Old Skills for Old Cars

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.

 

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 Keith Martin

10 comments

  1. As Ralph at Ferrari of Washington said, “It’s a lot more fun to drive a slow car fast, then it is to drive a fast car slow” 🙂

  2. Enjoyed the article Keith… especially the line about the “decreasing-radius turn” Been there, done that with my Lancia Beta Scorpion in 1978… became a passenger whilst experiencing trailing throttle oversteer. The tree prevented my car from flipping completely over. A slow motion crash. Besides the car the only thing that hurt was my ego as I was following an MGB (albeit heavily a modified one)… which made it through the turn unscathed. Bitter sweet memories… Cheers, DTM

  3. Dear Keith: As the owner of Hooligan’s twin, I think that it is great that you are enjoying your Super so often. I think you can understand that having a Super as my first Alfa from 1969 to 1980, and having eight other Alfas over the years since, I was so determined to acquire another Super–the one that Bill restored for me (also with a 2 liter engine).

    As the first modern sports sedan, preceeding the BMW 1600 by a few years, and likely the first or one of the first cars to have ever had wind tunnel testing included in its design, I take us back to the suggestion that the Alfa Giulia Super should receive a “B” rating rather than a “C”. Absolutely no need to post my comment in SCM. Just one Super owner to another. I can understand that owning a Super and publishing SCM would make changing the desireabilty rating from “C” back to “B” appear a bit awkward. I will always see the Super as a “B”. Most importantly, you are driving and enjoying a wonderful car. Best wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving. Jon Bernheimer, ’66 Super

  4. I like to tell my super car owner friends that driving my 71 spider on a two lane twisty is the most fun you can have at 50 (or 60) MPH

  5. While driving rural two-lanes I always like to watch the telephone poles ahead as they indicate whether the road is turning right or left in the distance.
    I reckon even the word “telephone pole” is an oxymoron today, eh? Great read – thanks.

  6. You sum up the experience very nicely Keith, thank you.

    One other thing I’ve always thought about new cars: there really is very little discernible difference between models. Drive my partner’s 10 year old Citroen C3 and, say, a new BMW M3 back to back, at the same speed, and blindfolded, and I reckon that apart from the feel of the material on the steering wheel you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

  7. Well said, and I would add that you use your ears as well as your eyes when driving a vintage sports car. I keep the radio off when driving my vintage sports cars, not only for the aural pleasure of the engine, but also to monitor my driving. New cars drive me crazy. You can’t hear anything. It’s like being deaf and playing a musical instrument.

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