What is a ‘classic’ car?


It’s not clear what someone’s talking about when they say ‘classic cars’. Everyone has their own definition, their own set of criteria, their own ideas about what makes a car ‘classic’. Some people have a very fluid rationale, using the word ‘classic’ to refer to a wider range of interesting cars that aren’t being built anymore. Others are more comfortable with a specific meaning of the word, like the reader who wrote into us yesterday saying that to qualify as classic the car must be “a post-WWII, pre-1980 model of technical or nostalgic merit”.

Neither approach is wrong. But how old or new can a classic car be? Who decides whether a car is noteworthy, or when it approaches ‘a certain age’? Do we leave this down to consensus? I’ve briefly explored some of the options.

How old is a ‘classic’ car?

Again, it depends who you ask. ‘Classic’ is a specific taxation class in several US states, while North American historic car clubs have their own set criteria and age restrictions. In the UK, though, there are fewer hard-and-fast rules.

The closest thing we have to a cut-off date is currently the 1st of January 1976 – cars built before this particular day don’t incur vehicle excise duty. This is a rolling date (it’ll soon be 1977) but it offers Brits something approaching a government definition of ‘classic’.

It’s still not very specific, though, and plenty of people would argue that there are cars built after 1976 that currently qualify as ‘classic’. The MG B GT, the MkII Escort, and the Golf GTI all fall into that category. Is there a more workable definition?

So can turn to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for something more prescriptive. They see as ‘classic’ (basically) any car that is worth £15,000 or more, and is aged 15 years or older. This combination of price and age is the closest we have to a metric of desirability – if a fifteen-year-old car commands a price of £15,000, it’s probably something pretty interesting.

Range Rover P38
Is this a classic car? Depending on condition, it might be. CREDIT: ANDREW CROWLEY

We can test this using basic maths and the back pages of any car magazine. Fifteen-year-old cars – those registered in 2001 – include the Renault Kangoo and Vauxhall Vectra. But since we’ve filtered out anything below £15,000, we’re left with probably the most noteworthy cars from that year: Tuscans, Impreza P1s, and more 911s than you can shake a stick at. Then with more money come the Ferrari 360s and an errant yellow Diablo.

What can be a ‘classic’ car?

Whether any of these qualify as classics is still the source of disagreement. A Subaru fan might consider the P1 to be a seminal road car, while a dyed-in-the-wool Porsche aficionado would probably have to look closely at which particular 911 was being offered before deciding whether it was a classic or not. But it’s fair to say that these cars are currently closer to being ‘classics’ than Corsas of the same vintage.

Focus
Is the Ford Focus a classic? Given how well its looks have aged, its popularity, and its important position in the market, some might say yes.

Using this definition raises other doubts. Firstly, £15,000 will buy you an excellent example of the P38 Range Rover, a comfortable and powerful ‘missing link’ between the Range Rovers of yesteryear and the current plurality of 4×4 luxo-barges. However, you can also pick up a shoddy version of the P38 for a few hundred quid. So to what extent does condition define whether an individual car can be considered a classic?

Secondly, the age cut-off is difficult to pin down. A 2001 Diablo might be a classic, but a 2001 Murciélago almost certainly isn’t. Two different models from the same manufacturer, both occupying similar positions in the market and registered in the same year, can have very different statuses.

Take having “technical or nostalgic merit” as a starting point for classic car candidacy. It’s actually more difficult to think of a car that doesn’t fall into this category than to find cars that do – nearly every car has a technological USP, and those that don’t, have fan clubs.

In 2013 we asked Paul Michaels of Hexagon Classics what he thought made a classic car. His answer – that they should have personality – leaves us not far from where we started in terms of understanding. We’ve also explored the streets of Cuba, where ‘classic cars’ are used as daily drivers by a society cut off from the Golf and the 3-series.

And by definition, more cars are becoming old enough to be noteworthy. Everyday vehicles from yesteryear become scarce, or are belatedly recognised for the technological achievements they represent. Gradually, and fitfully, the ranks of the ‘classic’ fleet swell.

If we acknowledge that the chunk of automotive history considered ‘classic’ is moving, and that some cars will attain ‘classic’ status as they age, then our idea of what models can be called ‘classic’ is certainly going to change with time. In a few decades, people like us will fawn over the nostalgic sound of a parking assist beeper, while we show our incredulous children the primitive interface we used to call a “touchscreen”.

In conclusion, there’s no rhyme or reason to what ‘classic’ means in everyday parlance. But if somebody tells you a car is a classic and you think that they’re wrong, remember that eventually, they’ll almost certainly become right.

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