When Cars Were Still Cars: A Glimpse into Vintage and Classic Cars!

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When cars were still ‘metal’ and ‘leather’!

Talk of cars and almost everyone will think of a contemporary sedan, hatchback or a sport utility vehicle (SUV). A caravan or pickup truck will also cross our minds but rarely. If you fall in this category, no cases against you because it’s what almost all of us have known.

The modern car era, which we can backdate 25 years to around 1988, has seen adoption of some particular developments such as the proliferation of front and all-wheel drive, the adoption of the diesel engine, and the ubiquity of fuel injection. The modern era cars have also seen rapidly rising fuel efficiency and engine output. With new technologies like computerized engine management systems, power began to rise rapidly. In the mid-1980s, a powerful sports car might have produced 200 horsepower (about 150kW) but average passenger car models today offer three times as much power. The invention of numerous safety features like the electronic anti-braking system, supplemental rest airbags, seat belt pretensioners, and electronic traction systems all have made their debut on the contemporary cars.

Whereas there was a limited number of manufacturers and limited car models at the turn of 20th century and at the beginning of vintage era in 1919, the modern car era has seen numerous manufacturers and enormous car makes and models. But generally, contemporary cars have been dominated by the present Toyota Corolla, a simple small Japanese sedan that has come to be the bestselling car of all time. Different makers have been dominated by different models and such models as these have significantly had a share: Land Rover’s Range Rover models, Mercedes Benz S-Class, BMW 3 series, Honda Accord, Dodge Arie and Plymouth Reliant, Chrysler Minivans, Renault Espace, Ford Taurus, Pontiac Trans Sport, Toyota Prius-perhaps the best known hybrid car, Ford Focus-one of the most popular hatchbacks across the globe, Tata Nano, Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Voltand Tesla Roadster — the first highway-capable all-electric vehicle in serial production for sale in the United States in the modern era.

Well, there are thousands of different models of cars today and these pimped up automobiles have given us an impression that they are the best the world has offered. But hey, you need to reconsider your conviction because once upon a time, cars were still cars!

I may need to briefly remind you that the invention of automobiles dates way back to 17th century about the year 1672 when Ferdinand Verbiest, a member of a Jesuit mission in China, built the first steam-powered vehicle as a toy for the Chinese Emperor. It was of small enough scale that it could not carry a driver but it was, quite possibly, the first working steam-powered vehicle. Many inventors continued to do their trials through the 18th century, notably were Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot, William Murdock and Richard Trevithick. Cugnot’s steam wagons of 1770 and 1771 and Trevithick’s 1801 road automobiles all did not prove successful. Invention continued in the 19th century with inventors like George B Selden but the first major breakthrough was reached in 1886 by the German inventor, Karl Benz. Other auto makers would join in before the turn the century, Peugeot in 1989, Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1893 – becoming the first American automobile manufacturing company and Renault in 1898. By 1900, other manufacturers were coming on board, Oldsmobile, Thomas B. Jeffery Company-which was producing Ramblers while the Ford Motor Company became a major player in the early 20th century. All these auto makers were running commercial lines and manufacturing thousands of vehicles by 1903. Cadillac-which had formed from the Henry Ford Company, was also making cars in thousands.

Cugnot's steam wagon, the second version 1771

Benz Patent Motorwagen 1885

A replica of Richard Trevithick's 1801 road locomotive 'Puffing Devil'

Top-Bottom: Cugnot’s steam wagon, the second (1771) version, 1885-built Benz Patent-Motorwagen, the first car to go into production with an internal combustion engine, A replica of Richard Trevithick’s 1801 road locomotive ‘Puffing Devil’Photo Credit: Wikipedia

It should however be noted that most of these automobiles were horse-drawn vehicles before the transition to electric automobiles and gasoline engines. These became popular by 1904 but horse-drawn vehicles continued to be manufactured until 1918. These cars had a few more challenges; poor braking systems, and very limited speed. But compared to the technology that was available at the beginning of the 20th century, these cars still remain outstanding.

My love and passion for vintage and classic cars, like every other form of art and collectibles, is unprecedented. Despite the fact that I live in a country where forms of art like vintage and classic cars is not given attention, save for the annual Uganda Vintage and Classic Auto show in Kampala (which is still yet to attract a commensurate appreciation), I have had an unstoppable passion for these beautiful pieces of art. I find myself on several occasions hunting down the wrecks of these cars (some of them can be restored) dating as far as 1930s to marvel at them and grab their shots. One of the rarest opportunities I have had is a 1930s Rambler (bearing in mind that the first model of Rambler was made in 1902) and a 1964 Ford Mustang (the very first Mustang model). I hunted down these cars in Makerere East, Kavule, a Kampala city suburb and it was an exhilarating experience getting as closest as possible to some of the finest automobiles this world has ever seen.

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10022013052Since time does not move backwards, going back to the 1930s can only be possible when you meet this 1930s Rambler (Left with my friend, Godwin Tumwesigye, another vintage enthusiast). Next, the 1964 Ford Mustang. Photo Credit: Daniel Muhanguzi.

The period between 1905 till the end of World War I in 1919, popularly known on the automobile timeline as the ‘brass era’ saw the production of the most influential car of the 20th century, the Ford Model T. Production of this model began in 1908 and ended in 1927 but the most popular one was the 1915 model which was the most widely produced and available 4-seater car of the era. It used a planetary transmission, and had a pedal-based control system. This model T would later be voted as the most influential car of the 20th century at its turn. At the recent Vintage and Classic Auto show in Kampala, I was graced with a rare opportunity of feeling what you would regard as a ‘sibling’ of the 1915 Ford Model T, the 1925 Ford Model A. This perfectly maintained auto, the first in the Model A series, exhilarated my spirit because that is the furthest I have ever gone getting closer to the beginning of automobiles. It was awesome! Other cars which were popular in this period included; 1909 Morgan Runabout, the 1910 Mercer Raceabout and the 1910–1920 Bugatti Type 13

Model-T Ford car parked outside Geelong Library at its launch in Australia in 1915

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Top-Bottom: The 1915 Ford Model T (Photo credit: Wikipedia).  In complete awe with the 1925 Ford Model A at the Uganda Vintage and Classic Auto show in Kampala, August 2013 (Photo Credit: Daniel Muhanguzi).

It is a rare opportunity; I must emphasize, to pose for a photo with a 1925 Ford Model A because this is one of the few cars that survived from the ‘Vintage Era’ which began at the end of WWI in 1919 and ended in 1929. This particular car will celebrate its 100th birthday soon in 2025 making it one of the oldest cars still living. It is practically very hard to meet other cars that were produced in this era but it is possible for FordModel A because it was produced in huge numbers and that gives it a big sample space. After keeping the brass era Model T in production for too long, Ford broke from the past by restarting its model series with the Model A. More than 4 million were produced, making it the best-selling model of the era. Other cars that were produced in this era include; Lancia Lambda, Austin 7 Box Saloon, Bugatti Type 35, and a Hanomag 2/10 PS.

1923 Lancia Lambda

1926 Austin 7 Box saloo

1926 Bugatti Type 35

Top-Bottom: A 1923 Lancia Lambda, a 1926 Austin Box Saloon, and a 1926 Bugatti Type 35. Photo credit: Wikipedia

These were very advanced cars for that time; the Austin Seven for example, was one of the most widely copied vehicles ever, serving as a template and prototype for different cars around the world and the Bugatti Type 35 was one of the most successful racing cars of all time winning over 1000 races in a period of five years from 1924 to 1929.

These vintage era cars were succeeded by the pre-World War II (WWII) era which began in 1930 and ended at the end of WWII in 1946. Most of the technology used in today’s cars was invented in this era though technologies were later re-invented. Some of the most prestigious cars of all time were invented in this era. Talk of Rolls-Royce Phantom III, Citroen Traction Avant, Bugatti Type 57, Mercedes Benz 380, and Ford continued to re-invent by producing a Ford V-8 Model B – a powerful flathead V-8 in mainstream vehicles, setting new performance and efficiency standards.

Ford V-8 (Model B) Citroën Traction Avant Rolls-Royce Phantom III

Battle of the ‘eyes’: Ford V-8 Model B (upper), Citroën Traction Avant (middle) and Rolls-Royce Phantom III (lower). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Every vintage and classic car enthusiast will agree with me that these are some of the rarest cars to find especially in Africa because they were made in small numbers and sold mainly in America and Europe because they were very expensive. The Rolls-Royce which KabakaMutesa I – the first president of Uganda, used when Uganda got her independence on October 9, 1962, has since disappeared. And whether it was a Rolls-Royce or not has been a matter of contention among some enthusiasts. But one car really dominated this era and would shine on the stage for more than 60 years. You have seen this car, I am quite certain – a Volkswagen Beetle, widely known here in Uganda as ‘Kikere’ – a toad, because of its wide resemblance to this amphibian. The Beetle, whose production beganin 1938, was a design for efficiency and low price and the last models were released in 2003, a period of over 60 years with minimal change in the designs.

You can miss all cars but you can’t miss a Beetle. Whereas such cars as a Rolls-Royce, Lancia Lambda or Citroen were only a dream at the recent Uganda Vintage and Classic Auto show (and most of them will surely remain a dream), there was a fleet of Beetles in all colors. They were so many that they were given their own yard, big enough to accommodate all the other cars at the show combined.

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DSCI0239There were an enormous number of these Beetles arranged in numerous semi-circles as if they were paying a guard of honor. I am always particularly thrilled by their rear metallic bar, what some would call a guard. The metallic bar, I reckon, was intended to give them a somewhat macho look.

The post WWII period saw an enormous growth in the car industry, different manufacturers, different makes, robust growth in mechanical technology – enginepower and vehicle speeds rose, designs became more integrated and artful, and cars spread across the world. After this period, automobile design experienced the total revolution changes to ‘ponton’ style (without a non-compact ledge elements), one of the first mass representatives of that were the Soviet GAZ-M20 Pobeda (1946) and  British Standard Vanguard (1947). Other cars that began production before 1950 include the Studebaker champion, Tatra T600 Tatraplan, the 1949 Rover P4 and a Morris Minor whose production startedin 1948. It was so humbling for me to find a Morris Minor (Model 1952) at a recent Uganda Vintage and Classic auto show – a popular and typical early post-war car exported around the world. Away from the Ford Model A (1925), this was the second oldest car followed by a beautiful 1958 Mercedes Benz 190 Ponton, another Mercedes Benz 190D (1959) and a 1959 Triumph that exhilarated every classic car enthusiast.

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Fresh from the factory? No! These sparkling wheels have been on the road for more than 110 years combined. The Morris Minor (Above) – never to be confused with a Beetle has been running for 61 years and it is hard to believe that this Triumph (bottom) is as old as your grandfather!

Many other popular cars were produced after 1950, cars like Chevrolet Bel Air, Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, Citroen DS, Mini, Jaguar E-Type, Porsche 911, Ford Mustang – the pony car that became one of the best-selling and most-collected cars of the era, Fiat 124, NSU R080, Chevrolet Camaro, Datsun 240Z, etc. BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda made their notable presence especially after 1970. Maserati, Ferrari, Lancia, GM, Chrysler and of course Mercedes Benz were never to be missed. Besides the smaller size and grand tour class cars, amongst trends in car design in the late 20th century were the wide use of station wagons (estate, break, Kombi, universal) and non-commercial comfortable all-wheel driveoff-road vehicles.

Some of these could be cited at the August Vintage and Classic Auto show in Kampala. Most exciting to find was the Porsche 911 (Model 1984) in super mechanical condition and with an intriguing license plate ‘POSHO’, VW Kombi (1971) and the Mini Cooper (1973). Others included the 1962 Mercedes Benz, Range Rover KQE (1974), 1977 Nissan Datsun Pickup, Peugeots 1978 and 1980, Toyota Mark II (1980) Estate, and a restored Datsun Estate (1979). I could also figure out a Land Rover Defender and there was this SCANIA Super L80 (1970) Fire Engine, in very excellent condition. This is the same fire engine that was used in the 2006 movie – The Last King of Scotland.

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Well, you could never have known which one is a Porsche and which one is a Mini Cooper. But now you know? If you don’t, I will show them to you in my next auto blog.

Its 3:57AM and I have to go to bed so I can’t go on telling you this crap about some ‘funny old things’ called vintage and classic cars (since your dream car is a Range Rover Vogue 2014 Model, a latest Toyota Land cruiser or the latest Aston Martin – since you are a Wall Street Banker), well, I used to think like you do until my intuition helped me to know which cars were cars. Thinking of the pony and muscle cars of the 1960s and 70s, cars like the 1964 Ford Mustang, the 1965 Pontiac GTO,and Cadillacof the time, a 1970s Dodge Charger, and oh! A Dodge Challenger persuades me to believe the description of one arrogant auto enthusiast who described contemporary cars as ‘PLASTIC’. And as my friend, Burt Almeida put it ‘the contemporary cars are just gadgets, the more the gadgets, the easier you can go wrong. Most of the time, Bentley does not know what to do with the car and that’s why they sell them far away’.

Adios!

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