On the Romance of Certain Old Cars

Is there any reason to buy new?

Image: Sean Patrick

The past few years have been difficult for manufacturers trying to sell new cars in Europe. But, even if people can’t afford them, one thing car makers take for granted is that everyone likes a new car. How many new cars have you sat in as the first driver? I’ve sat in a lot, not because I’d bought most of them, but because I once delivered them as a job. But when the car is yours it’s something else, that very special moment you’ve been waiting weeks, months or, sometimes, years for.

You just sit there. You don’t even think of touching the ignition at first but, like a true connoisseur, you just savour it. Your hands reach out for the wheel and you let the scent fill your nostrils. You know what it is – tanning products, residual solvents, stuff that isn’t really that good for you – but, like any perfume, it’s the way the ingredients combine that is so magical – it’s NewCar from Paco Rabanne!

Then you start the process where the car really becomes yours, where you start bending it to your will. Somewhere, hidden in a special pocket, there will be a handbook. Or is it only available in electronic format on that central display with that cleverly curved black chrome surround? No matter, manuals are for the uninformed, for you instinct will suffice.

BackForwardUpDownBackABit – yes, the seat is now perfect. Adjust the wheel. The mirrors. Straighten your neck and turn on ignition. Lights blink, there’s a soft hum and the welcome screen appears. “Good Morning _ _ _ _ _ _”. Hmm, you’ll need to sort that but, otherwise, this is heaven, this is where you’ve always belonged.

Feel that smooth, damped click from the indicator stalk. And the light switch just …. damn, it’s a bit loose, they’ll need to fix that. And that glovebox lid doesn’t quite line up and … stop it, these are small matters, they’ll be sorted out at the first service in ….. 15,000 miles? No, just let your head tilt back against the rest, close your eyes and enjoy the moment, the wonderful magical mome …..

“Scuse me mate!”

Who’d tap on your window at a moment like this. Can’t they see that this is a time when the two of you, owner and machine, need to be alone in each other’s company?


“You just lost two quid”

“What do you mean? You mean someone nicked two quid off me? Was it you?”

“No, you just sat there for an hour, dreaming on, and your car depreciated by £2. Actually, it’s £2.03 now – make that £2.04. And that glove box lid. They’re all like that on the right hand drive version. Can’t be sorted I’m afraid. Very nice car though. ……..Hey, what did I say?”

From the day you pick up that shiny, solvent-scented dream wagon from the dealer, it’s downhill all the way, even disregarding the fact that an irresponsible hooner like myself (see above) might already have had their sweaty hands on it. That first time you feel the alloys kiss the kerb. The facelift that comes out two weeks later.

The realisation that you meant to specify the VCC/MDi engine, but ticked the slower, more thirsty VMC-CD1 option instead. The way the trim gets dirty so quickly. The way your partner leaves sweet wrappers on the floor saying ‘it’s only a bloody car’. That scrape that appears in the supermarket car park. The £412.76 dealer service that you need to maintain the warranty which seems to be an oil change carried out by a school leaver followed by some cheap scent smeared on the dashboard.

That joke the short one on Top Gear made about your very model and Russell Grant. That tin of paint that you were sure you pressed the lid down on before you put it in the boot. The leak from the rear window which the dealer has never encountered before, so naturally doesn’t know how to fix. The fact that someone always has a better car anyway. And before you know where you are, three years have passed and you’re wondering what to get next, because it’s bound to start giving trouble as soon as its out of warranty and, anyway, you don’t want to get out of that new car loop.

Now, none of this might worry you. You might be very well off, though did you get that way by letting money run through your hands? It might be a company vehicle, though most people know by now that there’s no such thing as a free car. You might buy a new car every 10 years and knowingly run it into the ground. You might be such a petrolhead that only the latest and best will do, whatever the cost. But if you’re none of these, why buy new? If your answer is peace of mind, reflect on the two year old Range Rover I saw immobile in Central London last week, with its hazards on. Peace of mind does not exist once you get into any car.

I have a 17 year old Audi S6. It is quite fast and sure-footed, has a characterful engine and, having fewer aids, it is arguably more fun to drive than a current Audi. I bought it for just over £3,000 three years ago, which is more than I could have paid, but it was a very good example and I liked the guy who was selling it. Brand new, the car cost the equivalent of maybe £47,000 today.

Take away the creasing to the leather, fix the climate control buttons that stick occasionally, touch-in a bit of paint and there is not much difference between that brand new Audi from 1996 and the car I drive. Back then, if you’d given me it new I wouldn’t have complained – though no great car in its basic form, it was near the sharp end of the tech tree in some respects. But would I have actually put up my own money and bought it as a new car? Not at all.

Big new cars are always expensive. They are run by people who don’t care too much about fuel prices and who want lots of space. Big, old cars are always cheap. They use too much petrol and take up too much space. No-one wants them, so they do offer incredible bargains.

What do you actually get from a new car, that you can’t get in an old one? How much are you losing out by buying secondhand?

Safety. As a friend wrote a while ago, it’s amazing how many times I’ve got in a car without being seriously killed. Facetious you might think, and it only needs to happen once, but consider how safe you felt 10 years ago driving whatever you drove, despite lacking ASC, PTS, AFR or whatever. Cars should be safe but, statistically, the chances of it happening are slim, and even if it happens, it can still be dreadful, whatever aids you might possess.

Besides the Audi, I also drive a forty year old car with great brakes but no anti-lock system. On the whole I do consider ABS an essential item that makes the roads safer, but when was the last time my wheels locked in that car and I got into a situation that ABS would have saved me from? Never, actually, and I’ve driven it a long distance and fast. And, because I am used to driving that way, when was the last time I sensed the Audi’s ABS cutting in? A couple of winters ago, in the snow, and it was to little effect.

In terms of secondary safety oldies can never compete. It gets better every year and I have an eternal image of a photo a guy on crutches once showed me of the Lancia Fulvia Coupe that he had rolled. Those skinny, elegant A, B and C pillars had folded like straw and the roof was level with bonnet and boot. But there are so many ways I can be horribly injured outside a car, and I, and most of the rest of us, do little to minimise that chance.

Buying the safest possible car, especially if you have a family, seems the correct thing to do, but then so maybe is ensuring they wear stab vests, hard hats and high-vis bandoliers when they walk down the road. Where do you start; where do you stop?

Engines. Engines have made great strides in the past 15 years. The performance of my two cars was once reasonably exceptional, but is now commonplace. That said, I don’t find either car holding people up. As cars have got a lot faster, the roads have got a lot slower and most people who buy cars with a lot of performance, don’t really use it – fortunately.

That additional performance potential is achieved using far less petrol or, if you must, diesel. But if I drive a 20 mpg car 12,000 miles in a year, how much extra money do I spend over a new one that uses, say, half the fuel? About £3,600 over 3 years. Until they go wrong, modern engine management systems are a blessing. In the bad old days of mechanical distributors and carburetors, any wet or cold weather was greeting with a morning chorus of churning starters and stuttering backfire.

Now it’s much better, but you can go back a long way now and still find a well managed engine with, if the worst comes to the worst, a salvaged ECU available for a fraction of the cost.

Another thing is sound. Regulations and marketing conspire to control the noise your car makes. It can’t make a lot of drive-by noise on a regular basis, but if it’s got any performance pretensions, it needs to remind the driver now and again. As an example, the S6 has gone from 5 to 8 to 10 cylinders, then back to 8.

Aside from the observation that it will be back to 5, or maybe down to 3, soon, I’ll agree that the first time you hear a V8 or V10 Audi accelerating, it’s quite a satisfying noise. But, for me at least, after a while there is the suspicion you’re being manipulated a bit too far, with this sound that can be tamed at will – it’s all a bit …. synthetic.

Environment. New cars are ‘cleaner’ though, since so many are diesels, please excuse the inverted commas. But we come back to the old life-cycle calculation, and the various people who have kept my Audi running for 17 years have likely done less disfavours to the planet than the ones who buy a new Prius every second year.

Styling. Possibly the most contentious point.. With new cars I’m a great believer in the maxim of first impressions, though other people prefer to take longer to appreciate designs and I admit that rarely some cars do grow on me. However, with time comes clarity and some cars age well, whilst others don’t.

A Lamborghini Miura and a Fiat 128, say, have never looked bad, but a Ford Cortina 2000 GXL, say, has gone go from everyman’s must-have, through irredeemably naff to endearingly quaint period piece. Personally I like oddball as much as understated good taste but, if you want to avoid having any skeletons in your historical garage to be sneered at by future generations, give a design time to settle. You won’t take my word for it, I know, but that Nissan Juke will not impress your grandchildren in a good way.

Toys. Well here there’s no contest. I was shocked at how little secondary entertainment the Audi offered. A very nice sound system, a rudimentary trip computer, electric rear view mirrors – well, you can see I’m scraping the barrel already, especially since the heated driver’s seat doesn’t work. Is this all the person who’d fork out the equivalent of 47 Grand in the 90s would settle for? Those were simple days.

On the other hand, how often do I miss the multifunction screen and controller I’d have in a new Audi. If I had that, I’d either feel a fool for not knowing how to use it properly, or end up in a ditch trying to run an analysis of my fuel consumption against average speed over the past 83 days. Does anyone really use these things, or are they just there to flatter us into thinking we are pilots, not mere drivers?

Most the things that actually help, such as satnav and LCD screens to distract the kids, are better purchased stand-alone – it’s cheaper, they often perform better and, crucially, they are easier to replace when they go wrong.

Social Life. Face it, new car dealers are becoming more and more like Harvester Restaurants, especially at service time. “Hello, welcome to Stepford Renault, my name is Josie and I’m your Service Liaison Representative, do you have your Loyalty Card with you … have you chosen from our Service Menu … how are your spelling your name?

No I’m afraid you can’t speak to our mechanics but describe the fault to me and I’ll pretend I’m entering it in on my keyboard, then we’ll tell you we’ve done a full diagnostic and can’t find anything … . thank you for visiting Stepford Renault … would you like to complete an online Satisfaction Survey and be entered for our competition to attend a track day with Robbie Williams?”.

Get an old car and you get to meet far more interesting people. People whose lives haven’t been encumbered by having to attend a Type 17 Gearbox Maintenance Course in order to get a certificate to put on the wall for me to read whilst I wait for Josie to find someone who can get my car out of the Customer Bay and remove all the bits of paper and polythene they’ve draped over the interior.

Obviously anyone with memories of Arthur Daley’s classic “he was a legend in the motor trade – first man to stuff a bri-nylon shirt into a dodgy gearbox” will be nervous but actually most people who work on old cars aren’t really trying to rip you off. For a start, they know that you are a goose that might not actually have a Golden Egg for them to plunder, so they understand that the relationship is symbiotic – it’s important not to kill the host.

A few of them might be pretty crap mechanics, true, but not all by any means. And generally they have better stories to tell, have a more interesting vocabulary and their garages are located in such fascinating areas.

Reliability. That brings us to the subject of breakdowns. Of course all of this is a gamble. With an old car you have no Full Manufacturer’s Warranty to fall back on though, if the worst comes to the worst, you can console yourself by looking at the many internet postings from people who have fallen foul of the small print in new car warranties.

You can buy a used car warranty, which is really a type of mechanical insurance policy. Or you can just decide that you’ve saved thousands, so can afford to pay for the odd repair. If so, it’s best to quantify this. Say you’ve bought a Bangle era BMW for £4,000. Its equivalent today would cost £50,000. So, put into that perspective, setting yourself a contingency budget of another £4,000 in addition to normal servicing is pretty acceptable.

In the end, though, a car is a disposable. It is designed with a finite life and, after that, the manufacturer has no interest in keeping it running. After a high mileage it is going to start dying, parts supply will dry up and the time spent on its maintenance will rise exponentially. Either buy very cheap, weld up the bonnet to avoid temptation and leave it at the side of the road, less chassis and registration plates, when it stops, or get a good one and expect to pay a fair price.

Another aspect of reliability is being able to go out in the morning and be sure your car is safe and unmolested. Car thieves are either ‘professional’, stealing for profit or ‘amateur’ stealing for pleasure, or to get a ride home from the club. Old, lower value cars are generally of less interest to the former and of more interest to the latter, being an easier proposition to get started. Vandals are harder to predict.

New and expensive cars can be the victims of envy but, strangely, a rather timid mindset can come in to play and an angry drunk or hormonal teen will key a car that he, or rarely she, views as cheap. But he has to notice it first so, probably, a 10 year old Mondeo in a dull colour is a good choice for an invisible car but you might not want one and, in any case, it would be a shame to use this as a reason to make your choice.

Image. A tricky one this, since its very subjective. A mature person realises that any message the car they choose seems to give out about them is irrelevant but, like me, you might aspire but never seem to reach that degree of maturity. Custodianship of a new car can say two things about you. First, that you can afford it, second (depending on the model) that you are essentially forward looking.

An old car potentially says a lot more but, taking the opposite of the new car’s messages first, well there’s no shame in not being able to afford new anyway, and there’s kudos in being sensible enough not to, even if you could. On the second point it probably depends on how genuine the advances made are, and how relevant they are to your needs. You might well identify an 8 shift paddle change as a genuine improvement, but triple scalloped flanks and smiley face running lights less so.

To a great extent, rust has been banished from cars, though never take this for granted. Years ago this was a minefield, irrespective of how prestigious the car was and, to me, a rusty car is a depressing reminder of mortality and doesn’t reflect well on the driver. However, a beat-up car is a different matter.

I remember a well-worn Mercedes 280TE Estate that I had a minor obsession with many years ago, so much so that I asked the owner to let me know if he ever wanted to sell it, something I wouldn’t normally do. It had various dents and scrapes, the paintwork had faded, it was never washed, but it had a purposeful honesty about it. I’m still waiting for the call and he’s probably still driving it.

Certain images you want, certain you don’t and, with old cars they are particularly brand, model, colour and accessory sensitive. First accessories – any fitment of after market embellishments to an old car suggests you care too much about it. Maybe that’s OK for you, but it wouldn’t do for me. Some colours age better than other – cheap red pigments can fade to very unhealthy hues, though again you might like this.

Brand and model is the most difficult. Without being specific, there are those cars that just shout MINICAB DRIVER, PUB LANDLORD or SMALL-TIME CRIMINAL. Now I’m not knocking any of these professions and you might not care, or you might even be one of the above, but knowledge of this fact does avoid disappointing people who tap on your window and ask the fare to the Archway Road, whether you want to buy some knock-off Vodka or if you’ve got any Bernie for them.

Posterity. Just as a new car gets approving looks, so can an old one. It just depends whether you want that. I mentioned my 40 year old car, so we should address the subject of ‘classics’. This can put things onto a different financial and social plane. Once upon a time there were Veteran Cars, Edwardian Cars, Vintage Cars and a slightly subjective category, almost an invitation-only club, called ‘Post Vintage Thoroughbred Cars’.

Anything else built in the Thirties or anything built after World War II was just an Old Car. In the Sixties you could pick up an 8 year old Ferrari at a fraction of its original price. These cars were seen as the province of the down at heel, or the plain eccentric and they had no dignifying generic identity.

Then, in the Seventies, the term ‘Classic Car’ started appearing. This might have been a suitable term to underline that an XK140 Jaguar or a Bentley R Type Continental had an historical significance that made them objects worth cherishing, but it soon became a perfectly acceptable term to label a Ford Consul or Wolseley 1500. All classic cars are worth driving, if only to underline how dreadful most of them were. But a significant minority are worth driving to show those things that many contemporary designers have lost along the way. Purity, visibility, space, comfort, elegance, etc.

Because you have a ‘classic’ for some reason people often believe that you are a nice person. This can be good, people let you out of junctions and, when you’re going faster than them, don’t always take it as an affront. But there’s a downside. Because you are so ‘nice’, when people come up to you with a cheery ‘ooooh, you don’t see many of these do you – isn’t that the one Burt Reynolds drove into the river in that film – what is it a Maserati or something?’ you’re expected to spend 15 minutes giving them a beginner’s primer to the French automobile industry.

I don’t actually keep my old car in order to meet people, or because I’m stuck in some nostalgic rut, or as an investment. The first two reasons are harmless enough, I guess, but the last is the reason why many ‘classics’ now exclude themselves as viable alternatives to new cars. My own reason for keeping the car is because it actually affords a driving experience that suits me, and that I couldn’t really get elsewhere at any price.

So, a very old car can be a nice thing to have, and you can feel good that you are performing some sort of curatorial service to the Moving Museum of Transportation, but realistically speaking it is in that trough that old cars slip into before they get featured in Classic & Sportscar that you should really search.

Purchasing. Now I’m not putting myself forward as an expert in this, but I’ve discovered some ground rules. There are some very bad drivers around. I’m sure you’ve sat behind someone at traffic lights on a hill riding the clutch instead of using the handbrake. You’ve gritted your teeth at the sound of a crashed gearchange. You’ve rolled your eyes when a friend tells you he never checks his oil.

Do you want to buy a car that these people have owned? Probably not, though cars can be remarkably resilient, and the problem is that, unless you know the previous owner’s personally, it’s hard to get a handle on their driving style. You can read about the AA’s 72 Point Check elsewhere, but I’d suggest some additional detective work. Tyres tell stories – It doesn’t matter how much tread, I’d walk away from anything with more than 2 different types of rubber on it. How much wear is there on the steering wheel and where is it situated?

Likewise gearshift, if manual. What pre-sets are on the radio? Are there stickers on the car? Are there wrappers and parking tickets stuffed into unseen crevices? Like Sherlock Holmes, you build up an image of the previous owner, then decide whether they were an acceptable custodian.

As I mention above, buy the best you can – concentrate on how much you’re saving, not how much you’re spending. You’ll have your own take on haggling. Some are only happy if they’ve ground everything down to the bone but, personally, I like a deal where you both go away pleased. In the end it’s a lottery, of course – you might be happy, you might be sad but that’s the same everywhere, no?

Intangibles. I’ve owned new cars, and enjoyed the moment I mentioned above but, in the end, it is so transient. Although I abhor the glutinous term ‘preloved’, like a house that has had generations come and go through its doors, I find it oddly reassuring to consider all those unknown journeys my old cars have made in someone else’s hands.

Does the now redundant tow bar tell me that they had a boat, a horse or just a trailer? Why is there sand in the spare well? Will the car have a life after it leaves my care? You can’t manufacture history, even though cars like the contemporary Mini and Fiat 500 might try to, and, although I once kept a new car for 15 years, essentially from cradle to grave, a new car has no history and is therefore, in my eyes, less interesting and less …. romantic.

Conclusion. So, after all this, what is my message? Possibly not what you think. Unless you agree with the previous paragraph, just go out there and buy a new car, the best you can afford, and dress it up with gadgets. The industry needs you to. In the UK, the average lifespan of a car is 14 years.

Many people can only afford to buy used and they don’t need to see the good stuff taken, and prices pushed up, by those who can afford more. If you can afford to buy new, but don’t, you are saying “I don’t recognise my social contract – I go to work and expect people to give me a job, to buy the stuff I make but, in my own life, I’d rather deny the motor industry the wherewithal to make technical progress, as well as depriving someone of their livelihood in regularly building me a new car – yet my hypocrisy is such that I expect other people to buy new because, if they didn’t, what am I going to buy used in 2026?”

Some of us actually prefer used cars – so leave them to us.

4 thoughts on “On the Romance of Certain Old Cars”

  1. This is a superb piece. My own motoring experiences have encompassed the new – (I worked for a car-leasing/rental company once upon a time) – and the decrepit – (I once rescued and restored an Alfasud from a scrapyard, which is very much another story).

    I currently drive an 18-year old Saab. 115,000 miles, yet everything works, it starts first time, and drives like a car half its age. It does everything I require of it. The telling thing is that I don’t hanker for anything more modern. It has as much kit as I realistically need and quite honestly, I can see myself driving it until it expires. Within a relatively short time, I have become inordinately fond of the old thing. It exists within that era when cars had escaped the old spluttering and coughing routine thanks to fuel injection and engine management, it has been properly rust-proofed to the point that there is virtually none, yet it can still be fixed by a competent mechanic. Cars like this should be more prized – yet all it will take is that one prohibitive repair – that ‘we can’t get the parts’ moment and it will be the end. A perfectly serviceable, well looked after, and lets not mince words, loved car will die. The cars of today will not live this long – they will just stop working and that will be that. Eventually, there will be no old cars. And I for one, shall lament their passing.

  2. Eoin. Thank you for your comments. Coincidentally, a problem with a work friend’s 10 year old E Class yesterday meant that I was going to attach a similar codicil regarding relative moderns. A problem with the keyless transponder / plug whatever it is called means that sometimes the car starts, sometimes it doesn’t. Not a problem that, with a reasonably sympathetic mechanical mind, I could even begin to address. My sole contribution was to tell her that, possibly, the unit the transponder fits into might be faulty and underplayng my suspicion that Mercedes could supply a new one ….. for £900 fitted? Possibly, as back street mechanics get more electronically savvy, and salvage companies better at extracting and identifying good components, this will be less of a pain, but the roadside repair is likely to become less and less feasible. I speak as someone who once repaired a van whilst on holiday in Greece with a piece cut from a tin of pineapple chunks. Don’t ask what kind of person takes pineapple chunks on holiday to Greece.

  3. There are plenty of rational reasons to buy used, primarily financial. Depreciation is probably the biggest expense suffered by the original buyer. A well maintained three year old car with half of the warranty remaining is often the best buy.

    However, I don’t think that pursuing the wisest financial strategy is the reason that this blog was started. The article ignores the emotional aspect of used/ old car buying. My vehicle purchases have been to cover two bases, transportation and recreation.

    Transportation needs are easy to qualify, recreation gets down to satisfying the emotional needs of the ardent car lover. And the car lover wants a car that he can love. Luckily many desirable vehicles depreciate to the point that the regular, working guy enthusiast can afford the purchase price. We know that the buy in price is just the beginning, but we are well prepared to invest that tangible quality of our labor and money with the intangible quality of involvement. It is the involvement that separates the car enthusiast from the casual car user. We relish the opportunity to own something that is special. We want our opportunity to touch greatness.

    Laugh if you must. But the emotional aspect of hobby car ownership isn’t just part of the equation, it the whole point of the equation!

    People buy new cars so that can avoid involvement. ( Well, except the financial!) They need a car that can deliver the transportation part of the equation reliably so that they can focus on the other aspects of their lives. Sometimes there are new cars that can satisfy the cravings of the average enthusiast, but we do have a tendency to want to overreach!

  4. There is something very relaxing about not having to worry about a car. During the last 15 years I have worked my way down from a £3-4,000 W124 Mercedes (so long ago I can’t be 100% sure of the price), followed by two X300 Jags at £2,000 and £1,500, a Ford Mondeo V6 at £1,200 and now a Lexus GS300 at £700. I begin to wonder how low I can go. It has almost become a matter of pride. They have all been relatively expensive on petrol (for the bigger engined petrol car is where the bargains lurk), but have a) never stranded me at the roadside and b) saved me a gigantic sum in depreciation/lease payments. It does require a bit of knowledge, and willingness to research autotrader and travel a bit of distance to secure a good one, but that’s all part of the fun. If the Lexus gets scratched in a car park, I won’t care enough to get it fixed. After two years service, I gave the Ford to my son when his car packed up, quite content that at £600/year depreciation I had already had my money’s worth out of the thing. It’s a sweet spot to be in, owning something that you owe nothing on. I recommend it, but it is perhaps not for everyone (fortunately).

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