What Is An Old School Car, Anyway?

Illustration for article titled What Is An Old School Car, Anyway?

Traction control, stability control, electric steering, brake-based electronic diffs, adjustable suspension, GPS — technologies that started trickling into the automotive world twenty or twenty-five years ago are now the norm. So what does that make old school?

The question popped into my head while I was watching the gorgeous Drive+ comparison between a 2005 Ford GT and a 2005 Acura NSX. They're presented as old school cars, with manual transmissions, rear-wheel drive, and nothing between you and disaster if you make a mistake at the wheel. Well, if you turn the traction control off.


To me, these are very modern cars. I very much remember sitting on the floor of my local newsstand reading comparison tests between the Ford, the Ferrari 360, and the Gallardo in then-new issues of EVO. I remember thinking how strange the NSX looked once they dropped the pop up headlights. I was a certain age, and I will always think of them as new.

I'm of two minds about this.

I could argue that the GT and the NSX are in no way shape or form 'old school.' Objectively, they are insulated, refined, electronically-managed machines. They even have fuel-injection.

But I could just as easily argue that in today's context, these two midengine sports cars offer a very outmoded driving experience. You'll notice it from the moment you take out your phone to check a map, because there's no GPS on the dash. You'll keep thinking about it as you look out of the low windows, lower than anything on sale today.

The takeaway is that the definition of what is 'old school' is always changing. I drive a car that was designed in the thirties, but all of my complaints about a carburetor or no crumple zones are nothing compared to the people driving around in prewar machines, with manually-adjusted spark, let alone manual brakes. I should be impressed my car is so new school that it comes with a pressed-steel roof. You were hot shit driving around with one of those back in, for instance 1919. Only 10.3% of cars made in this country had closed roofs at all back then, and few of those were made of metal.

So my question to you is how you define an old school car? What do you imagine it having, or missing? And how do you think the definition has changed over the years?

Photo Credit: Drive+


Patrick Frawley

One of the embedded problems with this discussion is that cars are made up of so many components that develop at different rates. Trying to draw a line at a strict old-school-vs.-new-school split is deeply problematic.

All the same, I think a case can be made for the understanding in the modern world. Basically: Old school is mechanical; new school is electronic.

Cars are by their very reality both electrical devices - unless we want to go back before spark ignition (we can if you want) - and mechanical devices - wheels go round and round, etc. - so the transition from a completely Newtonian physics motion to a completely electron-based motion is impossible. Still, we are getting ever closer to fulfilling that idea.

Step back a bit. Old school is mechanical and hydraulic and classic electrical. Carbs (but also mechanical fuel injection). Points. Clutch-pack limited-slip differentials. Those finally faded from the scene in about the late 1970s. High points from the waning days of that period: Alfa GTV, Porsche 911 Carrera RS with MFI, Ferrari 308 with Webers. Maybe they have transistorized ignition control, but the only computer chip present would be in an aftermarket radio.

New school is computerized. The real best example of that is the Google self-driving car, a vehicle so wrapped up in electronics that it doesn't even have manipulable controls. The Tesla Model S comes close, although at the very least the steering wheel is still connected to the hubs.

There is lots and lots of room in between. The second-generation Honda CRX and 911 3.2 Carrera were both very mechanical, but they both also edged into the new by using computerized engine management systems.

So really I'd claim that the division between old and new is defined by the presence and prevalence of microprocessor control. That's about the most obvious variable between the two. An old-school car is one that does what it does without computers.

Of course, this means that the current Miata with its extensively programmed engine and chassis controls is pretty new school - indeed, it's almost new school wrapped up in vintage fashions with a few built-in anachronisms (manual gearbox most visibly) and a lingering emphasis on the major mechanical parts (see the chassis display at NYIAS this past April). In that it's close to defining the state of change between old and new.

Old-school cars are still very much out there: you just have to build it yourself. A Factory Five kit with a carbed Windsor stays firmly to the one side. And in that it is wonderful.

But life does move on. And new becomes increasingly normal. And in this case, what was old definitely does not become new again.