Why Vintage Cars Are Better, Part 1
I’ll let you in on a big secret: the fewer people who appreciate older cars, the cheaper it will be for us to acquire them before Autonomous Driving ends this final, silver age of vintage affordability. The end has already begun, but I assure you, it’s not too late.
My advice: find your love while you still can. And so it is with my 1973 Citroën SM, my one true love. My only honest relationship. My mechanical wife.
You should know right away that I don’t just like older women. I love them. It’s not because I just turned forty-four. And it’s certainly not because I don’t meet younger women. Older women are just better in every way that I was once too young to appreciate. Older women know what they want. They know what they need. All their problems have been worked out. They can be trusted. Treat them with respect, and a long and happy relationship is yours.
Mon dieu, je t’aime. My SM.
My SM is not some young floosie like these new cars that are turned on every time, that let you thrash them on a test drive, and will still come home with you on a layaway plan.
Does that mean no one should invest in a new car? Is every girl who graduates Miss Porter’s a Stepford Wife? No, and they shouldn’t be. The new sports cars of today still retain some soul. That is, one should still never buy the first year of anything, for even modern cars are prone to design and manufacturing problems that, once worked out, can lead to a long relationship.
I said can. Not will. I’d rather let someone else take those chances.
Sa Majeste. Don’t believe the lies about the SM’s reliability. OK, they’re not all lies. Of course the early ones were crap. They had tons of problems. They couldn’t be trusted. No matter how well you treated them. No matter where you took them. No matter what you did. Often, they just didn’t want to go.
In hindsight, of course the first SM’s were too young to date, let alone marry. Just like that sorority girl you pined away for sophomore year. She didn’t appreciate you no matter how much you loved her. Why would she? She was too immature. You didn’t know her well enough to sit with her through months and years of illness, holding her hand. Even if you had tried, you would have had to leave her behind at the dorm if you wanted a night out. The more she sat home alone on Friday nights, the sicker she got, the more you neglected her, feeding a cycle that drove you into the arms of that buxom freshman.
And so you broke up with that increasingly pallid, fluid-leaking SM that didn’t want to get up. It might have been the right decision at the time, but I know better than anyone what’s it like to miss that long lost love. I gave her up. And not just one. All of them. I didn’t know what I was in for, and I chose a younger, more reliable, “better” model.
There’s a name for fresh young models perfect for those—like my younger self—unwilling to wait, learn, or make sacrifices. They’re called Toyotas. I’m not calling mature young women Toyotas. I’m calling any car “guaranteed to work perfectly from day one of year one of manufacture” a Toyota. This is not a slight upon Toyota the brand, generous enough to give us Lexus, but there’s a reason even the best Lexus in the longest, happiest relationship inspires so little jealousy: anyone can have one, and it’ll probably never require your unwavering commitment.
“I love you so much,” early SM owners would say to their cars in the morning, “I’ll do anything you ask.”
“If only you would tell me what would make you happy. I’ll do anything. Please? S’il te plaît?”
Because nothing would satisfy them. Because they didn’t know what they wanted, or needed. Just like your first girlfriend or boyfriend. Or maybe your second. Actually, all of them, until you got married, and maybe even then.
Why? Your standards weren’t high enough. You probably didn’t know what you wanted. You also didn’t know what they wanted. You didn’t understand each other. You barely spoke the same language. With knowledge comes understanding. With time comes experience. And trust.
A Citroen SM, however, if serviced by a master like Jerry Hathaway, can be as good as new. Better, in fact. Few SMs have full service records. Luckily, a clean bill of health—from a trusted authority—can grant a second life.
For every brand in every country there is at least one expert. If you’re lucky, more than one. This is the gift of the internet to us, the first generation of vintage car lovers who want to build a relationship with that one true love that beckoned us from that poster on the bedroom wall.
These days, though, places like Instagram are better than any car posters I ever had on my wall, and the internet in general has made loving older vehicles easier than ever.
I don’t know if the rise of the internet has improved, say, dating, but it’s certainly improved everything about researching, buying and owning a vintage car. If only dating sites offered the cornucopia of information available online about vintage cars. Within 60 seconds I can see a full list of the most common SM problems. With some Googling and Facebook stalking you might be able to do the same before going on a first date. Maybe. You’re certainly not likely to convince someone’s ex to tell you the intimate details about their relationship. Unless she tried to kill them. In which case it will appear in a Google search, or a $19.95 online database search. I’ve been there. (The $19.95, I mean.)
Aside: an ex did try to kill me once, and it wasn’t because I asked her to push start the SM in heels while I steered. Which she did. Twice. The latter, I mean. But that’s another article.
No matter how much we may educate ourselves as to thread count, horsepower, accuracy and purity, the casual observer doesn’t know the details. They’re almost certainly unaware of what it took to actually make that thing. They may not even be aware of what it costs. All that matters to them is the perceived value, and that is not merely a function of cost. It is, over time, increasingly a function of rarity, which is what drives cost for things no longer in production.
Perhaps that’s why even my ‘A-’ Citroen SM is still worth just $30,000, or as much as an almost-loaded Honda Accord sells for. Citroën built too many of them, and even though most of them are rusted junk, the good ones have yet to transcend the reputations of the bad ones. I can live with that, because even though perception and reality have yet to converge, ownership gives me something money can’t buy: respect.
Not respect derived from value or cost, but the mutual respect that comes from an honest and reciprocal relationship, and to those who know us, the respect derived from taste.
And taste is free.
I’ve been married to my SM for nearly eight years, with an initial purchase price of $20,000. She had 52,000 miles. I’ve spend approximately $8,000 on maintenance, and $14,000 on an engine rebuild. She runs perfectly. So, for $42,000, with approximately $1,000 per year for maintenance, I have finally found the perfect long-term relationship with a gorgeous French woman. A woman about whom I know virtually everything necessary to keep her happy, who is always ready to go to dinner or on vacation. OK, maybe not always, and maybe not far, but such relationships aren’t supposed to be easy, and long-term relationships less so.
But I’m happy, and so is she. True love is out there, waiting, from Alfa, Porsche, Tatra and dozens of other parents whose older models are still waiting to meet the right person, but the hour is drawing near.
So don’t delay. Drive tastefully, but love fully. The rewards of true love are priceless.
Alex Roy is the author of the LiveDriveRepeat blog, President of Europe By Car, the founder of Team Polizei, Editor-at-Large for The/Drive and author of The Driver, which depicts his NY-LA Cannonball Driving Record, accomplished in 31 hours and 4 minutes.