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Homepage. This page: Driving a classic car, comparisons between driving a car of the 1950s vs new.

Driving a compact 1950s' car on modern roads.

Over the years I've had a few cars from the post-war era, including various Standards, Austins and Hillmans. This article was written with driving a typical 1950s car in mind, in this case the Standard Ten I once owned. Piloting a machine of venerable age is not something to take on without a certain amount of forward planning. If you're used to driving a modern motor-car, where you just hop in, fire up the engine, select your preferred climatic conditions, choose a CD, and set off at 90mph in a mad rush to the nearest wine bar, then you'll get a shock when first you try driving an older motorcar. I had an interesting discussion with the previous owner of my (non-running) Austin 7. She only ever remembered being driven in the car by her father as a child, and was genuinely taken aback when I explained how different driving an old car, compared to driving a new car, could be. What follows is a commentary on an average journey made in a car of advancing years, in this case the Standard 10 I once owned, a machine built in the latter half of the 1950s.

Pre-drive checks for 1950's motoring.

Any handbook that comes with an old car will go into great depth regarding the pre-flight checks that are prudent to make before embarking on any journey. These didn't include checking your hair in the mirror, or attaching a Bluetooth headset to one's ear. The checklist would however have included items referring to the car's tyres, engine oil and other fluid levels, lamps, and so on, and it does pay to take a few moments to check these things before setting off, likewise it's an excellent idea to have an array of tools on board and a few routine spares should the un-imagineable happen, and your vehicle fail to proceed. At the very least this emergency kit should include a mobile phone, a selection of relevant spanners, screwdrivers, bits of wire, cable ties, string, a drop of 20/50, brake fluid and a warning triangle. A few rags and a pair of disposable gloves wouldn't go amiss either, while a modest selection of spare parts - such as bulbs of the correct wattage and voltage, ignition parts (points, rotor arm, condenser), plus a drop of fuel and water in their respective containers, are a good idea also.
Once you've established the car is ready for the off, and all four corners of the vehicle are as you left them, it's time to hop on board. There are not many keys to choose from. Many cars would have had a common key for both front doors, bootlid and the ignition lock, although over time one (or more) locks may have been changed, and/or keys lost. Once comfortably installed behind the wheel, you'll feel like you've done an HG Wells and travelled back in time. No on-board computers, air con, central locking or ABS here, welcome to driving, 1950s' style. In the Standard there is but one dial, which - courtesy of a wayward needle - suggests an approximation of your forward velocity, while the fuel gauge flickers away below for good measure, indicating that you probably have some fuel in the tank, although the exact amount remains a secret. Indicators are on the column in this particular machine, although many cars of the period still had a rotary knob on the dash for this. Earlier cars may have done without indicators altogether.
Driving a 1950s car
Old cars can be driven vigorously, although rarely should the need arise.
The Standard has flashing indicator lights, but many of its contemporaries still sported pop-up semaphore indicators, or trafficators, a lovely period touch but not one that Mondeo Man will be looking out for (perhaps a flashing semaphore trafficator conversion is the answer?).
The main lamps are controlled by one of a bank of knobs in the centre of the dashboard, main beam being selected by a foot switch buried away beneath the fraying carpet in the footwell. There is a heater, but a passing moth emits more warmth so can be ignored - demisting is best effected by that great invention, the opening quarterlight, hinged for your convenience on both front and rear doors on my particular car. If the weather is a little inclement, you'll find that opening quarterlights do an excellent job of directing water from outside, onto your right knee. This is part of the car's character, and should be appreciated rather than frowned upon.
Safety is not a great strongpoint of the older car, so it pays to concentrate on your driving at all times. In fact there is a school of thought that cars today are so safe that people think themselves to be invincible and therefore take more risks. Driving a classic car is a constant reminder that in the olden days, safety considerations were usually limited to fitting larger chromium bumpers, or recommending the wearing of driving gloves to improve grip on the slippery steering wheel. There are no padded dashboards, only pointy sharp edges, all beckoning to rearrange your molars should contact be made. Just remembering this concentrates your mind on the job in hand, rather than on your mobile phone or the blonde at the bus stop.
Seatbelts were not an original fitment back in the '50s (apart from on certain Volvos), and many old cars do not have suitably reinforced pillars to take modern belts anyway, so go carefully. In their favour, old cars have far fewer gadgets with which a driver can get distracted with. I'm surprised that drivers of modern cars find time to actually do any driving, or spend much time looking down the road ahead, so numerous are the settings for gearbox, seats, temperature, musical accompaniment and directional assistance.

Start your engine.

The firing up procedure will also come as a surprise to anyone brought up on Corsas, Picantos and Vectras. Place the key into the ignition, and turn to the first position. Assuming the gear lever is in neutral (a big wavy wand action of the lever will confirm this), give it some choke (remember choke?) and pull on the starter knob, the cable attached to the knob mechanically informing the starter motor to do its job. With a little luck the engine purrs into life, a buzz from the gearlever and burble from the exhaust being the clues that internal combustion is in progress. If the oil light does not extinguish shortly after ignition, then you have a problem, and it's probably best to switch off and consult page 986 of the owner's handbook for guidance. Hopefully the glowing red lamp will no longer be illuminated either, suggesting that the dynamo is now up & running, providing a charge to the battery. A hint of illumination at idle is acceptable on a car fitted with a dynamo rather than an alternator, but it should disappear promptly once the throttle pedal has been depressed.
With the pre-flight checks completed, and the engine purring away to itself quietly, it's now time to take your place on the Queen's highway. Most small British classics have conventional manual gearchanges (three- or four-speed), there being very few small cars fitted with automatic gearboxes in the fifties. If you own an old Daimler, Riley or Lanchester then you may have the delights of the pre-selector gearbox to contend with (basically you select a gear before you need it, then hit the 'clutch' pedal to actually invoke this ratio) - a small number of old racing cars also have pre-selectors, but they're beyond the scope of this general ramble. Some manual gearshifts are done via a column change, such as the arrangement I encountered on my old A40 Somerset, a procedure not dissimilar to stirring custard. Successfully detecting a ratio can take some practice, but soon becomes second nature.
My Standard had the curious Standrive transmission, whereby clutch actuation is via a little switch on the gearlever, as opposed to the usual floor pedal arrangement, but for the sake of simplicity here, I'll continue this ramble as if I were driving any of the other 95% of Standard Tens out there, that have conventional floor-change gear arrangements.

Selecting first gear and setting off down the road.

Now, depressing the clutch pedal to the floor is no guarantee that first gear is necessarily there for the taking - most gearboxes of the time do not have synchromesh on first, so unless care is taken, a fearsome gnashing of teeth can result by an overly-hasty selection of first gear. Often a good plan is to nudge second gear, this can have the effect of smoothing the transition into first gear, after which a hint of throttle and the usual checks see you setting off at a leisurely pace down the road. Gears on most small cars of the '50s are usually quite low, so once walking speed has been attained, an attempt to locate second can be made. Gearboxes may have left the factory with synchromesh available on gears two, three and four, but after sixty or so years, they're probably not at their fittest. Changes have to be made slowly, often in two distinct activations: first-to-neutral followed by neutral-to-second, maybe with a release and re-application of the clutch pedal (double de-clutch) for good measure - especially when driving pre-war cars.
Cars driving along in a queue
Post-war cars driving through a village.
It's about now that the other big difference between old and new cars becomes apparent, ie the steering. Whereas most modern cars benefit from power steering, and precise rack & pinion steering, the majority of older cars employ steering boxes and lots of links to transmit your inputs from the wheel, to the roadwheels themselves. Several inches of play in the steering is not at all unusual, and it often feels that input from the steering wheel is in fact stirring a vat of lard rather than transmitting a request for a change of direction to the roadwheels, so once again forward planning is the name of the game if gentlemanly (or lady-like) progress is to be assured.
At some point, there'll be the need to slow down, and here to the differences between driving a classic car and its modern equivalent will become apparent. Modern cars benefit from disc brakes, servo, and ABS at the very least (yet somehow are still crashed with great regularity). The Standard, as with most small family saloons of the 50s, relies on drum brakes at all four corners, in this case hydraulically operated although many still had cable or rod-operated mechanisms. There's nothing at all wrong with a drum set up, so long as it's well adjusted. More dashing cars of the era, such as the XK120 Jaguar, were fitted with disc brakes following on from the company's Le Mans experiences, but these cars were (and are) the preserve of the more well-healed cad, and are different again to drive when compared to a Standard 8/10, Austin A35 or Ford Pop.

Forward planning is essential for the 1950s' motorist.

As all advanced driving courses will highlight, most modern-day car drivers do not plan far enough ahead , but this is an essential requirement with a classic car, whether its braking distances, steering, or collision avoidance that we're talking about. It's also a sad fact that most modern car drivers are spectacularly impatient, and will do their upmost to overtake a 'slow old wreck' at the earliest opportunity, if only to preserve their pride and macho image in the eyes of their passengers. Such shenanigans can induce anxiety in the classic car driver, but the best solution is to just ignore the sales rep in his Audi who insists in hanging 3" off your rear bumper, cursing you in the mistaken belief that a) you'll go faster if he fills your mirrors with his daytime running lights b) or that you'll pull over and let him through (although this is often a good plan - keep the idiots at bay).
It can be risky driving one of the quicker cars of the 1950s, as this can catch out your average amoeba behind the wheel of their modern tin box. They see an old car heading towards them in the distance, and they often assume that it must be going slowly as it's an old banger, and pay little attention to it when pulling out from a side road say. Unfortunately for them, that old car could be a Mk2 Jaguar, a vintage Bentley, or any 1950s 'sports' car you care to mention, and there's every chance that it's moving at a pace comparable to many modern cars, so yet again forward planning is the key to safely driving any old car, whether it's fast or not, and you have to assume that those around you have not seen you coming.
Sadly great pace is not something I often encountered whilst navigating the Standard, it's lowwww gearing and elderly mechanicals limiting things to 40-45mph, any more and the vocal rear axle drowned out all other sounds, and the various engine noises took on a yet more strained note.

Breaking down.

Breakdowns do happen unfortunately, and if it happens, you'll be congratulating yourself on packing a suitable array of spare parts and tools in your boot before setting sail. The ability to diagnose a problem, fix it at the side of the road, and continue on one's way is a mark of a true classic car enthusiast, a quality that few drivers in more recent cars possess. If you spot a fellow driver, having problems with his or her automobile, the courteous driver will always offer to help the driver fix their steed.
Old car broken down
Effecting a roadside repair to a Jowett Javelin.
Drivers of modern cars may assume that driving a classic is an act of lunacy, rivalled only by those who launch themselves off Brighton Pier every year in the belief that they can fly. A classic car is one that has to be treated carefully, and each facet of its character and operation understood and not taken for granted. Every trip is an adventure, with bonus points awarded for successfully arriving at one's destination without needing to open a toolbox or tie something back on with string.
You can read more about the pro's & con's of running a classic car here: Owning classic cars.

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