Opinion – Rearview Mirror: The Art Of Driving Old Cars

There are times when I feel really blessed to be a car enthusiast at this point in history. The market is full of great cars, from 500-hp BMW M5 sedans to fully moddable 1.8T-powered VWs. Hell, the Corvette is finally a real sports car! Our present is nothing like the bleak future all the automotive experts predicted two decades back.

Thing is, new cars just aren’t for everybody. And I’m not even talking about the financial part of the equation. I’m sure I speak for many when I say that there is a certain pleasure in finally obtaining the cars I dreamt of as a starry-eyed teenager. The cars that were hot when we were in high school seem to be the ones that attract us the most. This phenomenon has existed for a long time. Car enthusiasts from my parents’ generation (now in their mid-to-late 50’s) seem magnetically attracted to the GTOs and Mustangs and Vettes of the 1960s.

As a child of the Eighties (class of ’89!) I can now choose from a bounty of automotive icons that were once unobtainable. In the last decade I’ve acquired a couple great examples of some of my favorite ‘80s models, the first- and second-generation VW GTIs. I recently picked up a BMW 318is, and although mine is a 1991 model, the E30 3 Series is certainly one of the most symbolic vehicles of the “Greed is Good” decade. Next on the list is likely a classic Range Rover (save your breath, really), and hopefully a 911 SC some day.

Buying a modern classic is generally the easy part. Doing it with style is another issue altogether. If you do it right, you’ll earn a certain degree of respect among peers and co-workers. Do it wrong, and you’ll have everyone convinced you live with your parents and can’t handle money. So how do you enjoy your 20-year-old dream ride without your friends and family thinking you’ve lost your life’s savings in a bad hand of Texas Hold’em? There are a few rules to doing it right.

Rule 1: Make sure driving an old car suits your personality. It takes a certain kind of “marches to his own drum” mentality to sacrifice numerous modern conveniences and things like reliability for the sake of coolness, so it helps if you’re already a little eccentric. If you are eccentric at heart and looking for a way to break out of your shell, driving a classic may be your ticket.

Rule 2: Pick the right car. You can’t just choose any old car and get away with it. All credibility is gone if you roll to work on Casual Friday in a vintage Chevy Celebrity. Your car of choice should make a statement all by itself – it should be an icon in its own right. I’m not going to tell you which ones work and which ones don’t, but if your car of choice was never the subject of a glossy poster with a bikini-clad lingerie model on the hood, that might be your first clue.

This criteria alone is not sufficient, however, so you may want to consider the club question. Does your dream car support its own club? And by club, I mean a real, live group of people who get together in person and do things with their cars. Internet clubs don’t count for this one, as evidenced by this . Typically a car that generates rabid enthusiasm among its owners will also make a suitable statement to the general public.

Rule 3: Make sure your specific car is as presentable as possible. No one will respect your investment in a 911 Cabrio if it has a cracked fog light hanging from its wiring, duct tape repairing the leaky roof, and mismatched body panels. The difference between a classic and merely another old car is often a matter of condition. The more perfect your old car looks (and sounds) the more convincing you will be.

Rule 4: Give your car a personality of its own. There’s nothing wrong with driving a clean, bone-stock ’88 Scirroco, but if you really want to get some attention, try a set of period-correct BBS wheels and some European lights and bumpers. Just be careful not to over-do it.

Rule 5: Keep your car true to heritage. Suppose you pick something really out there, an old Grand Wagoneer, for instance. Square-ish body, fake wood paneling, vinyl bench seats – the perfect image of the American outdoorsman from a time before leather and real wood trim invaded the SUV world. Should you decide to install the latest set of 24-inch chrome spinners on your vintage truckster, you’ve instantly lost all credibility. Chip Foose is the only one capable of mixing old and new like that, and you, Sir, are no Chip Foose!

Rule 6: Be prepared for mechanical failure, but take it in stride. Nothing increases your cool factor more than showing up late for the big meeting because your cheeky little British roadster overheated in rush-hour traffic on the way to work. If it’s a rolling rust-bucket, your superiors may become annoyed, but if you keep it otherwise well maintained, they’ll likely just chalk it up to “those darn English cars sure are finicky.” Your Camry-wielding co-workers just won’t be as believable under the same circumstances.

Rule 7: Have a back-up car. This is the best way to convince people that you drive an old car because you want to, not because you have to. Your newer ride doesn’t even have to be as cool as your older one. But if you want extra credit, make sure you own the modern version of your classic whenever this is possible. A mint ’88 M3 will look even better sitting in the garage next to its E46 cousin.

So go ahead and drive that old car. But do it right and do it with pride.

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