At 4 this morning, I decided to admit to myself that sleep wasn’t coming, so I got up. Hands shaking, I customized my new phone until I could reasonably get dressed and drive down to Dagwood’s, the nearest diner open at 5. Dagwood’s was already ancient by the time my ’87 CRX was in development. It was dishing up massive half-orders of biscuits and gravy when the first Camaros rolled into Kansas City. It made pancakes when the Willys Jeep was still shuttling GIs toward victory in Europe. As I shoveled similar pancakes into my mouth, a sturdy brace to a stomach bitterly void of all but pain meds, I got to thinking about that old rusted heap of Honda parked just outside.
Last Saturday, my friend and I met his coworker, John, at their engineering shop so John could skilfully weld back together the CRX’s broken rear unibody support. A 30-year veteran of his craft, John took about 4 hours to make the support element stronger than it had ever been, getting the CRX back on the road. Still, while it was up on the lift, I couldn’t help but mourn the unibody joints at the front of the car, which are quickly headed toward a similar fate.
It needs a new shell. I’m not sure a complete frame-off resto would even be worth it. Finding a clean desert shell should do the trick. But my mind went to this first, rather than to the scrapper.
Because I love this old car. I love old cars in general.
See, when the CRX broke, I bought a ’98 Civic sedan to fill the daily driving role until I could have the little two-seater patched up. And I like the ’98. It’s incredibly reliable, surprisingly quick, and still fairly simple. But everything it is, the CRX is to a greater degree. No, the CRX isn’t faster, but it feels faster, and the feeling of the car was what I needed this morning, as the pre-dawn Kansas City fog clung to my shaking skin.
Simplicity of Design
You know all those cheap internet memes, with the driver looking back at his or her car, and the bold, white text saying something like, “If you don’t look back every time, you bought the wrong car, and you should crush it and blow it up.” It’s a silly notion. Nobody looks back at the car every time. Except that I do. I’m the cheap meme. I love looking at my car. It’s a work of art, a perfect representation of the protractor and ruler styling of its age. The proportions are flawless.
It’s a design for the sake of design, and all old cars have that quality. Form over function. Beauty over utility.
Okay, not really. Even back then, it was vastly more complicated than that, and designers certainly didn’t call all the shots. I mean, look at that rally-spec wheel gap. Smaller wheels are cheaper and allow for more suspension travel, and lowering the car any more would have made it impractical. And there’s always cost. Not every car can have a glass roof, because people who buy Ford Festivas would rather not sell their fillings to afford them. Car designers have always had to adhere to function. But designers of yore could hide that function better. They had fewer parameters. They were allowed to design beautiful cars, and it was good. Because people like to buy beautiful cars.
But surely it’s not so different today, right? I believe it is. Nothing changed overnight, but in the wide scope of decades, car design has begun to require more safety and better aerodynamics. Cars get bigger on the outside but smaller on the inside because they need to accommodate more robust skeletons that can withstand greater impacts. They get stubby little trunks because engineers need to eliminate drag, improving efficiency and saving those precious MPG decimals. Especially since cars can’t be light anymore, due to those thick, dense bones.
And designers, God bless them, try to hide it. Let’s skip ahead several generations of Civic to the current line. It has an awkward, drooping roofline and a blunt, abrupt nose. The former is required to cut down on drag, and the latter to meet pedestrian crash regulations (because we need to design around the people crossing the street while catching Pokemon). But you’ll also notice the busyness of the design. It’s riddled with creases and lines, accents and inserts, all of which are strategically placed to draw the eye away from the ungainly general shape of the car. The slight arch over the rear wheel and the chunky taillight redirect attention from that roofline, and the oversize fog light mounting and deep-cut headlight (with the ugly plastichrome eyebrow) distract us from the weird nose.
But I’m not complaining. If not for the heroic efforts of these designers, the 2016 Civic would look like this, a picture of bare aerodynamic efficiency in the modern age:
Still, you can’t blame me for preferring a simpler aesthetic. I always have to look back. It’s not all about the look, though.
Simplicity of Engineering
The CRX has no power steering. It’s manual, direct, and absolutely perfect. And if the torsion bar suspension up front could be a bit firmer, it was chosen to keep the nose low and the handling predictable. Since the wheelbase is shorter than my attention span after last night, my car is officially the dartiest on the planet. It can jut around corners with ease, always perfectly settled, as long as the tires and the shocks in decent trim.
The go pedal is attached to an actual throttle cable, so there’s an eager pop at the edge of the revs, a sharp rush of breath, like a dog’s when he’s ready to play. I can literally hear the origin of the power, the moment it wants to go.
Advancement in automotive technology is wonderful. Today, cars are faster, more efficient, and often more reliable than ever, all thanks to dozens of strata of futuristic engineering. Direct injection, hybrid drives, automation. It’s an important vector for transportation, and I wouldn’t stop it if I could.
But when I climb into an old car, when I stab that cable-connected throttle, I’m usually not doing so for transportation alone. I’m touching another world. (Keep in mind, I’m on some very powerful pain killers right now.) As we all know, a car doesn’t just transport you, it transports you. In moments, it moves you at speeds once thought impossible and deadly for the human frame. It ushers you into an experience you can only get there, a world of metal and asphalt and wind.
A good car is like an ambassador to that world, a mechanical tour guide, a liaison between mushy, vulnerable flesh and immutable steel and pavement. It’s a machine meant to be experienced as a machine. It doesn’t apologize for its identity. You’re supposed to know you’re driving, to feel like you’re driving, interacting with a machine. An old car doesn’t want to distract you from that. That’s the joy of driving a car. It doesn’t really soak through the same way when you ride the subway.
But I think that so often a modern car is engineered to help you forget you’re in a machine. It begs your forgiveness for getting you up off your couch, out from in front of your TV. Everything is softened, complicated, quieted, and automated until you’re still in your living room. And indeed, based on the public enthusiasm for driverless, sharable cars, that’s where we’re headed.
Obviously, not all old cars share this quality. Heck, we can trace the living room cockpit back to the couchy bench seats of coach-built motoring. We can trace infotainment to the in-car hifi. But I’m not just talking about luxury cars as a whole. A good luxury car still celebrates its cardom. Classic luxury cars would do this with huge, authoritative engines and suspensions that could have run comfortably over World War 1. They focused on engineering. And modern luxury cars often have neat engineering features, as well, with all the turbos you could want, magnetic suspension, and perfect tires, all of which are installed to chew up Nurburgring records with frightening regularity. But how often are they forgotten behind adaptive cruise control and Spotify?
Old cars are addicting. They bring out an itch to drive. They demand to be driven again. An old car invites its driver into a negotiation. It shares power. So many newer cars just try to take over.
Now I know that this is something of a sliding scale. I have zero interest in breaking my wrist on a crank starter, and I rather like not having to tune carburetors (though I do love a classic carb setup). Some of you don’t consider an ’87 CRX old, and some see my ’98 Civic as old.
I do, too, in some respects. I enjoy the classic nature of it. It was the last “small” Civic, and if you take out the intake resonator (I did, of course), you can drop Wisconsin through the engine bay and it will all hit the ground. It’s still simple.
And on the plus side, it’s not rusting like a Soviet submarine.
In fact, I take back the title. Maybe “better” isn’t the right word. And maybe I just chose it as clickbait. And maybe I’m a little glad I drive the majority of my miles in something more modern. But this morning, in the fog, when I had nothing to run on but hope and 91 horsepower, I was glad for my classic. Old cars fill a role new cars just can’t. And you should get one.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.