They Can’t (and Won’t) Make Them Like They Used To

When it comes to car culture, one of the things you may commonly find is people lamenting the direction of modern performance cars. “They don’t make them like they used to.” is what you’ll hear, often, and usually regarding cars produced anywhere between the 1960s and the early 2000s. But it is a good thing that they don’t make them like they used to, and even if they were to ignore all business sense it simply wouldn’t be possible.

Don’t get me wrong- I have a rusty Japanese economy car from the 1970s that demands most of my attention (and my money), and I love it to bits. But I’m also sure as hell glad that automotive engineering has progressed a great deal since the 1970s for a variety of reasons; fuel efficiency, crash safety, emissions, performance- you name it, and it’s probably something that most modern cars can do far better without breaking a sweat.

A lot of enthusiasts have difficulty rationalizing the decisions and the direction of car manufacturers these days, although the reality is that business has been better than ever. But why is this the case? To understand this, one needs to accept an incredible and possibly blasphemous idea: the opinions of enthusiasts are insignificant and unrepresentative of the market as a whole. If every Facebook post begging to “Save the Manual” were taken seriously by car companies, every car on the market would have 3 pedals and an H-pattern shifter- but in truth most people nowadays simply want convenience and comfort.

Even more worrying is the fact that less and less people are interested in driving, what with the introduction of ride sharing applications like Uber and Grabcar. Many would much prefer to be shuttled around than to drive themselves, which is also strong justification for the autonomous car. But what one needs to realize is that this mindset applies to both consumers and producers: as the older, more traditional employees of a car company retire, those who step up to take their place are more and more progressive. And perhaps this is also why it is futile to see companies like Saab being revived, simply because it was the people that made the brand great and those people are long gone.

In a nutshell, the global market isn’t interested in a car that’s built like one from the past, and manufacturers are less and less interested in making them. Cars need to be bigger and more comfortable with each passing generation in order to keep up with consumer expectations, and at most times it is at odds with what enthusiasts want. A business is a business, after all, and a product that costs a lot to develop and only loses money in the long run, with fairly limited appeal to begin with, simply doesn’t fit well into the plans of a company regardless of how great the product is.

“But what about character? What about visceral rawness? Surely these are important things to have in a performance car,” you say. Let’s assume we live in a perfect world where these are concepts valued by more than just (an optimistic) 10% of the global car market. One might think of the Honda S660 or the Toyota GT86 or the Mazda MX-5 as rare success stories, as proof of concept for an automotive renaissance of sorts. The only problem is that these cars don’t have the character, nor the rawness of which you speak.

They don’t possess the throaty induction noise or the inconsistent valvetrain clatter of an old-school car. The responsiveness of the steering, the pedal feel, the way the chassis reacts- these are all things that are seemingly missing, regardless of how “fun to drive” they are marketed as being. There are a few reasons for this, be it that most modern engines generally sound terrible, or that various electronic systems interfere with your throttle and steering inputs, or simply that cars have become a lot heavier than they used to be.  Again, these issues have come as a result of improving efficiency and safety in order to meet tightening regulations and to appeal to a wider market.

And yet, these modern reincarnations or iterations are still far better than their predecessors in so many objective ways. A BMW F10 M5 is much faster and much more comfortable than an E39 M5, regardless of how much more character that older M5 may have. The most recent Honda Civic Type R packs more torque just off idle than its predecessor made at its peak. It is far safer to crash in a Toyota GT86 than it is to crash in a Toyota AE86. They may not be as raw as cars of the past, but they are still mighty fine machines.

A Volkswagen Golf 7 R may not be the last word in character, but 9 out of 10 times it’s going to be quicker than your bog standard old-school car. It’s a lot easier to drive fast and a lot safer as well, with acronyms like ESC and ASR and ABS helping you along. I’m not a fan of electronic intervention, but these systems are vastly important in keeping cars on the road when drivers don’t necessarily know what they are doing. People romanticize the idea of driving something raw like a Porsche 930 to its limits, but rarely do they understand that the limits are low and the thresholds are narrow.

Perhaps you’ve read through and reached this point, and you still aren’t satisfied with the rationales I’ve given. There’s a very simple alternative: buy the older car that you actually want, rather than lamenting that there isn’t a modern day equivalent. Buy a Lotus Elise or a first generation Mazda MX-5. If you’re feeling particularly fancy, outfits like Singer Vehicle Design are more than happy to accommodate your needs, provided you can cough up the money- which leads us to my final point.

Even if all things were kept the same and a company were to simply reproduce one of their ‘blasts from the past’, it would cost a ridiculous amount of money as a brand new fresh-out-of-the-factory car. Low volume both in terms of production and sales results in some fairly astronomical costs, which is why Singer Porsches cost an arm and a leg. Perhaps a question to consider is this: if you would not pay second-hand money for the car you want, what makes you think anybody would pay full-price for the same car, even with zero kilometres on the clock?