Will i die, if i drive an old car?

As the very first installment and for future reference, let's tackle the thorniest of matters concerning car usage: safety. There is an elephant in this room, and I'm not afraid to name it: any and every car built to modern safety standards (= crumple zones with safety cell for passengers, airbag with active seat belts and head protection for every seat) will be a much better place to have an accident in, than any and all cars built without these. I don't think there are exceptions.

Just a few weeks ago a sad, but luckily not tragic accident around my neck of the woods served up some evidence to this. A Škoda Octavia RS wagon of roughly 2010 vintage (1465 kg / 3230 lb) got into a frontal overlap accident with a Mercedes 200D (W115, 1360 kg / 2998 lb). The Merc had "oldtimer" plates on, meaning we can presume it was pretty close to factory spec, with the body straight and sound. It was, for all intents and purposes, a pristine example, and what's more, the W115 is one of the safest cars of its era. Yet, from the 5 people harmed in the incident, the only serious injury befell the Merc driver, who by the way did everything possible to evade the accident. A really sad reminder, that however well groomed your classic might be, and however vigilant a driver you are, statistics are out to get us all, eventually.

(photo from here)

With all this said, I never feel unsafe in these cars, at least not when they work as I intended them to. Like, losing speed if I press the brake pedal, and not just simply smoking a bit. Yes, when push comes to shove, they'll protect me less, but safety does not start&end with airbags. There's a lot to be said for "active" measures, helping you not crashing in the first place. Like having good all-round visibility, and an involving driving experience, that tells you all about the conditions of the road and your ride. Also, in a cherished classic there's usually a driver who's not just simply heading for point B, but who is also savoring the experience. It does help caring about where and how you drive, and not getting lazy & distracted all the time. Add to that going slower in the first place, because you're not in a false pretense of invulnerability. Etc, etc etc.

The above excuses get told all the time by people apologetic for their old banger / proud about their shiny classic. I don't think they're untrue, in fact I have been heard reiterating them myself, but I do think a lot of the people spouting these truisms don't do enough to make them really true. There are of course fools who only want the outside to shine, but cut corners when it comes to replacing worn shocks and bushings, or, what's worse: worn brake parts. They only survive, because they see their cars as garden ornaments, and don't drive them much at all, so statistics are with them. But even among the normal, considerate folk like everyone reading this, who have older cars because they like to drive them, there is an issue about tire choice. I read comments around here that made me roll my eyes, and I know people, daily using 30+ year old cars, with the rubber on them not much younger. That is just silly. My point here, and I talk from firsthand experience, is that with these cars it costs half, but pays double to go for maximum grip.

(photo from here)

I know cars became much worse over the decades (as we all know, fellow Jalops), tires however are much-much better now, than they were 30 years ago. More expensive too, seemingly, until you realize price depends on size. And because in the '80s cars had minuscule brakes, 13-14-15" wheels are the order of the day. I first had my MR2 on a set of perfectly good Nokian NRJ summers, any tire fitter would have told me to use them another season, but I wasn't satisfied with the cornering performance - a cardinal point in an MR2, don't you agree? So I bought a set of Dunlop Sport Fastresponse summers instead. Because the MR2 factory size is only 185/60 R 14, and doesn't need speed rating higher than 200 kph, the four of them cost the amount one would have, if I wanted them for, say, a 2014 Golf GTI (225/45 R17, with speed rating through the roof). I name the exact type because I learned to love these, and would tell anyone to give them a try: these are very soft, engineered for handling and grip, but are still road radials, not half-slicks for track use, so they are just as good in the rain. The result? I can now use every single horsepower in the car, and push it right up to its limits, because I've got the adhesion to lean on: 2nd gear corners became 3rd gear corners after the change, and this in a car with negligible low-end torque. What's more, and this is an important safety feature, if the tires are warm, they just don't lock up. Seriously, I tried in on a track, I used the brakes so hard I had to change pads afterward, even though I did cool-down laps, but still: no lock-ups.

(photo from here)

So yeah. In an old car, you have to have much smaller a crash to die or get maimed badly, that's true. But if you want to do something about crashing in the first place, it's easy. No electrical skulduggery, (comparatively) cheap suspension and brake parts, and tires above and beyond what the original engineers have planned for – you only have to want it a bit, and your otherwise shitty looking ride will handle like a dream.

And we never even got into the idea of brake and suspension upgrades.

I am György Bolla, working as auto journo in Hungary, writing about and owning cars from the 1980s. Rattenschule is the name of my future company building rides for the demented and brain-dead, like myself. You are welcome to follow my tumblr dedicated to this stuff, or just plain chime in here.