When it comes to old cars, what is character?

I’m currently back in Gran Canaria (off the coast of Morocco) and recently finished two books by the British adventure traveller and journalist, Chris Scott: Desert Travels and The Street Riding Years: Despatching through 1980s London. Each is an excellent read for bike fans and non-bikers alike, and Chris inevitably and entertainingly wanders off-piste into other areas.

I had just finished reading Street Riding Years, which devotes a good percentage of its pages to discussing the character flaws of the author’s various bikes through the years, when a question arose on a UK forum for BMW GS motorcycle anoraks. The original poster asked this and sparked an interesting thread:

I was chatting at the lights to a chap on a fancy new BMW. He was commenting that he liked his new bike, and it was eye-wateringly fast, but that he missed the character of his old R1150GS. I nodded, sagely, sitting aside my old R1150GS. But when he shot off, I thought – I don’t actually know what that means. Any thoughts on what makes character in a bike, and in a 1150 specifically?

I replied with a quote from Street Riding Years and something I had also read, written by Clarkson:

“In actor Eric Bana’s 2009 film, ‘Love the Beast’, Jeremy Clarkson assures Bana his recently smashed up 2009 Ford GT Falcon Coupe isn’t worth rebuilding because ‘muscle cars are crap’. Then, in one of his occasional spells of profoundness, Clarkson offers to explain ‘character’. ‘The cars we love the best are the ones with human traits, warts and all. Anything else is just a machine’. Jezzer nailed it. Did my repugnant MZs have character? Do bears floss after meals? Proper Brit bikes of the era had the love-hate qualities of character. Many [Italian and US bikes] too. But Jap Crap and Kraut Crates, not so sure.” 

Chris is not a BMW fan. I understand the rationale, but do not share his opinion. To me, character involves the consistent delight of rider/driver, mile after mile. On that basis, the low-fi, hand-assembled 850/1100/1150 twins enjoy bags of character. I get the same joy in use from both my twinspark BMW 1150s (a GS Adventure and an RT) and my pre-VTEC VFR800 as I do from older Porsches and lots of my other cars. They are wonderfully built pieces of travelling equipment and their original designers should be proud.

Great Motorcycle Rides: A5 Bangor-Llangollen-Oswestry

I was at home in Ireland on two wheels last month (see above), clocking up 1500 miles in a week. On my way back to the UK, I parked my 2003 1150RT next to a German biker while waiting for the ferry in Dublin. He was reminiscing about his 100,000 kms on an 1150RT before changing it for the new 1200RT he was riding. We stayed together out of Holyhead for a while, before I came off the main drag for the wonderfully twisty A5 at Bangor. I rode this excellent road down to Llangollen in mid Wales and on to Oswestry, just inside the border with England.

Starting the route at 7pm, I basically had the 90-mile road all to myself. It was as close to heaven as I’ve ever been on a bike. When I eventually got to the end of the best bit, the A5 was closed and I was sent on an additional 20-mile diversion in a southbound loop to the M54. I was a bit weary after a late night with my dad the previous evening, but I stayed happy and arrived home content after almost four hours of riding. When you end up being pushed a lot further than planned and can still keep a smile on your face, that probably says something about a machine and its character.

Vintage Porsche Character

Driving my orange 3-litre 911 is a similar experience. It is hot and noisy inside, but I have never been tempted to change much of that – I just take off a few layers once in a while and wear earphones whenever I drive it. God only knows how many delays and diversions I have experienced in that car over ten years of ownership, but there is something about the machine that just clicks. I turn the key, make one gearchange and am instantly reminded just how much I love it.

With many older cars (and bikes), there may even be a sense that the machine has been imbued with some of the spirit of its builders. There is an awareness of the expert human contribution to the creation of a nicely-built older machine, which then deserves a considerate/likely capable user to get the best from it. At the peak, there exists a techno-spiritual connection to the emotional aspects of what is really just a pile of cast metal, moulded rubber and a few bags of bolts. All emotional conjecture projected by the rider/driver, but I am sure some of you will go with the flow on this.

An engineer could probably make a good list of components that help create the impression of mechanical ‘character’ but, to me, the twist of a key, the momentary clack of an oil-filled cam chain tensioner taking up the slack, the snick of a WEVO or BMW shifter and the rising burble of a flat twin or six go some way towards telling me I have a good thing coming.

What does character mean to you? I would be interested to hear your thoughts below.

5 Comments

  • Paul Jackson says:

    I look at some of the photos in Karl Ludvigsen’s ” Porsche Excellence Was Expected. ” where one can see the men building a 911 by hand and can only concur with your thought process.The spirit, soul, whatever you want to attach to it, can only end up in one place and that is the complete car as it was driven out of the factory. I have yet to drive a Porsche 911, but I only need stand next to one that has just been driven hard to know the car has a soul.

  • Phillip Meyer says:

    I have owned a number of “modern” Porsches over the last 10 years, Boxsters, Caymans and my last was the 991 Carrera S. they really are great cars, but the one I long for the most is a classic 911. I am about to endulge myself and am in the process of buying a 1985 Carrera 3.2. The reason…. I want something that has character. Cars today have become so clinical. Many of the things put in cars today are to save us from ourselves. ABS, EBD, PCM etc etc…. we don’t drive our cars anymore, our cars drive us.

    • John Glynn says:

      Sure you will love it. I am working with the new owner of an old 3.2 to trace the history on his car. He traded a Macan for it at an official Porsche Centre and is totally besotted with the air-cooled 911. They are just brilliant for character.

  • jack c says:

    I’m in total agreement that 3.0 911SC (mine is an ’82) has a particularly fine “character.” No AC and some other bits removed to add lightness make it more individual. But I suspect the character comes from so much more: the sum total of the design, construction, upkeep, the color and smell and even the wear on the steering wheel. I might be in the market someday for a Cayman GT4, but would I trade off the SC? Not a chance.

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