Classic or "Modern Classic" for a New Driver?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 10, 2016

Dear Car Talk:

My daughter wants a "classic car" for her first car -- e.g., a 1969-'70 Cougar, Maverick or some such thing. I'm not comfortable with her driving an older car, for several reasons: (1) safety features; (2) gas mileage; and (3) maintenance/fix-up costs. What are your thoughts about a "classic car" for a new driver? Or what newer used car would you recommend? Thanks!

-- Nancy

Well, years ago, we used to recommend older heaps for new drivers, for several reasons:
1. Safety features.
2. Gas mileage, and
3. Maintenance/fix-up costs.

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, newer cars were smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. And we felt that the hulking bulk of older American cars made them somewhat safer for new drivers. Since safety equipment hadn't changed much in that time, we thought the added mass made older cars a bit safer.

And because gas mileage in those old heaps was so lousy, the teenager couldn't afford to do too much "driving around," which we also thought was a plus.

Same with the maintenance costs. There's nothing safer than a car in the driveway that won't start. The Maverick your daughter has her eye on certainly would fit that description on most days.

But things have changed. Newer cars are incredibly safer. And they have some truly spectacular safety equipment that does, without a doubt, save lives. Newer cars have anti-lock brakes, stability control, front and side air bags, seat-belt pre-tensioners, blind-spot monitors, lane departure warning and, lately, pre-accident warning and automatic braking. Those technologies really do prevent accidents and reduce their severity.

So it's hard to argue for an older car for a brand-new driver these days. New drivers do have accidents. That's a known fact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that six teenagers a day die in car accidents. 

So I think, above all, Nancy, your first duty is to get your kid through childhood -- even if she's mad at you (and me) for saying "no" to the Maverick. At the very least, you want your daughter in a car with air bags and anti-lock brakes. I'd set that as the minimum requirement. So that means going back no further than the 1990s.

So tell her to refine her search. Let her know you won't consider anything without ABS and air bags. And that you'd give her extra points for finding something with stability control. And see what she comes back with.

I understand that she wants something that's "different." And, frankly, I admire that about her. She's got an artistic personality. She likes things that are interesting, and not the same old Toyota Camry everyone drives. Someday, she'll be a famous artist, and she can have a fleet of old cars. But in the meantime, she's going to have to settle for something a little more utilitarian.

Tell her she can get her Maverick when she graduates from art school. Besides, that'll be what she can afford on her barista's salary at that point.

Good luck, and keep her safe, Nancy.


Get the Car Talk Newsletter