Enthusiasts share driving experiences of cars that are older than them

Having learnt to drive in an Alto, I always wondered how it would be like, to drive a pre-90's car.

BHPian govindramesh recently shared this with other enthusiasts

This thread is meant to document the experiences of people (especially those born in the 90s) who had an opportunity to drive cars manufactured long before they were born. Please add your experiences, your thoughts about the way things have evolved and photos. It would be amazing if you could help fulfil someone's wish by offering such an experience if you or someone you know well, happens to own one of these cars from the old times.

I'm a 90's kid - a millennial if you'd like to call that. I also belong to a niche subset of this population - 30+ y/o single male trying to find a purpose in life, changes jobs more frequently than the service interval of a car and lives life one day at a time Some of us have certain passions that we religiously pursue. For some it's social media influencing, for some its art , some like to travel/eat and among so many possibilities, for those like me, it's studying the evolution of technology. In this context, it's cars.

We are the generation that saw a rapid development of technology in all areas and a lot of "luxuries" transforming into necessities - cars, computers, mobile phones, fast internet, air travel, etc. Most of us started driving cars which came equipped with features that we now take for granted. Features that our parents probably didn't have when they were learning to drive or purchased their first car. I'm talking about synchromesh gearboxes, hydraulic (power) assisted brakes/clutch/steering, microprocessor controlled engines, throttle -by-wire, power windows, as examples.

Having learnt to drive in a 4 cylinder Alto 1.1 which was a very forgiving car for a learner and being the one that cherishes the old times, I always wondered how it would be like, to drive a pre-90's car. My family used to own a second hand, a mid 80's Premier Padmini with column shifter and I didn't really understand as a 10 year old, why my parents sold the Padmini for a smaller car, the Alto (As a Kid, I thought it was for the AC and power windows).

Back then, I had decided to find out the why when I would be eligible to drive- but when I got my driving license in 2009, the Padmini was a rare car to find and I didn't have the guts to ask a random Mumbai taxi driver if they'd be willing to give me a test drive. The closest I came to driving an "old" car was my grandfather's 1994 Maruti 800. It was easy to drive even though it didn't have power assisted brakes or anything - it didn't require one either owing to its light weight.

Years passed, I understood how cars work from an engineering perspective, the Alto was upgraded to a Honda City but the itch to drive a Padmini (or an Amby for that matter) remained unfulfilled. I'd ask every senior person who was passionate about cars, if they had or knew someone who owned a Padmini/Amby- especially one that has column mounted gear shifter, but never found one.

As they say, if it meant to be, it's meant to be. My uncle (CA, as mentioned in this thread who had my wish in his memory, found out that one of his friends owned a late 80's Premier Padmini. It didn't have a column shifter, but that was ok. When the owner was told about my craze for cars and my wish, he was kind enough to let me test drive the car!

On 6 February 2024, that long term desire finally came true.

Driving the car made me realise how far automobile engineering has evolved in the last 3 decades.Driving the Padmini was a revelation - the engine note was enjoyable, I didn't notice vibrations (or was too excited to feel it!) . Operating it gave me a micro workout, no doubt! It was worth it. The feel of being connected to the road and knowing what the wheels are upto, the linear increase in muscular force required as you turn the steering wheel or press the brake in - all bliss in my perspective!

Some observations from the drive:

  • Pure mechanical controls - no power assists for anything: One needs a good amount of muscular force to push the brake pedal for getting the car to stop, even from a moderate speed of 40 KMPH. Turning the steering wheel lock to lock? Do not attempt with one finger unless you plan to get a fracture! The clutch felt OK, not too heavy, not super light either.
  • You can see the (long) bonnet in a sedan- So you can judge the front easily. The long bonnet also meant that your natural instinct of turning the wheel as you do in today's sedans wouldn't work to turn this car in tight corners with narrow roads, as you'd end up turning the (old) car too late (or probably it's my perception due to the slow steering).
  • Torquey engine, no need to revv hard- 40 KMPH on a flyover incline in 4th gear with 3 people onboard? The Honda City needs a gentle push on the accelerator to keep momentum (I usually shift down), but not the Padmini! The car happily chugged along in 4th gear on the incline while maintaining the same throttle input. Lower gear ratios or higher lower end torque? I'm not sure about that, but the car didn't need a downshift for sure!
  • Solid Build and acres of space - you can slam shut the doors without a care- the doors are built of solid metal and have enough weight to it. the inside panels have none of the plastic that you'll find in todays cars. For the overall length, the Padmini seemed to have more interior space compared to the new-gen cars of the same length.
  • No infotainment systems or fancy features hence no distractions - Mentioning this due to a recent incident where I scratched my cousin's Seltos due to distracted driving. An error in judgement of the car's width being the root cause, which was enhanced by a distracted mind that was admiring the plethora of features and information on the Seltos which made a 2015 Honda City look barebones.

Of course, viewed in today's times, there will be 100s of shortcomings in the Padmini, the major ones being on the safety & convenience front. Stalling the Padmini a few times reminded me of how dependent we've become on some features like anti stall. I still remember while being home tutored for driving, in the first few days I was asked not to touch the A pedal on the Alto, as the car's anti stall feature made sure it had enough power to propel itself on a flat ground, when the clutch was properly released, which made learning clutch control, easy.

Air-conditioning is now taken for granted and many do not bother switching it off as the car's control unit manages everything, while cars of the yore would need the driver to switch off the AC for quick overtaking moves, especially on cars with underpowered engines or adjust the blower speeds to control the cabin temperature. Automotive technology has advanced, and how! Let's not even talk about ADAS, auto parking systems, smart summon that are making their way into today's cars.

What do other BHPian's on this forum think about driving old cars and how has your experience been? Do you think that some of the features we have in cars today are unnecessary and if so, which ones?

Here's what GTO had to say on the matter:

I absolutely love driving cars from the 80s, 90s (and earlier). But only occasionally, as modern cars have spoiled me. In fact, I own a car from the 90s, my 1997 Classic 4x4. The basic, pure mechanical, "connected-to-your-car" feel (instead of "connected car" LOL), simplicity, vibrations, feedback-filled steering....every car I've driven from the 90s felt fast at just 80 - 90 kmph (unlike even Hyundais today).

From the 80s & 90s, I would enjoy driving a Mahindra, Sierra Turbo, Maruti 800 MPFi, Contessa Classic, Zen, Padmini S1, Ambassador 1.8 ISZ etc. from time to time. But not on a regular basis. I appreciate the power, dynamics, creature comforts, safety & overall behaviour of modern machines.

Here's what BHPian TheManualGear had to say on the matter:

Talking seriously and being a teenager, I always get into a fear that whether I will be able to buy such mechanical cars when I grow up or not. These modern driver assistance systems are spoiling us and are also making them less directly controllable. I remember that when I first read the brochure of RE Himalayan 450, I was kind of disappointed when I read about its throttle by wire function. Even though my family owns a Maruti Zen, it will be soon scrapped by government without giving me an opportunity to get behind the wheel. Basically, these ECU assisted engines are making DRIVING loose its lustre as a passion or hobby.

Here's what BHPian shankar.balan had to say on the matter:

Many of us folks born in the 70’s learned all our driving on agricultural and mechanical machines like Tractors, Jeeps and Ambassadors and Fiats. All these machines for the most part were designed in the 1930’s,1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. And we used them right up to the late 1980’s because of our Protectionist Economy. We therefore learned all those old tricks of how not to stall on hills and how to avoid roll back and when to change gears judging by the engine sound and revs and how to manage steep ascents and descents properly using all the mechanical prowess and engine power available in the specific vehicle.

I am the happier for this, because it has taught me to appreciate all the lovely modern things and designs and engineering that goes into newer vehicles.

When the Maruti 800 and Gypsy and all came for the first time, for us, these Japanese engineered, reliable, ergonomic machines were the epitome of luxury and the pinnacle of design.

My father says he never thought in his lifetime he would see the advent of pure Electric vehicles which today, are common objects. But they are right here now.

While my father seems to be enjoying all the modernity much more, I find myself to be more of a retro person, trying to preserve or atleast appreciate the old ways. Thats why I have the nearest thing to ‘older technology’ that Im able to find within my reach, the Gypsy.

Saying all of this, I think it is great that the old and new co-exist. And so they should, for ages to come.

Because, Past History is absolutely as Important as Progress into the Future. Indeed, one may say, it defines it.

Here's what BHPian V12 had to say on the matter:

Not cars, but I am currently riding motorcycles which are probably 3-4 decades old (but none that are older than me). Like Rush said, such motorcycles can only be ridden occassionally and not as a daily ride. An old vehicle cannot be a primary vehicle. Reason being is that they do no have the same mechanical performance or mileage as a modern car. They require a lot of maintenance and more often than modern cars. Good mechanics are had to come across. Securing original parts is also a pain.

But, the kind of feeling you get when you ride them is something that is really unmatched. You do get a lot of unwanted attention along with a lot of thumbs up and questions at traffic signals.

I try to use all my motorcycles atleast once a week to work so that they are running regularly. The flip side is I have to ride slower and more carefully. Frankly speaking I enjoy my ride to office on the Xpulse more than any of the other older bikes. It's comfortable, I don't have to slow down on speed breakers or potholes - can pull through them even on 3rd gear. But with the older bikes, I have to slow to a halt and drop down to 1st.

So to conclude it, as a daily ride it's best to use a modern vehicle. And for weekend, night or leisure rides - you will really enjoy the older bikes.

Here's what BHPian V.Narayan had to say on the matter:

Everything we are used to seems normal. It is only when we get exposed to something better that the old seems backward or nostalgic and glorious.

I learnt to drive on my father's Standard Herald. It was fun. I thought I was James Bond {as in Dr. No} driving the Herald around and forever pulling down to 3rd gear to get the acceleration I craved for. The Ambassador seemed heavy in comparison. Those all mechanical cars gave you a direct feel of the road, the engine, the transmission etc. You drove to the sound of the engine. That sound told you when to change gears for example. And no matter what all brakes in those days were weak.

Today cars are way way more comfortable and easier to drive with a lot of functions getting done for you.

For me driving a car, regularly that is, that was built before I was born would take me to my grandfathers 1936 "Opel 6-Cylinder" - that was the car's name. Driving that was akin to a truck. First starting meant physically cranking the engine. For all the gen X, Y, Z photo below of what hand cranking meant. The steering was to build your biceps, the brakes & clutch were to exercise your thigh muscles. When I hear today of a driver talking of a pain in their clutch leg I think, baby you don't know what double clutch without servo assist is!!! That's my contribution to the Kid of the 60s driving a pre-60s car. My grandfather refused to drive my Padmini, partly due to age and partly because he worried he would over steer given that he was only used to the Opel's rather heavy unassisted steering.

Today I would be happy to drive one of these yesteryear queens but only for fun. I cannot manage them as my regular drive anymore. Modern cars have spoilt me. My hats off to members like @KPS and @anjan_c2007_who lovingly drive classic and vintage cars regularly.

Here's what BHPian Strange Wizard had to say on the matter:

90s kid here and I really enjoy driving cars from the by-gone era. I have a deep attachment to the SB308 Maruti 800 because we used to own one but I am also fond of other iconic cars like the Gypsy, Esteem, Indica, OG Santro, Palio, W124. Have been lucky enough to have driven almost all of my childhood favourites.

The thing that I love about these cars is how "involving" each one of them feels. Every car of that era had a different character and driving feel and the kind of driving pleasure they offered was very different compared to the modern cars we drive today, which are fun to drive and involving too, but in a different manner.

Seen below are my Honda City and a friend's Maruti 800. Driving the red 800 was a Eureka moment for me because I spent a major part of my childhood being driven around in a red 800 of the same spec. Good times.

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