My wife and I ditched our dull late-model sedans a few years ago. We adopted a 1963 Studebaker Avanti as our only car, driven once or twice a week from our downtown San Francisco home. I blame the Avanti's seductive powers for our infatuation. It looks futuristic even today—Ethan Hawke * drove one in the space-age fantasy film Gattaca—and the car is loaded with luxury options.
When we took our first spin, it was like yachting down the boulevard. Its engine is free of the emissions controls that hamper modern motors, so you feel a direct connection between your foot on the gas and the tires on the pavement. Without today's federal mandates on its construction, the Avanti sports chrome bumpers fore and aft instead of crumple zones. It serves a spacious, wraparound view to passengers, unobstructed by headrests, airbags, or complicated belts. The car's body, designed by the legendary Raymond Loewy, flips the bird to modern crash tests, while its interior is designed to resemble an airplane cockpit full of overhead switches—try that nowadays. Every grocery outing became a pleasure cruise. As many a passerby reminded us, they don't make 'em like that anymore. But several years with this rolling museum piece has taught me the truth: Even the best old cars sucked.
To begin with, they're hard to start in the morning. The Avanti doesn't have computer-controlled injectors to squirt the exact amount of gasoline into each cylinder of its engine at the precise moment. It doesn't have computer-controlled anything. Instead, it's got a carburetor, a comparatively crude device that passively mists fuel into the engine's air intake.
The carburetor is dumb. It works great at full throttle but is bad at starting the engine. It fails completely when facing uphill in chilly weather, a frequent position in San Francisco. It's not uncommon for our romantic dates to end with the hood open and me draped over the engine, trying to "choke it" by blocking the carburetor's airflow with my bare hands while my wife cranks the starter. When the engine kicks in, I spring back to avoid its big metal 1963 cooling fan, which doubles as a finger-chopper. This was all kind of sexy the first time I did it. Nowadays it's just an unnecessary risk, since whenever you turn the key on even the cheapest modern car, an amazing thing happens: It starts. Every time.
Because the Avanti predates Ralph Nader, it's as devoid of modern safety perks as it is of emission controls. There are seat belts, but no air bags or crumple zones. No supercomputer-generated crash studies went into the design. We have friends who refuse to ride in it. And you can see their point, since the brakes have a habit of dropping out all at once, just like in Hitchcock movies. Old brake systems didn't have backup cylinders in case one failed. After my wife lost the brakes three blocks above Fisherman's Wharf and nearly ended up sleeping with the sea lions, we decided that classic cool only went so far. Our mechanic cobbled together a modern brake upgrade from a mix of brand-new Mustang and Chevy truck parts.
The Avanti is a sexy-sounding machine. It doesn't purr, it rumbles like a big cat. Its exhaust tone, unimpeded by pollution controls, wows pedestrians and passengers. But try driving the four hours to Tahoe with it. Today's cars have much better noise insulation, not just for engine noise but for wind noise and for rolling-tire noise from the road. Cruising Interstate 80 in a new Cadillac is like lounging in a living room with a wraparound view. The Avanti is more like flying a small plane. The car sails beautifully at 90 mph, but the constant rush of noise is sure to give you a headache before you get to wherever you're going.
We've learned to live with all of the above—sort of—but the real miracle of modern automobiles is how long they go between breakdowns. After 10 years with a Honda Civic, I'm spoiled. Our car's cutting-edge 1963 tech is feeble and flaky by today's standards, even with new parts. The electric windows are dodgy. The power steering leaks—this model was known for it, even when new. The car goes through a lot of oil and is prone to overheating in hot weather, where "hot" means above room temperature. Manufacturing processes have gotten so much better since the days of chrome bumpers that cars just don't break anywhere near as often as they used to.
The Avanti now slumbers in our garage, broken again, while my wife and I ponder its future. Despite the new radiator we put in two years ago, it's leaking coolant and overheating. Friends we meet ask us how our car is doing, but we're not sure we're up for another multithousand-dollar round of maintenance for a car we can't trust for a 30-mile trip. The very last time I piloted the thing home, one eye on the road and the other glued frantically to the climbing temperature gauge, I nearly ran down a gray-haired man in a crosswalk. He gave the Avanti a long, loving look and chirped to me, "I haven't seen one of those in years! They sure don't make 'em like that any more." The poor guy clearly had no idea why I snapped back at him, "Be glad they don't."
Correction, June 18, 2007: The article originally and incorrectly claimed that Jude Law drove a Studebaker Avanti in Gattaca. Ethan Hawke's character drove the car. (Return to the corrected sentence.)