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How to drive an old car – top tips

For some drivers, the thought of jumping behind the wheel of an older car for the first time is a scary prospect. We take a look at some of the things you might need to know if you’re considering trading cruise control for a flat cap and some flying goggles.

With the help of Vauxhall’s excellent heritage fleet – a collection of historically important cars from the manufacturer’s past – we got to grips with a range of vehicles ranging from 1904 to 1993 to find out just how much things have changed over the years.

Jump in the passenger seat

But first, how old is old?

Old cars are commonly referred to as classic vehicles – a term associated with cars more than 25 years old and built after 1930. If we turn the clock back even further, we enter the world of vintage cars – those built between 1905 and 1930. Veteran vehicles, however, are even older – they often look more like horse-drawn carriages than cars and can trace their roots back to the very first passenger car, invented by Karl Benz in 1885.

Brown was the order of the day when this 1949 L-Type Wyvern was built

What’s a choke and how do I use it?

Before you head off in an old car, you’ll have to start the engine – often easier said than done. Most older models come with what’s called a choke – a system that lets you manually adjust the mixture of air and fuel that the engine burns. Tweaking this can help the car fire up smoothly on cold days and help it use less fuel when you’re cruising along.

Before you start the car, you’ll need to adjust the choke to allow the engine to burn a little more fuel than usual. Doing this produces what’s called a rich air/fuel mixture. Once your car’s up to its usual operating temperature, you’ll want to switch the choke to a slightly leaner mixture instead. This’ll limit the amount of fuel being mixed in with the air and helps reduce the engine’s fuel consumption.

You won’t have to polish the dashboard of many modern cars – unlike in this 1910 Prince Henry model

What does ignition timing do?

Very old vehicles that fall into the vintage category often come with a system that adjusts the car’s ignition timing, too – as if you needed something else to worry about. The ignition timing refers to the point in the engine’s rotation that a spark plug starts to ignite the fuel which, in turn, pushes down a piston and drives the car forwards.

When the engine’s cold, the air and fuel mixture in its cylinders takes a little longer to burn than usual. As a result, the spark plugs must spark a little earlier to compensate – this is called advancing the ignition timing. Once the engine’s up to temperature, however, overly advanced ignition will cause the fuel to burn too early and produce unpleasant knocking sounds.

It might not look particularly speedy, but this 1909 B-Type Semi Racer was one of the fastest cars of its day

To prevent this, you’ll need to delay the ignition timing. Cars such as the B-Type Semi-Racer (shown above) and 30-98 OE-Type (shown below) came with levers on the steering wheel to advance and delay the ignition timing – just be careful not to knock them with your hands as you turn the wheel.

This 30-98 OE-Type was one of the first British production cars that could reach 100mph

On the move – what to expect

It’s not just starting an old car that’s different to newer models – you’ll notice some profound differences on the move, too. Modern vehicles come with plenty of systems to help you steer, brake and even change gear that simply hadn’t been invented when lots of old cars were made. So what should you look out for?

This 1937 H-Type Wyvern has a huge steering wheel more akin to that of a cruise ship than a family car

Steering – is it supposed to be so heavy?

Most modern cars come with power steering – a system that helps take some of the effort out of turning the steering wheel. It’ll stop your arms getting tired on long journeys and is especially useful when you’re parking in tight spaces or manoeuvring around town.

Such systems didn’t appear in passenger cars until the 1950s – when they were very expensive to produce. As a result, turning the wheel in an old car might require a lot more effort than you’re used to.

Sometimes, it’s not always that easy…

Braking – planning ahead is essential

Many modern cars come with automatic emergency braking systems that’ll apply the brakes for you if the car detects an obstacle in the road ahead. In older model, there’s no such safety net and the brakes may prove much less effective than in a new car. You’ll have to make sure you leave enough room to brake should someone or something pull out in front of you.

To add to the confusion, the pedals in some old cars, such as the 30-98 OE-Type, aren’t set out in the familiar clutch, brake, accelerator pattern. Instead, you’ll find the accelerator in the middle – which can certainly take some getting used to.

The four-litre engine in this 1910 Prince Henry model produced a thrilling 86hp

Changing gear – an extra step to consider

New cars come with what’s called synchronised manual gearboxes. These – as the name suggests – synchronise the speeds of the various cogs within the gearbox to help make it changing gear as easy as possible. In older cars fitted with unsynchronised gearboxes, you’ll have to do a little extra work to avoid that horrible – and all too familiar – crunching noise made by a fumbled gearchange.

When changing up, you’ll have to slide the gear lever briefly into neutral and release the clutch before pressing it down again and sliding the lever into the next gear. Doing this helps match the speeds of the gearbox’s input shaft, output shaft and lay shaft and makes for a silky smooth gearchange.

This 1959 Vauxhall PA Velox was designed to look like ’50s Chevrolets

Things get a little more complicated when you’re changing down a gear, however. In order to synchronise the shaft speeds, you’ll need to blip the throttle ever so slightly when the gearbox is in its neutral position. This will speed up the rotation of the gears connected to the engine so they’ll match the speed of the gears connected to wheels. This sounds complicated, but it’s crucial to stop the car from lurching when you release the clutch.

Automatic gearboxes first appeared in 1939, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that such systems were offered on more affordable family cars – such as the PA Velox, shown above. These, while not quite as efficient as today’s automatic ‘boxes, can be used in almost exactly the same way.

No modern plastic cladding on this 1957 F-Type Victor’s engine

What is leaded petrol?

Most old cars were originally designed to run on petrol with a lead additive. It helped prevent excess wear within the engine and made them run more smoothly. For various environmental reasons, leaded fuel is no longer available. So how do you keep these cars running?

Certain engine components must be hardened to help them last longer if you use ordinary unleaded fuel, but these changes shouldn’t affect how the car feels to drive. Some owners won’t swap out crucial engine parts and will, instead, run an additive in the unleaded fuel to make it work like leaded fuel.

This 1905 6hp Vauxhall is more than 100 years old but still drives like new

Is there anything else I should know?

Older cars will require more regular maintenance than new vehicles to keep them running at their best, but that isn’t to say they won’t last as long. The oldest vehicle in Vauxhall’s heritage fleet – the 1905 6hp model (shown above) – performs as well today as it did when it first took to the roads more than 110 years ago thanks to regular, and rather meticulous, TLC.

Fancy something brand new instead?

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