Thoughts on Driving Classic Cars


I recently came across an article about the environmental implications of driving older cars. The green lobby, aided and abetted by the car manufacturers and a number of national governments, have been promoting the environmental credentials of modern cars – their reduced petrol consumption, their lower CO2 emissions, their recyclability, and so on. The message is: “New Cars Good, Old Cars Bad”.

A study from Greenpeace shows that the manufacture of a new car creates a massive burden on the environment and that the petrol consumption during its lifetime is only a small part of its whole-life energy consumption. Moreover, drivers of older cars are typically more defensive and cautious people. With less aggressive driving, their petrol consumption then quickly reaches the level of economic new cars driven in a more flamboyant style. The problem is worse with hybrid cars, the manufacture of lithium batteries consumes a huge amount of energy and generates an amount of CO2 equivalent to thousands of miles of motoring. Modern cars typically have energy hungry extras such as power steering and air conditioning and they have extra steel to provide the crash-worthiness demanded by modern legislation. All these extras add weight and that worsens petrol consumption like nothing else. Turning your air conditioning on, for example, can worsen your petrol consumption by 10% or more.

When Jeremy Clarkson reviewed the Mk5 VW Golf GTi on the BBC’s Top Gear, he compared it with the Mk1 Golf GTi and found that it was twice as powerful but twice as heavy, thus its performance was no better. Because the extra power could not be delivered through the front wheels alone, VW had to fit four-wheel drive, thus making the transmission twice as complicated. And this is Progress?

The old wisdom that it is better to conserve than to destroy is neglected in the vehicle world. We are supposed to buy new cars all the time with ever better environmentally friendly technology. But this only helps the car manufacturers’ sales figures, we are paying for a world full of cars that we don’t really need! When you drive a classic car, you can escape from this vicious circle!


To my mind, Toyota’s recent woes with their sticking accelerator pedals and dodgy brakes raise huge questions over the critical safety of modern vehicles. I have not taken much interest in modern car design and was not aware of just how far the digital control bus wiring extended into the control of a car. I did know that the lights and other accessories were controlled by digital signals but I had no idea that the accelerator pedal was not physically connected to the inlet manifold (no carburettor, of course). So the driver is totally reliant on electronic wizardry and a computer to open and close the throttle, as well as to decide how much fuel to allow in. Now we learn that a computer controls the brakes and a “minor software glitch” can stop the brakes working, even if “only momentarily”. And Honda have had to recall over half a million vehicles over problems with potentially lethal unexploded bombs (otherwise known as airbags) in their cars. That is scary!

I am a railway engineer. In the railway industry, safety and risk assessment and evaluation are a way of life. It is simply unacceptable to allow a single point of failure, that is where the failure of one device or component can lead to an unsafe condition. The motor industry seems to be able to “get away with murder” by comparison. I think I shall feel more secure in my good old VWs.

Of course, crash-worthiness is not as high as in brand new cars, but there are incalculable passive safety features intrinsic to an older car: we don’t dash about at such high speeds, other drivers are generally more considerate of you, people tend to smile happily at you and your car. Think about it, how did we survive the journey in a VW Beetle 30 years ago without seatbelts and without extensive crumple zones and plastic bumpers? And why do thousands of ordinary people still walk about in our towns and cities without a crash helmet?

Now is the time for the older car! If you drive your classic car in all seasons, you are the true environmentalist!

Updated 12th February 2010 © J S Rastall

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