Why I Own a 40 Year Old Econo Box
I was asked by a guy the other day what I drive. I said, “I’ve got a 1986 Suzuki Samurai, a 1970 Datsun 510 and my commuter car is a 1992 Toyota Camry.”
His reply was, “Wow, thats a lot of old cars. They must break down a lot.”
I chuckled, “Well I just completely rebuilt the Samurai so it would stop breaking down. The Datsun’s a project car and doesn’t run at all and probably won’t for a few more years. The Camry, well it’s an early 90′s Toyota so it will likely run forever.”
“Huh… Why don’t you just buy a new car that, you know, just works?” He said, somewhat smugly.
“Because they’re too complicated.”
So this is where I would like to pick up. Quite a few people have given me quizzical looks when I tell them that I rebuilt the Samurai, a vehicle that is generally considered a throw away car. Or that I bought a non-running 40 year old econo box. My response is always the same, I like the simplicity of older cars.
It’s not that I dislike new cars. Hell, half my brain is devoted to keeping up with current models and trim levels. I gush over beautiful new cars like the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, or the Ford Focus RS Mk.II. But when it comes down to it, I’m much more likely to spend my time on eBay Motors looking at MGB GT‘s or Volvo P1800 ES‘s than at a manufactures website.
I blame my father.
You see, my whole life I’ve worked on cars. When I was but a tyke I was tasked with handing tools to my Dad while he worked on the family vehicles. Any time something went wrong, my Dad tackled it. Taking it to the shop was (is) never an option. This is what I grew up with. The problem is that over my life time cars have gotten significantly more complex.
Really if you think about it from the very beginnings of the automobile to the mid-80′s things didn’t change that much. Yes, yes I know that is a broad generalization, but on the whole your home mechanic could work on practically any vehicle with basic hand tools. Then came the computer. At first Electronic Control Modules (or ECM’s) were pretty simple. They controlled the emissions package or if you were cool, the Electronic Fuel Injection. But that was about it. Slowly though they started to take over every aspect of the car.
When ECM’s were basic, you could work around them. Headlight went out, swap it. Muffler rusted through, replace it. Rear view mirror broken, bolt on a new one. Now? Nope. You touch that headlight and the computer needs to be reset with the right codes. The muffler, yeah… Dealer only part because of the complexities involved with making sure the CO2/Oxygen/Man/Bear/Pig mix is correct. Don’t you dare touch that mirror, it has a blind spot sensor in it that has precise alignment. Nothing can be worked on with your normal Craftsman ratchet and socket set.
Being someone who has been indoctrinated with the concept of “Do It Yourself” the idea of having a car with the big plastic “sealed for it’s protection” engine cover really doesn’t appeal to me. I did that once. I had a 1998 Volkswagen Jetta VR6. Awesome car, drove great, I loved it. But working on it was a bitch. I had to replace a water pump once, in order to get to it you had to jack the engine up six inches because the pump was right next to the frame rail. What a pain. You know where the water pump is on the Samurai? Right in front, easy to get to. I can swap one in 15 minutes. Really, I can. I have. This is how everything was on the Jetta. Nothing was easy to work on and the parts were expensive. So when I sold it, I swore I would never own a car that new again.
So as new cars come out and boast about computer controlled this, or touch screen that, or sync blah, my brain just kinda shuts down. Yes, all this computer controlled stuff makes the cars more comfortable, more powerful, more “user friendly”. But at the same time it makes them more complex, more prone to breakage and more expensive. In addition, all this computerization also takes much of the driving experience away. When I drive a car, I want to drive the car. I don’t want to make an input and then let a computer handle it from there. I play video games for that. All this drive-by-wire stuff puts a buffer between you and the vehicle. When I step on the peddle I like the idea of having a true, physical connection to the vehicle. The peddle is connected to a cable thats connected to the throttle on the carburetor and when I push, everything moves in a way to make fuel enter the engine and then combust ect. ect. You see, I can understand that and explain it pretty easily.
New cars are becoming more like appliances designed to entertain us with their gizmos and less about the actual purpose of the car, a mode of transportation. I feel like cars today lack the passion for driving that vehicles from the past did. You get into a modern vehicle and what is one of the first things you will notice? That big ass computer screen in the dash. It’s distracting. When you get into a 1967 Porsche 911, its all about driving. Even my Samurai is all about driving. No bells and whistles. Even the stereo is in a somewhat awkward position.
If I want a computer, I’ll buy one for my home. If I want to know where I’m going, I’ll pull over and read a map (shocking yes, I know how to use one of those). If I want my ass to be warm… well we won’t get into that. Perhaps this is why I’m watching with some interest the Tata Nano‘s move towards the US market. That is a car with one purpose, transportation. There is no other reason for it to exist. Is it a car that I would buy? Not a chance. It isn’t a drivers car, but it intrigues me none the less. It is a vehicle with no frills, no satnav, no sync. If it enters the market in the sub $10,000 range, it could be a game changer. Sure I can point to dozens of more exciting used cars you could buy for that much, but our consumer driven society demands new. If it sells, it could force other manufactures to offer “down market” vehicles. Hell, it could even force manufactures to begin making cars that you actually get to drive again, not just washing machines on wheels.
Until that happens though, I’m going to stick with my old cars. They turn more heads, lack the complexities and more than anything, are fun.