The Future of Nostalgia



Nostalgia, as the oft quoted maxim points out, is not what it used to be.  This is perfectly understandable as the peak of interest in the past seems to run about 40 years behind the present. Or, to put it another way, yearnings for ones youth are strongest around the age of 50-60.  Of course this is a very broad brush approach but it’s not a bad guide to follow when looking to cater for the more mature folk who are making up an ever greater proportion of society.

As someone who  writes about the past in the form of vintage and classic machinery this is a subject close to my heart. It is certainly true that I personally have witnessed a shift in enthusiasm  during the time I have been contributing to classic machinery magazines from little grey Fergies and rattling old Fordson Majors to anything with a basic cab on. Nuffields are out and Leylands  are in, despite them being the same tractor under the skin, and the same applies to cars where saloons from the 60’s and 70’s are now quite collectible and Japanese bikes from that era have developed a fan club that is probably far greater than they enjoyed at the time. Nobody refers to Suzukis or Hondas as ‘Jap crap’ now and the shortcomings of many cars of the time are politely brushed under the carpet, especially when it  comes to reliability and economy.

All this is fairly straightforward and clear cut, however, there is something of a cloud upon the horizon and it has writ large upon it the word ‘electronics’.  Forty years ago was the mid seventies and up until then cars had pottered around using an ignition system based on a mechanical switch and a fuel metering device that had hardly changed in the previous 70 years, but contact points and the carburetor were about to be swept away for ever and the secretive black box ushered in to serve where visible and understandable physical principles had ruled before. Not long after the same applied to the diesel engines found in tractors, the steadfast and indispensable  injection pump succumbed to the common rail injection system (it’s always a ‘system’) with its timed injections of varying quantities of fuel according to what was called the engine map, and so it was with petrol engines as well.

The methodology was identical for both types of motor. The driver would indicate to a computer his or her intentions via the accelerator pedal as normal. The computer would then consider this request in the light of what the vehicle was doing, how the engine was running, what was actually possible and so on. It would do this by comparing the input data (throttle position) with a table (the map) listing the parameters and settings that were to be taken into account and then select the most appropriate amount of fuel to be injected and the most opportune moment to do so.  All this happened hundreds of times a second so we were not aware of what is going on, yet It led to great strides forward in fuel efficiency and err… emission standards, or so we were told.

Cheating at the test station aside it is undeniable that a tankful of fuel takes a car a lot further nowadays and the exhaust is certainly cleaner, so we should be grateful for modern engine management systems,  which I am sure most of us are, the downside being that the connection between man and machine has been eroded. For those of us who developed our driving skills on older cars there is still a sense of working with a living entity, a team effort between the operator and engine, a sense of cooperation that no longer exists. Before getting too dewey eyed it must be noted that this relationship would have as many troughs as peaks. Cars that refused to start in damp weather, tractor diesel pipes that would develop air leaks and bikes that needed their bank of carburetors servicing regularly if they were to stay in tune were all features of life that never trouble us now. Yet the problems were fixable, you lifted the bonnet and with a bit of savvy you could usually trace most faults, something that is impossible now without a computer to plug it into.

It is here that nostalgia has a problem. in 2045 will people wax lyrical about the fuel injectors on a Nissan Qashqai, share a knowing smile over the idiosyncrasies of the latest Honda Deauvilles or cry for the days of a hi tech Fendt? It is doubtful, unless we are all confined to traveling in anonymous boxes that give us no delight in motion or sense of control over our destiny, courtesy of Google or Apple or whoever else wants to reduce  the spirit of humankind to a grey meaningless existence. At least those that bring news of a more colourful past may be welcomed, but I fear we are more likely to be cast out  as traitors to the future numbness of life that is meant to bring us such happiness and contentment.