It all looks familiar. The steering wheel, pedals, and gearshift are the same. There are wheels at each corner, all of them round. Seatbelts that fasten like, well, seatbelts. A vintage race car is, for all intents and purposes, just a car.
But if you're used to modern metal, you're in for a shock. I've been racing for years, but the oldest thing I've driven on track is a 1987 BMW 325iS. That BMW is my age. Cars of that vintage and newer share more than you might expect. High-tech suspension. Modern tires. Gearboxes with defined gates. Things we take for granted. Being fast in a car like that makes you think that the rest of racing history was a bit of a dawdle. That vintage racers bragging about catching big slides and griping about tires sound like fishermen claiming to have had the most difficult day reeling in the biggest catch this hemisphere had ever seen.
When I said something along the lines of "driving a vintage car looks easy" to editor-at-large Sam Smith, he made some grandiose hand gestures, said something about bias ply tires, and mimicked going around a corner with body english that would make a pro bowler jealous. Then he suggested I join him at Buttonwillow Raceway for a test day along with Southern California's Vintage Auto Racing Association, or VARA, for short, before its annual VARA University, a driving school for novices and experienced racers alike.
In order to get that vintage experience, we lined up four cars: a 1962 Austin Healey Sprite, a 1971 Lotus Europa, a 1989 BMW E30 M3, and a brand-new Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. Each car is the essence of its decade, a representation of the development of trackable street cars for nearly 60 years. It's an evolution marked with leaps forward and steps backward in terms of technology and driver involvement.
Buttonwillow, like many tracks in California, is in the middle of nowhere. The area is featureless, no natural markers for turn-in or braking, and the silt that surrounds the track turns into sci-fi grade quicksand when wet. It's a fast place, most turns are quicker than you'd expect and there's a lot of waiting for a late apex. The good news is that there isn't really anything to hit, which makes it the perfect place to learn a new car, or, in this case, an old one.
Lesson One: Brake Early, Brake Often
Without a doubt, braking has undergone the biggest transformation, starting as a hideous caterpillar and emerging from its chrysalis decades years later a beautiful butterfly of speed reduction.
The Sprite falls somewhere on the pre-chrysalis end of the spectrum. My first time out was met with a long pedal that seems to be connected to nothing, a lot of swearing, and me terrified that I was about to spend a day making an ass of myself behind the wheel.
As I understand it, brakes are applied in order reduce forward motion. That wasn't happening. I thought they were just cold, so I started pumping them and working to bring them up to temp. It didn't help. "Old cars really don't have brakes," I shouted to myself through my helmet, as I hurtled towards a corner with the Sprite barely slowing.
When I pulled into the pits, friend and car owner Efrain Olivares discovered that the adjuster screws in the rear drums had backed out, which meant I literally didn't have any brakes.
Efrain fixed the issue and sent me back out. Compared to what I had just experienced, it was a world of difference. The pedal was firm and the car actually slowed down when I pushed it. But compared to modern cars, it still didn't really have "brakes." It makes you realize that you need to combine your braking with other inputs to get the best out of it. Scrub speed using the steering wheel and gearbox, slide the car around, don't rely on the pedal alone to slow you down. There's a reason you see people sawing at the wheel on old race cars. They have no choice.
You also realize that the brakes need to be treated with more care and attention than you may think. You can't trust and rely on them. You need an escape plan when something goes awry. They are less of a safety net, with planned use being key to getting the best out of them.
Lesson Two: Don't Be Tall. Or Fat.
Something that the Sprite and Europa shared in the braking department had little to do with the brakes and more to do with my feet.
This is something I never thought I'd have to say, but my feet are too fat. In the heavy braking zone for Buttonwillow's tight turn three, my foot would stay on the gas in both cars when I finished heel toeing. That means instead of braking, I was now accelerating in a lower gear with the brakes fully on, smoke pouring off the tires. These were terrifying moments where I thought I was about to wreck vintage cars that didn't belong to me and I really couldn't afford.
I'm also about six-feet tall. The Europa's seat is mounted to the floor and canted a few degrees, like a Le Mans prototype. I nearly needed to take a year of yoga to get in. My knees were in my ears. My legs were stuck on one side of the wheel. Once I got situated, I thought I'd never be getting out, that's where I lived now. That's where I'd raise children. The Sprite's open top made it easier to get in, but in photos my height makes it look like I'm sitting on the car, not in it.
Not the same in the M3. The pedal box was wide, the brakes were discs all around with no vagaries, and the interior was sized for a human. Even if it's nearly 30 years old, it doesn't feel any less modern than the Giulia.
Lesson Three: Let the Car Do the Work
While debriefing from my first run in the Sprite, I got an interesting piece of advice about how to approach one of the quickest corners on the track with the ancient suspension and tires. "If you point it into that corner and don't change your steering angle, it'll drift out to the edge and then follow the track right back to the apex."
It rang true the next time I got in. The banked sweeper at Buttonwillow, affectionately dubbed "Daytona" or "Talladega," depending on who you talk to, is a multi-apex affair. In some cars, it's flat out, in others, a lift or a dab of the brakes before the corner. It's also a corner that appears to need steering adjustment to hit all your marks. It might seem counterintuitive to place your trust in a 55 year old car and ancient tires, but that's how you get the best out of it.
You let it float, keep inputs to a minimum, have faith that the car will get it done. The bias ply tires follow the track, sending you out to the edge and back to the apex without a change of steering angle. It's an accomplishment when you get it right, like you've unlocked a secret skill.
The same applies for engines. The Sprite is a little firecracker. Even if it only has 115 wheel horsepower from its 1275cc Speedwell Engineering-built inline-four, it has just 1300 pounds to push... not including all 200ish pounds of your narrator. It always needs revs, power comes up high. It sounds unreal when it gets going, like a swarm of angry bees playing kazoos, all accentuated by wind trying to rip my helmet off.
After my first session, I ask Efrain what gears he runs where on the track, and find out that corners I'm taking in third should be done in second, one I'm taking in second should be done in first. That keeps the engine in the upper register where it's hilarious fun.
The Europa has essentially no power, just 80 My Pretty Ponies from a 1565cc Renault engine, and doesn't really rev, so you need to be in that sweet spot or it's more tractor than race car. Down low the engine isn't happy, above 6000 rpm it explodes. You have about 2000 usable revs to get the job done. But, at 1500 pounds, its only slightly chunkier than the Sprite.
What the Europa and Sprite have in common is that you need to exploit the full powerband for them to make sense on a track. Short shift and competitors will stream by you. Over-rev and you'll be in the pits with a blown engine. There is little room for error.
The Sprite's engine was the happiest surprise of the day. Nearly every time I got near redline I started laughing. How can a car this old, this archaic in so many ways, be revving this high and making this insane noise? A true delight. The Europa's engine was the opposite. In a straight line the car was boring, almost sad. Droopy Dog reincarnated as an engine. You can see why so many prefer the later twin-cam to this old Renault engine.
Neither the M3 or Alfa had as stringent requirements to get the best out of them. The M3's powerband is wider and more forgiving if you're in the wrong gear, thanks to the bulletproof 2.5 liter version of the S14 under the hood, 275ish horsepower, and ratios that make sense.
The Giulia? You're joking, right? It has 505 horsepower and an eight-speed auto. It has power always. No finesse is needed here.
Lesson Four: Minor Adjustment, Major Difference
The Europa required a delicate touch to get the best out of it, like a fly walking across a pudding skin. It's a car where smoothness rules, where a sudden movement can become a huge mistake.
This immaculate car is owned by , the founder of . He towed it to the track with a gorgeous Land Rover and also owns . The man has what might be the three least reliable cars in existence, but he knows how to respect finicky equipment because all three run flawlessly.
His tip before I head out? "Don't hop off the throttle mid-corner or it'll swap ends." I took that to heart. On one of my first laps I entered corners with so much trepidation and so little input into the wheel that mid-corner I started to think I might go straight off the track. It was no way to live. At least no way that I wanted to live. I decided to ignore Spencer's advice and throw the Europa around a bit.
I shouldn't have ignored Spencer. Not only was the Europa super loose, but a lift removed all weight off the rear. Try it and it'll result in a semi-terrifying moment where the old car you don't own and barely fit in goes sideways without warning. That experiment made me more and more delicate with my steering and braking inputs. I always say that I like a loose car, but this was less quick loose and more spooky loose.
If you need to get more weight on the front, don't fully lift or brake, but be delicate and measured with decreasing throttle or increasing steering. Be patient and deliberate. Remember that all your inputs are connected. Work up to the limit, don't work down from it.
After I came in, Spencer took the car out for a session. When I caught up with him after, he wanted to know how I kept the car in a straight line. Apparently it was even looser than usual, so loose that he had to come in after just two laps to make sure there wasn't something wrong with the car. The problem? Tire pressures were way too high, which made the Europa less predictable, snappier, and all around scarier. It was still nervous after bleeding them down, but it was familiar instead of spooky. That also made me feel pretty good about myself, because if the car owner thought that the car was nervous, then I must have been driving it on one of its worst days, not its best.
Lesson Five: You'll Be Amazingly Entertained
We're quite fond of the performance of the Giulia on track, the combo of a monster engine and quick steering make it one of our favorite sport sedans. But when you step out of that and in to any of these vintage cars, you realize it's a shadow of what once was in terms of connection and involvement. Particularly Mark Francis's M3. Mark's car had a 2.5 liter S14 that revved and howled like the worst best wolf and was decked out in that most classic of BMW paint schemes.
It was the perfect blend of old and new. The Healey and Europa required a contortionist act to enter and you needed to pay attention to quirks with the gearbox, steering, or powertrain to get the most out of them. The M3 was plug-and-play. Belt in and everything was immediately familiar. Like a Giulia, but a Giulia from 30 years ago.
But it drove so much better. The steering was direct, connected, and talkative. The engine was naturally aspirated; no lag of any sort here. There was a real manual gearbox with actual feel, no vagaries like the Sprite or Europa, no paddle shift auto like the Alfa. It was the only "old" car of the day that I jumped in and instantly felt comfortable. That I didn't need three laps of adjusting to nuances in the car. I was immediately on it and felt like I could start pushing with no consequences. When you drive a good M3, which this was, you realize why these cars now command such a premium and that every cliched comment about them on Bring-a-Trailer is true.
It was everything you'd want from a sports sedan crammed into one boxy old BMW. This M3 was the original text of the The Illiad. The Giulia was also the The Illiad, just the Sparknotes version.
The one thing that all of the vintage cars had in common was character. True character, not engineered pops and crackles from the exhaust or traction control that lets you pretend to drift. Modern cars can make even the most hamfisted driver look semi-decent. Vintage cars don't work like that, there's nothing that makes you a superhero.
But they reward you far more than a modern car could. When you do something right, you feel like you impressed your grandfather, not like you just beat a level of Sonic 3. When I originally agreed to this, I thought it'd be simple. That I'd hop in and be comfortable and could tell tall tales of sliding heroics. Not the case. Because these cars accentuate every flaw and don't flatter you–if anything, they make you look worse–it makes you reconsider how you've been driving and how computers in modern cars are working to filter out your clumsy steering or throttle applications. These cars made me realize I'm not as smooth with my inputs as I once was and that I have been relying on the car too much in certain aspects of my driving.
They reminded me of go karts in how adjustable and communicative they were. And in how they aren't going to be happy if you drive like trash. Race car drivers still use karts to train between event because it's a simple, pure form of motorsport. These vintage cars feel the same, just more expensive and more finicky to maintain.
What you learn here is a one way transitive property, that these cars can make you quicker, more capable, and just flat out better in a modern car. But thinking that a modern car will prepare you for a classic will get you in a heap of trouble and show you that you have a lot to learn about driving.
Special thanks to Efrain Olivares, Spencer Canon, Mark Francis, and VARA!