The Future of Vintage Cars Is Both Jarring And The Same As It Ever Was
I’m not old enough to remember the first synchromesh transmissions, but I can well imagine the hardcore enthusiasts of the day bemoaning a perceived erosion of driving skill and mechanical longevity. As a baby boomer raised on the allure of four-barrel carburetors, my dad resisted for years against a fuel-injected future, and as a child of the 1980s it took me just as long to accept that electronic stability controls are sometimes useful— though I still deactivate some of them every single time I’m in my daily driver.
Change is an inevitable effect of progress, and man’s resistance to it has proven consistent over time.
It seems that every generation of enthusiast sees the evolution of cars in a negative light, but we stand on the verge of a potentially transformative change to automotive culture because the two most important components — the engine and the driver — are on their way out. Within a generation, electric vehicles will be the norm, and self-driving cars will follow not too long after. There’s no sense in debating the likelihood, and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter if it happens five years down the road or twenty-five. Along the way, three things will happen that will be game changers to the vintage and classic car landscape. Some of these will be jarring, at least at first, but in the end, the allure of mechanical excellence will continue to inspire the precious few who feel truly alive behind the wheel.
Classic Electric Vehicles Will Be A Thing
No, there will not be concours-quality Tesla restorations being graded on the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach in the near future. What we will absolutely have though, and what is already in its nascent stages, are Grade-A classics retrofitted with electric drivetrains. A few home-builds have always been around: the man behind the Rimac Concept One, for example, got his start with an electrified (and monstrously quick) E30, and the last few years have seen cars come into being like the Renovo Coupe, which for all intents and purposes is an electric Cobra Daytona.
Even today, Jonathan Ward, the man behind so many perfectly patina’d “Derelicts” and retro-perfected Broncos at ICON, is hard at work taking a ‘49 Mercury coupe and turning it into a pure electric “Tesla Beater.” He’s calling it the Derelict EV. While, yes, these are the rare exceptions for now, they’re the first few drops of what will likely become a torrent.
No one is claiming an electric motor provides anywhere near the visceral theatrics of a mechanical symphony harnessing the power of explosions at the whim of your right foot. However, as restrictions on internal combustion engines increase, and maintaining a classic to modern road legal standards gets ever more onerous, and as prices of electric motors continue to fall down to crate engine prices, we’ll see more and more classics being converted. The sound will be gone even if the fury won’t — the instant torque of an electric motor is its saving grace, after all — but more than a few owners will choose to hit the road in silence when faced with the choice between installing a battery pack and watching their pride and joy collect dust in a garage.
Someone Will Build A Semi-Autonomous Classic For You To Buy
When you really think about what a semi-autonomous system is at its core, it’s a computer that can override a set of the car’s components— throttle, brakes, steering — if incoming data from a set of sensors indicates an imminent threat. These sensors are already available on the market, along with the necessary parts to make the throttle, brake system, and steering compatible. It’s hardly a stretch to envision, within the next few years, an ambitious company building a resto-mod with all the right components to feature not only advanced crash warnings, but actual crash mitigation.
Ethics aside, even a lone Tesla-hating hacker can write a program that gets a Honda to stay in its lane on the 405. An actual Tier-1 supplier like NVidia or MobilEye can retrofit an entire system with relative ease, and it can show off its capabilities to an adoring CES crowd or stunned SEMA visitors. It certainly won’t be cheap, but, in time, someone will offer a retrofit kit to the public. The presentation is easy enough to imagine now: “You want your daughter to be safe in her ‘68 Fastback, don’t you?”
This might sound like sci-fi consumerism, but Stanford already built an electrified, self-driving DeLorean — appropriately named MARTY — to learn about AI systems in driving environments.
Eventually, The Vintage Car Community Will Become Akin to Equestrianism
Over time, the number of cars driven by humans will dwindle to near insignificance. It won’t happen next year, or even a decade from now, but if you want to glimpse the future of analog driving pursuits, look to the well-developed culture surrounding equestrianism today. The horse had a very, very long run of dominance in the transportation industry, and insofar as I can tell, despite clearly being obsolete as a means of conveyance, it remains legal to this day to ride a horse down a vast majority of streets in the U.S. With that in mind, it’s fair to say that driving won’t be outlawed even a hundred years from now, as some talking heads predict. The pressure that will ultimately force most drivers from roads will likely be economic. Once fully-autonomous vehicles are ready (to be clear, they’re not now and likely won’t be for some time) the cost of insuring oneself as a driver as opposed to a owning a self-driving car will naturally escalate until it becomes cost prohibitive to keep both hands on the wheel during your daily commute.
As for the road, it’s within each state’s antique and historical car registration framework that the artful hobby of driving a car will live on. Since many states grant historical registration along with reduced allowances for annual mileage, and potentially even a waiver for a safety inspection or the eventually egregious costs of insurance, the door will probably remain open to weekend drivers seeking a return to the basics for a long time to come.
From there, it really gets interesting. Equine enthusiasts have special riding areas and stables, places they can go to enjoy their favored activity away from the bustle and commotion of the passing throng. There are equestrian centers and horse-riding clubs seemingly everywhere, and the rise of motorsport country clubs seems a highly apt parallel. Will a track junky wake up in the morning, groggily climb into his or her autonomous car, say, “track, please,” and finish a breakfast of coffee and eggs by the time the car pulls up at the track, where his or her race car is lying in wait in a garage bay? The answer to that is an almost definite yes.
The nirvana that exists in the ethereal plane linking the brain, steering wheel, and all three pedals will never die, despite what the think-tanks and pundits may say. It will simply be enjoyed differently in the future, the same way it always has.