The pitfalls and triumphs of driving a classic car on a daily basis
It’s romantic really, the thought of piloting a classic on a daily basis. Getting those stares as you drive to work, the rumbling of that cam at the stoplight and the conversations that start up at every fuel station. Those are the good times. But now you’re stuck in traffic, eyes glued to the temperature gauge as it climbs past 220 degrees and you’re starting to sweat. Can I get to the right? Is there a shoulder to pull off on? What made me think this was a good idea?
Get ready because you’ll be asking yourself all those questions and more if you decide to go old school for a daily. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a bad idea, but if you do, there are quite a few things you need to know before you jump in with both feet.
Understand this; old cars are called “classics” for a reason—they’re old. And to break it down in the most simplistic way, and regardless of what you tell yourself, they are not better than modern cars. They’re not as safe, not as efficient and/or reliable, and if you drive old American stuff, the fuel economy alone can be enough to send your wallet into cardiac arrest. On the flip side, I have yet to find a new car that can stimulate me in the same fashion as when I’m cruising down the road in one of my classics. Hell, even our new 840-horsepower Dodge Demon doesn’t generate the same type of inner emotion that I feel when I’m behind the wheel of my ’68 Charger. For that reason alone, my inner-argument for the classic daily will always be justified.
Now before you venture down this road of psychosis, you first need to decide on what type of vehicle you’re going to commit to. I say commit because driving a classic every day is an exercise in both patience and fortitude. It will break down, it will leak (both inside and out) and it will, at some point, leave you stranded. This will happen regardless of how well you or the previous owner have taken care of it. Over the course of my career I’ve changed spark plugs at 11 p.m. on the side of I-5, been stranded on the Blackfoot Indian reservation in Montana, and even set one of my old sleds on fire after trying to road race it (dumb idea) during The One Lap Of America. And while instances like this would make some folks hang up their keys, I’ve counted every breakdown and mishap as a learning experience that became a triumph, as I’ve always been able to get the old sleds running again and back on the road.
Choosing an old-school daily isn’t as easy as it sounds, so let’s break it down by era for some proper perspective.
If, for example, you wanted something built before the mid ‘60s, I’d advise against it. In that instance you’re talking about technology that was developed in the automotive Stone Age, and truth be told, that’s no bueno. We’re talking about things like lever arm suspension systems, bench seats with no seatbelts, and brakes that were essentially made of chewing gum. Plus, if you’re thinking about running at modern Interstate speeds then y’all can forget it. The slow lane will now be your home, so best get used to it. You’ll also have awful acceleration, daily cooling issues, a cabin that will sound like the inside of a kettledrum, and emergency handling characteristics that are laughable at best. I’ve driven just about everything from this era, and it’s the last place I’d go to find a daily. Keep these guys as show ponies and opt for something a bit newer.
In my opinion, the sweet spot is 1966 to the early ’80s, when we were treated to some of the most beautiful vehicles ever produced: from the stunning lines of those big B-body MOPARs and the Chevrolet Camaro, to the birth of icons like the Mercedes-Benz W123 Series and the refinement of the Porsche 911. This is the era where improvements were made to the overall mechanics and safety features like power disc brakes and rollover protection. The vehicles produced during this time are also more reliable and easy to work on. This is the era of the “forever car,” due to the automobiles’ simplistic and durable nature. Current aftermarket support for this genre also adds another element, as most classic parts (interior, exterior, and mechanical) are readily available, as are upgrades like EFI, engine, and big brake kits.
Cars from the mid-1980s to the early ’90s are altogether better. In short, they’re what we’d think of as modern. Any misgivings from the previous 25 years of automotive development have been sorted, and you should have no problem piloting these on a daily basis. The caveat to this is that many people will simply see vehicles from this era as “old” not “classic,” which may throw a wrench into your plans. And while this period has many amazing cars to choose from, please don’t think that your 1993 Plymouth Breeze makes for a cool daily driver. It doesn’t. This is also a time period that the aftermarket hasn’t really addressed yet, so finding replacement or aftermarket parts could be a problem, depending on which vehicle you’ve chosen.
Setting realistic expectations is the final piece of the puzzle. While most people fall in love with the romantic side of the classic daily, their failure to see the realistic side of things often leads to a great idea going south. Although the cars are simplistic in design and engineering, maintenance can be costly and expensive if you’re not doing it yourself. The mechanics of old are becoming harder to find, and even the simple task of rebuilding a carburetor—a talent that every mechanic used to possess—is a dying art. Classic dailies are machines in their purest form. They utilize things like roll up windows, cable actuated HVAC systems and vents, vacuum operated headlamps, and distributors. They’re basic machines and we love them because of it, but keep in mind that I have yet to see one that doesn’t need a bit of tinkering every month or so.
At their heart, old cars will still be old cars. However if you’re willing to live with their pitfalls, then I will tell you from experience that driving a classic on a daily basis can be one of the most rewarding and special experiences you will ever have in your automotive travels.