Classic Cars and Classic Macs

I have recently been driving around in a new car. Well, I say new. In fact, it’s rather old.

1978 MG MidgetIt’s a 1978 MG Midget. The Midget, designed in 1958 and built from 1959 until 1980, is best thought of as a low-end sports car. With a 1500cc Triumph engine and, er, some wheels and seats (and not much more), it’s a riot of a car to drive, but it’s not really much like driving a modern automobile.

This got me thinking, firstly, why I am so interested in what other people might consider old garbage, and secondly, do car-computer analogies hold up?

The first one is easy to answer. Neither a 1979 Cabriolet nor an old Mac are garbage; they are both stylish and useful machines – assuming you set your expectations accordingly. Character is the issue.

The second question is better answered by going through things a little more closely.

There is one major difference between an old car and an old computer: An old car will perform the same function as a new one, whereas an old computer is decidedly limited.

Old cars lack the creature comforts of their contemporary counterparts, but they still drive. The particular MG Midget I have been messing around in has already been converted to run on unleaded gas, so the only significant obstacle to driving it has already been overcome. Perhaps this is the equivalent of some kind of imaginary super-chip that would allow an old Mac to run at least some modern software.

Hmm – this analogy is already beginning to fray.

Other than the fuel issue, there are a few quirks. The lack of power-assisted steering and braking is not a problem (it only weighs 1,500 pounds) but the manual gearbox is only a four-speed. Cue very loud revving noises when on the open highway.

It really is a matter of perception, though. Sure, if you’re used to a five- or even six-speed box, then this car will sound to you like the apocalypse. But not to me. My main car is a three-speed automatic Nissan Figaro. I’m already used to noise at high speed. Still, fifth gear or even an overdrive (perhaps the car equivalent of overclocking) would be nice.

Mind you, in the past I’ve done high-end design work on Macs designed for home use: a Performa 5320, a Bondi blue iMac, and a MacBook. A Power Mac or Mac Pro might have had “fifth gear”, but the cheaper machines could do the job.

The Figaro, a relatively modern car compared to the Midget, has a wonderful heater and full air-conditioning. The Midget? It has a sad little blower with less lung-power than an asthmatic octogenarian and no air-con. As the drive shaft runs right through the cockpit at elbow height, heat is not really needed – the mechanicals provide plenty. If you want to cool down, though, it’s a case of opening the window or taking the top off, neither of which is a serious option at 120 kilometres per hour.

Multitasking with 10 or 15 apps open? Not happening on an old Mac.*

The Midget also has a “software” problem, at least when it comes to entrainment. The original radio was an AM only unit. Here in Ireland, there are literally no AM radio stations left on the dial, so the original radio would only pick up foreign stations blasting in from France, the Netherlands, and Britain. This isn’t a problem for me, because my car has no radio installed at all.

Mac ClassicSuddenly I’m reminded of using a Macintosh Classic but having no means of acquiring software or putting it onto suitable disks. Unlike the Mac Classic, however, the Midget could, if one was so inclined, be fitted with a modern sound system, though I’m unsure just how audible it would be over the engine, road, and wind noise.

Like an old computer, problems are easy to fix on the Midget (ironically, this is largely because it is purely mechanical and doesn’t have an onboard computer). It’s also supported by plenty of fans on the Internet, some of whom have made websites not entirely unlike Low End Mac.

The MG’s electrical system, designed by Lucas, is surely Mac OS 9 – or perhaps System 7. It’s all fine when it works, but it breaks frequently and catastrophically.

Okay, the car analogy is now as dodgy as the MG’s pram-like suspension, and there’s more to come: the Internet. The Internet has changed computers forever.

Without a modern browser, a computer simply ceases to function as a useful general purpose device. Yes, it will continue to do all of the things it has done in the past, but the new world is closed to it.

There is simply no equivalent issue in the car world.

Still, we can keep old computers around for Sunday drives, can’t we? I, for one, am still planning on assembling a decent pre-Mac OS X design setup centred on Quark XPress 3.3, such is my frustration with the bloat and sloth of recent versions of both Quark and Adobe InDesign.

So, the analogy is troubled, but there’s one thing that’s true of both old computers and old cars (and anything else that is old, from furniture to friends): Why would we get rid of them when we love them so?

* Editor’s note: That depends on your definition of old. I often have a dozen or more apps running on my dual-processor G4 Power Macs, one (a 2002 model) running OS X 10.4 Tiger on 1 GHz CPUs and the other (a CPU-upgraded 2001 machine) running OS X 10.5 Leopard at 1.6 GHz. Never having lived with a G5 Mac, let alone an Intel-based Mac, I’m pretty happy with my current setup.

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