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Green Machines: Vintage Vs. Modern Cars

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 14 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Modern Cars Vintage Cars Green Machines

We are all made aware of the importance of eco-friendly living and the effect that our consumerist habits have on the planet. Motor transport and the industry of car manufacturing have long been cited as a major contributor to climate change. But with current production levels of LPG modern cars as well as the advent of an increase in the production of “green machines” such as hybrid, bio-fuelled and electric cars, it is time to consider what is actually better for the environment – sustaining classic and vintage cars with a lower annual mileage, or manufacturing millions of clean fuel cars in the effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Toxic Emissions and CO2

In a bid to try and reduce air pollution, the EU has recently established a cap on motor transport emissions across no less than 20 cities in Europe. However, some vintage car owners feel that they are being targeted, despite their small population only producing comparatively meagre amounts of CO2 emissions. There are fears amongst the vintage and classic car owner’s communities that any more stringent legislation that does not exempt historic vehicles will lead to the forced extinction of their hobby or even livelihood.

It is worth noting that carbon dioxide itself is not a toxic emission, but is recognised as a major factor in climate change. Only 3% of emissions from a car exhaust are actually considered to be harmful. So toxic emissions-wise, mile-for-mile, a single modern car versus a vintage car wins hands down when it comes to reduced toxic fuel emissions. To try and counteract this, some models of vintage and classic cars might be able to be retrofitted with a two-way catalytic converter. Originally designed for rigging up to a modern diesel engine, they can reduce carbon emissions by up to 50%. The only ‘downside’ is that they will require unleaded petrol. However, vintage cars that use leaded petrol are also able to use a low lead version that still gives protection to the engine, whilst reducing their lead emissions by half.

How the cars are driven is also a factor to be considered – sustained speeding down a motorway above and beyond the national speed limit uses up considerably more petrol than cruising at a more genteel speed that a vintage car is accustomed to.

However, annual mileage is also a factor in comparing the eco-friendly virtues of a vintage or modern car. On a like-for-like basis, a modern petrol car will emit around the same amount of CO2 as a vintage car with the same mpg. However, commonly a vintage car will do much less mileage, therefore consume less fuel and emit less CO2 than a modern car used for commuting. But this is where modern hybrids at least win major green points – they use half the petrol, as well as releasing 90% less toxic emissions, than comparative non-hybrids.

Manufacturing and Sustainability

The environmental impact of a car does not just end with its exhaust emissions. A major consideration in the contribution to climate change is the manufacturing, as well as the eventual scrapping and breaking, of modern cars. Even the hybrid, bio-fuelled and electric cars cannot escape the fact that they are not completely carbon neutral, when you factor in CO2 emissions produced from the manufacturing process.

Vintage cars have, of course, earned the ‘vintage’ label due to their elongated lifespan. Owning a vintage car is, in a way, a mode of recycling. Whilst vintage cars have been carefully maintained for decades, the average ‘life expectancy’ of a modern LPG car is under 15 years. So whilst a modern car itself might produce fewer toxic emissions than a vintage model, the ongoing massive worldwide car manufacturing – including raw materials mining, refining, transportation and processing – actually adds to the toxic and CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere.

An estimated 70 million new but cleaner-fuelled cars are produced every year. They are indeed comparatively less toxic than vintage cars, but the scale of newer cars and their annual mileage means that they are on some level more accountable for the amount of CO2 emissions annually being released into the atmosphere.

Of course, if everybody owned and a vintage car and ran it daily for all their transporting needs, this would not be beneficial to the environment. But take into consideration the number of vintage cars that are actually in existence. Also take into consideration the emissions that are produced by the ongoing maintenance and running of vintage cars, versus the emissions produced by the millions of modern petrol cars on the road. Surely it could be said that the lesser of two evils in this instance of manufacturing and sustainability at least, is in fact vintage cars?

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