Written by Steve Haas
Most car reviews focus on the latest, greatest and fastest vehicles. To paraphrase, “We loved last year’s model when it was new, but the new one has 20 more horsepower, so you’d best throw the old one out since it’s now useless.” On the contrary, owners of slow cars have more fun.
When I was young and couldn’t afford a nice car, I realized that motorcycles were more attainable. I started with a relatively small bike (a Honda Hawk NT650) and found myself moving up in size and power until I had a BMW 1100. Bigger and more powerful is better, right? That’s the consensus and what I thought at the time. Later I learned I was wrong.
While visiting vintage races I happened upon an old favorite motorcycle of mine for sale, a Honda GB500, which is a very light retro-styled 500cc single-cylinder bike. My luck, timing and a full pocketbook aligned, so I bought it. A year later I kept the single and sold the Beemer. Why? I had more fun riding it. Whenever a short trip was called for, I chose the smaller, lighter bike. I enjoyed the sound of the single and never felt like I had to go faster than good judgment called for. Frankly, just lifting that big BMW off its side stand sometimes felt like a chore compared to jumping on the Honda and just going. The old saying, “It’s more fun to ride a slow bike quickly than a fast bike slowly,” was proven to me. The smaller bike was easier to live with and simply made me smile.
I haven’t owned motorcycles for about a decade. A couple of kids tend to refocus one’s priorities, after all. Yet, I found myself following a similar pattern with cars. My 1966 MGB GT was followed by a Miata, then a Porsche 911 3.2 Carrera, by an even faster Corvette, with a few more flips along the way. You get the general trend: Moving “up” meant getting cars that were more capable, but also heavier and faster.
Then, lo and behold, I stumbled on another old favorite for sale a couple of years ago. I’m nothing if not predictable. That Honda GB500 was a retro-styled motorcycle with modern engineering that was light in weight, heavy on styling and easy to live with. My new car was essentially the same thing on four wheels: a 1991 Nissan Figaro. Weighing under 2,000 pounds with a whopping 78 horsepower from its 1.0 Liter turbo 4-cylinder, it’s the cutest and least intimidating car one could buy. And you know what? It’s been a joy.
A quick run out to cars and coffee? Take the Figaro. An afternoon tour in the country with friends? Open the top and bring up the rear in the Figaro. I arrive relaxed with a big smile on my face. The car doesn’t pull at the reins and scream at me to go faster the way the thoroughbred 911 once did. Of course, a car with 300 horsepower can be fun in the right circumstances, but it can be boring and frustrating to drive at legal speeds on public roads. A Figaro, an MGA, or a VW Beetle are best on country two-lane roads at under 60 mph.
Don’t get me wrong, I love and appreciate powerful cars. Recent drives in an Alfa 4C and a McLaren 570GT left me giddy, so I’m not ready to forego all my car-guy cred. The sound of a Lamborghini V-12 or a Corvette V-8 makes my spine tingle. Each car has their place.
I rarely find myself in a position where supercar performance can be used to its full potential. The cross-country road trips I imagined when I bought the BMW 1100 never materialized any more than my track-day dreams.
There is also the question of engagement. In my opinion, a smaller and lighter car, particularly with a manual transmission, requires a different focus than fast cars. Drive a vintage air-cooled VW Beetle and you have to anticipate hills, downshift accordingly, and keep up your speed just to make it over a slight grade that one never notices in an M3.
In a Corvette, one can’t rev the engine much before risking an expensive conversation with law enforcement. But drive a 4-cylinder Porsche like my 914 or an older 356 and you can rev up and down the gears, feel like Fangio, and never risk jail time. Bigger, faster and more expensive isn’t always an upgrade. Sometimes these additions mask the fun.