What to Know About Growing Old . . . Before You Do!

Really old cars are becoming popular again – not so much because they are collectible but rather because they are practical.

Some are capable of exceeding the highest-mileage figures posted by any new car – because they are much more efficient than any new car, being so much lighter.

None of them are “connected” cars. All of them are vastly simpler cars than any new car, which means that even though they do usually need more in the way of maintenance than new cars, almost anyone can maintain them.

This also means they are less disposable. If you’re willing to learn how they work – and willing to work on them – you can keep one of these things on the road for decades.

However, these cars are now more than four decades old – the youngest of them – if we are talking about cars made before cars came with computers and without any “safety technology” – besides seatbelts. This means that most people in their 40s (and younger) today are unlikely to have ever driven a car that was not only built before they were born – but built in a different time. 

The years pass and models change, but a sea-change occurred in car design around the time that Ronald Rrrrreagan was first sworn in. Before that time, year-to-year changes were incremental and mostly cosmetic and mechanical. A 1979 car wasn’t that much different from a 1969 car – and the ’69 wasn’t that much different from a ’59, beyond the visuals.

If you knew how a ’59 worked you could easily work on a ’69 – and a ’79. 

With a small handful of specialty car exceptions, all of the cars made since the beginning of the car era more than 120 years ago had mechanical fuel delivery systems, without any electronic systems except the ignition system, which was as simple as a distributor turned by a mechanical gear that triggered spark summoned by a coil sent through four, six or eight (sometimes, twelve) wires – one for each cylinder – to the same number of spark plugs. 

And that was largely it. 

Over the decades, there were improvements. The ignition system went from 6 to 12 volts and mechanical points that had to be periodically gapped gave way to transistorized ignition that was maintenance-free. Brakes went from single to dual master cylinder and all drums to drums and discs (up front). Radials replaced bias-ply tires.

But all-in-all it was more-or-less the same. 

Thus, even though a car like my ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am was made years before I was old enough to legally drive it, when I bought it in the early ’90s, I knew how to work on it because it was still fundamentally the same as the cars I grew up fiddling with in the ’70s and ’80s.

But today, my Trans-Am has little in common with any car made after the ’90s, other than having four wheels and a windshield. Someone who grew up with the cars of the ’90s – with electronic fuel delivery systems and computers – is not likely to have had much experience with really old – and really different – cars like my now-almost-50-year-old Pontiac.

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