On January 1, vintage-car tribes gather in the early morning darkness. From snow-covered Montana to sunny San Diego, old-car lovers prepare to “start the new year right” with a cruise in a classic. For more than two decades, the local “Round-Fender Volvo Club” has hosted a New Year’s Day run. Organized by longtime SCMer Dean Koehler, the club caters specifically to the 444/544/1800/122 models of Volvos. “Bricks” (the square-fendered 142/144 series that followed) and later Volvos are not allowed. As you would expect from a former naval aviator, Dean rules with an iron hand. Although I have belonged to the club for many years, with a 544, two 122s, an 1800S and an 1800ES, when I asked Dean if I could be a member emeritus for the tour, he said no. However, when I told him I was in the process of buying another 122 (watch Facebook for developments), he offered to accept our 1967 Alfa Giulia Super on an interim basis. We had to run at the back of the pack, of course. My pilot was SCMer Chris Bright, who also has a Super. Popping and snorting in the cold — it was a balmy 38 degrees in Portland — the Super’s half-century-old engine came to life. The Weber-carbureted engine never needs any choke to start. The best way to warm a car up is to put the engine under load. We pushed in the clutch, eased the shifter into first and were underway. If kept in proper nick, the heaters on these old cars work well. After all, when new, these were four-season cars. In most cases, they were the only cars that a family had, so they had to do many things well. There were more than a dozen vintage Swedish cars gathered at the embarkation point, a parking lot in Hillsboro, about 15 miles from downtown Portland. Bradley was the navigator, and I was the back-seat “team supervisor.” We set out on a 50-mile route skirting Oregon’s wine county. We followed undulating two-lane roads with names like Helvetia, which sounds Swedish but is a symbolic female national personification of Switzerland. As we motored along, I reflected that it was the first year of a new decade. We were celebrating 2020 by driving vintage cars through a rural countryside that had changed little over the past 50 years.

The future is coming

It’s a time of uncertainty for old-car lovers. The role of the car in our society is rapidly changing. While the most visible shifts to electric propulsion (or EV, for electric vehicles) and autonomous (SD, for self-driving) apply to new cars, our old cars will surely get caught up in the wake the new-car changes leave behind. Thinking only of safety and convenience, the changes in new cars are all positive. While I am cognizant of the environmental challenges posed by producing enough electricity to charge millions of cars, electrically-propelled automobiles will be almost childishly simple to build and maintain. And the environment will benefit. Autonomous cars are a step forward as well. Pedestrian deaths by car have been rising; a recent study attributed that to the massive increase in the size of the trucks and SUVs that populate our highways. I would much rather place my faith in a self-driving computer system than in a distracted driver in a three-ton pickup truck. While there will be inevitable mishaps, there is no argument that traffic injuries and fatalities should decrease dramatically when a computer takes over guidance and braking. Further, there is little joy in most daily driving today. For the Volvo club to find a route to exercise our cars, we had to travel 30 minutes from downtown Portland. And that’s not very far. Many enthusiasts in crowded urban areas have to travel an hour or more just to get to a place where an old car can be enjoyed. I’d much rather be in a self-driving car for a one-hour morning commute than driving it myself. What will 2030 bring? For old-car enthusiasts, not much that is different. While the focus of the media will continue to be on EV and SD, as of 2017, there were 272 million cars and trucks in the United States. As of September 2019, just 1.3 million of them were EV. Even though sales of EVs will increase dramatically, it will be a long while before EVs make up a significant part of the on-road fleet. The road is even longer for SD cars. Due to safety considerations, the path to full adoption of self-driving cars could be a decade or more away. I don’t see that melding our old cars (or non-SD cars) with SD will be difficult. I envision a simple aircraft-style transponder app on your phone that will let SD cars know your car exists, that it has no guidance capabilities — and that they should react to it accordingly. Our challenge will be to make sure old cars don’t suffer from the unintended consequences of legislation designed for modern cars. A decade from now there will still be gas stations. Repair shops might be the more crucial issue, as we are not grooming enough mechanics schooled in old cars to replace the ones who are retiring.

More of the same ahead

Soon enough, we arrived at the end of the tour. We had lunch at the Trask Mountain Outpost in Yamhill. All of the round-fendered Volvos (and the square-shouldered Super) made it to lunch and home again with no surprises or roadside failures. Just think. One hundred miles in an old car with a heater that worked, gauges that functioned and brakes that braked. Getting into the SCM time machine and going forward to 2030, I see a similar gathering of similar cars at similar place for a similar tour. The world of new cars will change dramatically, but the role of our classics in our culture is secure. ♦

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