Old vs. New: Poached eggs, scotch and the Austin Maxi
If newer is always better, why can't I leave the past behind?
Unless you’re talking about Scotch, it is almost impossible for something which is old to be better than something which is new. The device I’m using to write this was made by Apple, for example, rather than Remington. And I’m willing to bet that you aren’t reading these words on a Nokia 3310, or as a series of rudimentary pictographs daubed on the inside of a Welsh cave.
If you had to travel urgently from London to Brussels today to, ooh I don’t know, perform some difficult and important negotiations, then you wouldn’t be best pleased if you rocked up at St Pancras and a Victorian steam engine chuffed into view. Nor would you be very impressed three days later, when you arrived in Belgium to find your executive Uber E-Class had been replaced with a pony and trap.
So why is it then, that we all go absolutely bananas over what is essentially decrepit old junk? People pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for vintage Swiss watches which, when compared to a £20 battery-powered Casio, would be more useful as a lemon juicer than as a timekeeping device. And don’t think this is me taking the high ground here because I’m the worst offender of all.
On average, I’ll spend at least three hours a day poring over 16th century houses in Country Life. I know that compared to my current house, which was built last Thursday, these places are cramped, cold and cost a fortune to buy and maintain. But I look at them, with their beamed ceilings and dowager-countess hedgerows and think “I have got to have one.”
Then we come to cars. My Mercedes is not even a year old; it is as bang-up-to-date as anything on the market, which automatically means that in some way, shape or form, it is guaranteed to be demonstrably better not just than last year’s model, but better than every single thing Merc have hitherto produced. Buy an A35 today, and you’ll have a £36,000 hatchback which is faster, more economical, safer, and more reliable than a £2million 300SL gullwing.
That is not an opinion, it is a fact. So, with that in mind you might be surprised to find that my most recent eBay searches are as follows: Range Rover Classic, BMW 635CSi, Peugeot 504 Coupe, Triumph TR6, Jag E-Type.
You might say its an aesthetic thing, that the cars of the past are much nicer to look at than their modern equivalents, and for the most part I would agree with you. However, it’s at this point that we must remember that whilst Enzo Ferrari may have called the E-Type the most beautiful car in the world, Sir William Lyons, the boss of the company that designed and built the thing, thought it to be pretty repulsive
Then there was Lord Nuffield, the Morris chief who described the Minor, the first British car to sell over a million examples, as looking “like a poached egg”. Lord Nuff’s breakfasting preferences were sadly never documented for posterity, but I think its fair to assume that this wasn’t meant as a compliment.
The thing is though, I don’t believe that either Sir Bill or his Lordship would race home after a hard day of making cars they didn’t really like to hunch over a copy of Ye Olde Auto Trader looking wistfully at second hand examples of Hispano Suizas and those ridiculous Bentleys where the gear lever is classed as an exterior component.
They knew then, as well as I do now, that old cars are pretty hopeless compared to new ones. They didn’t buy old cars. They innovated, and adapted and came up with new ideas and designs. We all know the story of Ferruccio Lamborghini, the Italian tractor maker who looked at his old Ferrari and said “That’s crap. I can do better than that.” He then toddled off to his shed, and came up with the 350 GT, and then the Muira.
Maybe that’s why I look back at cars from the sixties, seventies and eighties in such a wistful and longing way. The innovation and the variety has sort of dried up. Go outside and look at the cars you see trundling around. They’re all the same. Five door, five seat hatchbacks. Oh sure, some are a bit taller than others, some are a bit faster than others, and some are made in Spain, or Poland, or Japan. If an alien landed on Earth and decided to research the history of the car, he’d be forced to conclude that development had effectively stopped in about 1969 and that the absolute automotive zenith was the Austin Maxi.
And you can jump up and down shouting about electric cars as much as you like, but cars propelled by electricity have been around for just as long as cars powered by the combustion engine. It’s just that our forebears were wise enough to realise that battery vehicles charged from a plug were a technological cul-de-sac. Still are, actually.
That being said, a Tesla Model 3 is still a far superior method of getting to the shops than a 1904 Armstrong-Stopcock Gentleman’s Electrical Motor Carriage.
Still though, none of this does anything to temper my longing for a Rover P6, I’m still to be found late at night counting and re-counting every penny in my savings jar to see if I have enough for a Citroen SM. All this in spite of the fact that I know full well that if I did buy a Rover, its V8 would need a full rebuild before I left for work every morning, and that ‘SM’ actually stands for ‘sans mouvement’.
Where does that leave us then? I thought about positing the question to a fellow learned member of this parish, James May, who I know agrees with me that new things are superior to old things. However, on the basis that he bought a brand new Ferrari and then immediately afterwards bought a seventies 308 to go with it, he is clearly as much of a rank hypocrite as I am.
To be honest, I can’t figure it out. Perhaps it’s purely borne from the human tendency to err towards things that are bad for you. Or perhaps I’m reading too deeply into it and I’m just a masochist who doesn't know when to quit.
Whatever, I can’t come up with an answer. So, I’m going to put it to the people, as is fashionable these days. If you’re like me, and you are afflicted with a predilection for outmoded junk then please get in touch in the comments below, I’d love to know what it is that causes otherwise sane and rational people to abandon all of their sensibilities when confronted with an old car. Alternatively, if you're lucky enough to have been cured of this deep-rooted psychological illness, then feel free to let me know as well.
Meanwhile, I’m off to Frankfurt to look at the brilliant new Land Rover Defender, and to tell anyone who’ll listen that it’s not as good as the old one.