Why I Like 'Em Older
April 6, 2010 12:00 AM
But that’s what they have to do today to sell new cars. A friend of mine bought a new Lexus, and I said, “Is that front-wheel drive?”
He said, “I don’t know.” It really doesn’t matter. He’s more interested in the Nakamichi stereo.
In the 1920s there was a man named Childe Harold Wills. He’d worked as an engineer for Henry Ford, and then he brought out his own car company with a car called the Wills Saint Claire. It had a lightweight alloy body, four-wheeled brakes and an overhead-camshaft V8 with molybdenum-steel connecting rods. The car was the technological marvel of its day. Unfortunately, the people of the day said, “It doesn’t look any different than any other car.” So Wills went out of business.
When the Mustang came out in 1964, everybody said it had to have independent rear suspension. Lee Iacocca said, “Why? Nobody cares.” Looks as though he was right. As a business decision, it made more sense for the Mustang to have a live axle. You have to keep those things in perspective.
That’s why I like the cars that are orphans: the Duesenbergs, the Packards, the Bugattis. These guys had their own ways of doing things and it inevitably cost more and appealed to fewer buyers. And maybe it wasn’t as good—or maybe it was too good—but they went out of business for less than practical reasons. They went out of business for ideological reasons. Take Tucker, for example. He must have reasoned, “The public be damned. This is what it should look like.” I simply like the dreamers.
I also tend to like cars that need me.
To me, cars are like old screen doors. I know that if I jiggle the latch and move it this way, it will open for me and no one else. And that’s the kind of cars I like. So I’m the worst possible kind of consumer to do a test on. I like idiosyncratic things. I mean Bugatti had that hard-to-make hollow front axle and mechanical brakes, long after everybody else changed to hydraulics. But that’s what gives Bugattis character, and that’s what makes them interesting to me.
I like English cars because they’re from a nation of amateurs. Wait! Wait! Before the deluge of angry letters: I don’t mean that in an insulting way. But each person builds it his way and then sends it on down the line and everybody has to adjust. Like on my Jaguar XK120, they put the door hinge in and then they sealed up the door and welded it up. So the hinge is sealed up inside the door and you can’t ever get to it.
Back in the early ’50s, when the Jaguar sedan came out, Americans were complaining that they’d hit the brake and the pedal would go to the floor, then they’d hit it again, and the brakes would be fine. So they’d have to pump it twice. When the factory was notified, the folks back in Coventry said, “Oh yes, we’ll take care of it.”
So the next batch of sedans came through with a red light on the dash. When the pedal goes to the floor, the light comes on to tell you to hit the brake again. Why didn’t they fix the master cylinder in the first place? Who cares? That’s the kind of thing I like. British cars are all built in that odd sort of way.
When I see someone driving an older car, I admire them. I don’t have the kind of cars where people are amazed that they go fast, people are amazed that I was physically able to get to where they are in that vehicle, which to me is much more fun. I mean, can you really go 100 mph anywhere? I always like the people who try to choose between the Lamborghini Diablo and some Ferrari. The Ferrari goes 202 mph and the Lambo only does 199, so I don’t think I want that one. I have the kind of vehicles where people say, “You drove here—and back?” When I see a guy who has an old Bentley, or even an old Triumph or MG, I know he has to be an enthusiast, because there’s a certain level of expertise that you have to have just to drive that car, just to get there. So I know that’s someone I can have an interesting conversation with. There’s a certain kinship in all that.
The steamers are the ultimate. Maybe that’s why I own three Stanley Steamers. People think you had to be a locomotive engineer to own one, but you really just had to be a tinkerer. You had to heat water, and then you had to get the steam back to the engine. Either the fire went out or the water wasn’t hot enough. There really wasn’t anything else to go wrong. So it was just a matter of little leaks to keep after. They used to say that it takes 5 minutes to figure out what’s wrong with the Steamer, and 2 hours to fix it because it has to cool down. With gas cars, it takes 2 hours to find out what’s wrong and 5 minutes to fix it. Either way, it’s the same. I had to learn all this. But there’s a great deal of satisfaction in keeping a Steamer running.
Nowadays you get a great deal of power by revving an engine. But back then, you couldn’t really rev a Model T Ford, the engine would be working awfully hard just to move you away. A steam car just chuffs forward rapidly. It’s like the hand of God pushing you away. It’s amazing. Some of them had 700 ft.-lb. of torque from rest! Steamers are wonderful cars to get involved with when someone else is aboard. Invariably the conversation is: “Oh we’ve gone 8 miles now. What’s the water pressure?” There’s a whole ritual you have to deal with.
And people like that. I keep using the Betty Crocker analogy. You know, years ago, they came out with an instant cake mix—you only added water—and women weren’t buying it. It didn’t sell. Then someone at General Mills said, “Why don’t we have them break two eggs, then add water, and see what happens?” Suddenly women felt like they were baking something! With a Stanley there’s a lot of involvement—lots of eggs to break.
The thing about the Steamer is you take out the blowtorch and there’s fire, and people ooh and aah at your mechanical skills. You look like a genius. When it blows back, whhhhhhoooouuffff! and it catches fire, people scream and they run off in all directions. It’s a wonderful car for an extrovert.
It’s about 6 miles home to my house, going through Beverly Hills. One day, driving my Stanley, I see these two people walking, and I say, “Hey, do you want a ride?”
They get in, and soon afterward, I blow the horn and the guy goes, “Hey, wait a minute. That sounds like the ghost train.”I say, “Wha?” He says, “We’ve been here a couple of years. Sometimes late at night, we hear this whistle. Someone told us there used to be a train that ran through Beverly Hills, and they tore it up. But at night people still think they hear the train.” “That’s not a train,” I told them. “That’s me coming home.”
I drive my 1909 Baker electric, too. Mavis and I take it out to restaurants for dinner. Of course, I don’t leave it with the valet. I have to park it. Here’s a car that’s 8 ft. high and 7 ft. long. It’s the equivalent of driving a phone booth. You know that scene in “The Wild Bunch” where Ernest Borgnine and Warren Oates are sitting there, on a flat Main Street and the first horseless carriage goes by and they go, “What the hell?” They can’t understand how it’s possibly moving. When you drive this Baker, it makes no noise, there’s no visible engine, you can’t see where the engine would be. People just stare. And when you tell them it’s a nearly 100-year-old electric car, they don’t believe you. They think the electric car just came out a couple of years ago.
There’s a wonderful snobbery that each generation has. People now think they’re so much smarter than people who lived in the ’20s and ’30s. They think about World War II and they say, “Oh that could never happen,” because people aren’t stupid the way they were then, to allow Hitler to come to power, etc. But let’s not kid ourselves. People are always the same. And those are the people who look at the electric car and can’t imagine how they missed it.
Are you still wondering why I like old cars?
By Jay Leno
Via: Published in Popular Mechanics.