There is no doubt about it; our car driving forefathers had it so much tougher than the modern motorist. Today we take power steering and brakes for granted, whereas in the 1920’s you could not even be sure to get a windscreen wiper!
Cars, when they first became available to the ‘common’ man were really, really basic. You could well have to start up the car with a crank handle (which could take some muscle power and could ‘kick back’ at you fiercely too), and when you did manage to get the engine to catch, the whole process of keeping the engine going in those first few seconds was made that bit harder, as the early models did not even have a choke.
Having driven an early Austin 7, I can tell you that the thing that most worried me was the brakes, or should I say the almost total lack of any stopping power. Today we are used to being easily able to bring a car to rest, relatively light pressure with the right foot being enough to stop any modern vehicle. Not so with those early cars, where even standing on the brake pedal (if there was room – and there wasn’t, cars those days were MUCH smaller inside) would still not make a lot of difference.
It is lucky then that cars were not that fast, but even so, there were many casualties from road traffic accidents (as we call them now), statistics showing that it was over 15 times more dangerous to drive a car in the 1930’s than it is today, even though there was much less traffic on the roads.
The reasons for this are many, just look at some of the safety devices that the modern car has.
- Crumple Zones (to absorb any impacts and not allow the force to be transmitted to the occupants)
- Airbags to stop you from hitting your head on the steering wheel (this being a great contrast to early cars where the steering column often turned into a lethal spike)
- Anti-lock brakes to stop you skidding (as opposed to almost no brakes at all) and
- Nice wide tyres to grip the road instead of the pencil-thin rubber that represented all the contact the car had with the ground in those early days of motoring.
That is not to say that driving a classic car is not fun, far from it, the whole experience ‘taking you back to nature’ in a mechanical sort of way. You really do have to try to make the car move and have to anticipate gear changes (which are not exactly slick affairs in an Austin A7 I can tell you) as well as distances; remember those brakes.
However, don’t go and start thinking that you are going to be nice and comfy in that old classic, there was no air conditioning (sometimes even no heating!), the seats were basic, to say the least. And when it came to the ride, well, let’s just say it was bumpy, shock absorbers not always being fitted.
But saying all that driving one of these old cars is something that should not be missed, and one place where you can get a classic driving experience is at the Great British Car Journey near Ambergate, Derbyshire in the UK.
It’s a car museum with many differences, but the biggest is perhaps that you can actually drive some of the ‘exhibits’, these including a Rolls Royce, the fabulous Jaguar XJS convertible, the marvellous Morris Minor, and of course the never to be forgotten Mini, there being several different versions to choose from.
Then of course there is the Austin Seven Ruby Saloon. It was built in 1937, and so has many refinements that the first models never had, like a choke and a windscreen wiper (yes, only one). There are many little things that shout of days gone by, like the fact that the gear selection indicators are on the floor, where the gear shift enters the floorpan. The hand brake is in the normal place, but in those early days of car design, ergonomics were not top of the list of priorities, it being hard to use because of the weird angle it gets too when engaged.
The fact that people were smaller in those days is brought home too, there being precious little room to get your foot on the brake pedal. Not that it was ever considered big, the term ‘chummy’ being used to describe the fact that the accommodation in the car was very much up close and personal.
Not that anyone was complaining back then, the Austin was perhaps one of the first ‘people cars’ to be made available in the UK, it giving the common man access to the open road in a way that they had never before known.
There is no doubt that driving a classic car makes you appreciate the modern motor car that bit more, and it really is a not to be missed experience.