From Minis to Marinas - James Walshe wonders if the future of motoring is in the past.
Gone are the days of clunky mechanical typewriters, smelly steam trains and those rather cumbersome abacus devices. We live in a world of compact electronics and advanced engineering – slick technology that makes the world a better place. Or does it?
I have just driven a 25 year old Rover 800 from London to Morges and back – on a journey during which a headlight bulb popped. Replacement was simple: I opened the bonnet, reached into the headlight unit and simply replaced the bulb. It took less than a minute and cost me virtually nothing. I arrived at the Swiss Classic British Car Meeting feeling quite fresh and only a little fatigued, despite the distance travelled.
Being proud to drive a variety of old cars, I often question why modern ones are so complicated. I wandered around the spectacular lakeside show – which celebrates classic British vehicles of all types – and the sight was breathtaking. Hundreds of cars ranging from countless examples of the classic Mini to a near-priceless Bentley. And not one computer or LED bulb between them.
Okay, so British cars aren’t known for their reliability. Indeed, many of them were somewhat reluctant to function properly when new. This includes this turbocharged 2-litre Rover, in which I had traversed much of France. The former Rover flagship – popular successor to the P4, P5, P6 and SD1 - celebrates 30 years in 2016. It is now a rare beast – most have disappeared. With a little help from Honda, much of the 800 was well made but for a few age-related squeaks and rattles. (For instance, is that a nest of baby sparrows behind the dashboard?)
The 800 arrived in the late 1980s, at almost exactly the moment motoring changed forever. Scanning the line up of vehicles at Morges, I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the idea that all could be fixed with a basic set of spanners and a screwdriver. There were Jensen Interceptors, Deloreans and Jaguars of all kinds.
But for me, the more basic classics are more fascinating. The Fords and an Austin 1100 – just like the one my grandfather drove – or the much-maligned Morris Marina. ‘I drive a Marina Estate every day,’ said owner Peter Haas, from Zurich. These are not the greatest cars of all time but they are rare nowadays.
For Peter – and for me – our passion for cars is not about posters on bedroom walls - it’s about what was parked outside your family home. The smell of cheap plastic and velour – not wood and leather – is what most of us remember.
The Swiss Classic British Car Meeting was charged with passion and joyous grins. Every turn of the head revealed another wonderful sight - staggeringly beautiful cars, all of them cherished by their owners. Even the relatively modern Rover got some attention. ‘I owned one of these as a company car’ said Nigel Ingram, who moved to Geneva from Brighton, where he drove an 827 Vitesse.
It is certainly more comfy than most modern cars, with their pointless low profile rubber and ‘sport’ suspension (which in reality means expensive tyres and rock-hard springs). It may not have been as softly sprung as my Citroen CX, but I left Lake Geneva in comfort and wafted back to the UK, taking a detour via the staggeringly beautiful Furka Pass. Maybe it’s time to get back to basics? Of course we need airbags, catalytic converters and antilock brakes. But how about a modern car that doesn’t need a degree in rocket science to fix?
James Walshe is a motoring journalist, broadcaster and radio producer. He is currently Deputy Editor of Practical Classics – the biggest selling classic car magazine in Britain.