Keith’s Blog: Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

I took our 1967 Alfa Romeo GTV out for a drive through downtown traffic last week.

It was like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

The weather was overcast — but not raining — when I left SCM World Headquarters in Portland, OR.

The last time I had put miles on the GTV was when I drove it to Monterey last August. With Robert Cumberford as my co-pilot, it was a delightful trip.

The car never skipped a beat — until the master cylinder failed just a couple of miles from our final destination — Concorso Italiano.

In many ways, the GTV is the most complete and competent of all of my Alfas. The coupe has a stiff chassis. The car also has the necessary engine, gearbox, differential and suspension upgrades to make it as good as it can get.

In its era, compared to its contemporaries, the GTV was a brilliant overachiever. It has 4-wheel disc brakes, dual Webers and a 5-speed gearbox.

But today’s world is very different.

As soon as I pulled out, the large rear window and the side windows immediately fogged up, and I couldn’t see a thing behind me (there’s no rear defroster on the GTV).

I filled up with gas before getting onto the freeway. As always, I had trouble getting the gas to flow freely into the restricted filler neck.

As I pulled onto the freeway, I became aware that neither of my door-mounted mirrors was properly adjusted. Getting them right would have meant a trial-and-error process — including stopping on the shoulder, which I wasn’t very eager to do.

Going up the long grade of Highway 26, heading to Beaverton, I was aware of the helter-skelter lane discipline of the other drivers. People cut in and out with abandon and passed on the left and the right.

Putting on my (dim by modern standards) blinkers indicating I wanted to change lanes didn’t matter — I was ignored until I shouldered my way in.

As I took the Sylvan exit and came to a crosswalk, someone stepped out in front of me, walking against the light.

The GTV doesn’t have anti-lock brakes, so I immediately went into a four-wheel skid and managed to avoid the idiot pedestrian.

It started to rain, and the limitations of the small-bladed, single-speed wipers were immediately apparent.

The heater worked well (a strong point of the 105-series Alfas), and the heated seats I had installed made for comfy buns.

But as I drove home, I was increasingly aware of just how much work it was to drive the GTV in modern traffic. Everyone else on the road had cars that stopped and accelerated better than I did.

There are no safety features in my car. I have only lap belts in the front; three-point belts are on order. In the case of any kind of collision, my body would be the crumple zone.

I felt lucky that I got home through traffic without an incident.

I’m confident in my driving skills, and I understand how to drive a vintage Alfa.

But today’s environment, it is neither safe nor prudent to drive a 51-year-old car in an inner-city environment.

Our old cars are delightfully vintage. They entertain and delight us in ways that a modern car never will.

But their use is best reserved for country roads, good weather — and with friends in machines of the same vintage.

The world of the automobile continues to evolve, and our patterns of use will evolve with them.

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

Posted in Blogs, Keith Martin

13 comments

  1. Great points, Keith, and frankly, I couldn’t’a put it better myself. Driving the roads is, plain ‘n’ simple, like diving straight into a gun fight. Ya got bullets flying every which way and, frankly, it’s about the worst kind of risk any right minded enthusiast can take. But we’re bound to get tired of sitting behind the wheel back in the garage. If I could put it frankly, I’d say that just won’t do. So it’s into the crossfire for us, scoundrels left and right, on our way to all the good and great adventures behind the wheel. Gotta bite the bullet, frankly, and have fun doing it. And just hope to god you’re not the one to get blasted.

    Frankly,
    Harry F

  2. Keith, you make a good argument in the “resto-mod vs. original” debate. Originals have a great place in the scheme of things, but if you are going to drive it regularly in town, it makes sense to upgrade the car. Looks cool and original, but performs better than in period.

  3. It is not safe nor prudent to drive a 51 DAY old car in modern city traffic. It’s insane to drive a 51 year old car in modern city traffic. But the enthusiast activities I enjoy start in Chicago. So armed with a loud? horn, LED taillights, head on a swivel, and fantastic navigator off I go to have fun! Now where did I put those stinger missiles?

  4. One of the greatest things about driving a vintage auto. You didn’t sell it and run out and buy a Prius, did you? LOL

  5. Living in a big city has really sapped enthusiasm for driving my vintage cars due to the exact concerns you’ve noted. Unless I leave the garage after Midnight during the week, traffic is way too nerve wracking and its just no longer fun. I need to move!

  6. Keith, it’s all a matter of perspective. FWIW my daily driver is a 1981 Volkswagen Scirocco (actually I have four of them that I take turns with), which, if anything, is less substantial than your Alfa. However, I find myself at an advantage in the cut-and-thrust of modern traffic in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live (which boasts some of the worst traffic and worst drivers in the USA). Unlike the vast majority of the brain-dead idiots around me, I feel in complete control of my car at all times. The steering is direct and pin-point accurate (not unlike an early Porsche 911, surprisingly), and with only 1900 pounds to deal with, the stock brakes fitted with Porterfield pads work just fine. I acknowledge that I’m bound to be the loser in any collision with a modern car, but being in a light, nimble, analog car has enabled me to avoid countless collisions that I might otherwise have had. More importantly, I have having FUN whenever I’m behind the wheel, and that’s what life should be all about. While it would be easy to just join the herd and drive an SUV, I would never do such a thing. You either like old cars, or you don’t. If you like them, you put up with their minor inconveniences and celebrate the many ways in which they are superior to anything else around them. And if you don’t, you park them and drive modern cars like everybody else….

  7. I guess there’s a reason my 68 280SL cost more new than the Alfa…I drive it in modern traffic all the time, I will admit to also not doing so on rainy days though. I also drive my Pre War Auburns without much difficulty on crowded streets/highways, but if someone cuts in front of me or steps off the curb they are just going to get hit. I use the horn a lot. People just dont realize we cant stop these things as quickly as they can. it takes a lot of defensive driving to pilot these ancient cars without getting into an altercation, that’s for sure.

  8. Your comments are right on the money. The joy of driving a vintage sports car on a country road is offset by the difficulty (terror?) of driving one in urban traffic. But if you feel uncomfortable in your Alfa GTV, imagine doing it in a 40+ year old Lotus Europa. No one can see you, and your visibility is…ummm…limited. On the other hand you do get a great view on the wheel hub of the 18-wheeler next to you! Solution? Avoid driving in urban traffic at all cost.

  9. Keith, with all due respect, if you were passed on the right, you were driving in the wrong lane. If you have to drive your vintage car on the interstate, keep to the far right lane. You’ll eventually come upon someone driving even slower than you – I guarantee it!

  10. I hear you. But your concerns aren’t limited to vintage cars. I feel much the same way when I take my 4C out. I live in Gresham and work in Oregon City. Fortunately, there are lots of country roads that I can take between the two when the weather is nice.

  11. I understand, as I got caught in a sudden downpour while driving my supposedly “perfectly restored” 1938 Bugatti T57C Atalante coupe on the Los Angeles Freeways to downtown L.A. 33 years ago— and even then it was bad news! Although at first I thought, “Great…for once I’m not in an open car!” But soon it became apparent that not only did the wiper blades not work, but of course the windshield immediately fogged up, plus the side windows leaked like a sieve, as did the sunroof! And those old drum brakes and narrow tires, combined with L.A. drivers(!) in stop and go traffic and NO visibility almost made for disaster several times! AHHH—the Challenges and Pleasures of driving old cars in a new world!!

  12. Keith – I have a 1969 GTV. Your drive was exactly my experience. I am not very temped to drive my GTV on anything but suburban or country roads. Parking lots and parallel parking scare me. Alfa Romeo club events are 2 hours north (Washington DC area) or one hour east (Norfolk, VA) or two hours south (Raleigh, NC). I would love to go, but the interstate highway traffic is scary. One day I will make it to some club events.

  13. I usually don’t go to gun fights on my Alfa Romeo. I’d rather pull my foot from the gas when it’s not safe and enjoy every meter I drive with Her. Day after day. My Alfa hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. She’s really in a great shape and looks spectacular. Now more that before. Sadly I can’t say the same for me. So, I don’t really want to find out how bad she brakes, or rather I can brake, in an emergency situation. Better stay safe and pull back a few meters more. And I always carry a wipe to help the windshield defog in misty days. My behind sometimes can get cold, true. No big deal, anyway. Would it be a happier day in a Tesla?

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