When an Austin-Healey 100 and Triumph TR3 were new, they held a significant performance edge over family sedans such as the Chevrolet 210 and Ford Fairlane, with faster acceleration, better braking and nimbler handling. Today, however, even a Toyota Camry or Ford Explorer will not only out drag the fastest Healey, MG or Triumph by a frightening margin, but also provide superior braking performance and cornering power to go along with enhancements like antilock braking systems, electronic stability control and massive tire contact patches.
This performance disparity isn’t particularly troubling—the sensation of speed in a classic British sportscar puts them in a class of their own—but the fact is that modern vehicles have become larger over the successive decades, rendering our classics even smaller by comparison than they ever were before. In 2008, the average passenger car weighed nearly 4,000 pounds—and this doesn’t include trucks and sport utility vehicles.
On the one hand, our LBCs are noticed and much loved for their diminutive physique. On the other hand, we, like motorcyclists, have the size disadvantage and therefore have to be the best drivers on the road. When I was learning to drive back in 1985 behind the wheel of a TR4A, my father made certain to establish the fundamentals that mark a successful experience behind the wheel of a small sports car: assume that other drivers cannot see you, predict the movement of surrounding vehicles, and leave sufficient room to allow for evasive action should the need arise.
Of course, back in the 80s, there were fewer distractions around to avert a driver’s awareness from the road with cellular telephones, texting, onboard navigation and modern entertainment systems not yet in the picture. With less attentive drivers piloting bigger vehicles on increasingly congested streets and highways, what’s a poor British sports car driver to do?
One option would be to drive our cars less often, but now more than ever, slipping into a snug cockpit and rowing through the gears provides a measure of satisfaction that is wholly absent from traveling in a modern automobile. In fact, the vintage driving experience seems even more enjoyable as our classics age into wonderful anachronisms that help us journey back in time. The real solution is to drive carefully. Since most everyone reading this article is already a skilled practitioner of the very defensive driving art, is there something more that can be done?
One of the simplest and most cost-effective solutions is to make our small cars more visible. Particularly for drivers of Big Healeys, Bugeye Sprites, any MG T-series model, MGAs, TR2s and TR3s and early Spitfires, the standard brake and running lamps are pitifully small (and located below the typical line of sight) to adequately attract the notice of casual drivers. It is little work to replace the old filament bulbs with modern LED substitutes that provide a tremendous improvement in brightness that can be better seen in daylight and from a greater distance at night. A third high-mounted brake light is also a fine addition that should be considered by anyone that frequently drives in stop-and-go city traffic. Leaving your headlights on to serve as Daytime Running Lights costs nothing and can reduce the collision risk by as much as eight percent during normal daylight driving.
Having covered several hundred thousand-freeway miles in small British cars, one of my most visceral fears is having large semi-trucks merge into my lane without noticing my presence. For that reason, I minimize my time running next to anything that doesn’t have a clear view of my car, but sometimes there is no choice but to have other cars and trucks traveling in close proximity to your LBC. Installing large air horns may seem like an obnoxious step to take, but they have saved my body panels several times over the years by warning errant drivers that there was a car in the space that they wanted to occupy. Again, it’s a simple modification that does nothing to alter the original appearance of the car while adding an extra margin of safety that can prove decisive in a crucial moment. (Plus, it’s an ideal tool for making kids laugh and spouses blush beet-red.)
When signaling my intentions, I like to use both the trafficator or turn indicators and a hand signal to make perfectly clear to surrounding traffic that something is about to happen. In truth, most drivers aren’t too familiar with hand signals, but the sheer novelty of another driver doing something with an extended arm seems to make them hesitate enough to allow safe passage into an adjacent lane or room to exit a traffic pattern.
While no empirical evidence has yet been found to support the hoary axiom voiced by motorcyclists that ‘loud pipes save lives,’ my own experience on driving Big Healeys with side exhausts seems to suggest that a louder exhaust note tends to attract more notice from other drivers, though it may not have increased safety by any discernible margin. What is guaranteed, however, to improve matters from our perspective is to maintain our vehicles in the best condition possible. Keeping our engines in a proper state of tune with effective brakes and good steering provides the best chance to avoid an incident in the first place. So, if there are any issues with your engine, seeking diesel engine repair services is extremely essential.
For the optimum driving experience in terms of both safety and exhilaration, consider upgrading the brakes, handling, steering and engine to bridge the performance gap between our classics and their modern counterparts. Braking improvements are likely to pay dividends across a variety of driving conditions and can include the addition of servo assistance, upgraded pads and linings, along with vented and slotted brake rotors. Modern suspension bushings are simple to install and will sharpen handling over stock components, with uprated springs and shock absorbers improving both ride quality and cornering ability. If possible, retrofitting a steering rack can make a considerable difference in both everyday and enthusiastic driving. Increasing horsepower is probably ever-present in your thoughts, but keep in mind that any significant performance gains should be accompanied by similar improvements in the brakes and suspension.
Inside the cockpit, if you have not already done so, add seatbelts whether they are required or not. If a shoulder belt can be added with the appropriate geometry, consider installing them (although great thought must go into their installation as a poorly positioned shoulder belt is worse than not having one at all). Make sure your seats are securely fastened and that the floorpans have the requisite structural integrity to keep them positioned in the event of an accident. While every LBC should have a fire extinguisher in the cabin, ensure that it is properly mounted. Since there is no fully accounting for other drivers, it would be a good idea to find a auto accident attorney that is to your liking, and have their information on hand. This will allow you to contact them promptly should you at some point be involved in an accident.
Whatever preparations and modifications you choose to make, remember that the best way to survive any accident is to avoid it in the first place. Driving with caution, care and consideration, perhaps with a healthy dose of paranoia mixed in, is the best way to pilot a car. It’s also important to admit that every driver is fallible, including every one of us. Many times I have run out of talent on the track, rarely, have I run out of car. Appreciate the risks as well as the fun and adventure—and drive as if someone’s life depends on it, because it does. In the words of Michael Conrad from Hill Street Blues, “let’s be careful out there.”
Over 20,000 people took part in a recent Facebook discussion on driving British sports cars under modern conditions. More than 100 comments were posted with thoughts and suggestions…
“My TR250 was my daily driver for almost 20 years, it taught me how to drive defensively. No matter what size car you drive you have to always be aware of your surrounding and think like an infielder (know where you’re going to throw the ball if it comes to you). And never drive next to big trucks, they just can’t see you.” – Cindy B.
“I was beside a new Mini at the traffic light in my Triumph GT6. Looking up at its door handle I pondered its enormity.” – Richard G.
“…Dad had a freon-powered boat horn installed on his MG TC. The chrome horns on the side of the tub lent a nice touch.” – Phillippe T.
“I drive my B to work 20 miles on the freeway about once a week. I’m careful but not too concerned. Upgraded engine and brakes (thanks for the parts) helps. I also commute by bicycle pretty often along the coast highway in San Diego. In both cases, I find that by being consistent in my lane position and speed the drivers can better predict my actions and I feel safer. Hoping no one gets too careless, but of course I see that from time to time.” – Andy L.
I wired my headlights so they are on whenever the ignition is on. A simple and inexpensive modification, but I can tell that people can see me better, at least on-coming. I also added LED brake and turn signal rear lights and a module that makes my turn signals also work as brake lights, Not sure how much that helps in the day, but it really lights up the rear at night.” – Ron B.
…The phenomenon of the proliferation of big, lift-kitted diesel trucks in Oklahoma is very unnerving. They sit so high there is no way they can even see an LBC in their mirrors…Who started this insane trend and when did pickup trucks become only slightly smaller big rigs?” – Bill M.
I don’t get as unnerved by the size of modern vehicles, but rather by their speed. A well-off 16-year-old can feasibly pilot a car that can go as fast as you care to go. Not that a little speed isn’t invigorating but high performance vehicles used to be reserved for more skilled drivers.” – Benjamin C.