BY a curious coincidence, I stumbled across a group of touring pre-war Bentleys for the second time last week.
I had first seen them parked near Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah - of all places - and then found myself passed by the jittering, smoking, rumbling convoy not two blocks from Capilano canyon.
What amazing machines, belching and farting out improperly digested hydrocarbons, all gleaming brass and leaf-springs and folding windshield and hail-fellow-well-met. It always makes me happy to see these cars not merely preserved, but driven. Out there in the sea of humdrum ecopods, it's like catching sight of a heritage house nestled in-between rows of glassy-fronted condos.
It occurred to me, as I chatted with one of the organizers, sketching out his Los Angeles to Seattle route map, that these leviathans will always be at this sort of nonsense. The sea will rise and the sun will parch the land and the struggle for resources will reach fever pitch as the waterhole shrinks and old-timey cars will keep trundling about the country on endless, pointless, ridiculously long road trips.
And, in 100 years, if you tried to pull the same sort of trick in a 2013 Bentley, you'll look like an idiot. Because you'd be pushing it.
It's not just Bentleys either.
Every year, some list of "future classics" gets written up, and every year, the reader of said list is required to suspend more and more of his/her imagination. Yes, the ultra-supercars are still going to be carefully preserved, but that's simply because no one ever drives them.
A modern BMW? A modern Mercedes? Either is headed for an automotive graveyard far faster than their simpler grandparents. Mechanical fortitude has been replaced by electronic prowess, and the increasing computing power of even the most basic car also means its rapidly accelerating obsolescence.
Given basic maintenance, you once might expect a 20-year life cycle out of your average car, as long as it wasn't some overcomplicated luxo-barge. Now, by the standards of the past, we're ALL driving modern luxo-barges.
And that makes it hard, nay, impossible to pick out what might survive long enough to become a so-called modern classic. Henry Ford probably first turned the automobile into a consumer product and status symbol, but we've spent the century turning it into something different - a disposable tool.
You need look no further than the Porsche 911 to see the best example of this. The new car whips any of the old ones six ways from Sunday, dynamically speaking. Would I hold out any hope that, 20 years down the road, you'd still be able to find some electrical guru who'll perform incantations over your buggy PASM system? No chance.
The air-cooled cars on the other hand, are like mechanical watches. Yes, a Timex would probably be a little more accurate and a whole lot less complicated - actually, with the amount of infotainment crammed into today's modern automobile, make that an iPad.
So, the iPad's great, and then along comes the next one which is smaller/bigger/ brighter/shinier/faster and every kid wants one. The cycle seems to be a new release every eight months, and it's accelerating.
And then, on the other hand, there's your mechanical watch. It's fussy, heavy, requiring a careful craftman's maintenance - and it's ticking right along. Wind it up for 40 years and hand it to your grandchildren - no problem.
This is the charm of the older car, and as collector plate availability approaches the 1990s, it might be reaching its peak. Those Bentleys will always be on the road - there'll always be someone who wants to fix them up.
Same thing for a less fancy Brit ride - an MGB or a TR6.
Same thing for an air-cooled 911, same thing, perhaps, for an early Mazda MX5, same thing for up to a third-generation BMW M3, but much beyond that? The carefully machined suspension linkage is replaced by a clever electronic brain - when it wears out, how are you going to find another one?
We're not quite there yet, and there still are a few machines that'll be worth keeping around. The limited-edition Boss Mustang and its huffier, angrier, loonier Shelby cousin will look distinctly old-fashioned when a new, lighter and sportier Mustang comes to market - that'll make them cool.
But the age of the collector car is on the wane, and at some point, they'll be building the last car worth preserving. The good news is, the ones that are already in careful hands?
They're going to be with us forever.