COLUMN: Just Too Retro

Some might say that owning a 34-year-old coupé makes you a purist. That’s bullshit; in my case it just means you’re somewhat poor. Still, the main reason I chose to own a throwback car is because if you pick a good one you’re rewarded with a colourful slice of a bygone period of motoring that, sadly, we’ll never see again.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily a fan of retro, in fact I’m a much bigger believer in progress. My inner geek thinks everything can be improved with a USB port. My inner dad revels in 5-star NCAP safety ratings. And I’m one of the few that believes the newer cars, for the most part, look better than the ones they replaced. And while I initially lamented the mandatory inclusion of factory stereos, I don’t miss having to carry my Pioneer head unit (or later just its face) around with me from pub to pub on a Saturday night.

But there are some items we must consider bringing back, if for no other reason than the fact they were intrinsically cool. Some were even practical.

My first nomination would have to be pop-up headlamps. When they axed these bad boys, they made cars safer, used fewer motors, and reduced the amount of electronics that could fail by at least a factor of two. But have you EVER tackled a mountain pass using your head lamp housings, erect like meerkats, to frame each apex as you scythe on through, peering through the gap in the middle at the curvy asphalt ahead like a low-flying bomber pilot lining up for a payload delivery? It’s magic.

There’s another use, let’s call it the headlamp handshake, reserved for when spotting a mate (or potential) headed in the opposite direction. A quick yank at the light stalk is all it takes to flip up both lamps, delivering a charismatic wink. Women absolutely loved this move. So I’m told. Nor can one ignore the sleek aesthetic when they’re not in use, which is about the only parity you’ll find between a Ferrari 355 and a Honda Prelude. Wait, that would include the Honda NSX too, which started life with a pair of lamp poppers before they got deleted during a 1997 facelift. Neutered, really.

And what happened to the long-departed fingertip shift? Once upon a time, a very long while ago, before people gave me cars to drive and write nonsense about, I was privy to a driving gig of a very different sort. It entailed delivery vans of a fair vintage (circa early 1990s specifically) and they all had the gear shifter mounted on the steering column. I put it to you that there are few more masculine activities one could perform in a vehicle than shifting cogs with an upturned fist, like a knife wielding assassin performing his final act of slotting the blade home. Too much? How about a cage fighter locking his opponent’s limbs into submission before puncturing his rib? No, this is it. It’s like a sniper loading shells into his rifle with an audible clank, click, twang. Then firing. Reloading. Then repeating. Till, well… top gear.

Sadly, not only is the wholesale return of the fingertip gear lever highly unlikely, but manual levers of any sort are probably the next thing to go, lost in the annals of motoring for good, just like that other endangered species, the good ol’ handbrake lever. The reason of course is the industry’s insistence on putting autos into everything under the sun. Not to worry, they’ll appease us with racy paddles for shifting gears which are, incidentally, mounted on the steering column so that you can operate them with your… fingertips. Now there’s an idea.

Actually I’ve thought of an even more masculine act you could perform in a car, which brings us neatly to the third thing, and my personal favourite; the front bench. For reasons I don’t care to elaborate on, I recently found myself piloting an old (well over two decades) Toyota Venture panel van. And that’s where I found it, like a long-lost friend that had been an almost obligatory feature on motor vehicles almost since inception, but since relegated to the history books.

I can see no immediate benefit of its deletion in favour of today’s separate pews, but if you have even the most dismal of imaginations I’m sure you can envisage the perks of having nothing between yourself and your passenger other than more, accommodating space. Pull up at the beach and presto, assume your favourite couch lounging positions. Park at the drive-in (I hope this isn’t lost on you) and instead of cinema seating you’re blessed with the kind of positioning you and your driving partner are accustomed to on your sofa.

A position no less achievable in peak-hour traffic mind you, although we wouldn’t encourage it (headlamp wink). Raunchiness aside, you also gain an extra seat, which is useful if you’re off fishing with two mates in your half-tonner bakkie. It means nobody will have to sit precariously in the load bay, and nobody needs to smell like fish guts. Seriously, if we can just get this one back, that would be great.

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