Hints and Tips on Driving Classic Cars

Federation of British  Historic Vehicle Clubs (FBHVC)
Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs (FBHVC)
As each of our own cars have their own individual foibles, we take all customers out for a short drive around the block to give you time to familiarise yourself with all the controls and can get used to driving the car, before we let you 'go solo'.


During this drive we run through some general issues about driving classic cars as well as the details of how to get the best out of each car. Over the years modern cars have improved a little bit year by year and it is easy to take modern motoring technology for granted.  


So literally going back 40 or more years in terms of technology, in one go, is a giant leap for most drivers.


The main things to be aware of are as follows:   


FIVA Guide For Users of Historic Vehicles 

  1. Starting An Engine With a Choke:  Modern cars all have electronic ignition and fuel injection. The engine management system is controlled by sensors which detect the air temperature and supply the engine with the correct amount of fuel whatever the weather, air temperature, engine temperature etc. Starting a modern car from cold is merely a matter of turning the key, or pressing the start button, without even having to press the accelerator. Our classic cars are not so easy to start from cold and have a 'choke' which anyone under about 30 may not have experienced. Basically when starting a car from cold, petrol doesn't evaporate as well as when the engine is warm, so the 'choke' restricts the air flow through the carburettors while at the same time, increasing the amount of petrol. This makes the car start when cold, and then as the car warms up, the choke is pushed in until it is warm enough for normal settings. If the choke is pushed in too early the car can hesitate when trying to pull away - which can cause a problem if pulling out of a side turning into flowing traffic.
  2. Starting a Flooded Engine: Sometimes when a classic car engine is warm, if it doesn't start first time, it can receive too much fuel. The spark plugs then become too wet with petrol and they won't fire with the effect that the engine turns over but doesn't fire. This is called 'flooding' and there is a simple way to clear it. Press the accelerator flat to the floor so that the carburettors are fully open. Although this will suck in more petrol, it will also blast a large volume of air through the engine, drying the plugs and the engine will then normally start after a couple of turns.
  3. Brake Technology: The brakes on our cars are over 40 years old and may have been designed up to 10 years before that.  Braking technology has changed more over that period than almost anything else on the cars. Modern cars are normally fitted with disk brakes on all four wheels, servo assisted making them very light, have ABS to protect against skidding and often have traction control. Most of our classics have disks on the front and drums on the back and some of them don't have servos. NONE of them have ABS, traction control or any other form of electronic assistance. You need more pressure on the brake pedal than in a modern car, and need to leave more room between you and the car in front to allow for a greater braking distance. One of our customers described this as 'predictive braking'.
  4. Two Handed Steering: Almost all modern cars, even small ones, have power assisted steering. On some higher spec cars the level of assistance varies with speed so that it isn't too light at high speeds. Most of our classic cars (with the sole exception of our Jaguar Mk2) do not have power steering. This means that at normal road speeds the steering has a good 'feel' and gives the driver positive feedback, but at low speeds and when parking, the steering will be heavy in comparison with a modern car. This means that our drivers really do need to use both hands to steer the car and it should be done properly as we were all taught, pushing the steering wheel from hand to hand. The lack of power steering also makes it virtually impossible to turn the wheels while the car is stationary. So for parking or three point turns, the trick is to ease up the clutch until the car is just moving and then to start turning the steering wheel.
  5. Gearboxes - Synchromesh or non-Synchro: Most modern manual cars have 5 or 6 speed gearboxes, with some modern automatics having up to 8 gears. Some of our manual cars don't have synchromesh on 1st gear, which if the driver cannot double de-clutch means it is almost impossible to engage 1st gear when moving. Therefore 1st is normally just used for pulling away from stationery. When slowing down on the approach to a junction you need to work your way down through the gears and then arrive at the junction in 2nd. If the way ahead is clear and the car is still moving at all, you can normally pull away in 2nd gear. It you have to stop the car, stop it in 2nd, then change to 1st to pull away.
  6. Using Overdrive: Most of our manual cars have four speed gearboxes, some of which have overdrive which works either on 3rd and 4th gears (Austin Healey 3000, MGB Roadster, and TR6). This means that the gear ratios aren't as flexible as on modern cars and to get the best out of them, may involve more gear changing than you are used to. Anyone not used to overdrive normally finds it extremely easy to use and better and easier than normal gear changes. Overdrive is operated by a switch either on the dashboard, the gearlever, or the steering column. So when driving along in 4th gear and you would normally go into 5th in a modern car, you just flick the overdrive switch. No need to press the clutch, just flick the switch and feather the throttle. To disengage overdrive is just as simple, flick the switch the other way and normally blip the throttle to raise the engine revs a little.
  7. Steering and Changing Gear: The combination of lack of power steering and slow, sometimes heavy, gear changes, in some cases without synchromesh, means it is almost impossible to change gear and steer at the same time. You need to plan your gear changes, by slowing down and changing down a gear or two, in a straight line, before you reach a junction or roundabout, then use BOTH hands to turn the steering wheel. If you try to steer with one hand and change gear at the same time with the other hand, you will probably not get round the bend or corner safely without running very wide.
  8. Front Wheel Drive v Rear Wheel Drive: Most modern cars are front wheel drive whereas all our classics are rear wheel drive. There are major differences in handling between front and rear wheel drive cars. Front wheel drive 'pulls' the car along which means when going round bends or roundabouts the car tends to be pulled close into the bend. On front wheel drive cars the weight of the engine is directly over the driven wheels providing better traction on wet, snow, or icy road surfaces. Rear wheel drive 'pushes' the car along and tends to push the car a little wide on bends and roundabouts. The weight of the engine is over the front wheels and not the rear, driven wheels, so in the wet, snow, or ice it is easier to spin the rear wheels as there is less grip. Therefore when driving the more powerful of our fleet of classic cars in the wet, it is not a good idea to accelerate hard coming out of a junction, on a sharp bend or at a roundabout, in case the rear wheels lose traction.
  9. Tyres and Wheel Sizes: Modern cars tend to have wide wheels with relatively low profile tyres. All our classics were made when narrower wheels with taller, narrow tyres were the norm. Some of our cars were built before 'radial' tyres became standard equipment and left the factories with 'crossply or bias belt' tyres. Radial tyres are longer lasting than crossply, provide a better ride and, most importantly, much better road holding. Therefore we would not countenance using crossply tyres for the sake of originality and all of our cars are shod with modern radial tyres. The narrower profile of our tyres means that our cars put less rubber on the road than modern cars and as per the point (8) above, it is easier to spin the rear wheels when accelerating hard than on your modern car.
  10. Fuel Economy - or not: when our cars were built in the 1960s and 1970s the idea of fuel economy was not as uppermost in people's minds as it is today. When our Mustangs were built in 1965 gasoline in the US was only 23 cents per gallon, so it didn't matter that they only do between 12 to 15 mpg. Our British classics are a bit better but still poor in comparison to moderns cars that now do 40+ mpg. Our 1800cc MGB only returns about 25 to 26 mpg and larger engined Triumphs and Jaguars give 18 to 22, maybe 25 if you drive them really gently.
  11. Fuel Gauges: on modern cars the fuel gauges are all linked into the engine management systems and not only show how much fuel is in the tank but can tell you how many hundreds of miles you can go before having to re-fuel. No such luxury on our classic cars. The fuel gauges are basic and controlled by a float in the fuel tank. These are really for guidance more than accurate information and some even fluctuate a bit as the float bounces when the fuel moves. The basic rule of thumb is that it is not a good idea to allow the tank to go below 1/4 full, for two reasons.  

    1) The gauge readings are rarely linear and so 1/4 may actually be less than 1/4 - and assuming this is 2 to 3 gallons at an average of only 20 mpg will only take you 50 or 60 miles.  

    2) If you go below 1/4 you are likely to start pumping crud out of the tank with the fuel, and this may block the carburettor jets.

  12. Lighting external: many modern cars have the latest HID headlamps which are incredibly bright making night driving easy. Also all new cars have Daylight Running Lights (DRL) which are the bright white LED lights that show in the daytime. Our classics were built using the standard Lucas 7inch headlamps which were used on everything from Minis to 150 mph Jaguars. In the 1970s lighting was improved a little with the advent of 'Halogen' headlamps, and we put halogen bulbs into most of our cars to improve the lighting. But the lighting is still nowhere near as good as on modern cars. Oh yes - the dip switch on a number of cars (Jaguar Mk2, MGB, Mustangs) is on the floor, next to the clutch, operated by the left foot. At first this may seem a little odd but the whole point was to allow the driver to switch between dip and main beam without having to take hands off the steering wheel.
  13. Lighting internal: the internal lighting in our cars suffers from similar problems as the external lighting. On most modern cars the interior lights stays on for a minute or two after entering the car, so you can see the ignition and the light switch and controls. No such luck on our classics. If they have interior lights that work when the doors open, they go off as soon as the doors close. This means you have to fumble for the ignition and light switches. The lights inside most of the gauges are not very bright and blacken and go dim over time. Every couple of years we work through the cars and replace the gauge bulbs to improve the situation. Even when the lights are switched on, most of the switches are not illuminated. So driving along in the dark, even with the gauges illuminated can be a struggle to find the switches for important things like the wipers and heater.


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