Cowland on Cars

Horses for courses? Why slow old cars are just better

by Paul Cowland
7 December 2022 4 min read
Horses for courses? Why slow old cars are just better
Photo: Matt Howell

In a Gatso-ridden, traffic congested world, driving a car that ticks all the fun boxes within the legal speed limit is the way to go, reckons serial slowcoach collector, Cowland.

I would imagine that I’m in a safe space, with like-minded souls, when I profess my love for the card game, Top Trumps. As a callow youth in the late 70s, I would while away many a school bus journey or break time, using my then-encyclopaedic knowledge of the deck, challenging all comers to pit their skills against my nerdery. In those days, all you needed was something like the sensuous Ferrari 308 to appear in your hand and you knew you had the round. 252bhp? 8 Cylinders? Beat that! And more often than not, they couldn’t…

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These days however, you can find family hatchbacks with way more motive force than the fancy Fezza ever had to best my classmates with. In fact, 252 horses might even be considered feeble. A modern GTI has pretty much the same. More weight, naturally, but the kind of power that would leave my mate Steven floundering with his lesser cards in 1979, yet with room for the kids and dog, too.

Because of this endless arms race of power and weight, kids playing Top Trumps today need to reach for rather more stratospheric figures if they are also looking to win a packet of Salt and Vinegar Discos. (Oh yes, we always played for big stakes.) I’d imagine that today’s ‘go-to’ throwdown cards would be the 1914 horsepower Rimac Nevera for the young volthead – and the Bugatti Chiron SS with its rampant 1600 French chevaux for their petrol-preferring competitor. This is where we are now, folks, we’re able to buy road cars that pack way more power than pretty much any race car you’d like to shake a stick at.

Now, this is great news for all those schoolkids on buses today, should they decide to put down their phones for a second, but is it really that useful in the real world? The fastest car I have ever driven was a beautifully converted 1200bhp Litchfield GT-R. Thanks to the quality of the conversion, at low speeds, it drove just like the standard car, being happy in traffic and as docile as the Micra it shares a badge with.

However, should you choose to slightly curl the toenail of your right foot, the car entered some kind of space-time-wormhole which seemed to be entirely at odds with physics. 70mph disappeared in a sneeze. 100 in a blink. And 150 before I’d even caught my breath. Now, this was all fabulous fun on a near-empty Silverstone, but how on earth does one get near to using that on the road?

The honest answer is, you can’t. Modern traffic and speed camera coverage mean that there aren’t really any stretches of road where you could enjoy even 20 per cent of what that amazing car has to offer, and that’s before we enter into the moral questions of whether one should even drive at say, 75, on an empty motorway. So really, other than impressing your mates, looking great on a forum, or winning at cards, what’s the point?

Paul Cowland Subaru
Paul with his Subaru GLF hatchback, star of a recent country-lane blast. Photo: Matt Howell

Increasingly, I’m finding that there’s much more fun in driving a slow car quickly, rather than a fast car slowly. As someone that’s lucky enough to have a few cars to choose from, I’m more often erring on the side of something that’s small, relatively underpowered and not even necessarily that great in the handling department.

A country-lane blast this morning in my recently refreshed Subaru GLF hatchback was a joyful mix of rapid gear changes, sweeping connected curves and even the odd squeal of protest form the minuscule 13-inch Toyos – yet I never managed to stir the notchy four-speed manual to get the thing above 60mph.

Could I have done it more quickly in just about any other car? Almost undoubtedly. If you were being unkind, you could say that I might have got out and run to a better time, but that just wasn’t the point. It felt fast. The car kept me busy, the grip was the right side of minimal and the engine made it feel like we were setting a stage time on the ’83 Lombard RAC Rally. We were. You just needed an hourglass to measure it, that’s all.

There will only be more speed cameras, going forward. Less chance for us all to do anything other than drive obediently within the limit, wherever we are. But don’t look upon it as a curse. Think of it as an opportunity. You don’t need the Rimac’s 1900-odd horses. You don’t even need 190! The humble Ford Ka made do with just 60 when it was launched, and both I and my learned colleagues can attest, they’re more fun than you can possibly imagine when you drive them on the ragged edge.

Slow is the new fast. Gutless is the new power trip and 15-inch tyres cost much, much less than low-profiles. A world of low-speed holiday-hire-car-style thrills awaits you with whichever inexpensive saloon or hatch you choose to enjoy, and if you do decide to join the ‘Bottom Trumps’ set (working title), you’ll be in great company. F1 legend James Hunt once famously stated that amongst his notable race machinery and incredible road cars, the one he enjoyed driving most was his Austin A35 van. He said: “I can put everything I learnt in motor racing into driving it round the Wandsworth one-way system on a wet Saturday night, blow off all the Ferraris and nobody takes a blind bit of notice.”

You see, even when you are one of the world’s greatest drivers, with the most sublime cars at your disposal, sometimes the purest driving thrills come from being able to drive at the absolute limit in a car that has just enough grip and just enough power.

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  • Pipez says:

    Good luck getting cheap enough parts.

  • bob says:

    i find parts for my 88 polo mk2 cheap as chips & agree gives same buzz as my clio 197 on country roads. no power steering, brake assist but feels light too; agile even with less than 60bhp, not great on motorway tho

  • Liam says:

    What in hell is a “Fezzer”?? Is that one of those pointless nicknames the British love to give things for no reason, that are usually longer that actually saying the correct name in the first place! 🤷‍♀️

  • Petro L Head says:

    Tony Dron used to get around in a Citroen 2CV – and NOBODY could keep up!

  • Rob Broadhurst says:

    I love this article and have come to yhe same conclusion as I worked my way through some of my dream cars over the last 5 years.
    Porsche Cayman S, Aston Martin vantage , Alfa 147 GTA, they all satisfied an itch for short time and yet , i ended up restoring a 1999 alfa spider , which i enjoyed driving more with its roof down and relaxed drive! I then realised i needed to try a car that was my fathers first , a 1933 MG J2 , with only 36hp . This has proved to be the most satisfying of all! everyone wants to stop and talk and the social aspect of club meetings and the whole vintage sports car scene has proved infinitely more rewarding than chasing performance figures on paper!

  • Frank Atkinson says:

    Have a 1983 Vauxhall 1.2 Astra. No.frills

  • Fred Whittaker says:

    I have a Jaguar XF V6 S. It goes like stink if you put your foot down. I am sure it would easily outperform my MGF, but the F is much more fun to drive, as it feels like it is doing 60 at only 30mph. 😊

  • Rob says:

    For me it depends on the car, I’ve got a Rover 414 which I love to drive, and I find the little Celerio’s, Alto’s and Cappuccino that I drive through work fun (Even the Carry van), but the new 1.2 Ignis I find dull.

  • Geoff Booker says:

    I have a Volvo V9 which is super comfy, quite economical, goes well if you put your foot down. I also recently bought a Frog eye Sprite. I learned to drive and passed my driving test it one in the 60s. Its got no luxuries not even a heater, but driving it hood off even wrapped up in the cold it has a big grin factor. I love driving it, rattles and bangs included. Spares are all available ans not expensive.

  • mike etherington says:

    I’ve got a 74 MG Midget… 60 mph feels and sounds like 120…. Sitting with your bum 150cm off the road, Peco exhaust roaring, lovely handling above 10 mph, awful under it, and an A series engine with 2 carbs… simplicity itself…. Oh, and yes, it does need a drip pan🤣

  • Richard Claydon says:

    We’ve got a couple of Imps. Nothing beats blatting one of those through the Chiltern hills on a quiet Sunday morning.

  • Keith+Seddon says:

    Couldn’t agree more, they are an absolute blast!

  • Jan Cees van Rijckevorsel says:

    I have a Alpine A310, in the past a MG B GT and C GT. I also have now a Healey Sprite Mk1, a MG TC and a MG Pa. The last one is the nicest car to drive. Last summer we drove with it on the Zandvoort Historic Grand Prix. It was marvellous and gave a really very fast driving feeling with her tiny 19 X 4 tires

  • Thomas Eaves says:

    I have a 1954 MG TF and rarely get to 60 mph, good fun on country roads around Dartmoor, though.

  • Mark Bostock says:

    I completely agree with your argument. I tested an Audi R8 once while my Allroad was in for a service and it was awesome, but pull off a roundabout near Eastbourne and you’re weaving between the Micras and frightening old ladies whilst having your picture taken repeatedly by the auto-police (robocops?) before you’re out of second gear, and it seems dull, and a waste of potential.
    My 1964 MGB however was hilarious. Granted, it was a quite quick one and well set up with fast road tuning, but nevertheless it was twitching and sliding through country lane corners on its little XASs before the speed limit was reached, totally in control, and fun – it felt fast!
    I’d rather have more fun getting there slower, no, taking longer to get there, than arrive unruffled and extra 45 minutes before the speeding tickets land on your doorstep.

  • Stephen MeadowsFRICS says:

    My wife and I have had Ford KA’s for 22 years. The current 2005 one has done 118K and has cost nothing to keep.
    Streamlining fast cars on the A3 at 100mph is fun, non moreso when the bill holding the radar gun seeing you approach drops it down and concentrates on the Lambo behind instead. But I do drive slower in our XJR-S than the KA!

  • M+Durham says:

    I’ve got plenty of vehicles to chose from but none were ticking all the boxes. I thought what do I want something I grew up with that isn’t too fast. A manual gearbox that needs to be used and handling that is predictable even when it breaks away on the back with its rear wheel drive. I chose an MGB Gt. It even has its characteristic exhaust note. Sounds like it’s going at 100 when running 30mph in traffic especially like the exhaust note rasp when dropping down the box.

  • Jeremy Gilbert says:

    Totally agree….
    I can confirm that the ‘smiles per mile’ you get from a MK1 Sprite is higher than just about any other car I’ve ever driven

  • mr B.B.Payne says:

    Had my 1964 Singer 1600cc o/d Vogue since 1972, 118k miles now still 90% original paintwork, NO WELDING ( due to everything underneath done with Waxol) always someone wanting to talk about it when parked, nice sunny day cruising along, nothing better.

  • Julian+Smith says:

    Had a progression of increasingly powerful cars, culminating in an Audi Porsche RS2. But at the same time I had a Citroen Mehari (still do) with 29hp, which in many ways is more fun. Now joined by a Smart Roadster, 82hp, 6 speed sequential flappy paddle box, minimal weight, revs like a bike and handles like a kart. As much fun as anything I’ve driven, but usable in the real world. Love it

  • Roger+Blaxall says:

    I’ll be out in my Subaru Vivio this afternoon prior to a winter service tomorrow. And collecting my £50 FIAT Cinquecento today after an exhaust fix. Can’t wait for some proper snow in west Lancashire to put the Vivio through its paces…

  • Paul Healy says:

    Had a Citroen Dyane,even better than a 2cv
    Original hatch back ,rear seat could be lifted out in seconds to give great load space

  • Pete Bays says:

    I have a 8th Gen Civic as a daily driver, it’ll easily top the ton and driving is effortless. More fun is my DAF33 van, top speed 69mph (most likely with a prevailing wind), getting it to speed and keeping it there is more challenging and ultimately rewarding than the Civic.

  • eddo says:

    In the distant past – well! 1962, I was given a run in the new E-Type on the M1, & without speed limits in those days. We got up to speed & reached about 140 mph. – absolute bliss! The car was so stable & I remember hardly any traffic & no goods vehicles to navigate. I did notice some older cars which had broken down, perhaps their owners had over stressed their motors, being unused to the higher speeds available. Oh! happy days.

  • John+Eden says:

    Mike Etherington tells us that in his 1974 MG Midget you are ‘Sitting with your bum 150cm off the road’. Has Mike got a very tall Midget or else a very big bum? We need to know.

  • Hifiman2007 says:

    Can’t believe Alfasud not mentioned. I had a sud sprint. Still not driven a better handling car….razor sharp steering. Instant throttle response from boxer engine. Amazing sounding exhaust….bought my 1980 95bhp model in 1985 for £995. Sold 2 years later for about same.. breathtaking car.

  • Ian says:

    Reminds me of a day driving many cars at Millbrook around 2002. The Impreza WRX STI 265bhp should have been the absolute highlight of the day. It wasn’t, and that was when being able to deploy most of the horses off the public road on a test track including the hill route.

    I got out of it thinking I’d have had way more fun in a 1.1 Fiesta. It was just not engaging, fast yes, but definitely not engaging.

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