Old vs not-so-old

First of all, I’d like to thank everyone for your advice regarding potential vehicle choices for the USA road trip we’re planning. There were some excellent thoughts there and I’m pondering the vast majority of them (all except Eggs’ offer of money to turn up in Tennessee in a Cadillac!).

Those of you who know me, even just a little, know that I’m very open to some car shopping. In fact, I’m beginning to worry about just how much I’m enjoying this. Is the whole trip just an excuse to buy a car in another part of the world? Honest answer – No, it’s not, but it’s part of the fun, for sure. This trip is all about seeing the United States and catching up with friends there.

But there is planning to be done and part of that includes what we’ll drive. I was hoping to once again tap into the collective wisdom of the experienced.

We will most likely buy a car rather than rent. Renting has its advantages but at the end of the day, what we drive will be a big part of the experience and I want freedom of choice in that. It involves some up-front costs and the potential for being stuck somewhere for repairs, but if we choose wisely and all goes well, we should do OK in terms of finances and much better in terms of experience.

To my current thought dilemma…..

There is a certain romance in doing a trip like this, a great American road trip, in a classic American car. That is, in an old car. Maybe even up to 50 years old.

What I’m wondering is whether or not anyone has done a journey of this distance in a car that old in recent times? Are our respective rear-ends going to be able to handle six weeks in 1960’s style seating? I’ve got faith in the engines of the time to make the distance OK. One of the cars I’m thinking of will most likely have received a newer engine, anyway, an upgrade to a bigger powerplant that fits in the same engine bay (a Ford 289 or 302).

Is Mrs Swade going to get absolutely sick-to-death of the exhaust note (again, for six weeks?)

The other option – and the one I’m favouring as I write this – is to go with a more modern car. Still something that’ll make the trip memorable, but with greater comfort and amenity as well as a more efficient and powerful engine and less miles under its belt. Something that’s much cheaper to buy in America than it is in Australia, too. Possibly non-American. Say between 10 and 25 years old.

So, old or not-so-old?

At some risk of duplicating what I asked the other day….. what sort of cars have you actually used on a trip such as this? Would you recommend that vehicle both as a practical choice, but perhaps more importantly in terms of it having the character to be an important part of a memorable life-event?

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28 Comments

  1. Well that is easy – find a lightly used 9-3 Aero SportCombi and take to the road. Embrace the V6, lots of cargo space and enjoy those Saab seats. 🙂 Keeping in mind those comfortable seats are the most important part of the equation.

    1. Probably not, Ted. A Saab is still on my ‘potentials’ list, but it’ll likely be an older one than that. A ‘pre-hyphen’ model.

  2. Swade, I am not sure if you are aware of the Mustangs Across America group. They would be an excellent source for you. They organize cross country convoys. Their forums are unbelievable, any and every question has probably been addressed! Be sure to check it out, if you haven’t already done so.

  3. I’ve done it three times in a rented Pontiac GrandAm, which is great for these trips (big, good air con, comfortable. Steers like a cow but that’s something you won’t need to worry about because you’re going in a straight line). Among the cheap modern cars to look out for would be the Oldsmobile Aero (probably one of the best cars GM ever made), or a Korean car like the Sonata. If you’re going to use a really old car then its going to depend on the time of year you’ll drive it, as conditions do get harsh once you leave California (remember, you’ll be driving uphill to a much higher attitude in Arizona, and the temperature can hit 100 degrees).

  4. Here’s another tip, consider buying the car from the rental firm enterprise. They offer good prices and they take care or making sure the car is serviced correctly. The alternative is Carmax. I wouldn’t buy from anyone else considering the distance you’re traveling (and both have plenty of places on the way that could fix the car under warranty if it breaks down).

  5. Going West to East, swing down to the Southern route as you hit the middle of the country so you can make sure you go through Louisiana and eat the best food in the country. New Orleans is a must visit.

    As to cars, I would still recommend a NG 95, but make the seats a priority. This is a big place, and lots of miles will be covered. A five hour drive here is not considered a big deal. Probably much the same as Australia.

    I know you will have a wonderful experience and I hope you keep us up to date on your travels.

    You might consider starting up in the Pacific Northwest, and slant down across the USA. That will allow seeing some magnificent scenery along the way.

  6. I don’t have much else to add based on the earlier comments (my only cross-country road trips were when I was a kid and my family moved from west coast to east coast or drove half-way to visit relatives in the midwest). But…since you will be making this trip in the summer, if you opt for the “old” car route, you want to make sure it has well-functioning air conditioning. Heat and/or humidity will definitely be part of your trip and lack of A/C is no fun in those cases. (Even driving my Sonett III 3.5 hours in 95 F heat with no A/C was a drive I would not like to make again….no matter how much fun it is to drive a Sonett.)

  7. First trip: me and two friends in a rusted 81 Corolla liftback. We pick up another friend in Vancouver and drive him back to school on the East Coast. Went under the Great Lakes (Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago), and then through the Prairies to Seattle and up to BC. It’s hard to imagine a more cramped and underpowered car. That thing must have pushed 40hp in the thinner air of the Rockies. We were much younger and more flexible back then, and we made it with no issues, other than a smashed headlight (caused by a rock thrown by a truck), and a water pump that sounded like a bag of hammers by the end of the journey.

    Second trip: A friend and I went from Montreal to LA and back in a 1st gen Ford Probe (rebadged Mazda 626 coupe). Took the south route there (Columbus, Kansas City, Phoenix), and the north route back (Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago, Detroit). That car was a dream compared to the Corolla. Not a single issue, and the Probe got amazing mileage with its tall gearing and low drag.

    Third trip: eight musicians and myself in an old shuttle bus. Great adventure, but not relevant here.

    I also drove each car down to Florida and back and, like many North Americans, I spent a good portion of my childhood summers in the back of the family station wagon.

    Long trips on the Interstate are nothing to a car that’s in reasonable shape. I’ve had two major issues: a failed alternator on one of the Florida trips (found a motel near a dealership, back on our way by mid-morning), and a radiator replacement in Vermont on the Wagon Queen Family Truckster (fixed same-day at a small-town service station). Neither was a big deal, and we got to meet people that we otherwise wouldn’t have.

    It would be a shame to run a car that was sold in Australia. A Saab 9000 is a great cruiser, but your wife already has one. You need to look at cars that can only be found in North America. Anything with adjustable seats and working AC is fair game, with bonus points for a working tape deck (so you can use an adapter for your music player).

    I would avoid exotics (I’m looking at you, 928) and cars built for a different purpose (big blocks, Jeeps, Sonetts). You will meet plenty of people who will let you try theirs. I would also avoid anything that’s too modern and too perfect, because that could be boring, like sitting in a perfectly good dentist’s waiting room for days on end, or like reading a run-on sentence, the kind that never seems to end.
    If I were you (I am not), I would look for the car that a man buys at the tail-end of his career (after the kids have gone), and maintains meticulously until he just can’t drive anymore. America is ripe with low-miles, over-maintained sedans that the kids unload for peanuts. It’s up to you to pick one.

    1. I should mention that I’ve done a few long trips (though not cross-country) in the 9-3. It’s everything you would expect, and my no.1 pick if in bad weather.

      The problem with the 9-3 is that you will find yourself doing well over 100mph if you don’t pay attention to the speedometer, or if you give it a bit of throttle to pass another car. Also, the car will do nearly 600 miles in one shot at the speed limit, and that’s not necessarily a good thing on vacation. The range is great, but being forced to stop every 4 hours is also good.

    2. Bernard, you seem to have a habit of reading my mind 🙂

      Yes, the 928 and 9000 Aero have both been on the list. The 928 is off now, but the 9000 Aero remains, but you’ve already cited the main reason against – we drive a 9000 every day. That, and the fact that this car is going to be part of the experience. It has to be something….. special. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it has to be unavailable in Oz, but it should be something I wouldn’t consider buying here, either for practical or financial reasons.

  8. Call me overly cautious, but considering the mileage and variety of driving conditions you are planning, I would minimally go with something that had ABS & Airbags (so that will limit the age somewhat) and yes a really good A/C will be your best friend especially in August and into September.

    1. I’m leaning towards more modern for exactly those reasons. Jay Leno covers them in the article that Eggs linked to in the early comments to this piece.

  9. In 1981 we did it and bought a Buick le sabre 1971, 3,5 litre. Awesome.
    Similar trip like yours but back again (from east to west to east). 9000 miles in 7 weeks. Really nice car and simple handling, smooth riding. 55mph. A little bit of oil now and then. A couple of springs on the front, one stabilisor and that was it! The’re still for sale. Look on Youtube.
    Our trip went from Grand Rapids to Yellowstone, San Francisco, LA, Phoenix, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Daytona Florida and up north back to G.R.
    In september and octobre beautiful months, in the beginning a littlebit cold but later on it went better.

    1. We also had to made the decission: “shall we rent or buy a car”? It was even cheaper to buy a car compared with renting one. We were so happy with this car : the Buick.
      At first we wanted to take it with us to Europe when we had to go back, but it is such a heavy car and therefore so expensive to ship it, so we sold again.

    2. Interesting. That’s a few nominations for older Buicks. Will have to check them out (though it’s against the no-GM rule, but maybe there should be a sunset clause on that in the name of classic motoring).

  10. Dear Swade,
    When I did the Coast-to-Coast and on to Alaska (almost 30 years ago) I was using various ground transportation methods (such as hitch-hiking, Greyhound, rides in rent-a-wrecks, ’52 Chevy Convertible, Fiat 128 Wagon, trains), so I can’t really provide advice on the car. But here are my three r’s, anyway:
    1. Read Robert Pirsig “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. Yes, it’s you and Mrs. Swade and in a car but it will set your mind to “Move your Mind (and Soul)”.
    2. Rent (or buy) a convertible for the trip. Seated in the passenger seat right next to the ocean on highway 1 with the top down will be something Mrs. Swade will always be fond of remembering. And further on the trip you will enjoy the widescreen landscape even more. Best choice is a Viggen convertible, of course…
    3. Roll on backcountry roads as much as you can. The route 66 is a wonderful road from east of LA to the Grand Canyon (and you won’t miss Las Vegas).

  11. Have you thought about an early 1990’s 320, or 500SL? Many are to be had on the east coast (at least where I live in New Jersey) and very few were beaten on. You also get a great climate control system and fairly comfortable seats.

    1. I thought of an early 70’s Cadillac Convertible or something like that. Very American, very BIG. But the idea of an SL500 is too good to let go. Its a convertible, it has AC and its probably the best car Mercedes has built. But since it may be a little pricey, I would check ot an american iron icon too.

  12. I have done a few cross country trips in big american iron and it is pretty hard to beat Grandpa’s old Buick for a smooth comfortable drive. Two round trips in a ’71 Chevy Caprice ($75 car in 1980 !) were very memorable, especially the quart of oil every 300 miles. The $20 used tires in Montana were lifesavers. The trip in a hot-rod v4 96 was really loud but lots of fun — at least it was cool weather. The yellow Saab convertible was a hoot but long distance driving in a cv is rather noisy – especially with the top up.
    My vote would be for a large american car – they are cheap to buy, comfortable and plenty of room to throw all the tourist trinkets. Plus they are cheap to fix and some people actually feel sorry for you having to drive such a whale.
    I have a ’96 9k aero you can have for free – just needs a little work…….

  13. Swade,

    Off the top of my head… there are 4 ways to do this. Ford Crown Vic if you want room, comfort, and 4 doors. Ford Mustang, if you want the 2 door muscle car approach. BMW R1200GSA if you want the adventure approach. And Ural Patrol if you want room for two, with the side car. Concur on the west to east approach… but you’ll be disappointed with the east coast.

    If you’re in ohio…. ping me, I’ve got room and beverages for you. v/r

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