Justin’s recent opinion piece got the proverbial gears grinding away in my head. Despite how much you might love, covet or lust after old metal, the cold and hard light of reason says he is onto something.
I was definitely one of the jilted by Justin’s piece. Because I love old cars, and because he is bloody right.
However, I wonder if spending one’s formative years behind the wheel of something older and less capable could set the basis for better, safer, driving practises over the long term.
Let me explain. My own adoration of old cars comes from my first automotive experiences. Although I was born in the great year of 1987, I learned to drive in, mostly, a 1964 Holden EH. There was also a 1999 Land Rover Defender 110, an E21 BMW 318i and a 1977 Land Rover Series III. There was some newer stuff getting around, but I was always drawn to slide in behind the wheel of the cool old stuff.
At great risk of sounding like I’m trying to glorify these old cars, that old Holden in particular was a steep learning curve for a learner driver: worn recirculating-ball steering, non-compliant suspension, diving drum brakes and more body-roll than a sumo tournament. You’ve got no choice but to pay serious attention both to your own car and every other car on the road.
Yes, if I came off the road or crashed, I would have probably died. Another statistic, and the chances of it happening were much higher because the car was ancient.
Pick anything modern car, and my likelihood of surviving a prang skyrockets.
I get periodic refresher courses these days, with my own old Land Rover Defender and Series four-wheel drives both steering, braking, and especially handling poorly on-road.
But, put risk aside for a moment, those old cars quickly taught me a few good lessons in driving. Read the road a hundred metres ahead, not 10. Try to predict people’s movement between lanes, and be on the look-out for cross-traffic. Using the space in my lane to my advantage, and keeping mental notes of those behind and around.
And the golden rule: never, ever sitting up somebody’s clacker at speed. Drum brakes are good at giving you a little replay of your life flashing before your eyes.
It’s the same kind of ‘trust nobody’ driving that is drummed into motorcycle riding. Your brain is constantly working, keeping an eye on all of your mirrors, and scanning ahead for potential dramas.
These days, it’s so different. Modern vehicles ding at you when the gap in front is too small, tug against the steering wheel when you are threatening to leave your lane, or flash angrily when you’re coming up too quickly to a stopped car.
Even if traffic in front starts moving on from a standstill, you’re given a complimentary ding in case you’re not paying attention. It’s all very good for safety ratings and modern convenience, but I wonder how complacent this has allowed drivers to be.
It was only this morning, with a black Mazda3 sitting mere centimetres from my bum at 100km/h, I was thinking how dangerous that practise is, but modern cars can let you get away with it.
And continuing the anecdotal nature of this opinion piece, I reckon there is something in this. Human nature can have a habit of reducing efforts and inputs to the minimum requirement.
It’s known as the path of least resistance, or the principle of minimum effort. It’s also called Zipf’s Law, which makes it sound so very official. This study refers to human and animal nature’s determination to gain the “greatest outcome at the least amount of work”.
While modern technology and engineering is able to reduce the number and severity of accidents, and put downward pressure on road tolls, the driver is able to get away with bad driving practices. Surely, this isn’t a good thing.
I’m not suggesting we all go out into the pouring rain on clunkers with bald retread tyres, and 10-year old brake fluid, in an attempt to become enlightened. But there is definitely something to learn from bad, old cars.
Jeremy Clarkson summed it up egregiously and concisely, suggesting carmakers replace airbags with sharp titanium spikes, in an effort to make people drive in a safer manner.
Dumb idea, but the point stands.
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