At a certain point during my recovery from my stroke, I decided to look for classic cars with automatic transmissions. While universally loathed by enthusiasts — including me — I hoped that maybe I was just overlooking what might be a decent motoring experience.

I bought two automatics. The first was a 1965 Volvo 122S with a Borg Warner 35 three-speed auto. The second was a Series III Jaguar E-type.

I paid $10,000 for the Volvo and spent another $10,000 with Cameron Lovre at Swedish Relics, having the suspension and interior upgraded the same way I had with my previous manual-shift 122S.

The result was underwhelming. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine put out 100 horsepower, which on a 2,400-pound car gives you one horsepower for every 24 pounds.

At its best, which was on a steep downhill, the enhanced suspension made it fun through the turns. At all other times, pressing the accelerator seemed to have no discernable effect. I sometimes thought I would go faster if I grabbed the speedometer needle and pulled on it.

In short, the car was underpowered, and the three widely spaced gears did it no favor. There was no fun factor, which had been plentiful on the four-speed with overdrive models I had owned before.

I often wondered what the 122S would have been like with a modern automatic with five or six (or eight) speeds, or even better, a dual-clutch from an Audi or a Porsche PDK. But I would have needed a NASA-sized budget to have figured that out.

In the end, I just sold the Volvo and moved on.

My other foray into the world of vintage automatics was much more successful. I paid $38,000 for the Jaguar, with about 22,000 original miles.

The 5.3-liter V12 puts out 272 hp — and it is magnificent. The car weighs 3,220 pounds, so I have one horsepower per 11.8 pounds, which is a little more than twice what the Volvo had.

While the transmission is still a wide-ratio three speed, with that much power you just push the throttle and suddenly you are going 100 mph.

I’ve put about 10,000 miles on the car and taken it on four SCM 1000 tours. It has been and continues to be a delight.

In the end it all comes down to horsepower.

What I figured out through all of this is that it isn’t so much that old autos are bad, they just have such wide gear spacing that you need an engine with plenty of power to make them work well enough.

So, the turgidly slow Volvo went away, but the very quick Jaguar has stayed.


  1. I’ve been given to understand that the V12’s Jaguars can be easily and relatively inexpensively converted to more modern GM automatics – 4 speeds with lock up torque converters.

    • The conversions known to me involved either the small-block Chevy motor & transmission from a donor car OR just the upgrade of tranny to 4L80.
      Half-breed or quarter-breed. Sounds like you won’t need the instructions…

  2. “…….grabbed the speedometer needle and pulled on it.” I hadn’t considered that. But it might work on a 2CV

  3. It pleases me a lot that the Jag has worked out well, and has given you so much motoring fun. I could see one myself.
    I probably missed it, but I’ve never read why your reluctance for the most obvious three pedal car for Keith Martin. An Alfa 4C?
    Not that it compares to the Jag in anyway, it’s clear they give very different experiences. But, it’s an Alfa, its quick, not really unaffordable, and full of character.
    Regards, Brad B

  4. Myron McGinley
    Oct 24 @6:34 pm
    Hello. Haven’t read your thoughts since Autoweek, then here and there. Nice to stumble on your website today. I’ve owned a ’67 Duetto since
    July ’67, months before ‘the movie’. Every day has been an adventure, about 105K miles. Many memories, other obsessions like a ’72 GTV, ’85 GTV, Corvette flirtations, drooling on E-types, but kept the Duetto. Thanks for your observations over the years, second gear synchros notwithstanding. Here’s to the Fun Factor.

  5. The conversions known to me involved either the small-block Chevy motor & transmission from a donor car OR just the upgrade of tranny to 4L80.
    Half-breed or quarter-breed. Sounds like you won’t need the instructions…

  6. Keith, I am also a stick-shift-at-all-costs enthusiast, however…
    I own a 1966 Shelby Hertz-Edition GT350 with the factory installed C-4 automatic. And it is wonderful. The shifts are crisp and when driven enthusiascally, the tires give a nice little “chirp” between first and second gear. I do wish it had at least one more top gear so the engine RPMs weren’t quite as high on the highway, but in the twisties, the slush box is ideal. As you say, it’s all about horsepower, and the spirited HiPo 289, pushing 306 HP, seems to be the perfect match. Give it a try sometime.