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.