How difficult is it to drive a vintage car?

The answer can be ‘very’! Our staff writer spent some time in Coniston with a 1910 Maxwell – and things didn’t quite go according to plan

A gentle rain softened the long grass, its patter breezing across the nearby tents and Land Rovers. A dank smell of wet vegetation and fir trees clogged the nostrils as a hastened wind etched athwart beyond the hill crests. With tiny brooks of water streaming underfoot, the cool weather after the recent heatwave was a welcome change; a little piece of Eden on earth, bringing normality to a baked, parched land.

Except, the tranquillity offered by Coniston’s Coppermines had been ruined. Above the sound of gently flowing rivers and murmuring wildlife, an acrid tone spiked the air. The language was coarse and the temperament shot. Dark clouds had gathered. I was a broken man.

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After less than a mile, a prestigious chunk of American automotive heritage had gained the better of me. There were no computers, driver aids or electronics to hamper my progress. The car was in mint condition and blameless. The owner, Phil Johnston, remains well known in these parts as a collector of fine automobiles. People were staring. Many believed that I required medical assistance.

Meet the 1910 Maxwell

The culprit was one 1910 Maxwell – a direct rival to the Ford Model-T but with more amenity and indulgence. The seats absorbed you in gentleman’s-club comfort, while the materials used to craft the interior appeared to be the finest of quality. The brass trim was blemish free and the running gear enjoyed concours condition. Therefore, there could be only one problem: me.

It’s easy to forget how indebted we are to the entrepreneurs, pioneers, inventors and maniacal motorists who pushed along automotive evolution with such tenacity. From horses to horsepower, cars such as the Maxwell helped shove humanity into a reshaped society like nothing civilisation had seen before. But this wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. I just wanted the damn thing to start.

Having met Phil all too briefly for an ephemeral driving lesson, I couldn’t recall the exact order in which to fire her up. Unable to balance the perfect concoction of witchcraft and fiction that the Maxwell’s age-old engine required, I had instead been relegated to 45 minutes of ‘try it and see’. After an embarrassing spout of wrenching the crank start and praying, my withered arms had endured enough.

I retreated to the driver’s seat. Now, you would imagine that such a vehicle pushing 110 years of age would have little in the way of controls. Yet you’d be wrong. Upon the steering wheel rested presets for ‘advance’ and ‘retard’ – but it’s not in relation to gearing. That joy is reliant on a lever usually located next to trapdoors in slapstick pre-war comedies. And you must be precise, otherwise you’ll stall and find yourself stranded to be eaten by wolves – such as my situation threatened.

Experimenting with the rudimentary choke, the time was nigh to give it one last shot before phoning Phil and admitting I was useless. As I sweated like a Vegas-era Elvis on a squash court, my final huge crank yielded welcome results. To unsuspecting onlookers, undertaking such a task appeared sexually violent; like you were doing something rather derogatory to the vintage car’s face. Nonetheless, the beast fired up to relieved applause.

Not that the ordeal was over. As an encore to finally awakening the drivetrain, I had to dive into the cabin and get the hand throttle just right. After three-quarters of an hour, I wasn’t taking any chances. Miraculously, it all worked out. We were off.

Driving the Maxwell

Although my spirit was somewhat dampened after a Maxwell-sponsored hillside workout, my enthusiasm returned as progress was made – albeit slowly. Even by pre-war standards there is nothing remarkable about the way this American vehicle goes – which is perhaps just as well; learning to pilot such a craft would be fatal for all involved if there was any more than the 30bhp offered here.

It’s no small engine, either, boasting a 4-litre straight-four with a top speed breaching 45mph. Laughable now, but back in 1910 this was respectably quick. And trust me, I felt every single mile per hour.

Setting off in first gear took courage and a delicate right foot. I pushed the pedal to the floor and the revs built at an alarming rate, potentially causing frenzied damage to a precious heritage vehicle. For all it lacks compared with what society deems a ‘classic car’, this Maxwell is still worth a considerable sum – which was a daunting amount of responsibility for me considering the terrain.

I wasn’t on a tarmac road, or even a flat surface. I was in Cumbria’s Coppermines Valley, where the main track was rutted and the unprotected drops ranged from several feet to hundreds of metres. I must have been mad, but not as bonkers as Phil lending me the Maxwell in the first place. He either trusted me completely or didn’t know me at all.

How hard is it to drive?

Working the three-speed gearbox up to a whopping 15mph sounds lacklustre on paper, but it takes steely determination to make the gearchange smooth without losing momentum or wailing with fear. As I found out, you must be firm and direct yet precise and sympathetic. It’s a difficult blend of skills to find straight off, but after a few miles I found I gelled with the vehicle rather quickly.

Although the majority of vintage and Edwardian vehicles have their own unique set-up when it comes to pedal function, the Maxwell follows what was once mainstream – a two-pedal arrangement for the clutch, brake and accelerator.

Both clutch and brake share a pedal on the passenger side of the steering column, whereas the accelerator rests on the other, with the latter being self-explanatory. However, push down on the clutch/brake and the first half of the pedal travel disengages the drivetrain, allowing a gearchange. Push the pedal further and the wooden brakes are applied. Get this wrong and you can stall the car, over-rev the engine, perform a sort-of-emergency stop, reanimate Satan or cause a black hole.

On that topic, you must plan well in advance before so much as attempting any stopping manoeuvre. The wooden brakes are largely ineffective from anything above walking pace, meaning you have to work down the gears to slow the vehicle with any element of safety. Slam on the brakes, or apply the comedy handbrake too soon, and you’ve got a genuinely dangerous situation on your hands.

Besides crashing into whatever solid object first crosses your trajectory, the wheels can ignite themselves with the friction caused by wooden brakes on wooden wheels. If you don’t have a fire extinguisher or water source nearby, then the results can be catastrophic – like igniting a firework using a flamethrower.

Then there’s the handling. Once cutting edge and respected, the flexible body and bendy chassis leave an appreciation for wipe-clean leather. Tackle any corner outwith the Maxwell’s comfort zone, and you’re either out of control and dead, or upside down and dead. The skinny tyres offer grip where it counts but little else when pushing hard.

Furrows in the road can throw up an issue, too. With such spindly pillars forming the structure of the roof, the chassis wallows and flexes upon encountering undulations or tarmac imperfections. As you can imagine, driving around an old mine, the surface was rarely smooth – and I ended up either supporting the spindle near my shoulder by hand, or wearing the canvas roof as a hat, when both hands were required on the wheel.

Boiled down, if you drive with care and respect the fundamental mechanicals with a degree of sympathetic understanding – carefully planning each manoeuvre, gearchange and stopping exercise – then controlling the vintage automobile soon becomes second nature.

Acceleration is largely inspirational, making junctions and steep hills something of a challenge, but the venerable drivetrain and powerplant will complete whatever task you ask of them should tolerance be brought to proceedings.

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Lasting impressions

However, for all these hang-ups, I acclimatised to Phil’s Maxwell rather nicely. After a solid two-hour stint behind the wheel, the engine tone no longer summoned anxiety and fear, but reassurance and comfort.

Each gearchange still required 100 percent of my now-flagging vigour, but with a firm grasp of how the hellish brake/clutch system worked, smooth changes both up and down could be accomplished without inducing whiplash. Hurrah!

The Maxwell was oh-so comfortable, too. Strangely, despite the suspension honing Druid levels of technology, even when I was running cross-axled over folds in the road you could have sat in the rear with a small-print newspaper and barely noticed a thing.

Within a small window of time, I’d transformed my opinion of the Maxwell purely by spending time with it and adjusting to its pre-war ways. As I drew to a sketchy halt in Phil’s courtyard, he seemed delighted that it had been returned in one piece. And although I found it something of a relief to leave the car behind and jump into something a tad more modern, looking over my shoulder I couldn’t help but admire the vehicle for what it was.

The AutoClassics verdict

It was this sort of design – simple, versatile and easy to maintain – that brought motoring to the masses, resulting in the vehicles that we rely on, enjoy and cherish today. Despite difficulties behind the wheel for those of us inexperienced with such a layout, we should remain forever thankful. Without vehicles such as the Maxwell, we mere mortals wouldn’t have been invited to the party.

To answer the headline question, piloting a vintage car requires all your wit and attention. Get it wrong and the automobile will virtually go on strike. Get it right, however, and not only do you familiarise surprisingly quickly, but you are also humbled, too. How difficult is it to drive a vintage car? Only as difficult as you make it for yourself.

Pictures by Gillian Carmoodie, who annoyingly could drive the Maxwell like a pro...

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