This Is What It's Like To Own A Car Older Than Myself

So, you want a classic car?

James Gilboy

In 1991, in some Toyota factory, a white, T-topped MR2 Turbo was built. Four years later, I slid screaming onto a gurney at Boulder Community Hospital as a newborn. Another nineteen years and a sandwich shop salary later, teenage me, influenced by a certain show about a kid delivering tofu, determined that mid-engined cars are superior to front or rear-engined cars, and that only the best will do: the Toyota MR2. Eager me found a tastefully modified, white, T-topped MR2 Turbo on a forum, and a handful of texts later, I had a location, date, and time set for the sale. After some groveling, I had my mother drive me 550 miles to Salt Lake City, where I bought the car, and drove it home the next day.

It's been more than three years since that weekend, and in the time since, I have learned a few important things about classic car ownership, things that every teen coveting an automotive hero should know before plopping a four or five figure wad on the table for their entry into the world of dream car ownership.

The first thing you need to know is that you are not buying a modern car. Electronic nannies to creature comforts may be absent depending on how old your dream car is. That traction control in your mom's CR-V, that stopped you from trying to live out your Initial D fantasies isn't there to save your heinie when you try to slide your first car down an offramp, and ABS may not be your guardian angel in slick conditions if you underestimate your stopping distance. Power steering is all but universal in modern cars, whereas a fair portion of older cars lacked it when they left the dealer lot.

When it comes to luxuries we now take for granted in cars made in 2017, like universal locking, keyless ignition, infotainment, and ventilated seats, even well-equipped classics can have interiors that feel positively Congolese by modern standards. Some of you out there will be surprised not to see a power window button, but instead, a crank on the side of the door. Others will search for an AUX jack, and while some cars in the 80s and 90s had such options from the factory (rarely), it was nowhere near as commonplace as it is today. Hell, I'm grateful my car could take CDs, because of the aftermarket head unit... for a time, anyway, because that broke.

Speaking of things breaking, the most important thing you need to know is that every last piece of a car is capable of wearing out and needing replacement. Everything, from your seat, to your engine block, to bolts and bushings whose existence you had no concept of prior to their failure, can wear out and need replacement. Parts with lifetimes so long that they don't have service intervals will develop wear, play, rust, leakage, rot, or breakage, and you won't even see it coming. As a result, owning an old car, no matter how well-kept it is, will put you in a near-constant state of buying new parts to replace the ones that have just expired.

In the time since I bought my MR2, I have had to change spark plugs twice, diagnose multiple oil leaks, replace the thermostat, upgrade the shift cable bushings, replace the clutch pedal clevis, do the front brakes, replace the front bumper (my fault,) change the transmission oil, discern the source of coolant leaks, tighten the handbrake cables, change my oil, clean that knockoff K&N filter, and pay someone else to replace the valve cover gasket and modify the exhaust to pass emissions.

And you know what? That's not all that needs doing. In the near future, I'll need to either have my fuel injectors cleaned or replaced, rear calipers rebuilt, left rear strut housing and exhaust manifold gasket replaced, a rusted out seat mount cut out and replaced, alignment corrected, throttle cable replaced, and a new coolant leak I've just found plugged.

Oh, and it's failed emissions three times in the last month.

Classic car ownership isn't the highlight reel presented to you by your favorite YouTube vloggers. It's a dedication that not every car enthusiast, young or old, can afford to make, due to constraints like time, money, or even patience. It's not for everyone. I know I've just spent multiple paragraphs complaining about my car, but by god I wouldn't trade it for the world, because at the end of the day, my car still ticks the boxes I need from my ideal car, in a way no crossover ever could. You just can't buy a lightweight, mid-engined, turbocharged, assist-free, manual transmission car any more; it's a dead concept to automakers.

And if you too find yourself an old car that does exactly what you want, be it a Fairline 500, an air-cooled 911, or a diesel Kei car, you will understand why I haven't waved the white flag with a craigslist ad. Sometimes, what your heart (or wallet) needs is something that can't be found in showrooms today, something halfway between a museum and a crusher. Classic cars rely on you to stay on the road, and with the future of driving looking more autonomous and internal combustion-free than ever before, a more hands-on experience, both on the road and in the garage, will draw certain types as long as we can fill our tanks with dino juice or an equivalent. I'm that type, and maybe you are too.