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Putting Miles on the Vintage Iron: Daily Driving the Classics

by Richard Henley

I see and hear a lot of discussion about taking classic vehicles on extended trips, and it bothers me that conventional wisdom claims one needs to have a newer vehicle to make long distance road trips safely.  The general thinking is that newer cars must be more reliable than the vintage iron — or more comfortable ‚ or more readily serviced in case of a problem. 

DRL - daytime running lights

To listen to some people, you would get the impression there must not have been more than a couple miles of road to take trips on 30 years ago, and vehicles weren’t designed to do road trips.

I’m going to have to disagree with a lot of people, and I have enough experience to back it up. This past year has seen a lot of highway miles roll under the tires of my 1970s Mopars.

In November 2008, I injured myself in such a way that I couldn’t work for a while and had to make a trip a month to the doctor. Since the injury, hospital, and doctor that put everything back together were in southern Oklahoma and I live in eastern Colorado, this required a long good road trip every month, adding over 8,400 miles to the odometer of my 1975 Duster.

seats

We did the first trip in my darling redhead’s Buick, which was enough to convince me that newer cars aren’t always more comfortable — especially when it come time to sleep, since I’m way too cheap to pay somebody else for the privilege of sleeping in a strange bed. The old Plymouth Duster may not have six way power reclining cloth deluxe bucket seats, but the old stock bench seat is plenty good to stretch out on, and a far sight more comfy than a lot of motel beds I’ve tried. The ride on her car isn’t so great either; it’s designed more for corners than straights. Being cramped up in a small car with a ride that jars your eye teeth out just isn’t any fun when you’ve got broken bones half healed.

The ride of any of my classic Mopars is as good as or better than any of the comparable new vehicles I’ve been in, and the seating position is better, even though most new cars are set up with ergonomics in mind. Maybe the focus on ergonomics in newer vehicles might actually be a drawback for those of us who aren’t built to the same exact dimensions as an ergonomic dummy; it seems to me that they design things to fit the ergonomic dummy instead of designing for the range of sizes that real people come in.

Reliability really isn’t an issue either. Old cars were designed to go down the road just the same way as newer cars are — but the roads of yesterday weren’t as good as they are today. I’m nowhere near a senior citizen yet, but I can remember when there were state highways that weren’t paved, and some city streets were paved in brick. Reliability isn’t going to be a problem if you’ve taken the time to do your basic maintenance and check the car out before you head out. That’s something you ought to do before a trip no matter what the age of the vehicle.

One actually has an advantage with an older vehicle in case of mechanical problems; a lot of the common problems can be easily dealt with on the side of the road with a basic collection of spare parts and a few common hand tools. Take wiring, for instance; on newer cars there’s more wires, sensors, and other electrical components for just the engine control system than my Duster has for the entire car. Older vehicles were also designed so that a lot of the common items could be repaired quickly and easily, whereas the newer vehicles seem to be designed to cram as many things in as small a space as possible.

wiring harness

To be fair, I have to admit there is one place where newer vehicles have an advantage. The last road trip involved getting me and close to 2,000 lbs of chains, tarps and other equipment 750 miles from the house to Springfield, Missouri, so I could get back into the ranks of gainfully employed as a commodity relocation technician. 2,000 lbs is a bit more weight and volume than the Duster is capable of, so the 1970 Dodge pickup was called on for the task. Overall, no complaints or major problems on the trip, but I did have to adjust the carb in Syracuse, KS and reset the timing in Carthage, MO on the way down; differences in altitude were enough to have a negative effect smooth operation. That doesn’t seem to be a problem with the newer cars, the redhead’s Buick runs just as smooth on top of Vail Pass as it does in Altus, OK.

The old 383/727/4.11 combination got a bit over 7 mpg, with an average highway speed of 45 mph. I’m certain a new Ram with a Hemi could outdo that easily, while pulling a travel trailer, in a head wind, uphill all the way…. and in the new Ram I’d have had a good stereo to listen to. But on the other hand it wouldn’t have looked as good as the ’70 sitting next to the old steam engine in Dodge city, and listening to a 383 through dual exhaust isn’t as bad as one might think. When you consider the new Ram with a Hemi would probably have a couple years of payments as high as the total purchase price of the ’70, suddenly 7 mpg isn’t so bad. Also, you get to see more scenery at 45 mph than you do at 70.

Got a road trip coming up? Take the new car if it suits you. But don’t let anyone discourage you if you’re thinking of taking your classic, reliability has more to do with maintenance and upkeep than age of the vehicle. One thing I know for certain, the trip will be more enjoyable if taken in something you like to drive.

Also see daily driving in a 1974 Valiant and the 200,000 Mile Club and...

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