Five Classics That Aren’t Nearly As Fun To Drive As People Think They Are

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I was reading a great article written by a fellow collector car journalist (who I know and respect greatly) about a vintage twelve-cylinder Ferrari. By the end of the profile, it was clear that the writer felt the car simply wasn’t as fun to drive as its reputation had people believe.

It got me thinking…I feel the same way about plenty of other collector vehicles. So many classics are “good” or “pretty”, but just simply not really inspiring or engaging. Here are five cars that are perfect examples of collector cars that should be great to drive (based on reputation, looks, conventional wisdom), but in reality are only slightly more fun than having your throat swabbed for strep:

1966-1990 Rolls-Royces
Big, opulent… and more expensive than a year’s worth of Tara Reid’s bar tabs, Rolls-Royces have always been an acceptable choice of royalty, executives and rock stars. Hell, Keith Moon put his into a swimming pool, so if Moon-The-Loon owned one, they must be fun!?!?

Actually, they’re not.

All Rollers from a period spanning a quarter-century drive like a 1977 Buick with Jabba The Hut in the back seat and Mama Cass in the trunk. Steering is vague, sloppy and too slow. Overwhelmed by the weight, the suspension wallows and the brakes are inadequate. And after taking away the R-R logos and the radiator mascot, you’re left with a vehicle that has fewer usable luxury amenities than contemporary German luxo-cruisers.

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1967-1969 Chevrolet Camaros
I can hear the hate email filling-up my inbox right now. The first-generation Camaros are sweet-looking cars (especially the redesigned 1969.) You can’t help but smile when you see a good Hugger Orange RS/SS Camaro with black-and-white hound’s-tooth interior. At one time I even owned a ’68 V8 Camaro.

Unfortunately, unless the owner does significant modifications, first-generation (as well as all second-gen F-body cars, for that matter) are really a let-down to drive. To be fair, the Camaro’s problems aren’t any different from those found on all other GM products (and most from Ford and Chrysler). Given the Camaro’s Trans Am series success and pony car performance image, one expects more.

Cars with power steering provide zero feedback with skittishly-quick ratios, while the manual-steering boxes are slow and heavy. Brakes, either by optional discs or standard drums, are controlled with a numb, spongy pedal. Muncie manual transmissions require long throws that are less precise than Stevie Wonder’s skeet-shooting skills.

The first-gen Camaro’s lack of fun factor becomes most apparent in twisties, certainly if one has driven some of the contemporary European sports and grand touring cars. Third-generation Corvettes are almost as bad, but at least the smaller bodies provide a heightened sense of speed and capability. The F-body’s size combined with its disconnected controls, bouncy suspension and front weight bias, mean it is best in the hands of stoplight bandits and other go-straight-fast types.

Jaguar XJS
A painfully gorgeous coupe – even when sitting next to the E-Type model it replaced, sadly the XJS is also painful to drive. With a luscious V12 and meaty tires, the XJS should have been a great GT car.

It isn’t. There is less sensation via the steering wheel than profits in British Leyland bank accounts. Ergonomics were penned by a sadist, as it is one of the few cars ever made where a six-footer can simultaneously hit their head on the roof, knees on the wheel and dashboard, elbows on the door, and seatback on rear obstructions.

Actually, the best part of an XJS is that it is so unreliable…so shoddily designed, that most journeys are cut short by some type of major electrical problem.

Mercedes 450/500/560 SL
Despite being an icon of the yuppies, the 1973-1989 Mercedes SL range just wasn’t (and still isn’t) that fun to pilot. Yes, I’m fully aware that Mercedes wanted this generation to be fabulous touring cars (not sports cars), but uncomfortable seats (not fully remedied until after the new millennium), a cramped cabin, ponderous steering and brakes, and Bosch fuel injection that either runs rich at idle or lean at high RPMs mean that the SL is a serious let-down for drivers.

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Triumph TR8
Take a V8 and throw it in a British roadster? Sounds like a no-lose recipe, especially when the ingredients are a comfortable, nimble TR7 convertible and the bulletproof all-aluminum Rover (originally Buick) 215-ci unit. Too bad the car turned out as less than the sum of its parts.

Collectors and enthusiasts call the relatively rare TR8 a “poor-man’s Cobra”, but as a former owner of both a TR7 and a TR8, I can assure everyone that the TR8 meets expectations like a QB taken in the first round by the Seattle Seahawks.

The TR7’s Lotus-like handling make it a really fun car to drive hard. After quality improved and a full convertible came into production, all it needed was more power and better brakes to take America by storm.

The TR8 seemed to accomplish this in theory (although initial TR8 prototypes were actually coupes). The aluminum 215 V8 not only weighed slightly less than the 7’s iron two-liter four cylinder, but also had a reputation for being able to produce tons of power when properly tuned. However, when the TR8 hit the shores, the extra cylinders delivered only an additional 47 hp (to 133 SAE Net hp). As delivered, the TR8 actually managed to weigh more than the TR7, courtesy of the parts associated with the new standard power steering and vacuum-assisted braking systems.

On the road the TR8’s power steering feels a universe away from the responsive feel of the unassisted unit in the TR7. Even worse, TR8 power brakes are mushy as leftover Caesar salad, yet do nothing to reduce stopping distances. Finally, the changes in clutch and transmission parts and configuration to accommodate the additional torque make it harder to find gears.

Triumph might have wanted to give us the best of Britain and America in one package, but the instead the TR8 seems nothing more than a TR7 put through a 1960’s Big-Three sensation filter.

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13 Responses to Five Classics That Aren’t Nearly As Fun To Drive As People Think They Are

  1. I’ll have to lodge a disagreement on the R107 Mercedes. My only complaint about them is the horrific gearing of the slushbox, but once up to speed these things are wonderful cruise missiles. I’m 5’11 and find the interior damn near perfect. The top is taught, leak-free and quiet at speed when up. The mechanism of the top is one of the better manually operated convertibles ever designed.

    My father & I bought a 79 450sl specifically to run the 2001 Cannonball Classic. We had done the 1999 run in an E-type Jaguar, which while an absolute hoot to drive, made for a challenging trip mechanically (we finished on a flatbed.) The 450sl was purchased specifically to be a reliable continental cruiser and even though the 2001 Cannonball Classic was cancelled, it has proven to be so many times over on several car events. My parents often use it for their own cross-country drives. I even took it out on a track day at the last Forza Amelia ever run and placed 3rd in a field of very respectable cars & drivers. It was a fantastically stable and fun car to run at the edge of the envelope on a road course!

    Keep up the good work!
    –chuck

  2. Bob Stahl says:

    I bought my TR8 brand new from Everett Sports Car in May of 1980.
    It now has just a bit less than 80,000 miles. Perhaps I was lucky and got a good one, but I really have to take issue with some/all your complaints.
    I didn’t like the feel of the brakes, when new. The guy I had maintaining the car was and still is a GT1 SCCA builder/racer. I had him adjust the brake bias more to the front, and it made all difference.
    The steering has always been very tight and responsive, no complaints at any speed.
    Your problem with the clutch and transmission in your TR8 makes me wonder if you had a bad car. I finally replaced the clutch, as you know, a couple of years ago. It was the original. The only reason for the change was that everything was out and open, seemed like the thing to
    do. The only transmission problem I’ve ever had was a persistant leak from a trans seal (but it’s British).
    We have made the decision to never sell this car. It’s just too much fun in the summer. Sorry you had a bad one.
    Bob

  3. In the back of my mind when I wrote this article, I was thinking “I’m going to be read the Riot Act from Bob if he sees this!!!”

    My TR8 was actually pretty good. It did have some shifter bushing issues that I rectified, which put it in line with the action of other TR8s.
    Your TR8 is particularly solid. The boys at BL were on the top of their game the day your 8 rolled down the production line!

    It’s easy to misinterpret the article. The TR8 (like the SL, Camaro…) is actually a really nice car. It simply isn’t as fun as people think it is. Speaking just on personal opinion, I happen to think the TR7 is much more fun to drive, because the steering is so much sharper and the brake feel so much better. (The brakes on a 7 still stink, though!!!)

    Maybe my gripe is that the TR8 could have been so much better with a little fine tuning of the engine, brakes, steering/suspension. Heck, it could have been a true world-beater. Instead of being far better than the TR7, it was just slightly faster and softer. That isn’t necessarily bad, but from this viewpoint, it didn’t add to the fun factor.

    I’ll go to my grave, though, thinking that the TR8 and TR7 are among the most comfortable sports roadsters ever made. Those seats are fabulous and there’s plenty of room to stretch out.

  4. Fresno Bob says:

    You’re hanging around the wrong shops, Sam. There was nothing wrong with the K and KE Bosch systems in the SL (and used in many other cars), as long as they were serviced by a knowledgeable mechanic/tech.

  5. Fresno Bob,

    Interestingly, it was a long-time Mercedes dealer mechanic who first pointed this information out regarding the Bosch K and KE systems. As you mentioned, the system appears on many non-Mercedes cars, including Ferraris 308/328.

    While certain years/models are more or less prone to rich idle conditions, it is a fact of life with the system, due to the limitations of the set spray of the injectors. Usually the systems are set by mechanics for a leaner high mixture, because most drivers never run SLs that hard, but it was this Mercedes mechanic friend who told of the constant requests of SL (and other Merc) owners over the years to address the same problem of rich idle vs. high end fade.

  6. Brian Quinn says:

    I totally disagree with the opinion of the XJS. I own a signal red 1988 convertible and it is THE BUSINESS. It is my favourite car and is far better than the E-Type. I have not had any problems so far and have owned it for 5 years. Driving it is something else and it turns as many heads as a Lamborghini or Ferrari.

  7. Despite the mammoth engineering might behind them, I don’t think any Bosch Jetronic system every really came to terms with American gas and the issues associated with a catalytic converter–higher back pressure, higher exhaust temps and O2 sensors. Over rich idle conditions were par for the course across marques; not until Motronic 1.0 did cars so equipped begin to realize their potential in stock form.

    Now, take one of those smog-hobbled cars, replace the exhaust and give it some 94 octane, and it’s a different story.

    Somewhere out there on the web is the R&T 635CSi/550SEC/XJS comparo “Quandary at Furnace Creek”…here you go:

    http://landiss.info/mbz/560scans.htm

  8. Having owned a Triumph TR7 (for a month before I came to my senses), a ’73 Jaguar XJ12 S1 (for five years until I had replaced most of the critical bits) and now a ’69 Bentley T1, some of your choices hit close to home.

    The TR8 clearly had a better engine, requiring far fewer new head-gaskets but I must agree that the quality control on the rest of the car was simply a joke. I cannot remember even one drive where the sum of the car outweighed the failure of individual parts. It was not fun to drive. To be fair, one month is a short time to really know a car and the TR8 is likely to have a much better personality.

    The S1 XJ12 of 1973 used the same XJ6 SWB that provided much for the XJS, including the SOHC V12. I vintage rallied the XJ12 and when all the planets were in their correct position, it was a delight to drive. I had a late 1980’s XJS for a weekend drive and it drove much like my XJ12. I agree that the cabin seemed cramped for the size of the car.

    Our ’69 Bentley has been in the family for six months now. I owned a ’63 SIII for several years and the T series is the easy choice for driving fun. The steering is vague as you say and requires a revised driving style. It is best with a light touch and does not suffer the ham-handed fool gladly. The T Series seems to know what speed it wants for different roads and conditions and pushing beyond that point is a mistake. It is not a sporting car. That said, it is a lovely, smooth driver where the gentleman’s club interior soothes any temptation to push the car’s obvious limits. In contrast, the SIII with the same V8 power had a feel much more like the 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville i once owned, plenty of power but seldom in a position to make good use of it. Both cars did seem to attract attention like driving a circus wagon. My conclusion so far is that one does not own a Bentley T for the physical thrills but rather the spiritual ones.

  9. Ries says:

    What about the opposite list- cars that are way more fun to drive than they have any right to be?

    I nominate both my now deceased Mazda wagons- my original 72 RX3, which redlined at about 4 times what an american car of its age did, and screamed up Cherry St in downtown Seattle at 45 in second gear, at one in the morning, most nights. Cheap, stinky, and you could still read the orange juice can labels on the floor if you lifted up the carpet- but it was a hoot to drive. Imagine if it had modern tires.

    Or my late, lamented (teenagers, again) Mazda 3 hatchback. Cost around what air conditioning and leather seats add to the price of a porsche these days, and was the best Chuckanut drive car I have ever driven. These things are amazing feats of engineering, at a bargain price.

    I am sure there are lots more out there- cheap, disposable cars that just happen to get it all right, except for being classy.

  10. Ries:
    You’ll be interested to know that we published a story like the one you suggested. It ran on CarDomain.com.

    Here is the link to FIVE GUILTY PLEASURE CARS THAT ARE MORE FUN TO DRIVE THAN YOU’D EXPECT:

    http://blog.cardomain.com/2009/04/01/five-guilty-pleasure-cars-that-are-more-fun-to-drive-than-youd-expect/

  11. felipe says:

    Presently I have both the XJS and RR SS in my collection of classic motorcars, and find them a pleasure to drive considering their age, and technical advancements of the times. One can still feel the manual pleasures of power and movement with these hand-made works of art, in comparison to modern high-tech computerised and superficial mass productions.

  12. You apparently got hold of the wrong Mercedes R107. For me never a dull moment.

  13. Driven plenty of them — from first 350 to last 560…and then 500 and 600 in the next gen. Not bad cars, just not as fun as they could be — keeping in mind that they are all gorgeous cars and the concept of fun is entirely subjective.

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