Why There Will Soon Be More 100-Year-Old Cars Than 50-Year-Old Cars

Vintage Rust Bucket

So it’s 2029, and your family has been active in old-Ford clubs for a couple of generations, so you decide that a gathering of survivors would be a good way to celebrate the Model A’s centennial. You dig out the old club rosters and call up DMV lists, and if you’re in California (especially Southern) you will probably find that most of the cars that were running back in 2016 are still coming out for parades, shows, nice weekends or even beer runs.  And you get enough cars to fill a good-sized parking lot.

Then you remember that your first ride was a ’79 Mustang, and think maybe calling in some 50-year-old Fords would be a nice addition … and you find a nice little group in collections, not all still roadworthy. What gives here? 

The pat answer is that it ain’t rocket science … but in this case it IS rocket science, at least the electronic part. The solid-state revolution that brought us everything from the transistor radio to electronic ignition and eventually the combined EFI/engine management systems, that’s what done it, kids. Yes, it gave us pinpoint ignition timing, turn-key perfect mixture control and fuel delivery under every condition of heat, cold, humidity or altitude. What those devices could not do was (A) last forever, or (B) guarantee that they’d still be in production when they finally croaked.

See, the beauty of old cars (aside from, well, their beauty) is that just about every component of their operating systems can be gotten from a good hardware store, Radio Shack, Pep Boys or machine shop. Carburetors are made from parts that wear out in predictable ways and which are easily replicated, as are starters and generators. Alternators need diodes, but those are off-the-shelf items too. And all the switches and connections are wired and soldered together. But a Bosch L-Jetronic setup? Good luck on that.

That last item mentioned is particularly poignant to your correspondent, who happens to own (and frequently operate) two Alfa Romeos, a 1987 Milano and a ’91 164, both of which use that Bosch system, and each of which must be made to pass its smog exam every other year. Not only has this never been easy, the allowable emissions levels are tightened more each year, and the diminishing wiggle room for those very good mechanics has come to be a serious challenge. Looking forward to the inevitable, I have some clear choices: spend twice or more what either car is worth on custom-made EMS setups, spend about the same on more modern engines (available for both cars) with the EM systems they came with, or … I can sell both cars and buy a pre-1975 Alfa, preferably the sedan, that drives like a dream, runs like a house afire, and does not need to pass any damn smog test.

But it still won’t outlive a good Model A. Barring getting caught in a landslide, tsunami or barn fire, any of those has the potential for immortality … the kind enjoyed by George Washington’s axe in the old joke: four replacement blades, six replacement handles, but still the same damn axe! But hey – it still works, right?