We are currently witnessing a new chapter of history. Specifically, the next definition of classic cars. Our parents pined for the cars of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. My sisters’ and my generations started Radwood. And in a decade or two, the people who are teenagers & pre-teens now will wax poetic about cars like the 997-gen 911, Toyobaru twins, and everything with a Hellcat engine.
That’s nothing new. The minute we have extra money (a foreign concept for people my age, I know), we want to buy something cool. And what’s cool changes as the buying power shifts from one generation to the next. The Hemi ‘Cuda enjoys those ridiculous auction prices because a bunch of retirees with money to burn and a desire to relive their youth wanted one. It’s also why prices for 80s-90s sports cars are starting to rise now: plaid-wearing grunge fans grew up, finally got some cash, and want to bring their bedroom posters to life.
Not that I’m one to talk. Substitute “Countach” for “R34", and “poster” for “Fast & Furious”, and it me.
There’s more to the boom than wish fulfillment, though. Older cars have less mass and software to get in the way of steering feel and aural satisfaction. With the exception of blue-chip supercars like the 959 or F1, older cars are generally simpler to wrench on and maintain. There are fewer obsolete electronics to deal with.
But this can’t continue forever, can it?
A few years ago, I visited GM’s Heritage Center. An amazing repository of automotive art, it’s a great exhibit on the evolution of motoring technology.
For instance, the 2007 DARPA Challenge Tahoe.
This was a Tahoe, fitted with the best sensor technology the early Aughts had to offer, designed to operate autonomously. The lineage of every ‘autonomous’ car on the road today can be traced directly to vehicles like the Tahoe. And by the time I visited, this kind of military-grade technology wasn’t just available in civilian vehicles, it had gotten small enough to be integrated smoothly and directly into the bodywork. Therein lies the problem.
At some point, cars got complicated. They needed conventional computers to stream music, provide Wi-Fi, and process road and satellite data for navigation. Not to mention all the sensors and cameras needed to collect said data in the first place. My next-door neighbor recently had to have her CR-V’s bumper replaced after a minor fender-bender. The cost? About $19,000. Not a typo. And that’s just for an every-day crossover. What happens when EVs enter the mix?
EV nostalgia is inevitable. When Nintendo released the NES and SNES Classic, they couldn’t build ‘em fast enough. Jason freakin’ Torchinsky has an Apple II collection. Internet commenters may sneer, but there will come a time when someone wistfully stares at a first-gen Model S or Bolt. Not to mention the rise of EVs as the next hod-rodding scene. Which, by the way, I am very excited about.
Electric motors may be less complicated from a moving parts perspective, compared to gasoline or diesel engines. But there’s still a buttload of transistors and a Brandon Sanderson novel’s-worth of code to go through. There is some modularity, but with no agreed-upon standard for recharging, upgrading or repairing ‘classic’ EVs is going to be tricky (unless they just replace the entire powertrain at once). Note to any budding entrepreneurs: slot-in EV replacement parts.
So what does this mean for enthusiasts, current and future? Depends on the tech. Something innocuous like an in-car phone will probably just be part of a car’s charm. Something like a navigation system, or the suite of driver-assistance software, is going to require a different approach. It’ll also be a massive headace.
Car ECUs don’t function like normal computers, but nav systems and ApplePlay do. And hackers can still get data off wiped hard-drives. Plus, while you can get updates to TomTom or Garmin GPS units, how long will in-car nav systems get updates? Yes, many marques still provide over-the-air updates (usually for a fee), but even Microsoft only supported Windows XP for so long.
All that being said, considering you can now get Bluetooth-equipped cassette adapters, presumably some company will attempt to get in on that action. Attempt being the key word.
Many shops have already learned the value in learning how to program and tune existing ECUs, but the future is going to be difficult. Making mechanical parts for a BMW Neue Klasse is relatively simple, but what about trying to software diagnostics on an M2? Open-source software for cars is still a pipe dream, and looks unlikely to change anytime soon. Independent shops are going to have to make some pretty hefty investments—that is, if OEMs will even allow them to purchase access rights. The FBI practically had to waterboard Apple to unlock a single friggin’ iPhone. Legal cases like that would be a death knell for small-scale operations.
So what can we do about it? We joke about how enthusiasts like to complain for automakers to make sporty cars but don’t actually have the money to buy them, but the truth is that our voice is frankly not a factor. Even the ‘stripped-out’ Carrera T can have built-in navigation. Simplicity can be still be had, but only in supremely specialized vehicles like the BAC Mono or Caterham Seven. The market, and performance as a whole, just changed.
In an amazing recent Road & Track article, “The Future of Fast”, Brett Berk discusses how technology contributes to modern-day performance cars. “Modern performance is...multidimensional.” To make something like the 911 GT2 RS slay lap-time records while still being (kinda) usable on a daily commute requires “potency and wizardry.” But it also requires that every system in the car be linked tightly together. The human driver, with a very human foot operating a clutch, breaks that inter-connectivity, and introduces a weak point. A “’hole in the communication,’” to quote Lamborghini’s chief technical officer Maurizio Reggiani.
But there is some hope. Not every automaker buys into that vision of the future. Mazda may not be into Speed anymore, but they aren’t chasing mad horsepower, rather “’control and direct feeling,’” says Mazda North America’s Masashi Otsuka. Based on Alanis King’s latest review, they’re succeeding on that front. Albert Biermann, former BMW M VP of engineering, moved to Hyundai precisely to make less-complicated, fun-to-drive cars, like the Veloster N. In the US, Caterham has been seeing more and more customers from the younger generations, seeking the excitement of engagement.
In the end, our best defense is to proselytize to as many people as we can about the joys of simplicity. It’s already worked in the watch industry. More and more people have turned towards analog chronographs. It can be done. They say victors write history. We haven’t lost yet.