Classic cars: Why I'm glad they don't make 'em like they used to

You’ve probably heard someone say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” when comparing old cars to new ones. But while cars certainly have changed, that’s not really a bad thing.

“You can be nostalgic, but there were all sorts of compromises,” says Richard Pickering, retired producer of the Signature Classics Collection at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. “Everything today, for all practical purposes, is better than it was back then.”

The automobile’s progress has always been an evolution, from cars that initially had to be cranked to start, to engines today that fire up almost instantly, thanks to computerized ignitions and fuel injection. Improvements in cooling systems have all but eliminated the overheated vehicles on the side of the road that used to be the norm in hot weather, while flat tires have become relatively rare due to better construction and rubber compounds.

Engines have also become far more efficient. In 1958, the first year of the Chevrolet Impala, you could order one with a 8-cylinder engine that made 250 horsepower, with fuel consumption of about 23 litres per 100 kilometres. A 2014 Impala gets 305 hp out of its V6 engine, and it’s rated at 9.2 l/100 km. The new model also steers and handles better, has far better brakes, and considerably less body flex.

However, it’s also pricier: when the 1958’s price is converted to 2014 dollars, the new Impala costs about $12,000 more.

Perhaps the biggest change over the years has been in safety.

“Most people didn’t have seatbelts, let alone use them,” Pickering says. “You just had a bit of padding on the dash, a deep-dish steering wheel, and a collapsible steering column to keep it from being a spear.”

In addition to anti-lock brakes, stability control and airbags, newer cars also have crumple zones, introduced by Mercedes-Benz in 1959. Some people complain that new cars fold up in a collision, unlike older cars that stay rigid, but it’s a design that has helped to consistently lower the crash fatality rate, even though there are more cars on the road.

As a modern car’s body progressively crumples, it absorbs and dissipates the crash energy. In older vehicles, the rigid body transferred that force to the occupants, slamming them into the interior components.

Old cars had a certain style, although the annual design changes on American cars meant there wasn’t always time to get the  fit-and-finish right. “The excessive use of chrome, the tail fins, catches our eyes today,” Pickering says. “But what do I drive every day? It isn’t a vintage car.”

Interesting facts

  • Short warranties. While some vehicles have a warranty for as long as five years or 100,000 km today, a typical 1940s warranty lasted only 90 days or 6,500 km.

  • False advertising. Most old cars didn’t actually make as much power as was advertised, due to the test standards at the time.

  • First self-starter. The first gasoline car with a self-starter, which eliminated cranking the engine, was the 1912 Cadillac.

More on