What YOU need to know about driving classic cars

This post isn’t aimed at those of us who regularly drive classic cars, but it is designed to help folk without classic experience. What is a classic car like to drive? Are they all horribly slow? Why do they take so long to pull away at junctions? What are those strange controls?

To make life easier, I’m focussing on Post-war classics – those made since 1945. Even then, controls aren’t always labelled in the same way, so for the classic novice, the interior of an elderly car can be a confusing place to sit. If it makes you feel better, classic fans often feel just as confused when clambering into a modern car, where there are more buttons on the steering wheel than the entire dashboard of many classics! Before you can start the engine, you generally need the control below.

If you own a modern car, you probably don't recognise this.

If you own a modern car, you probably don’t recognise this.

The choke control knob adjusts the mixture and throttle for a cold start. The logo on it shows a butterfly valve restricting air flow. Modern cars do this automatically, but most classics don’t and require user input. Knowing how much choke to use can be a bit of an art. It depends on ambient temperature, engine temperature and how long since the engine last ran. You also generally need to steadily reduce the choke as the engine warms. Again, this varies from car to car. A Citroen 2CV can generally run choke-free after less than a mile, but a classic Mini may take a few miles before you can shove the choke fully home. It sounds more complicated than it really is and for many, it’s like using a clutch. You just no longer really think about it.

Starting the engine can now proceed. You might need a bit of throttle, but you might not need any at all. You build a relationship with a classic car, and that means you have to discover what it needs. Some classics require you to turn a key, others have a starter button – a recent trend in moderns too.

We’d better talk about gearboxes before setting off. They can be rather clunky and some lack synchromesh on all gears. It’s something we take for granted these days, but synchromesh allows for smooth changes at all speeds. It effectively gets the gear cogs up to the required speed before they mesh, so there’s no crunch. Many post war classics lack synchromesh on first gear and some – Fiat 500s for instance – lack any synchromesh at all! Going up the gearbox, that’s not much of a problem. Going back down is more of a challenge though. For that reason, many classics need to come to a complete halt before first gear is selected. That’s why they can sometimes seem to linger at junctions. They’re not doing it just to annoy you! Experienced classic drivers learn a trick called double-declutching so that downchanges can be conducted on the move. It requires some skill and familiarity with the car. Don’t worry about it if you are a novice, but do note that you may need to come to a complete halt to select first without a crunch. A tip is to select second, then first when you have stopped as this will stop the gear cogs whirring and will allow a crunch-free change.

Steering is the next challenge. Power assistance is rare on classics, though some larger ones will have it. Where fitted, it’s often very light indeed. If it isn’t fitted, the steering will be very heavy at slow speeds, bordering on very heavy indeed at car park speeds. You’ll also notice that the steering gets heavier as your cornering speed increases. In classics, you often feel the speed you are travelling far more than in a modern. It can be hard work. The steering can be vague, especially if a steering box is used, which can make driving at speed very hard work. It’s one reason many classics prefer to travel at a gentler pace. The other is that older engines aren’t always happy to be driven hard.

Handling can be very different too. Skinnier tyres and different suspension designs mean many older vehicles just can’t be driven as quickly as a modern hatchback – certainly unless you are very skilled in how these vehicles handle on the limit. With classics, it’s often more about enjoying the journey than arriving in the quickest time possible. They’re not all bad – my 2CV can certainly corner very quickly, and so can classic Minis. Morris Minors on standard-width tyres are at something of a disadvantage though, and pushing one hard can be a scary introduction into the world of oversteer – where the back end pushes out and you go sidewards.

Driving classic cars can be challenging, but is huge fun!

Driving classic cars can be challenging, but is huge fun!

Then we come to brakes. They can be awful by modern standards. Even a 2CV, which has very powerful brakes, has a pedal that needs a good shove to get any braking effect. This is because it doesn’t have a brake servo. These use a vacuum created by the engine to boost the braking effect. It’s why many moderns require just a light touch on the middle pedal. That said, a Citroen DS has a rubber button on the floor which can produce very strong braking with the lightest of touches. Certainly, it’s a world away from other cars of 1955. The lack of braking is another reason why a classic owner may choose to drive comfortably below a posted speed limit. There’s no ABS either, so the old art of cadence braking may be required in an emergency. Again, I’ll leave Wikipedia to the details. Needless to say, it’s an art that has saved my skin on several situations!

If all this is making classic cars sound like a complete nightmare, then I apologise. However, some people do jump into older cars and are horrified by what they find! You have to set your expectation levels. Some older cars – Rover P6s, bigger Citroens for example – are truly exceptional to drive, but they still don’t behave like modern cars.

Triumph Herald is thoroughly charming and quite different too.

Triumph Herald is thoroughly charming and quite different too.

Nor do they all behave the same. There can be a vast difference in how older cars drive, even when you compare rivals at the time – such as the BMC 1100, Ford Escort Mk1 and Vauxhall Viva. Each has a far more distinctive character than rivals of today.

Above all else, older cars somehow feel more alive. They have personality. You have to learn how to get the best out of them and can’t just expect the car to do all the work. Journeys become a team game and the most tedious of journeys can be turned into something far more joyous. Then there’s the looks. Check out the Triumph Herald above. You rarely see a modern car that’s even half as bright and cheery. We seem to have gone back to the black and white days in fact – a sea of monochrome.

So, while some re-education might be needed for you to get the best out of a classic car, overall, it’s well worth the effort. But even if you don’t own a classic and never will, please show a little patience. Drivers of older cars are not deliberately trying to hold you up. It’s just that when you’re driving a nice old car, you learn that you don’t need to rush to have a good time.

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