In the Family Classic, Senses Seed Memories

Aaron McKenzie

Having children doesn’t mean being forever shackled to the steering wheel of a blobbish crossover. Yes, modern cars are undeniably safer than old ones, but a unique automobile has other merits; it can turn even the most mundane errand into a cherished family adventure. In fact, a classic car actually helps create stronger family memories.

As a child, Michael Gideon vividly remembers riding on the vinyl bench seat in his dad’s 1967 Camaro SS. Now, he’s sharing his enthusiasm with his daughter Camila. He swapped out the stock seats in his 1988 Porsche 911 Carrera for a set of Sparco Evo II fixed-backs, which perfectly fit her car seat. “She loves it, but I love it too,” he says. “She’s right next to me; it’s like having my little best friend along for the ride.”

Fellow Porsche enthusiast Neal Lett drives his 4-year-old daughter Lennon to school in his ’67 Porsche 912 equipped with a car seat in front. “She’s slowly learning the fundamentals of a manual transmission. She knows when to shift and what gear number we need to be in,” Neal says. “We get a lot of reactions on the road. Lots of waves, smiles, and thumbs up. We have had many moms roll their windows down and say, that’s the cutest thing I have ever seen.”

Child in car seat Porsche 912
Lennon Lett gets comfy in her car seat beside her dad in the family’s Porsche 912. Neal Lett

These are cars with history, cars with distinct sounds, smells, and vibrations. Every detail adds to the experience: the texture of chrome trim, lightly pitted from decades of adventures; the faint smell of fuel, of oil; the roar of a carbureted engine reverberating through a cabin devoid of sound deadening.

Lane Friedman and her husband Cooper are no strangers to classics, so it’s fitting that when their son Otis was born, they took him right to a Los Angeles car meet in their 1971 BMW 2002. “It was one of his first outings since leaving the hospital! A wave of nostalgia came over me in that car together as a family. We always joke that our son will have his fair share of cars to choose from when he sneaks out one day,” says Lane.

“He talks about the smell of it. He’ll get in and say, ‘Oh, it’s that smell!” says Steve Lowtwait, who regularly takes his son Brody on trips in his Silver Green 1979 Mercedes 300 SD, which has proven especially practical. “We take it to dinner; we’ve taken it snowboarding and fit two boards in the trunk,” says Steve. “The simpler technology, the build quality, the style, the heritage … I like to share that passion with my family.”

Turns out it isn’t just the romance of vintage materials and analog technology that makes the experience special, however. It’s science. Scent is processed by the brain’s olfactory bulb, which has a direct connection to the limbic system—the region in the brain where we process emotion and memory.

In her TEDx talk, olfactive expert Dawn Goldworm says, “When you smell an odor, you automatically link an emotion to it, and the scent and the emotion remain forever linked together, floating in our olfactive memory…. This is why some of our most powerful memories are linked to smell.” Her company, 12.29, integrates scent into brand identity and works with clients like Cadillac. So yes, that sweating gasket, rich carb, and 50-year-old interior are actually imprinting vivid family memories.

Modern cars are designed to be free of stimuli. Smooth, quiet, inoffensive transportation pods complete with multi-zone climate control, active noise cancellation, and brake-by-wire. When we interact with a vintage automobile, however, we are flooded with stimuli—electrical impulses firing through deep synapses that will become indelible memories. Decades later, we can recall them with striking detail.

1969 Camaro SS396 dad kids

As parents, we know that the time we get to spend with our children is fleeting. Our kids will move from the car seat to the driver’s seat faster than a modded hot hatch, all while the world passes by through the windows. The memories we create with them, inside a few thousand pounds of rumbling steel and glass, are precious. Our classics do far more than transport us from point A to B, so while the DMV may classify them as automobiles, we know full well that they are, in fact, multi-generational time machines.

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    Great article! I am currently “building” (getting road worthy) a 1967 Mercury Cougar base model. 289-V8, 3spd manual, drum brakes all around, no power anything… should be great but it isn’t for my kids to have memories, it’s for my grandkids. My daughter is due this August with our first grandchild and we are very excited! As a car guy I’m hoping to pass on my passion to at least one kid 😉

    Wayne, congratulations on the first grandkid coming – absolutely amazing experience! I’m lucky enough to have been able to share my automotive experiences with three generations of family youngsters.

    It’s so true that a classic car can be a great family car. You just have to prioritize your needs and see which cars from yesteryear fit the criteria. I wanted efficiency and reliability, large enough space, and a minimum level of safety like crumple zones, rear seat shoulder belts and headrests. Those filters led me to my green Mercedes 300SD mentioned and pictured in the article. It’s been a great family car making memories my son could not get in a modern car. And for me as a parent and car enthusiast.

    As someone who sold his ’81 RX7 to welcome an ’86 300SDL (which I have teenage attachment to), I agree wholeheartedly. I wanted a classic that I could enjoy WITH my family. My spouse refuses to ride without A/C and there’s enough room in the long body w126 to carry any type of adventure.
    I get to have my enjoyment, my wrench time, and then load up the family and go for ice cream.

    I’m also shopping for kid sized nitrile gloves and coveralls so my daughter can help. She already loves hanging out in the garage and pretending to drive “daddy’s old car”, I want to imprint some basic skills if I can as well. Plus it’s just that much more time spent together.

    My kid “came home from the hospital” in a 1963 Avanti in 1990, and drove to his wedding reception in 2016 in the same car.

    Same here. Both kids came home in my ’51 Buick woodie. We took our son Andrew to his 1st car show in my ’40 Ford pickup. A little cramped with the carseat, but we were going to a all Ford meet so we took the truck. Since then I’ve used the woodie in my daughters wedding.

    EXACTLY ! Old cars provide sensory stimuli and rewards that the new ones don’t.
    I can still tell a Tri-5 Chevy and a ’60s Mopar interior aroma with my eyes closed…and a smile…
    And that’s only, what – 20% of the sensory engagement I get from driving them.
    My 5-year-old Daily is a good appliance, but not particularly engaging or rewarding.

    It is true, my 90’s era Toyota Supra Turbo has more sensation and connection to the road than my 2023 Lexus IS 500. Both are “sport” in their intentions but very different in execution and feel. I do love them both though.

    both grandsons love going to school in the Mustang, top down of course, lots of waves and smiles, keeps us together and young with great memories. no matter the weather, and make sure you go fast! van and suv memories come later in your teens on dates if I recall correctly……

    I wanted an old car in 1970. There was a 1930 Ford Sport Coupe for sale in the paper. I went to look at it and see what he wanted for it. He said his bottom dollar was $900.00. Now where do I get the money. I went to the bank and said I need a loan. They asked what for. I said a Model A Ford. They said they don’t lend money for old cars. He then said, if you say your going to buy some furniture, we can lend you the money. So we BOUGHT some furniture. On the weekends with three kids in the rumble seat, we would go all over the Pittsburgh, PA. area for all the sites. We would take food with us and find a park to eat supper. Our kids grew up and so our grandkids would go with us. Then came a time when all the car did was sit in the garage. A fellow we met once said, if your ever going to sell that car, please call me. In 2017 I gave him a call and now he’s the owner. He’s now a happy camper.

    I occasionally pickup my grandson from school in my 1963 Pontiac Lemans convertible with the top down. Je loves it! Sometimes mix it up with a 82 corvette.

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