1 July 2016

What is an analog car?

Analog is the opposite of digital. Like vinyl records and mechanical watches, an analog device doesn’t need to break things down into a series of zeros and ones in order to function.

The term “analog car” is in danger of becoming a cliché, hitting automotive editors’ no-go lists of over-used terms before, oddly enough, it’s even definitively determined what one is. It seems the least we can do is attempt to define what analog car means before we reflexively banish the term. This exercise is of course, totally non-scientific and brutally subjective, so feel free to disagree.

Like the term “Survivor®” (which is incidentally a trademark of the Bloomington Gold organization), there seems to be a fair amount of confusion around the term. Just as an old car isn’t a survivor simply because it hasn’t been crushed, neither is every tactile, minimalist and responsive car an analog car merely by virtue of “feeling” old school. A 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C, for example is lightweight and delightful to drive, but it isn’t an analog car by any stretch.

Analog cars are mechanically honest, which a 4C is not. As much as I love the car, it’s a modern, digital car playing a carbon fiber card trick. It’s equipped with a sophisticated dual-clutch, automatic transmission that apes a real manual transmission’s feel (complete with automated downshift blips). Additionally, a raucous exhaust system, which tries its best to mimic a non-catalyzed, 1960s ANSA system (exhausts originally manufactured in Italy), complete with copious popping on the overrun, adds to the ruse. To a cynic, or a true analog car aficionado, the exhaust note is reminiscent of Inigo Montoya’s (Mandy Patinkin) affected accent in The Princess Bride.

There’s a directness requirement to an analog car, ruling out things like drive-by-wire throttles. For aviation buffs, it’s the difference between a WWII-era North American P-51 fighter plane with real gauges featuring mechanical needles, and control surfaces moved by hydraulics linked directly to the yoke and rudder pedals, versus a hyper-automated, glass cockpit, fly-by-wire Airbus. Any drivers’ aids beyond ABS are strictly out in an analog car.

Serious computerization is also a no-no. There are few post OBD I (On-Board Diagnostics first generation, the system that diagnoses and reports a vehicle’s systems status) analog cars out there. Fuel injection isn’t necessarily a deal breaker—early mechanical systems like the ones from Rochester, Bendix, Lucas, Bosch and Kugelfischer are as analog as a slide rule. Even simple, single-point, electronic Bosch D, K and L-Jetronic injection systems are still analog whereas a Bosch Motronic system that digitally controls fuel injection and ignition is not. Being able to actually wrench on the car yourself without special tools, a code-reader and a laptop is an essential part of analogness.

We also seem to reserve the term analog car (rightfully so), for the era when “digital cars” began appearing. Touting how analog a 1961 Corvette is, is like celebrating a 1950s McIntosh amplifier for having vacuum tubes – all amps did then.

Some late analog cars that we love? The original 1992 Dodge Viper might well be among the last of them. And while it may suffer from a few vintage-style affectations like the 4C – the side curtains and side-exhaust for example – the car lacked any drivers’ aids (not even ABS) and initially, couldn’t even be had with air conditioning.

The Porsche 911SC of 1978-83 is another late analog-era classic. Even its clutch was directly actuated via cable, not hydraulics. I suppose you could argue that the 3.2-liter Carrera of 1984-89 was a fairly analog car as well, but its more sophisticated Bosch Motronic digital engine management system and actual hydraulic clutch of the 1987-89 Getrag G50 gearbox cars began Porsche’s digital slide. Later 911 generations like the 964, 993 and 996 quickly acquired the Porsche 959 supercar’s intricacy.

The last analog Ferrari? Likely the 308 Quattrovalvole of 1983-85. No ABS, simple Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection and easily wrenched on by owners. Moreover, major service could be performed without removing the engine. The 328 that followed, was like the 911 Carrera of Ferraris, along with the subsequent 348, began Ferrari’s transition that wed the owner to the dealer or a nearly equally expensive indie shop.

Just as soulless throwaways like the compact disc and quartz watch led to an inevitable backlash and an affection for quainter, simpler technology like vinyl music and mechanical watches, the last of the true analog cars are finding a place with collectors, and values of late reflect that. Perhaps it’s due to a realization that unlike vinyl records and watches that require winding, analog cars are never coming back.

Let us know if you agree or disagree in the comments below.

13 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Jim Doerr 928 Classics July 4, 2016 at 10:24
    Great story, Rob! I think about analog quite often. First 'retreat' into analog was ditching my '00 E46 bmw. Then deeper I went in the early Porsche 928 along with developing expertise in Bosch K-jet (it's a love-hate relationship ;) ). So I totally get it, and I'm glad you are further defining the term, in terms of cars. A couple of observations...Hydraulics are analog too. I suppose you mean they may be less-so, but I'd defer to your '61 corvette/Mcintosh tube simile. And for the record, analog cars are binary too. Plenty of ones and zeros going on... just bits however, not mega bytes. Rob, are you still on the hunt for a pasha early 928? If so, email me. Thanks!
  • 2
    Tim W Music City, USA July 7, 2016 at 13:35
    I love my analog classic but after an hour or so of driving it it sure feels good to get in my digital ride. Like Joe Walsh sings on a recent album release, I guess I'm an analog man in a digital world!
  • 3
    Harold Panel Wake Forest NC July 7, 2016 at 14:11
    As a 75 year old vintage British sports car enthusiast I enjoy working on my analog 60 MGA Coupe and 72 TR6 but wouldn't dare wrench on my Ram truck or Buick Lacrosse. Using the old tools and tuning by the seat of your pants is a lot of fun!
  • 4
    Robert Fisher Oregon July 7, 2016 at 16:00
    My 1985 Mercedes 300DT.
  • 5
    Walter Moore Indianapolis IN July 7, 2016 at 18:30
    So, you are limiting the term "Analog Car" to only those cars made during the early digital era that were behind the curve? Meaning only a handful of models qualify, not the cars made in the decades before 1980? That is a strange definition. Further, how can you consider ABS to be analog? Other than the early Chrysler system from the 70's aren't they all digital?
  • 6
    Rick B My garage July 7, 2016 at 11:07
    The last really great 'analog' sports/exotic car is the Spyker C8 Spyder. No power brakes, no power steering, manual shift, analog gauges, no stereo as standard, no airbags. It does have ABS and power windows but I mean, c'mon...one is a safety measure (not a driving aid) and the other has been around for decades.
  • 7
    Rick B My garage July 7, 2016 at 11:10
    The last really great 'analog' sports/exotic car is the Spyker C8 Spyder. No power brakes, no power steering, no stability control (or driver's aids at all), manual shift, analog gauges, no stereo as standard, no airbags. It does have ABS and power windows but I mean, c'mon...one is a safety measure (not a driving aid) and the other has been around for decades.
  • 8
    Norm Davis 1966 GTO July 7, 2016 at 11:25
    Agree with nearly everything Rob. I would give some slack to electronic ignition however. It's a vast improvement over points and is still a home-mechanic project. For me, analog means no memory chips, no programming, and the ability to hot-wire a car without needing IT assistance!
  • 9
    John C Cargill illinois July 7, 2016 at 11:26
    I'd have to say my 1975 Triumph Spitfire is very analogue.
  • 10
    R Foster Boothbay,ME July 8, 2016 at 21:42
    As a former owner of a Porsche 911SE I couldn't agree more with this write up. Now that I own a 1999 SL500 I feel as though I'm half way out of the canoe, but there's still enough analog there to keep me smiling.
  • 11
    Hal Beatty washington July 10, 2016 at 21:07
    One minor correction... the P-51 uses cables to operate the flight controls. Hydraulics are only used for the landing gear and flaps.
  • 12
    Thomas Madere Louisiana July 15, 2016 at 10:06
    My 1967 Ford M 151 military 1/4 ton utility tactical truck (Jeep) is about as analog as you can get. No worries about an EMP burst shutting it down.
  • 13
    Hans Shtick Delaware August 19, 2016 at 08:38
    Perhaps the article could be better characterized as "analog holdouts" instead of an arbitrary comparison of digital vs analog. Hydraulic vs cable clutches are irrelevant to the discussion, as numerous pure-analog classics had hydraulic clutches back into the early 60s if not late 50s. Dismissing a classic as non-analog because of contemporaneous build norms while accepting an ABS-equipped car into the category undermines the effectiveness of the article's intended point.

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