It’s a subject that I keep coming back to, time and time again. This time, it’s been sparked by the realisation that the Rover 800 – Engineering in a finer form – is now 30 years old. As you’re here, the chances are that, like me, you like old cars. And the question remains: are old cars better than new ones and, if so, what’s the time period in which the best cars come from?
For instance, I drive a 10-year old Citroën C6. It’s fabulous car, packed with technology that works, most of which means it functions perfectly well as a modern car. It has sat-nav, cruise control, active lighting and much, much more – and, in many ways, you could argue this is the pinnacle of car design. You can use it today and, in most ways, it still feels utterly contemporary.
Being from 2006, it’s also saddled with anti-emission systems (DPF, FAP, EGR – always with the three-letter acronyms), which make the car a tough sell for DIY mechanics. That also applies to the car’s myriad of electronic systems. Yes, you can get into them, and fix them, if you know your way around a Citroën diagnostic system, but you’re lost without that knowledge.
Going back another 10 years to 1996, and cars are a whole lot simpler. Yes, most have airbags, ABS, traction control and catalytic converters. But, if you open the bonnet, the chances are you’re not a million miles away from understanding what you need to do, if things go wrong. So, take a drive of a 1996 Rover 600 today, and you won’t feel too outclassed in modern traffic.
Back to 1986, and your Vauxhall Carlton or Rover 800 will steel feel good to drive today, and it’ll still have some creature comforts that mean your drive won’t be too arduous. In terms of engineering, the 1980s were an interesting time, because cars as functional items were pretty much all you needed – the better ones were aerodynamically designed, had efficient engines (sometimes were ECU management) and were still reasonably light, as they weren’t weighed down by safety and emissions kit that you find in more modern cars. You’ll also enjoy an airy, light interior, thanks to slim pillars and a less intrusive dashboard.
And onwards back to 1976, and your Princess or Cortina MkIV will feel very alien today. But, in a way, either is still a very usable car in modern traffic.
Does that mean it doesn’t function as a modern car on modern roads? Probably not, and that’s why we need to make such huge compromises to use them now – a real act of commitment that marks any owner out as a ‘proper’ old school classic car fan.
Let’s rewind for a second, though.
That’s not the point of this blog. I mean, if I were talking about the most suitable car for today’s roads, then clearly it’s a modern car. You’d have to be pretty exceptional for something like a Ford Focus not to do everything you ever wanted in a car. Even a 1.6-litre TDCi will crack 120mph, drive like a go-kart on a B-road, and still deliver 60mpg in gentle driving.
But is this the pinnacle of vehicle engineering?
I think not. For me, the late 1980s are probably where the convergence of intelligent design and efficient engineering combined to create a sweet generation of cars that really weren’t killed by legislation. The Peugeot 405, Nissan Primera or Vauxhall Cavalier MkIII have so much going for them that I can’t help but weep for what ended up following on in the area of family car design.
All three of these options weigh-in at around 1100kg, have aerodynamic drag co-efficients of less than 0.30, have efficient multi-valve engines, will easily beat 40mpg in 1.9/2.0-litre forms and can quite happily cruise all day long at 70mph+ without taxing their drivers. It goes further – think about cars across all sectors, from the Peugeot 205 to the Audi 200, and you’re looking at cars that combine lightness, intelligence and efficiency so successfully, that they’ll be impossible to top, without a serious set-change in terms of vehicle design.
Perhaps that will come when the petrol really starts looking like it’s going to run out – in which case, with today’s technology, and the burning desire to create a car that seriously makes the best use of fossil fuel, we could see them being topped. However, for the moment, we’re a way off that.
(And that’s coming from an enthusiast whose favourite cars tend to hark back to the late 1960s-early 1980s)
Anyway, I’d be interested to see what you think!
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.