Modify by all means but please keep it sensible

| 28 Feb 2013

I recently spent time with another classic car owner and enthusiast whose ambition (or so it seemed) was to rip the heart out of a good proportion of the classics he came across and fit something ‘better’.

By that, I mean something that is better on fuel and perhaps a bit more powerful – nothing necessarily wrong with that, but what concerned me was the fact that in all of the cases mentioned, he was talking about modern diesel BMW lumps (or similar) that could then be ‘chipped’ to get the most out of them.

Now before you call me a ‘stick in the mud’ or accuse me of being all fuddy-duddy, I’m not against modifications. If there is something that will make your classic a little more reliable or usable then fine: electronic ignition is just one case in point that I have fitted to most of my classics.

But, would I ever consider putting a diesel engine and six-speed gearbox out of a rep-mobile into a Morris Minor? In a word, no.

Of course, this is just an example, and I don’t even know if you could make that particular combination fit, but I personally would struggle to entertain any mod that changes the original character of a classic beyond recognition and by default, creates a completely different driving experience.

Back when I had my Morris Traveller, fitting various Morris Marina components was the done thing in order to gain a bit more oomph.

A Fiat twin-cam engine in the front was also commonplace for a bit more power. However, even though now these modifications come across as sounding ‘fairly’ suitable, at the time I baulked at such ‘savagery’. Why buy a Moggie at all if you didn’t want to watch the world go by at a stately pace while relishing that delightfully light gearchange?

Back to the modern day though, and I seem to have spent an awful amount of time looking at Series I Land-Rovers for sale. Every time eBay pings up a new listing though, it seems to have the dreaded ‘hybrid’ word attached to it. In this instance it nearly always means that what should be a lovely original-looking Series I, is instead half a Series I body plonked atop a coil-sprung chassis and running a huge V8 or a TD5 diesel.

I won’t dream of arguing against the fact that it may ride better, go faster and be more efficient than the original 1.6 litre four-pot, but if I want to buy a Series I, then I don’t want it to ride and sound like a Defender or Discovery!

For me, classic cars are all about character – the good bits and the bad bits. When I had the gearbox on my old ’67 MGB rebuilt, it was presumed I would like to introduce syncromesh on first gear until I insisted that it was kept original. I kind of liked the quirkiness of having to come to a stop before engaging first gear, or learning the art of double-declutching in order to drive the car ‘properly’ and for me, the car would have lost a little charm if that had been eradicated in the rebuild.

Of course by writing this I am fully aware that I sound like a ‘rivet-counter’, but I’m not. I’m also impressed by people such as the enthusiast mentioned at the start who have the ability and ingenuity to explore the engineering possibilities and who, without doubt help to keep the classic car movement alive just as much as someone who restores cars to concours quality, but I’m afraid that on a personal level my heart sinks when the bonnet is lifted and I find a turbocharged Nissan motor in the front of something that looks 40 years older on the outside.

It may be rather bold to suggest, but I think that sometimes people are far too quick to jump to the dramatic ‘solutions’ when it comes to modifying their classic in order to make it perform differently. Most cars will have a whole history of period mods just waiting to be exploited – from engine tuning right down to different wheel combinations, all of which could transform the car without throwing the character out of the window at the same time.

Of course, when I finally buy another Series II Landie it should really have a 200TDi engine under the bonnet so that I can afford to run it and (almost) keep up on the motorway, but I don’t think I can do it. After all, I don’t want to open the bonnet and stare at a plastic covered lump where I can’t even see the oil leaks!