For the past three months, I've managed to use the SCM 1964 Volvo 544 as my primary family car, and as my daily driver. I've put just over 2,000 miles on it. In September, my wife Wendie and I and our two-year-old Bradley piled into it for the 400-mile round-trip journey to Sunriver, Oregon, where I was the emcee of the 13th annual Festival of Cars.
It isn't a Ferrari 250 GTE, Porsche 356, Maserati 3500 GT, or a Lotus Elan +2. Even on the short list of collectible, four-seat vintage cars, the 544 surely brings up the rear. But as an old car being used regularly, it offers its own brand of entertainment.
For instance, there is the starting ritual. In this cold weather, that begins with pulling up the radiator blind, which allows the engine to warm up more quickly. Draw out the choke lever to the third click, and turn the key to engage the starter. As there are no acceleration jets on an SU carburetor, pumping the throttle is a futile exercise. As the temperature gauge begins to register, slowly decrease the amount of choke. Then, lower the radiator blind, and finally, turn on the heater fan. By contrast, Wendie's new 5 Series seems nearly to start itself, heat your seat, and brew your first cup of coffee for you before you're out of the driveway.
On the freeway, the Volvo cruises comfortably at 60 mph, and in our recent drive over Mt. Hood, we remained in fourth gear with no downshifting, a tribute to the torque from the 1.8-liter inline-4.
The baby seat fits into the center of the backseat (we installed rear seatbelts), and Bradley can entertain himself by kicking the backs of the front seats, training for when he rides in a schoolbus. The cockpit is reasonably spacious, with a vintage-style wire cupholder resting on the console, providing us a place to put our lattes.
Complete with shoulder belts
Perhaps you're wondering if there's a point to this, or if you're simply going to have to endure a love paean to a vintage Swedish beauty.
At SCM, we've long maintained that 1955 through 1974 is the golden era of usable collector cars, and the 544 reinforces that notion. Our parameters are that a car must be able to keep up with traffic on modern expressways, even if only in the slow lane. It must have adequate acceleration and brakes. A nod to safety is appreciated; the Volvo excels in that for its era, being the first mass-produced auto with installed shoulder harnesses.
A heater that heats and wipers that wipe are a part of a practical vintage package (Alfa Giulietta Spiders get a bye on the heater, with clever owners learning to pull up the carpet on the center console and stick their right hands beneath it to warm them up.)
As new cars get better and better, a collector car has a higher bar to reach to be used regularly. New cars stop better, go faster, and are more comfortable than old cars. What they don't do well is exude personality, or make demands of their owners. I'm not going to say that unique traits, a.k.a. quirkiness, trump practicality, because in most situations, drivers don't want to worry about whether their car will overheat in traffic on the way to an appointment. They just want to get there on time.
Our own Kool-Aid
But just as wine fanatics seek out challenging new tastes and mountain climbers routes that are fresh to them, we old car enthusiasts value the experience of driving more than we do the convenience of it. I tested this theory on the return from our Sunriver trip, when I set our GPS to "shortest route / no freeways" at Diamond Lake, looking for a secret way home. Twenty minutes later, we had somehow been directed to a Forest Service dirt road that was winding its way ever deeper into the wilderness. I thought it was a terrific adventure, while my wife wondered if I was planning on serving the family up as dinner to the local bears if our 45-year-old car decided to fail inopportunely.
Each morning, driving to work in an old car, I feel like a little kid playing hooky as I move through traffic. Everyone else is adjusting their Bluetooth-connected iPhones and tuning their satellite radios while I'm fiddling with the choke and the wipers and the heater to get my road capsule habitable. I'm sure the non-collectors wouldn't trade with me, nor I with them.
This time of unregulated old car use won't last forever. Today, chances are if your car is pre-1974, you don't have to meet any smog or safety regulations, and you can simply fire up your beast and head out, whenever you want and to wherever you want. I fear that the unintended side consequence of some piece of federal legislation related to smog or safety will begin to restrict our use of old cars. We need to be aware of that possibility and stay prepared to do battle, while at the same time taking advantage of the opportunities we have to use our old cars today.
We're certainly part of a fortunate group. The government has built terrific two-lane roads that we enjoy, and it seems like fewer people use these secondary routes every year. Through the Internet, we have support groups for parts and advice that help us keep our old cars running better than ever before. And clubs, which are the backbone of the old car hobby, seem to be ever more active.
It's a good time to be a fan of cranky old cars, and it's an even better time to be driving them.
Farewell, Uncle Raymond
Raymond Milo passed away in his sleep on September 27, at the age of 71. A longtime friend and contributor to SCM, a remembrance of his life with cars appears on page 28, with more on the web at
www.sportscarmarket.com/uncleraymond, along with Raymond's own reminiscences of his life.
On a personal note, Raymond was especially kind to my daughter, Alexandra, from the first time he picked her up as a babe-in-arms at a Bob LeFlufy AutoClassic Auction in Vancouver, B.C., 17 years ago, to her 16th birthday at Cafe Moustache, where he presented her with a lovely Louis Vuitton handbag. He was always gracious and charming, and to Alexandra he represented a sophisticated, slightly mysterious and always entertaining Old World way of life.
She will never forget Raymond and the kindness he brought to her. With Raymond gone, the collector car world has lost an irreplaceable trove of first-hand collector car knowledge, and a kind and thoughtful man.