In defense of vintage car ownership

Some of us may remember Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, wife of deposed dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos. One of Madame Marcos’ claims to fame was that, when the couple was forced to flee from power, she left behind 1060 pairs of shoes. But a lesser known is the fact that she left 15 mink coats. Yes, that’s weird because the Philippines is a tropical country. But typical of her narcissism, she and her friends would parade the furs around in a refrigerated room within the Royal Palace.

I know what you’re probably thinking, “What on earth does this have to do with cars?”

This: Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing the same thing with our precious vintage automobiles. Are the cars no different than the shoes and furs, with the concours and racetracks the equivalent of the refrigerated room? How is vintage car ownership even defensible in a world of almost endless need?

Yeah. Bit of a downer, isn’t it?

Now, there’s a whole continuum of vintage car ownership. While I own 12 vehicles, I am nowhere near the thin air that well-known collectors breathe. Take away the daily drivers that my wife and I own, as well as the RV, and that leaves nine vintage cars—eight BMWs and a 1974 Lotus—on my Hagerty policy. The most valuable is my pretty, shiny, but nowhere-close-to-mint ’73 3.0CSi; these days it’s worth about $50k. There are two 1972 2002tiis, one a little beat up and the other really beat up, worth perhaps $25k and $15k respectively. There’s a 1999 Z3 M Coupe in driver condition; call it $18k. The 1979 Euro 635CSi, 1973 Bavaria, ratty 1999 Z3 roadster, and long-dead ’74 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special add up to maybe $20k. The ’75 2002 that I used to own and just bought back after 30 years is so trashed that it brings down the property values of the entire neighborhood.

Individually, I don’t consider the cars “assets.” Together, I don’t consider them a “collection.” They’re just my cars, and I just try to keep them running on a shoestring budget. I am damned fortunate to have and keep them, but I’m sure as hell not Imelda Marcos, and they’re definitely not fur coats.

However, I find myself rationalizing the emissions issue. Cars built before the integration of emission controls have a compellingly simple design aesthetic, with a beautiful sense of form-follows-function when you open the hood, and oodles of space to work on the engine (you can practically stand up next to it), but there’s no arguing that they don’t pollute, because they certainly do.

Although the smoke shown in this picture is mostly from condensation on a cold morning, there’s no sense pretending that vintage cars don’t pollute more than new ones.
Although the smoke shown in this picture is mostly from condensation on a cold morning, there’s no sense pretending that vintage cars don’t pollute more than new ones. Rob Siegel

Emission controls in cars began as a reaction to smog (then referred to as “photochemical smog”) that became a critical issue as far back as the 1940s. Los Angeles had the most severe problems due to a combination of the rapid increase in the number of cars and temperature inversions that could cause dirty air to sit in place for days. The first level of attack was a positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) system that pulled fumes laden with unburned hydrocarbons back into the intake to be burned. This was a fairly simple and effective system, requiring only occasional cleaning or replacement of the PCV valve. Most manufacturers voluntarily outfitted PCV systems into new cars by 1964.

But beginning in 1968, additional federally mandated layers of emission controls were incorporated, with the requirements ratcheting up annually. Manufacturers detuned engines, incorporating pistons with lower compression and specifying timing with less spark advance, but that only worked up to a point. Engineering solutions were hastily added. Some, such as dashpots that prevented the throttle from snapping closed, helped reduce emissions in certain situations. Others, such as exhaust gas recirculation and smog pumps, applied the “dilution is the solution to pollution” approach, where the relationship between the complexity and the true benefit was less clear.

The big change came for the 1975 model year. The mandated emissions levels were pushed low enough that most manufacturers needed to integrate catalytic converters in order to meet them. Cats, combined with newly-available lead-free gas, and oxygen sensors to ensure the car wasn’t running overly rich, proved to be a dramatically effective method of reducing tailpipe emissions. Eventually, nearly all manufacturers adopted the combination of electronic fuel injection, oxygen sensors, and cats as a method of achieving an acceptable balance of emissions, economy, and performance, but it wasn’t until incorporation of full computer-controlled injection and spark advance in the early to mid-1980s that most cars recovered the grunt and swagger of the pre-emissions days.

In the vintage car world, cars without cats and oxygen sensors are often referred to as having “dirty engines” or “dirty tailpipes,” and that’s no joke. If a car is running obnoxiously rich, most people almost immediately know it because their eyes begin to sting and water from the unburned hydrocarbons, but even well-tuned vintage cars are dirty. If I’m simply idling one of my pre-cat cars in the driveway for anything longer than the time it takes to start it and drive it into the street, my wife can smell it inside the house.

So how, exactly, do you justify being a car-obsessed human being who owns multiple dirty-burning cars? I have an argument for each side of my brain:

Left Brain: This is the usage argument. Even though they don’t burn as cleanly as modern cars, the pollution footprint of a lightly-driven vintage car is pretty small. Most years, one or two of my cars will get a 1000-mile road trip and then maybe a few weekends. There are years when many of the cars don’t even see 20 miles. So the actual pollution volume is dramatically scaled by the low usage. I could try and argue that, in keeping old cars alive, there’s a “tail of the supply curve” issue by not consuming resources to produce a new car, but that’s disingenuous, as none of my vintage cars take the place of a newer daily driver.

Right Brain: This is the passion argument. Life is much less interesting, less worth living, if we’re deprived of our passions, be that art, music, sports, literature, or the outdoors. In this context, singling out vintage cars because of their emissions is pretty selective.

If I go through it car-by-car, I give myself a B-.

  • The two daily drivers (Honda Fit and BMW E39), the RV (1995 Winnebago Rialta, a Volkswagen Eurovan with a Winnebago camper body on it), and the two Z3s on the Hagerty policy (M Coupe and roadster) are modern, and have their emission systems completely intact and functioning properly (no check engine light issues).
  • The two 1972 BMW 2002tiis have bone-stock emission systems, which is to say, absolutely nothing (the mechanical injection burned so cleanly when new that nothing at all was required).
  • The ’73 3.0CSi and the 1979 Euro 635CSi both have L-Jetronic injection with oxygen sensors but no cats. The 635 was built that way for the European market and was never federalized. The 3.0 had the L-Jet injection retrofitted to it. It must run cleaner than the original primitive oxygen-sensor-less D-Jetronic injection did.
  • The ’72 Bavaria is de-smogged, which, for that car, means that a pair of Weber 32/36s replaced the cranky Zenith Strombergs, and the deceleration dashpots and a few vacuum lines are missing. I’ve barely driven the car the past two years.
  • The ’74 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special hasn’t run since 1979, so, in fact, its carbon footprint is negative; really, it owes the world four decades of carbon.
  • The highly-modified ’75 BMW 2002 that I owned 30 years ago and recently bought back is the one whose existence I find myself rationalizing the most. The 1975 model year is the absolute worst for a stock BMW, as it is for most cars. BMW didn’t initially incorporate catalytic converters, instead opting for “thermal reactors” that were integrated into the exhaust manifold. These ran so hot that, at night, if you opened up the hood, you could see them glowing red. The results were predictable—most reactor-equipped BMWs suffered a cracked head. For this reason, it is almost unheard of to find a 1975–78 BMW still wearing its original thermal reactors. I rebuilt the engine in this car over 30 years ago. It has 10:1 pistons, dual Weber 40DCOEs, a 300 degree cam, and none of its original emission controls. But, like the Lotus, it sat in a garage for 26 years, during which it spat exactly nothing into the atmosphere. I resurrected it this spring and have only recently begun driving it around. And, like the rest of my vintage cars, the amount of usage it will see is minimal. Plus, since it is from ’75, it would be exempt from smog testing even in California (they inspect 1976 and newer cars for the presence of original emissions equipment).

The dual Webers and hot cam do require some degree of rationalization.
The dual Webers and hot cam do require some degree of rationalization. Rob Siegel

Basically, I feel that overall I’m a good environmental citizen, I get a lot of pleasure from these lightly-driven old cars, and none of them come within a country mile of billowing locomotive-level clouds the way diesels rigged to roll coal do. I figure that, as long as I own fewer cars than Imelda Marcos owned mink coats, I’m good. It may not be much of a justification, but it’s what I’ve got.

But if I begin parading around in an air-conditioned room in my house wearing a Nomex driver’s suit and weird shoes, call the feds.


Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 30 years. His new book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicGuide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is now available on Amazon. You can also order a personally inscribed copy here.

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