1 July 2016

What is an analog car?

Analog is the opposite of digital. Like vinyl records and mechanical watches, an analog device doesn’t need to break things down into a series of zeros and ones in order to function.

The term “analog car” is in danger of becoming a cliché, hitting automotive editors’ no-go lists of over-used terms before, oddly enough, it’s even definitively determined what one is. It seems the least we can do is attempt to define what analog car means before we reflexively banish the term. This exercise is of course, totally non-scientific and brutally subjective, so feel free to disagree.

Like the term “Survivor®” (which is incidentally a trademark of the Bloomington Gold organization), there seems to be a fair amount of confusion around the term. Just as an old car isn’t a survivor simply because it hasn’t been crushed, neither is every tactile, minimalist and responsive car an analog car merely by virtue of “feeling” old school. A 2016 Alfa Romeo 4C, for example is lightweight and delightful to drive, but it isn’t an analog car by any stretch.

Analog cars are mechanically honest, which a 4C is not. As much as I love the car, it’s a modern, digital car playing a carbon fiber card trick. It’s equipped with a sophisticated dual-clutch, automatic transmission that apes a real manual transmission’s feel (complete with automated downshift blips). Additionally, a raucous exhaust system, which tries its best to mimic a non-catalyzed, 1960s ANSA system (exhausts originally manufactured in Italy), complete with copious popping on the overrun, adds to the ruse. To a cynic, or a true analog car aficionado, the exhaust note is reminiscent of Inigo Montoya’s (Mandy Patinkin) affected accent in The Princess Bride.

There’s a directness requirement to an analog car, ruling out things like drive-by-wire throttles. For aviation buffs, it’s the difference between a WWII-era North American P-51 fighter plane with real gauges featuring mechanical needles, and control surfaces moved by hydraulics linked directly to the yoke and rudder pedals, versus a hyper-automated, glass cockpit, fly-by-wire Airbus. Any drivers’ aids beyond ABS are strictly out in an analog car.

Serious computerization is also a no-no. There are few post OBD I (On-Board Diagnostics first generation, the system that diagnoses and reports a vehicle’s systems status) analog cars out there. Fuel injection isn’t necessarily a deal breaker—early mechanical systems like the ones from Rochester, Bendix, Lucas, Bosch and Kugelfischer are as analog as a slide rule. Even simple, single-point, electronic Bosch D, K and L-Jetronic injection systems are still analog whereas a Bosch Motronic system that digitally controls fuel injection and ignition is not. Being able to actually wrench on the car yourself without special tools, a code-reader and a laptop is an essential part of analogness.

We also seem to reserve the term analog car (rightfully so), for the era when “digital cars” began appearing. Touting how analog a 1961 Corvette is, is like celebrating a 1950s McIntosh amplifier for having vacuum tubes – all amps did then.

Some late analog cars that we love? The original 1992 Dodge Viper might well be among the last of them. And while it may suffer from a few vintage-style affectations like the 4C – the side curtains and side-exhaust for example – the car lacked any drivers’ aids (not even ABS) and initially, couldn’t even be had with air conditioning.

The Porsche 911SC of 1978-83 is another late analog-era classic. Even its clutch was directly actuated via cable, not hydraulics. I suppose you could argue that the 3.2-liter Carrera of 1984-89 was a fairly analog car as well, but its more sophisticated Bosch Motronic digital engine management system and actual hydraulic clutch of the 1987-89 Getrag G50 gearbox cars began Porsche’s digital slide. Later 911 generations like the 964, 993 and 996 quickly acquired the Porsche 959 supercar’s intricacy.

The last analog Ferrari? Likely the 308 Quattrovalvole of 1983-85. No ABS, simple Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection and easily wrenched on by owners. Moreover, major service could be performed without removing the engine. The 328 that followed, was like the 911 Carrera of Ferraris, along with the subsequent 348, began Ferrari’s transition that wed the owner to the dealer or a nearly equally expensive indie shop.

Just as soulless throwaways like the compact disc and quartz watch led to an inevitable backlash and an affection for quainter, simpler technology like vinyl music and mechanical watches, the last of the true analog cars are finding a place with collectors, and values of late reflect that. Perhaps it’s due to a realization that unlike vinyl records and watches that require winding, analog cars are never coming back.

Let us know if you agree or disagree in the comments below.

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