The CAR Top 10: reasons why you’ve never had it so easy

Published: 05 June 2015

1865 Locomotive Act meant drivers had to follow a man on foot carrying a red flag

Be thankful: your ancestors fought the war (and these prehistoric 
car quirks) so you didn’t have to.

1) The manual choke

Choke lever

Thanks to modern fuel injection, new cars start with a simple twist of the key whatever the weather. As recently as the early 1990s though, many cars required you to manually richen the mixture and tease the blend until the engine was warm. And for those that didn’t understand the subtleties, the choke knob made a great handbag hook.

2) Steering wheel 
ignition control

Steering wheel ignition control

Sports buttons are all the rage these days, sharpening throttle response to make a car feel more eager. But until vacuum and centrifugal ignition advance became common, drivers had to manually tweak their engine’s ignition timing via a lever on the steering wheel to unleash maximum power. Even Ferrari’s button-ghetto 488 wheel doesn’t have that feature. One for the facelift, maybe?

3) Non-synchro 

Non-synchro transmission

Listen to you and your showy rev-matching throttle blip on that third-to-second shift. But have you ever had to do it for real, without that synchro safety net? A proper double-de-clutch shift on every single downchange? Porsche pioneered modern cone-synchromesh just after the war, but as late as the 1970s Fiat’s 500 still had a non-synchro crash box.

4) Vacuum windscreen wipers

Vacuum wipers

Vacuum-operated wipers must have seemed like a great improvement on the earlier hand-crank versions. The drawback? They worked brilliantly when the engine load was light, and vacuum high, but nail the right pedal to haul yourself up a steep hill in driving rain and the lack of vacuum in the inlet manifold meant they would slow to a crawl, leading to a possible wipe-out with oncoming traffic.

5) The annual decoke

Decoking engine

Advances in fuel, oil and engine technology mean cars can go 20,000 miles between oil changes and last a lifetime without ever needing to be torn apart. Your grandad, meanwhile, had to rip the head off his car every year or two to blitz the carbon buildup, and maybe throw a new set of rings in there for good measure. Wouldn’t catch him calling the AA out to deal with a flat tyre.

6) Non-standardised controls

Standard car pedal layout

Is that the brake on the left, or is it in the middle? Jump from one modern car to another and it might take you a second to locate the headlamp switch. But imagine having to check what order the pedals are mounted, or which way round the gearshift is laid out. Crazy, but as serious a consideration for pre-war drivers as finding a car with sufficient hat room.

7) The starting handle

Car starter handle

If the proliferation of starter buttons on new cars is anything to go by even twisting a key is too arduous for modern drivers. But our ancestors had to make like a clock winder before every journey – remembering to keep their thumb out of the way in case the thing backfired and snapped it off.

8) Cross-ply tyres

Crossply tyres

All that sawing at the wheel in old films wasn’t just bad acting: cross-ply tyres provided a cushy ride but gave Dion a hard time in the wandering stakes and made a din like a third Heathrow runway at the bottom of your garden.

9) Grease nipples

Grease can

Have you greased her nipples lately? Lubrication was a serious matter in the days when bras were pointier than a Caddy’s fins, and lack of loving care for mechanical mammaries could make you look like a boob come MOT time. Ooh, me trunnions!

10) The man with the flag

1865 Locomotive Act meant drivers had to follow a man on foot carrying a red flag

Complying with Britain’s 1865 Locomotive Act meant early drivers were limited to 4mph and were required to follow a man on foot carrying a red warning flag. Fortunately it was amended in 1896 to ditch that nonsense, because even Usain Bolt peaks at only 28mph (950rpm in top in a Lamborghini Gallardo).  

By Chris Chilton

Contributing editor, ace driver, wit supplier, mischief maker