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Replacing classic car engines: New technology isn't always better

Auto mechanic Jack McEachern works on a customer's

Auto mechanic Jack McEachern works on a customer's car at his shop in Culver City, Calif. (Sept. 6, 2007) Credit: AP

Is new technology better than old technology? I really started thinking about this after a conversation with an old friend who owns an even older Daimler SP250. For those of you who are not familiar with an SP250, try visualizing a 1960s Triumph TR-4, with 1950s Buick fenders, 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air fins, and a nose that looks like an angry catfish (thank you Keith Martin for that last visual image). It is an acquired taste. The car, not the catfish.

The car came from the factory with a V-8 engine and a 4-speed transmission. He was considering upgrading the transmission to a modern 5-speed or 6-speed. I asked him why. He said that the original transmission felt “old and clunky.” I couldn’t argue with him because the original transmission was old and clunky. Many British transmissions of this era are best described as “agricultural” in feel because they evolved from transmissions originally designed for tractors. Even the transmission in a Jaguar XK-120 feels old and clunky. But is it worth replacing with a more modern unit? I suppose that depends on several factors including your adherence to the concept of originality, your dissatisfaction with the current unit, and the depth of your pockets. Or any combination of these factors.

If originality is important to you, then a conversion of this type is not something you should consider. I’m used to hearing the line “But I kept all the parts.” To most future buyers, this is no substitute for “Yes, it’s all original.”
If you use the car on a regular basis and you don’t plan on selling it in the near future, then the enjoyment that you would get from driving the car with a modern transmission might make this conversion a smart move. Which brings me to the next point.

“Deep pockets” means different things to different people. When it comes to Daimler SP250s, the transmission conversion of choice is a 5-speed from a Toyota Supra. There is at least one company that claims to make a conversion kit. The term conversion kit might be a bit misleading. I would prefer to call it a “re-engineering” kit because it is going to take a lot of work, as well as a lot of different skill sets to accomplish this “re-engineering” in such a manner as to achieve the desired results without compromising the vehicle structurally, cosmetically, or from a value perspective. This will not come cheap.

I can’t help but wonder if it’s worth the costs and the risks in order to achieve a smoother shift. Especially when the car is driven less than 1000 miles per year.

Engines, transmission, suspensions, brakes, steering, and other components are items that are routinely upgraded on collector cars. When deciding whether any of these modification make sense on an individual vehicle, I always thinks about those same factors – originality, use, and cost.

Most classic car owners do not purchase their cars for the purpose of showing it, and having it judged, at the highest levels where any deviation from originality can cost precious points. So although originality is always important, I advise my customers that some sacrifice in originality is acceptable if they plan on driving the car regularly. Especially in the areas of safety.

This might include such things as replacement of the single reservoir brake master cylinder with a dual reservoir unit. Or a conversion to front disc brakes. If comfort is important to them, I won’t dissuade them from adding an air-conditioning system. Things like sway bars, radial tires and fast ratio steering boxes enhance performance. None of these modifications alter the basic look or character of the car, and any value lost as a result of the modifications is usually gained back at sales time by an appreciative buyer who sees the value in the modifications.

If you happen to own a classic car that no longer has its original engine, then go right ahead and bolt in that “crate engine” with fuel injection and a modern 6-speed manual transmission or automatic transmission with overdrive. While you’re at it, why not install rack and pinion steering, 4-wheel disc brakes, and a 4-link rear suspension. Will these modifications enhance the performance, comfort, and safety of the car? Yes they will. Will the modifications enhance the value of the car? Certainly not in the amount expended. Will the modifications enhance the driving experience? That’s open to argument. Some prefer their collector cars to drive like modern cars.

Others, myself included, prefer the driving experience to transport me back to the day when the car was new. In other words, I don’t mind “planning my stops.” Will the modifications make the car a better car? I would argue…No.

Just different.

I remember when I was in college. I would pack four people plus luggage into my 1970 Barracuda, with the carbureted engine, drum brakes, bias belted tires, and points (no electronic ignition), and drive to Florida any time we had more than a three day break. The car never let me down. I can do the same thing today with my modern car if I wish. Is it better? I don’t know. Just different. It does have air-conditioning.

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