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Those were the days
publication date: Jul 10, 2015
author/source: Captain Pugwash
If you’ve never driven an older car can I suggest you do so as soon as possible.
It will remind you what your brain is for and why driving skills are important.
Modern cars, with all their electronic control systems have taken the skill out of driving because the skill is now in the technology. Cars are driven faster and braking is now left much later because drivers know that if they get into trouble the car will rescue them.
In the 1970s rear-wheel drive was predominant, oversteer and a touch of wheel spin were but a stab of the throttle away and braking was an art in itself. You had to think and anticipate when you drove. True, the speeds may not have been as fast as they are now but you weren’t isolated from that speed – if you were travelling at 80 mph you certainly knew about it.
I refer to the 1970s because I recently had the opportunity to drive three cars from that period. 1974 was the year that saw the creation of the Colt Car Company here in the UK to import, distribute and sell Mitsubishi vehicles. Two of the cars I drove were the modest Colt Lancer and the more extreme Starion turbo. The third was a Mitsubishi Jeep, a replica of the original iconic American vehicle built under licence in Japan. The original was the called the Willys Jeep, this one is the Willis Jeep although I’m convinced somewhere on the vehicle I saw the word Willy – if I didn’t, I should have done!
The stylish (for 1974) two-door Colt Lancer had a 1.2 litre four cylinder engine mated to a four speed gearbox. Performance was acceptable for a 40 year old car, brakes adequate and the steering approximate.
The large, thin plastic steering wheel was strange to the touch on a very hot summer’s day while the plastic covered seats required muscles not in everyday use to be re-activated.
But the thing that really struck me was how narrow the car was. You could easily unlock the front passenger door or wind down the passenger window while seated in the driver’s seat. Try doing that in today’s equivalent of the Lancer, a Focus or Astra, and you won’t even reach over far enough to scratch your passenger’s back.
The Starion was much more fun. Just as narrow with a great sounding engine, strong acceleration, OK-ish steering and adequate brakes. I firmly believe that if a car sounds right it probably is right and the Starion certainly sounds right. The Jeep was fun but in a perverse way. The high seating position gave a great view of the road ahead and just as well as the steering was even more approximate than the Lancer’s while the all-drum brakes had to be reminded of their function quite forcibly and repeatedly.
In 1974 the Mercedes-Benz 450S was voted European Car of the Year when excellence was still being rewarded rather than despised (see my previous column re Car of the Year Awards) and the Ford Cortina was the best-selling car on Britain’s roads. Mainstream cars may not have been very sophisticated but driving was a pleasure, sometimes a challenge but never dull.
Today driving can be very dull, relying on vehicle technology rather than the most advanced technology of all, the human brain. More’s the pity.