The cockpit swathed us in leather-trimmed functionality; ancillary systems like heating and coolant temperature control were just afterthoughts

"Have you noticed the oil streak that runs across the golf course and ends up under your Alfa?"

That was the comment I was greeted with as I ended the Monte Shelton Northwest Classic Rally. A 500-mile, two-day event, it celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

As it is sponsored by the Alfa Romeo Owners of Oregon, there was a predictable bevy of vintage Alfas, mostly Giulia and Giulietta Spiders, but also a smattering of GTVs, GTAs, and even a lightweight 1957 Sprint Veloce with Conrero engine prep.

Our 1965 Giulia Spider Veloce ran well, and as the engine now has over 1,500 miles on it, the car easily reached its 6,300 rpm redline. But somewhere during the last half hour of the rally, after a spirited run down twisty Marmot Road on the west side of Mt. Hood, sandwiched between an insanely driven 1300 Giulietta Spider Veloce and a comparatively sedate 2000 GTV (size does have its advantages), something caused at least one of the seven quarts of oil in the sump to decide to spread itself, quickly, all over the engine and then onto the ground.

But this wasn't the only old car adventure we'd had recently.

Meadow Brook

A week earlier, while I was emcee at the ever-improving Meadow Brook Concours (we'll have a story in the next issue), event chairman Larry Smith offered us some cars from his collection to drive on the Meadow Brook tour. We began the day in his 1978 308 GT4, and we finished in his 1964 Jaguar E-type coupe.

Midwest summer weather is rarely the friend of old cars, and this very hot, humid weekend was no exception. My wife Wendie and I continued to be delighted by the front-forward seating position of the GT4 and its cat-like agility, and even its cheesewedge styling is looking better with the passing of time.

GT4s, like 308 GTs, have not seen the same run-up in prices as their more exotic brethren, so for somewhere in the mid-$30,000 range you can still have a very nice example. Of course, due to the Miss Misinformation tyranny of Ferrari, every 308 suffers from the "fear-of-belt-failing" syndrome, so that every three years or so a $5,000 bill comes looming for unnecessary maintenance. The experts we have consulted believe that nine years is probably a more reasonable belt interval, but try telling that to someone when you are selling your 308. I know, as when I sold my Mondial some years ago, the buyer insisted I pay for belts before he would take delivery of the car. And you can claim the bill will be less, but once the engine is out, suddenly other things that "might as well" be taken care of loom large.

But that's not really the point here. Smith's car drove well, but halfway through the tour the air-conditioning fan-marginal at best-started making a horrible racket. I thought about just letting it run and seeing if, a) it would heal itself, or, b) it got so bad it flew out of the dashboard in a million pieces (more likely to have happened than a).

However, either choice seemed like a bad way to reward Smith for his largesse, so we just shut it off and sweated.

Or we thought we were sweating, until we drove his E-type coupe. Completely stock, down to the cooling system, the engine temperature rode right on the edge of danger the entire trip. Visions of a warped aluminum head danced through my brain. The car was otherwise brilliant, and the Spitfire fighter-plane cockpit swathed us in leather-trimmed functionality.

But at our sub-40 mph speeds, the car was hot inside, and hotter still under the hood. Yes, modern technology in the form of aluminum radiators and auxiliary fans can manage engine heat, but in "as-built" configuration, E-types simply were delivered with cooling systems deemed marginal at best.

No way today

We haven't had the time to decode the engine oil-loss situation with the Alfa, but we surmise it has something to do with the rubber gaskets that go between the oil canister and the engine block mount. Question: Would it be so wrong to put a spin-on filter adapter on the Alfa and be done with all of this?

And at the same time, why not upgrade the cooling system on the Jaguar so that you don't drive with one eye on the road and the other on the temperature gauge? And why not look for a modern a/c fan motor for the GT4?

All of this is to say that our old cars were built to standards far different from those of today. While they were mechanically robust and capable of fairly astounding performance in their era, their ancillary systems like heating and cooling-including coolant temperature control-were often just afterthoughts, and users were left to sort things out.

Cute or dumb

I can't help but wonder what the next generation of car collectors will make of such imperfections. Our generation was raised with these cars, and we accept their inherent flaws with gritted teeth, as reasons to be thoughtful in our driving and innovative in our upgrades.

Our children, and their children, will have been raised on new cars that are supremely confident in every way, and which boast things like 100,000-mile intervals between tune-ups (the Alfa has covered just 88,000 miles since new, and Smith's 308 had about 30,000 on the odometer, his Jaguar under 15,000; by modern standards, they should still be running on their original set of spark plugs. Imagine that.)

Will our children find overheating English cars entertaining, or just examples of primitive engineering that take too much care and feeding? Will they want to spend $5,000 every three years on a 308 that's worth $35,000, no matter how little they drive it? Will they tire of Alfas finding new ways to leak oil on a daily basis?

While I don't have answers to these questions, I do think that the challenges facing the collector car hobby in the next 50 years go far beyond possible restrictions based on emission regulations and a cultural shift that views old cars simply as gross polluters. More thoughtfully, we must wonder if those kids who have never grown up with cranky cars like we did, and who never had to make the decision between sports car handling or dependability and comfort-since you couldn't have both-will just decide that a retro-looking new Mini is as close as they want to get to the real thing. Scarily likely.

If so, we're going to be looking at major shifts in the size and content of the collector car market. So, if your kids express any interest in old cars at all, now is the time to get them used to their irascibility and unpredictability. That way, the "fun factor" potential has a chance to outshine the "dumb factor."

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