox, 60-series tires and grippy buckets were state of the art back then. Grab some aviators and relive a simpler time.

C3 Corvette

I was never a huge fan of the late C3 Corvettes until a few weeks ago when I jokingly asked J.G. if we should buy a ’78 Pace Car or an ’82 Special Edition. In the Corvette world, these aren’t exactly coveted models. By then the C3 had become a caricature of its former self: not much power, disco-tastic interiors, and a seriously outdated chassis. By the end of the model run, the Corvette didn’t even come with a stick shift.

Blame “Corvette Summer” for this one, but that shape is sucking us in. Don’t forget, I’m talking about two nerds who grew up on a steady diet of “Miami Vice” and “Magnum, P.I.” Super bonus: I can finally go down to the flea market and buy that “Wrap your ass in fiberglass” T-shirt.

American Cruiser

Until recently, every car I have ever owned has sported a stick shift, low-profile tires and grippy bucket seats. Last summer I decided to look for a cruiser, and I had just three criteria: V8 engine, chrome bumpers and automatic on the column. I never thought that a 1975 Pontiac Catalina Safari could turn so many heads, but it does. And that happens everywhere, from the supermarket to Road Atlanta.

Here’s the real kicker: I love driving this sled. It’s comfy, relaxed and just eats up the miles. And when it needed an alternator, I was only about $69 poorer.

Vintage Pony Car

A race-ready Shelby GT350R recently fetched nearly $1 million. For a couple grand, you can still pick up a pedestrian Camaro, Mustang or Firebird. We’re talking a driver-level car here–something you can enjoy with friends and family, fix without a scan-tool, and use to turn some heads. Looking for an even better pony car deal? Don’t forget about the Mopars.

Air-Cooled Porsche 911

From its introduction for the 1965 model year until the beginning of 1998, the Porsche 911 evolved for the better. The early, long-hood cars can now fetch some big bucks, but the ’70s and ’80s examples offer a very similar driving experience for a more attractive premium.

The pedals are still hinged from the floor, that flat-six out back produces a most intoxicating note–and then there’s the view over those famed fenders. Need more excuses? How about telepathic steering, excellent visibility in all directions and, if you shop right, those iconic Fuchs wheels. Whenever I drive my ’84 Carrera, yeah, I feel a little like I’m at Le Mans.

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Mr. Lee
Mr. Lee GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
4/16/21 12:55 p.m.

Friend let me drive an old AC Porsche once. The exhaust note is haunting, I would love to get my hands on a driver car. I could seriously listen to that soundtrack every day and never set foot in a new car and be a happy person for the rest of my life

Placemotorsports
Placemotorsports GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
4/16/21 1:25 p.m.

If you haven't already got an air cooled Porsche, it's most likely too late.  Prices are to the moon. 

infinitenexus
infinitenexus GRM+ Memberand Dork
4/16/21 1:33 p.m.

About 12 years ago I owned a 1978 911SC, and I had a fairly minimal exhaust system on there and it was indeed heavenly.  Every day I regret selling that car.

 

Snowdoggie (Forum Supporter)
Snowdoggie (Forum Supporter) Dork
4/16/21 1:43 p.m.

My 914 isn't for sale. I wish I had bought the 911S for $6,000 when it was offered to me. 

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
4/16/21 2:25 p.m.
Placemotorsports said:

If you haven't already got an air cooled Porsche, it's most likely too late.  Prices are to the moon. 

If appreciation beats interest rates, there could be a case made for getting a loan, and selling the car at a later time.  If you make a profit, great, if not, you got to enjoy an interesting car for a while.

nlevine (Forum Supporter)
nlevine (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand New Reader
4/16/21 2:53 p.m.

I always had a sense of "serenity", if you will, when I would drive my '71 BMW 2002. Sort of like that I didn't feel I had anything to prove to anybody - I wasn't trapped in one of the countless computer-designed, wind-tunnel-tested, they-all-kind-of-look-the-same cars that most other folks were driving. In that moment of old-car Zen, the car's performance envelope really didn't matter...

stuart in mn
stuart in mn MegaDork
4/16/21 3:17 p.m.

I have a couple older BMWs for daily drivers (an e28 5 series and an e30 3 series) along with a couple hobby cars (a '61 Pontiac Bonneville and a '66 Ford F-100 pickup).  Maybe I don't know what I'm missing by not owning anything newer, but they work for me.  It's gotten to the point where I get thumbs-ups or waves from other drivers on a daily basis. 

If nothing else, I don't have to deal with trying to see around A-pillars that are the size of oak trees.  smiley

Tom1200
Tom1200 SuperDork
4/16/21 3:20 p.m.

I love new cars but as counter intuitive as it may seem to most people; I find driving something with a few foibles more rewarding. 

There is a certain joy in learning a specialized skill, however small, when operating an older piece of equipment. The extra bit of thought fills your brain with the task at hand and melts away the days troubles.

Tom1200
Tom1200 SuperDork
4/16/21 4:21 p.m.

I also like old canoes........

frenchyd
frenchyd UltimaDork
4/16/21 5:20 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

By my nature I tend to like taming the old beasts rather than the mundane sameness of new cars. 
Speed doesn't matter, as much as the satisfaction of doing a difficult job well. 

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