The Appeal of Old-School Cars

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Apr 17, 2022 | 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 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) GRM+ Memberand 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. 

BuzzF5R
BuzzF5R
1/20/22 1:30 p.m.

So many cool classic cars skipped,Alfa, Saab Triumph to name a few, that dont break the bank. IMHO

 

mad_machine (Forum Supporter)
mad_machine (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
1/20/22 2:16 p.m.
Snowdoggie (Forum Supporter) said:

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

I had a 72 911E when it was just an old sports car.  I had it a year, broke it when the valve train let go on one side, and sold it for what I bought it for.  I miss that car and kick myself every time I see a long hood for sale.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/20/22 2:49 p.m.

I drove mine to the hardware store the other day and scored the perfect parking spot.

Meporsche
Meporsche New Reader
1/21/22 8:06 a.m.

When I retired a few years ago, I unloaded an 87 930 and a 72 911.  Mistake.   I kept the 82 911, smart.   I still drive it regularly but with the insane values that increase very week it seems, I worry a lot more about someone screwing it up.  I'm never selling it so the value run up just costs me more in insurance and anxiety sad

Probably shouldn't have sold that damn Testarossa either.  Too soon old, too late smart.

NickD
NickD MegaDork
1/21/22 8:27 a.m.

Appleseed
Appleseed MegaDork
1/21/22 8:54 a.m.

Oh the irony of using a 911. What about a JEEP? laugh

Apexcarver
Apexcarver UltimaDork
1/21/22 8:58 a.m.

Find me a modern car that evokes the reaction my Bugeye Sprite does. 

A large part of the joy of older cars is what you can evoke in others. 

Chris_V
Chris_V UberDork
1/21/22 9:55 a.m.

Interesting that this article came out in 2014 talking about old school cars with feel vs "modern cars." And now, 8 years later, I have a 2013 car that evokes all those feelings, and probably did then at the time the article was written...

 

Running through the gears on a twisty back road reminds me of all the older sports cars, I've had, from MGs and Fiats to air cooled 914s and 911s. It's got the feel and sounds down pat.

But yeah, with the price of the air cooled stuff now, I could have sold mine now and bought a dozen JCW Minis...

And yes, that license plate frame says "This IS my other car" back when so many cheap cars had plates that said "my other car is a Porsche" (or Ferrari or Rolls)

paddygarcia
paddygarcia GRM+ Memberand Reader
1/21/22 10:03 a.m.

A moparhead buddy in college had one of those license plate frames on his 360 Volare. Took him a while to notice when we modified it to read "is another Plymouth".

Matt B (fs)
Matt B (fs) UltraDork
1/21/22 11:20 a.m.
BuzzF5R said:

So many cool classic cars skipped,Alfa, Saab Triumph to name a few, that dont break the bank. IMHO

Agreed, but I don't think it was supposed to be an exhaustive list. Just some common yet diverse examples to consider.  That said, I'd also throw some Japanese metal into the mix.

Anyways, like most here I can relate to point of the article.  My '11 WRX is better in every objective way to my '86 MR2, but there are some experiences/emotions/whatever it simply cannot replicate.  I'd be better off selling the MR2 while the market is good and reallocating that money to doing more endurance racing, but I can't seem to part with it after all these years.

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
1/21/22 11:31 a.m.

We like old school cars because they're the cars we wanted to own when we were younger.

My 911 story: there was a black 25th anniversary 1988 911 coupe for sale here in town for about $18k IIRC. I decided to build my own version of a noisy little coupe with pontoon fenders by putting an LS1 in an MG. Yeah, that was a bad call.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/21/22 11:39 a.m.

Yup, it's just a column about old cars--not a definitive list or anything. Cool that it's still relevant. 

And it is funny how newer cars transition to old cars. When the Miata came out, it was called too new to have soul. Now now mine wears an antique license plate....

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
1/21/22 1:01 p.m.
David S. Wallens said:

Yup, it's just a column about old cars--not a definitive list or anything. Cool that it's still relevant. 

And it is funny how newer cars transition to old cars. When the Miata came out, it was called too new to have soul. Now now mine wears an antique license plate....

I'm always puzzled by the Miata having been thought of as souless at the time of it's release.  I rode in one at an autocross school when they first came out an I instantly thought it was fantastic old school style car...........we even went to lunch in the car and I further fell in love with it.

I also had a similar reaction to the new Mini  and Cayman when those came out.

With that said there is something about 70s and 80s cars that really appeal to me.  For me 60s cars are just a bit to crude and 90s cars have a modern feel to me.  I think it comes down to you have to make certain adjustments / drive around some of the handling foibles of 70s & 80s cars. 

I sum up the Datsun by saying you have to drive it like you hate it and you're trying to break it...............that fact that it seldom breaks is why I love it. I never thought I'd own the car for 37 years.

 

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
1/21/22 1:11 p.m.

Well, the only other new car anything like the Miata at the time was the Alfa Spider/Graduate. You have to use "soul" to justify that choice against a car that just works :) The original NSX got the same complaints, remember. It wasn't prone to self-immolation so something of the driving experience was lost.

At the time, purists complained about the power steering beause it wasn't pure. Now that steering system is held up as an example of how to do it well, and everyone complaints about EPAS. The steering didn't change, but the "perfect imaginary old car in my head" image has.

And you really, really have to take into account the fact that our automotive tastes take a set at some point in our lives, and anything older is antique while anything newer is too modern. The problem is that this set point keeps moving forward in time for the total pool of automotive enthusiasts. A specific subcommunity of car guys will get stuck - go to just about any Father's Day car show and it'll be the same cars it was 30 years ago with the same band playing the same early rock and roll - but you can't stop the march of time overall.

My mom's first car was a first-year MGB. When I was in high school, that would have been an old car to me. 6 years ago, I borrowed her Miata for a road trip and realized that it was as old as that MGB would have been.

Trent
Trent PowerDork
1/21/22 1:17 p.m.

I have no idea what this thread is about

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
1/21/22 1:38 p.m.

In reply to Trent :

I know, right?

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
1/21/22 3:01 p.m.

In reply to Keith Tanner :

That caddy is mega cool.

codrus (Forum Supporter)
codrus (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
1/21/22 3:15 p.m.
Keith Tanner said:

Well, the only other new car anything like the Miata at the time was the Alfa Spider/Graduate. You have to use "soul" to justify that choice against a car that just works :) The original NSX got the same complaints, remember. It wasn't prone to self-immolation so something of the driving experience was lost.

To be fair, the 348 and 355 that it competed against weren't the "randomly burst into flames" Ferraris.  They were the "take the engine out every 3 years/20K miles to change the timing belt" Ferraris. :)  And yeah, the early NSXes have definitely held their value better than 348s and 355s.

Not sure if this counts as old school or not, but production date is almost 30 years ago.

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
1/21/22 4:08 p.m.

In reply to codrus (Forum Supporter) :

While I wasn't bowled over by thier design I was bowled over by how they drive; the NSX just works. I've mostly driven them on track but the one time I drove one on the road it was so easy to live with.

frenchyd
frenchyd UltimaDork
1/21/22 5:04 p.m.
Tom1200 said:
David S. Wallens said:

Yup, it's just a column about old cars--not a definitive list or anything. Cool that it's still relevant. 

And it is funny how newer cars transition to old cars. When the Miata came out, it was called too new to have soul. Now now mine wears an antique license plate....

I'm always puzzled by the Miata having been thought of as souless at the time of it's release.  I rode in one at an autocross school when they first came out an I instantly thought it was fantastic old school style car...........we even went to lunch in the car and I further fell in love with it.

I also had a similar reaction to the new Mini  and Cayman when those came out.

With that said there is something about 70s and 80s cars that really appeal to me.  For me 60s cars are just a bit to crude and 90s cars have a modern feel to me.  I think it comes down to you have to make certain adjustments / drive around some of the handling foibles of 70s & 80s cars. 

I sum up the Datsun by saying you have to drive it like you hate it and you're trying to break it...............that fact that it seldom breaks is why I love it. I never thought I'd own the car for 37 years.

 

That was my thought about the Miata. Soulless, imitation Lotus Elan. 
      I've come to accept that it's a good value sports car.   However as a Die Hard Anglophile. I'm just not excited by them. 

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
1/21/22 5:11 p.m.
frenchyd said:

That was my thought about the Miata. Soulless, imitation Lotus Elan. 
      I've come to accept that it's a good value sports car.   However as a Die Hard Anglophile. I'm just not excited by them. 

Imatation,no, the Miata actaully works on so many levels. Note I've driven both.

Noddaz
Noddaz GRM+ Memberand UberDork
1/21/22 5:51 p.m.

I haven't had a cool old car since I gave my 86 GTi 8v to my son.

However, lately people have been giving me the thumbs up or stopping me to talk to me when I am driving my 1997 Jetta GT.  

Yes, I said my 1997 Jetta GT.  I don't get it.  My car is not old (um, right) and certainly not classic. 

But I do have to admit I like the simplicity of my Jetta.  This week the t-belt manual tensioner  failed and it stopped running at 65 mph.  I feared for the worst while someone at work replaced the tensioner and t-belt.  The car started up and ran.

Yes I have an old car.  Classic?  I guess it is not really my decision, is it.

Scott  (Who still wants an old car)

 

 

 

 

 

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
1/21/22 7:23 p.m.

In reply to Noddaz :

When I got my now 50 year old "vintage" race car is was a 12 year old Japanese econobox. 

wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
1/22/22 11:51 a.m.
Tom1200 said:

In reply to Noddaz :

When I got my now 50 year old "vintage" race car is was a 12 year old Japanese econobox. 

Neat!

When I bought my now 54 year old race car (well street car that I made into a race car before vintage racing existed) it was also 12 years old.  Maybe we need a thread on who has owned a car the longest.

wrenchklutz
wrenchklutz New Reader
4/17/22 12:18 p.m.

There's nothing like an Alfa Spider in the mountains with the top down.  

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/17/22 7:51 p.m.
Noddaz said:

I haven't had a cool old car since I gave my 86 GTi 8v to my son.

However, lately people have been giving me the thumbs up or stopping me to talk to me when I am driving my 1997 Jetta GT.  

Yes, I said my 1997 Jetta GT.  I don't get it.  My car is not old (um, right) and certainly not classic. 

But I do have to admit I like the simplicity of my Jetta.  This week the t-belt manual tensioner  failed and it stopped running at 65 mph.  I feared for the worst while someone at work replaced the tensioner and t-belt.  The car started up and ran.

Yes I have an old car.  Classic?  I guess it is not really my decision, is it.

Scott  (Who still wants an old car)

 

 

 

 

 

Sounds like the public has decided that, yes, it's a classic. 

759NRNG
759NRNG UberDork
4/17/22 8:48 p.m.
wrenchklutz said:

There's nothing like an Alfa Spider in the mountains with the top down.  

Where exactly is this? ...I would dearly love to toss the "V" down that path.

frenchyd
frenchyd MegaDork
4/18/22 12:10 p.m.
wspohn said:
Tom1200 said:

In reply to Noddaz :

When I got my now 50 year old "vintage" race car is was a 12 year old Japanese econobox. 

Neat!

When I bought my now 54 year old race car (well street car that I made into a race car before vintage racing existed) it was also 12 years old.  Maybe we need a thread on who has owned a car the longest.

My 69 year old MGTD I've owned for 60 years is likely the longest.   
  Putting that in todays world  I  paid $300 for a 9 year old car with an engine that blew up in 23 miles after purchase.  Yes it was the cheapest sportscar available at the time. Sports cars were the hot market.   So I paid 1/8th of the selling price  for a 9 year old car that blew up its engine 23 miles later.   
And I still own it!!! Yeh now it runs  

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/18/22 12:30 p.m.

My longest tenure: approaching 24 years with the Miata, with web updates going back to 2000.

Curtis73 (Forum Supporter)
Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/18/22 12:40 p.m.

I almost had a 911SC for free.  It was abandoned at my buddy's storage facility so he filed a lien on it so I could take it.  On the last day of the waiting period the owner showed up with a trailer and paid.

I also have a different take on "old school."  For me, that description doesn't start until about 1970 or earlier.

SPG123
SPG123 HalfDork
4/18/22 1:23 p.m.

Most of our stuff is old. We enjoy the character of older vehicles very much. And most times enjoy working on them. Sometimes we dislike them wildly. All part of the program I suppose. On my way to the bank literally right now to get funds for the new trans for the old convertible... 

alfadriver
alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/18/22 1:36 p.m.

I didn't recognize the significance of this year until now. When we bought out Alfa back in '96, it was 23 years old, and very much a classic. My bought brand new Miata is now 23 years old. It's a classic, no doubt. 

frenchyd
frenchyd MegaDork
4/18/22 5:11 p.m.
Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) said:

I almost had a 911SC for free.  It was abandoned at my buddy's storage facility so he filed a lien on it so I could take it.  On the last day of the waiting period the owner showed up with a trailer and paid.

I also have a different take on "old school."  For me, that description doesn't start until about 1970 or earlier.

I'm the same way but given my age that's understandable. I actually grew up working on old Flatheads, straight 8 Buicks, and believe it or not an actual Duesenburg. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/19/22 8:58 a.m.

In reply to alfadriver :

Funny how that happens, right? When I bought my Miata, it was a used car–literally purchased it from the used car side of an Orlando Chevy dealer. Today, it wears Antique plates. 

Curtis73 (Forum Supporter)
Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/19/22 3:21 p.m.
frenchyd said:
Curtis73 (Forum Supporter) said:

I almost had a 911SC for free.  It was abandoned at my buddy's storage facility so he filed a lien on it so I could take it.  On the last day of the waiting period the owner showed up with a trailer and paid.

I also have a different take on "old school."  For me, that description doesn't start until about 1970 or earlier.

I'm the same way but given my age that's understandable. I actually grew up working on old Flatheads, straight 8 Buicks, and believe it or not an actual Duesenburg. 

Yeah, I'm 48 but growing up in the malaise era I gravitated toward classics and ended up working in the hot rodding world.  At one point the newest car in our shop was a 51 Bucktooth Merc.

alfadriver
alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/19/22 3:56 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens :

Funny, indeed.  Time has flown, but what is a "classic" car doesn't seem to shift much.  Doesn't make that much sense.

Then again, I listen to a radio station that regularly plays 80's songs as well as brand new ones.  Which would be like listening to new Nirvana and Buddy Holly on the same station.  Or even some late 40's big band song just after Under Pressure by Queen.

Tom1200
Tom1200 UltraDork
4/19/22 4:15 p.m.
alfadriver said:

In reply to David S. Wallens :

Funny, indeed.  Time has flown, but what is a "classic" car doesn't seem to shift much.  Doesn't make that much sense.

Then again, I listen to a radio station that regularly plays 80's songs as well as brand new ones.  Which would be like listening to new Nirvana and Buddy Holly on the same station.  Or even some late 40's big band song just after Under Pressure by Queen.

Back in the late 80s our local college radio station played Reggae, Blues, Punk & Alternative.  Some days the DJs would follow up the Dead Kennedys with Screamin Jay Hawkins " I Put a Spell on You". I love stations that do that type of thing.

Our 50 year old vintage car was a mere 12 years old when we bought it. In my mind it's still just an old used car we bought for $270.

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