I still own my first car.
It is a 1967 Morris 1000. It has around 48bhp, 61 lb/ft of torque and a top speed of 73mph. I say around, because at 48 years old, it has earned the right to have lost a little vigour. It is dogged, rather than fast. Tough, rather than exhilarating.
The Minor was the first car I drove on my own. As a youngster, I went as fast as I dared in it, which, given the modest power, was rarely enough to break a speed limit. I span it, hit kerbs, clipped the odd parked car during poorly executed parking manoeuvres and basically conquered the poor driving techniques and habits that come with inexperience. All of them at low speed and in relative safety. It simply wasn’t fast enough to get me in real trouble.
At the same time, my mates were having far more serious spills in MkII Fiestas and Vauxhall Novas, which happily they recovered from, even if their more powerful, more fragile front-wheel-drive motors didn’t.
As I got older, and owned more cars, I came to appreciate the Minor for its ability to communicate exactly what it was doing, even when travelling at walking pace.
My Morris Minor has disc brakes on the front, which is an upgrade from standard, but there is no servo assistance. Any force you apply to the brakes is transmitted directly and it’s a very manual process. Press too hard and the brakes lock up. Don’t press hard enough and you will hit something. Slowly.
The clutch pedal is a similarly analogue affair, attached to the clutch fork and release bearing by a threaded piece of steel. No hydraulics or cable operation to smooth things out. You need to carefully balance the millimetres (actually, the few thou) between a kangaroo start and a stall. That said, the unassisted steering is actually thoroughly modern in operation, being light and direct, but drive over a lolly stick that has been left in the road, and you’ll feel it ripple through the rim of the spindly tiller.
All of this meant that, as a young and dumb driver, I at least got to recognise what the car was doing, and what I was doing wrong. It taught me to drive, long after I’d handed my L-plates back. It’s that closeness, that affinity with this humdrum little saloon which means it has never been sold.
Like a lot of people with old cars tucked away, I don’t use it as much as I might.
There are few less intimidating things to see on the road than a Morris Minor, but despite this, drivers of more modern cars seem to treat it, and me, as something of a threat. People pull out in front of us, cut into the lane we are in and refuse to merge in turn. Drivers will literally take their lives in their hands to overtake on B-roads, even if I’m keeping up with the other traffic.
If you drive something old, you sort of come to expect it. In the natural hierarchy of road users, old cars are at the bottom of the heap. The truth is, though, like so many folk driving things that are more challenging to pilot than a modern supermini, you have to be a better driver, rather than a worse one, to get to where you are going.
Recently I spent a week driving the Minor from home to Autocar’s suburban London office, and in that time something tangible happened. It made me a better driver.
In saying better, I’m not talking in the ‘locker room’ sense. It’s not being fast, or about car control. It’s not technical, per se.
When driving old cars, you have to heighten your awareness levels simply to avoid accidents. When a modern car hops in front of you and immediately stamps on the brakes, it’s a massive issue. Old car drivers leave appropriate stopping distances but modern motorists like to fill those gaps, in case you might slow them down for a second or two. They are in a modern car. They outrank you. They are better than you. Get out of the way.
When they do cut in, you have to drop back, only to have some other turbo diesel twonk do precisely the same thing a minute later.
You don’t have the airbags, crumple zones, AEB or any other safety kit to look after you if the worst happens. You are acutely aware of your vulnerability and you drive defensively as a result.
Similarly, when driving along, you are acutely aware of the noise. Old cars make noise. Lots of noise. Some of it is just because old cars do a worse job of insulating you from the mechanical bits. After all, it’s old. But as the driver, you get very attuned to the noises, and if something starts to go wrong, you don’t need a warning light to tell you. A slight change in frequency, a new rattle or unfamiliar squeak tells you that a bit of investigation is needed.
On a modern motor, TPMS systems tell you if your tyres have lost a pound or two of pressure from the tyre. On a Morris 1000, it starts to steer differently and tracks across the road. With no steering assistance or cosseting ride to insulate you from the road, you know exactly what is going on. No warning lights required.
This heightened sense of awareness stays with you when you jump back into a modern. Even with assisted brakes and steering, proper ventilation, a working radio and an airbag arsenal protecting you from other drivers, you are just more aware of what you are driving and crucially, of other motorists.
There is no doubt at all that even the crudest, poorest modern vehicles are considerably more civilised, safer and more efficient than a 1967 Morris Minor. You’ll get no argument from me on that.
Despite that, I’ve no doubt that a spell behind the wheel of it or something similar makes even the most confident, competent modern driver more considerate, more aware and ultimately, a better driver.