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Stuck in the 20th Century

A few weeks ago I sat down to put together a photo montage of my year in review. I picked some of my favorite inspections, pulled some small snippets of photographs from them and mixed them all together into this picture. After I was done with all my editing, something struck me about the picture itself, and what it says about me, at least from an automotive standpoint…

I’m stuck in the 20th century.

This was made even clearer to me recently when I was at a Lotus dealer outside of Detroit. I was there inspecting a late model Bentley for a client, and they kindly allowed me use of their hoist for chassis inspection. While I was waiting for the car to be lifted, I noticed a stunning Series 3 Lotus Esprit tucked away in a corner of the garage. The Esprit remains something of an enigma to me, as I have driven hundreds of classic sports cars, but sadly, will never enjoy a drive in an Esprit. The reason is entirely my fault. You see, I stand a few hairs over 6’4”, and most of that is leg. I simply do not fit in an Esprit, and it’s not for a lack of trying. I have wedged myself into all sorts of cars and usually, the determined contortionist that I am, I can make it work; MG T series cars, MGA’s and Midgets, most Cobra replicas, NA Miata’s (which I currently own), Model A coupes, C1 Corvettes, Alfa Spiders, Big Healeys, Bug-eye Healeys (barley!), TR and GT-6 Triumphs (which I formerly owned), Pantera’s and Lamborghini Diablo’s. I can even drive a real Lotus Seven (in my socks), thanks to the unlimited head room and a generous friend who owns one. I’m never keen to spend lots of time in most of these cars, but getting in and driving them is doable. Not so with an Esprit. I’ve tried getting into both Series 3 and 4 cars, and here’s how it goes: To clear the steering wheel, I crouch down and go in leg first, followed by my torso. I can get the right leg in ok, and slide behind the wheel, although I must force my ankle muscles to keep my foot rolled back to keep it off the throttle, and I find the middle of my thigh is firmly and uncomfortably fixed on the lower edge of the dash. My head is forced to tilt to the right, as I need about three more inches of headroom. The real trouble starts when I put my left leg in the car. The footwells are incredibly narrow, and my legs are so long that there is no place for my foot to go except on the clutch pedal. I can barely keep my foot off the pedal- until it’s time to close the door. Once it’s closed, my left leg is forced fully into the car and has no place to go except painfully wedged under the dash, forcing my size 13 water-ski down on the clutch pedal. That’s as far as I’ve gotten in an Esprit; it’s hard to drive a car when you can’t let the clutch pedal all the way out and can only see the world before you at a 45-degree angle.

This is why I never pass up a chance to stop and admire an Esprit when I see one. I want to drive one, particularly the V8 twin-turbo S4, in the worst way. This one was so nice, and so beautiful in its shade of green, I couldn’t help but stop and take a few photos.

Parked just a few feet away from the Lotus in the service lane was a newer Ferrari 458. The service manager was watching me and chuckled a bit, saying “hardly anyone notices that old Lotus with that 458 so close by, everyone wants to take photos of the Ferrari…”

“That’s because I’m stuck in the twentieth century” was my immediate reply and we both laughed. Of course I had noticed the Ferrari sitting there, even reached my arms over the rear flank of it to take a few Lotus photos. I saw it, and it aroused about the same emotions in me that a Honda Pilot sitting there would have. It’s not that I have anything against Ferrari’s, I don’t- they are breathtakingly fun to drive- I’ve driven a 360, 430, and a California Spider in the past year or so, but any Ferrari made after the year 2000 has a harder time capturing my attention. Had that 458 sitting there been a 288 GTO or F40, my knees would have been knocking and I would have spent a half-hour staring, camera shutter clicking away. Two years ago, the Gilmore Car Museum had a beautiful ’67 275 GTB/4 on display- a supercar in its time- and that car captured my attention and imagination- I probably spent a good hour snapping photos from all different angles.

The last Ferrari that really got my heart pumping was the 355. Jeremy Clarkston years ago extolled the virtues of his 355, saying “this is the nicest car I have ever, ever driven”. I don’t think I’d call a 355 the nicest car I’ve ever driven, but I’d say it’s in my top 5 anyway, and the noise from its 5 valve V8 is so stunning it’s hard to describe in writing. Ferrari has made incredible advances with each new generation of the line; the 360, 430, 458, and today’s 488, but I largely tuned out after the 355.

I feel the same way about many of today’s exotics, and I don’t follow them very closely. I know very little about the most current offerings from Bugatti, Lamborghini, Koenigsegg, McLaren, Noble, whatever. Would I take a McLaren F1 over a P1, or a Porsche 959 over a 918 hybrid? Yep, all day long. Are P1’s and 918’s technological marvels compared to their historical predecessors? Yes, in practically every way.

Don’t care- I’ll have the old cars please, I’m stuck in the twentieth century.

The photo montage says it all. There is not a photo of a car in that collage made after 1997, even though I looked at many late-model cars for clients this year too. The old cars are always the most fun to inspect- and drive. For all the advancements and technology found in today’s modern cars, I can’t help but notice that I’m still ear-to-ear grins every time I slide behind the wheel of a nicely sorted early Mustang fastback with a 289 and a 4 speed. For me, Ford isn’t building a Mustang today that can put that same smile on my face. Oh sure, the newest Mustangs are great fun, very fast, capable handlers, and more durable and reliable than any ’66 Mustang ever dreamt of being. I do like them, but you also start a new one the same way I start my dishwasher, which just feels like a step backward.

Unfortunately if you have been paying attention to the headlines, it seems the times are changing. Just over a year ago Bob Lutz wrote a downright gloomy and prophetic article foretelling the end of cars as we know them- inside the next 20 years. Those who can afford it, Bob predicts, will enjoy their classics on private tracks and country-club type car park establishments designed for those who can no longer enjoy their newly street-illegal, non-autonomous vehicles on public highways. High speed transportation pods will be the way of the future. The most ominous words in the entire article: “The era of the human-driven automobile, its repair facilities, its dealerships, the media surrounding it — all will be gone in 20 years.” Lutz, who’s held senior level management positions with several of the leading automakers on the planet since 1963, oughta know.

So does Mary Barra, evidently. Without engaging in a political or human discussion about the ramifications of GM’s recent announcements, Mary believes she sees the writing on the wall, and I’m guessing she probably sees the future automotive landscape about the same way Bob does. GM has been investing heavily in self-driving and autonomous technologies and cutting small cars and sedans, focusing on larger, and more profitable people movers like SUV’s, trucks and large crossovers, making the big bucks while they still can.

If these predictions are correct, the classic car world as we know it today will change dramatically in my lifetime, and not likely for the better.

In my opinion, the finest automobiles ever produced have probably already been made. To be sure, companies will continue to develop and perfect technologies that make cars faster and smarter as long as they can financially justify it, and developments and advances in vehicle efficiency and safety will continue, of course. Happily, automotive racing is probably here to stay, no matter what happens legislatively with our public roadways, but that may look a little different too. At the end of the day, I believe that in the context of style, “coolness” and pure, mechanical driving pleasure, the party feels like it’s slowly coming to a close.

They’ll be dragging me out, kicking and screaming.

Happy Motoring.

John Hansen is an automotive writer and owner of Michigan Automotive Inspection Services, which provides professional pre-purchase inspection, consultation, and appraisal services for classic automobiles located all over the United States.

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