Last week I took the SCM Giulia Super out for an afternoon drive. There was light rain and the roads were wet — but not slick. I drove out Oregon Highway 30 towards Scappoose, and then took the turn off to Sauvie Island, a bucolic island in the Columbia River.
The highway is a gently curving two-lane road, with no elevation changes. There was little traffic.
In a recent a “Collecting Thoughts” article in the September 2016 issue of Sports Car Market, Miles Collier wrote about “decoding the road ahead when you are in an old car.” He mentioned the necessity of the driver being actively involved. The performance of old cars is substandard compared to modern ones. And old cars don’t have any of the electronic “nanny-aides” we have come to depend upon when we get ourselves into trouble.
I took the opportunity to analyze just exactly how I went about driving the car. With a vintage car, it’s a necessity that you are always looking ahead. You have to be aware of just how the road undulates. Does it curve left, then right, then harder right, and then back left again? Are the turns on- or off-camber?
Will the wet leaves on the road cause you to lose just enough traction to spin out on a decreasing-radius turn? What are the chances of a car emerging without warning from a driveway —and how long will it take you to stop? There are some cattle on Sauvie Island — could any of them be loose on the road?
The SCM Giulia Super is a nicely prepared car. I took it out as it is a driver, not a show car, so getting the engine bay and undercarriage wet and dirty didn’t matter. It’s got a slightly warmed 2-liter engine, along with big brakes, a limited-slip 4.1 rear end, Rugh springs, sway bar and Bilsteins.
So the car itself is about as good as a street-legal Super is going to get — which, while pretty competent for a 50-year-old Italian sports car, is woefully deficient when compared to a basic-spec Toyota Yaris. In fact, I’d hate to go head-to-head with a Corolla or even a Prius for a few hot laps at Portland International Raceway. My car guy ego might be irretrievably damaged.
While I shifted up and down through the gears, looking for just the right places to change gears and brake, I thought about the 50 years I’ve been driving sports cars. When I was young, so were they. The new Alfas, MGs and Triumphs of the era offered a driving experience that was far superior to anything American manufacturers had to offer.
Compare a 1958 Bel Air to a same-year TR3. There was no comparison. While the Chevrolet might have the edge in acceleration, its handling and braking were best described as theoretical. The driving sensation offered by our little foreign cars was superior in every way to American cars of the same era.
Simply through experience, we became better drivers to extract the available performance necessary from our cars.
But that’s all changed now. Whole generations of drivers have never driven a manual-shift car. They have never locked up their brakes and started to skid if they come into a turn too hot. With stability control, the chance of their cars fishtailing is practically non-existent.
So two things are happening: We have a diminishing of the basic driving skills necessary to extract the diminutive performance available from old cars. In addition, we have generations of new cars that require very little skill from a driver to enjoy the performance that they offer.
I made the most of my afternoon in my old car, and you should make the most of yours. Next time you take your classic out, take a moment to appreciate the skills you have developed over the decades to coax performance out of beautiful, old technology.
Don’t take your ability to double-clutch for granted. Note just how you adjust your line to take advantage of the apex of a turn. Note just how far ahead you are looking to anticipate challenging situations.
Driving old cars well is a vanishing art. Let’s allow ourselves to get the maximum possible pleasure out of our motoring, every chance that we get.