Cowland on Cars

An idiot’s guide to starting old cars

by Paul Cowland
3 November 2021 3 min read
An idiot’s guide to starting old cars
Photo: Kevin John Berry/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Are the foibles, faults and fixes that make up life with a classic ever enough to put us off? Like all good relationships, reckons Paul Cowland, it just makes us love them even more.

I would just like to start this column by stating modestly, that I, Paul Cowland, am a mechanical and electrical genius. I’d like to augment that by following up with the fact that, only this very morning, I was able to start a car that 99% of the world’s drivers could not.

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So why am I not on the phone to my agent? Demanding that we pitch the new series of Paul Cowland; Car Whisperer to executives at the television networks? Well, aside from the fact I don’t have an agent, I know full well that most of you good people out there can do it too…

Like any romance, living with a classic car is very much a case of discovering each other’s little ticks and tricks – and then learning to live with them. In the case of our classics, that bond evolves over time to create a level of understanding that even Relate could learn a lot from.

Let me give you an example; I know that to start my Pre-HE Jaguar XJ-S, I need to let the pumps prime, touch the ignition key to engage the starter, and then the second that the engine begins to turn, take my fingers off the key completely. It’s a window of about 4/10ths of a second. Release too quickly, and you’ll get nothing. Stay churning away too long, and the lazy 12 cylinder will slowly rotate until it’s eaten the battery. And how do I know this? Because over the many months I’ve had it, I’ve tried EVERY conceivable way to get it to fire, resulting in the discovery of this ‘Eureka’ moment one flukey Tuesday afternoon.

It’s common knowledge to anyone that’s ever played Mario Kart (in my case, on the old Super Nintendo). On that game, throttle application between the red and amber start lights at just the right moment fired your character off the grid like a bullet. Too early and you bogged down with wheelspin. Too late, and you miserably trundled away like the embarrassed novice that you were. Once you’d discovered how to hit ‘that’ moment though –  you’d be well on your way to a race win, and learning how to do it was all part of the fun.

Super Mario Kart
Paul Cowland’s typical commute. Image: Nintendo

I think it’s our love for our cherished and classic cars that causes us to make these allowances for them. Most of us have something sensible and – heaven forbid – reliable in our stables to which we simply don’t have to apply these rationales. And let’s be honest, in most cases, they’re bloody boring. Like our loved ones, our best mates and our family, it’s coming to terms with the faults and quirks that makes them all the more endearing in the first place.

My Nissan Cedric is another great case study. Not being made in the West Midlands means that this rare JDM cruiser usually starts on the button, but an older automatic ‘box that clearly needs a strip and a service means from cold each gearchange thumps in like a right hook from a prizefighter. The remedy? Simply shift the gears ‘manually’ until the gearbox has got some heat into it – and then, this one-time BMW rival will shift like the Eastern executive barge it was once rightly sold as.

The glow plugs on the old Espace? Just wait precisely 2 seconds after the light goes out for a perfect airport collection symphony. The choke position on the two-stroke 96? I know exactly where it needs to be for each time of year – and for how hot the engine is when I start it. And as for the intricacies of starting the aged and unreliable Vecta immobiliser on my beloved Mk2 Golf? Believe me when I tell you that there are Diophantine equations out there that would be easier to explain. Yet somehow, I always manage to get her going.

Now, the sane and sensible amongst you out there might well be thinking that these cars would be much easier to own if I just paid a few appropriate specialists to sort these issues out. But where’s the fun in that? The beauty of being a collector is the long-term nature of the relationship that you build up with each car, learning over time how to get the very best out of the driving and ownership experience.

So next time your car’s playing up, spend a little time together to see whether it’s a quirk you can learn. There really is nothing more satisfying. That said, has anyone out there got a boost pack I could borrow for the Jag? I clearly haven’t been playing enough Mario Kart recently…

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