Our old cars haven’t changed in the past 30 years.
What has changed is the world around them.
In 1988, when we produced the first issue of The Alfa Romeo Market Letter on a mimeograph machine, our 1967 GTV would have been 21 years old.
Most GTVs in 1988 were just tired used cars that nobody cared about. They were complicated, with dual-overhead camshafts and Weber carburetors — and expensive to maintain.
I was buying running-and-driving GTVs for $5,000 and selling them to overseas clients for $7,500. I sent two or three containers a month to Europe. After building a wooden interior structure, we could pack six small sports cars into a 40-foot “high-cube” container. It was a good business.
In the late 1980s, GTVs were not being restored to today’s standards. Quite often they had mediocre repaints — often with a color change to red that didn’t include door jambs or engine bays. The engines smoked at startup and when decelerating — a sign of worn rings and valve guides. The synchro for second gear was always weak; shifting with finesse was required.
Substantial rust was unusual — unless the car had lived where the roads were salted.
The playing field between cars built in 1967 and in 1988 was nearly level. The base 1998 BMW 318i had a 1.9-liter, 4-cylinder engine that was rated at 138 hp. The 1.6-liter GTV engine produced 131 hp. Both cars had four-wheel disc brakes. Neither car had airbags.
Modern cars are more modern
The newest addition to the SCM fleet, a 2003 Porsche 911 Carrera, demonstrates just how much better cars are today.
While it is 14 years old, it has a host of safety and performance features that we wouldn’t even have dreamed about in the Alfa Romeo GTV. These include stability control, traction control and multiple airbags. The heating and air-conditioning systems are capable and intuitive. The 3.6-liter engine produces an adequate 315 horsepower.
It is a 67,000-mile car in immaculate condition. We paid $21,000 for it. If properly serviced, reaching 150,000 miles is not out of the question. It has become my daily driver.
Piloting an eggshell
With each passing day, the modern driving environment becomes less friendly to our vintage (pre-1975) cars. While vintage cars are fundamentally unsafe compared to modern cars, their real challenge is the other cars, trucks and SUVs that are on the road.
Most of the vehicles built today are massive. They are designed to provide maximum protection for the occupants, which they do very, very well.
A 2018 Suburban weighs 7,500 pounds. The 1967 GTV is 1,950 pounds. The Suburban has a 2.5-ton (5,000-pound) advantage should there be a fender-to-fender encounter. Imagine a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears crashing head-on into a punter.
Compounding this, fewer and fewer drivers take their behind-the-wheel responsibilities seriously. Drivers today simply slide behind the wheel and make their cars take them somewhere. They are busy texting, talking on the phone, obeying the nav system and waiting for the various beepers and sensors to keep them apprised of the cars around them.
Their car is an appliance that gets them from Point A to Point B. There is no need to worry about shifting at the right rpm, braking at just the right moment or taking a proper line through a turn.
Recently, I had a chance on the same afternoon to drive the Carrera, the GTV and my current “run-around” car, a Korean econobox.
Of the three, the Korean car required the most limited skill set. It got me around in the urban driving environment with the least stress. I’ve been asked how the car handles. I don’t know — I’ve never tried to make it “handle.” That’s not a part of its job description.
The GTV was not pleasant in modern traffic. I was constantly reminded that nearly every vehicle on the road has capabilities that dwarf those of the 50-year-old Italian sports car. Its acceleration was barely adequate, and you had to get above 3,500 rpm to even feel it. The brakes don’t measure up to those of any modern car.
Safety isn’t even on the table. In case of an impact, the car has a two-inch lap belt to hold your waist in place while your nose slams into the steering wheel.
On the plus side, there are no electronic distractions. My vintage cars don’t have radios, so my focus tends to be on the driving experience. If you don’t “really drive” the car, being behind the wheel will not be a satisfactory experience. You will not enjoy the direct, visceral feel an old car can provide.
We ration our time behind the wheel of old cars to tours and rallies that let us get out into the country with similar limited-performance vintage cars. For those brief moments when there is a chain of 20 or 30 old cars ripping through the gears and attacking turns one after the next, we are transported back in time to an era when European sports cars were the undisputed rulers of the road.
I’ve always been drawn to the shape and layout of the Porsche 911, from the first road test I read in Road & Track in 1964. It was both exotic and practical. The rear seats provided just enough room for a small adult or child for a short distance.
While I wouldn’t say that driving the Carrera in traffic is a joy, the performance-heritage bones of the 911 are apparent with every shift you make.
From those of us who require that our daily drivers have a “fun factor,” the Carrera is the 1967 GTV of our era — the ultimate affordable family sports car. ♦