Blog : Now is the time to secure the future of classic cars

Keith Adams


I’m currently at the Retro Classics Show in Stuttgart and am surrounded by more than 3000 mostly wonderfully-presented classic cars. However, the buzz from the assembled media was actually about the prospect of old cars being banned from central London. This, presumably, will then be followed by other cities in the UK, such as Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge or anywhere else where vehicle emissions are on the agenda.

Having been in and around the classic car scene for more years than I care to remember, and also reported the beginnings of this story during my time as News Editor on Classic Car Weekly back in 2005, it feels like we have been here before, and I have very strong opinions on this subject. The first time this subject raised its head was with the initiation of the Umweltzonen in certain German cities – in a nutshell, if your car couldn’t meet tight emissions standards, it wouldn’t get the green sticker that would allow you legal entry into these cities. It effectively meant that pretty much all vehicles built before the mid-1990s weren’t allowed in, unless their owners fitted catalytic converters professionally and had them certified.

We were up in arms at the time, raising the same issues we’re hearing now – and I seem to recall that we entered a period of scaremongering over the subject. Then, the news came through – the classic vehicles clubs, organisations and magazines all banded together and pushed hard for exemption for historic vehicles – they won the argument, securing the historic exemption. In Italy, it meant the ‘Fiat 500 rule’, which allowed unhindered access to all sub-1000cc classics into emissions-controlled areas. Clearly public opinion mattered when defending an Italian icon.

However, the story gets really interesting elsewhere – in Germany, there’s a system in place to categorise cars as as ‘historic’. Basically, once your classic is 30 years old, you take it to your local registration office, they inspect it and, if it’s in good condition and cherished, it earns the all-important ‘H’ plate – with that affixed, your car is guaranteed, taxed and categorised as a classic car,and it’s possible to drive in the Umweltzone. Wonderful…

Here in the UK, we have no such provisions to categorize your car as a classic. Yes, if it was registered before 1974, you’re now exempt from paying road tax and, for those who own a car made before 1960, you don’t actually need an MoT it either. However, apart from that, we have no historic classification for classic cars at all – save for what we, the media, the car insurance industry and the owners’ club scene decide upon. Even then, none of us can really agree terms. That’s why, from here, I’d say getting agreement on what a classic car actually is should be made the first priority in our fight to secure the future of classic cars in the UK.

Something else that we all need to do within the classic car scene is unite. The initial story about the consultation into old car usage within London’s proposed Ultra Low Emissions Zone was run by Autocar and a number of classic car magazines have subsequently picked up on it. Classic & Sports Car is currently running a campaign on its website, inviting people to sign a petition against the proposal continuing the free use of all classics within the capital, while Practical Classics stated on its Facebook feed, ‘We shall fight it every step. First by going to Parliament to discuss it with the minister, and then by rallying against it.’

May I make a suggestion to help in our fight against this move? How about we all stand together, secure proper historic status for classic cars and then work hard to ensure that proper historic cars earn an exemption from these ULEZs? The bottom line is that these emissions zones are going to happen, the political will is too strong in their favour. We just need to make sure that, as classic car fans and owners, we work hard to create an environment where exemptions can be made without too much of a path of resistance.

Boris Johnson has said, ‘My vision is a central zone where almost all the vehicles running during working hours are either zero or low emission.’ Let’s ensure that we, as spokespeople for the classic car movement, make sure that our cars are free to be used in the capital – at the very least within some very wide windows. The first step in that process is to gain officially-sanctioned classic car status for those vehicles that measure up to an agreed criteria within the industry.

So, how about coming together on this with the FBHVC, the RAC and AA, as well as other important classic car organisations, and deciding what a classic car actually is and working to ensure that we get German-style official recognition? Only then can we stand together, like they did in Germany, and maintain responsible classic car owners’ freedom to use our cars in the coming years.

I sincerely hope that we, as a community, can unite, offer solutions and retain the right to use our cars in the future…

Keith Adams


  1. No need for this at all, and it is still diesel engine vehicles that pollute the most, the language from Boris should be common sense, the classic and vintage cars in quantity terms are microscopic compared to our everyday cars so why don’t we just let sleeping dogs lie?

    If its such a huge concern why don’t we go the whole hog and start demolishing historic building because they are not energy efficient?

    Anyone whom owns a classic I would proffer is a collector and/or an enthusiast and would naturally want their cherished vehicle to be maintained to a high standard, the German scheme seems reasonable so why did we abandon the mandatory MOT checks for these cars in the first place?

  2. Quote: “Here in the UK, we have no such provisions to categorize your car as a classic. Yes, if it was registered before 1974, you’re now exempt from paying road tax, and for those who own a car made before 1960, you don’t actually need an MoT it either. But other than that, we have no historic classification for classic cars at all, other than what we, the media, the car insurance industry, and the owners’ club scene decide upon. And even then, none of us can really agree terms.”

    A very well put point that I personally get many answers and definitions to, often by those who use their interpretation to fuel their prejudice. For example, many of the traditional classic car enthusiasts quote 1980 as the final year when a car is entitled to be referred to as a “classic car”. Which means that more recent renditions of the Rover SD1 and ‘classic’ Saab 900 do not qualify, even though they are carry over designs from the 1970s. The same could also apply to the first generation Range Rover – officially known as the Range Rover Classic from October 1994.

    Some critics argue that it is because of the advent of fuel injection (have they forgotten about the Triumph 2.5 Pi from 1969?) and modern electronics. The latter is a further point on contention when you look at the electrical technology used by many American manufacturers as far back as the 1950s (e.g. electric seats), Aston Martin with the wonderful Lagonda introduced in 1977 which had all manner of electronic gizmos and of course Citroen with their hydro-pneumatic suspension. Seriously, on what basis can there be a hard cut-off date for determining what is worthy enough of being called a “classic”? It is completely subjective.

    With this in mind, and because I don’t believe in the classic car scene simply showcasing very expensive ‘classics’ that are predominantly owned by the older generation, I have been co-running a Modern Classics display at an organised classic vehicle show held near Exeter over the second weekend in July. The aim of which is to bring together cars of interest (that is also another issue of debate!) built from 1981 to 1995, which can not only show the appeal of these cars, but are hopefully more affordable, are reliable enough to be used on a daily basis and which, just an importantly, can appeal to a younger buyer in order to get them interested in the classic car scene.

    In recent years we have had a 1981 Golf GLS, Scirocco and prestine 1984 Austin Metro, to a 1985 Audi Quattro, 1992 Saab 900 XS, MG Maestro, Rover SD1 2600 Vanden Plas, Ford Escort XR3, Nissan Figaro, 1990 Nissan Sunny Estate, Toyota MR2 Mark 1 and also a Peugeot 205 CTi. In the first year we staged the display as part of the Historic Vehicle Gathering, it created both curiosity from show visitors to congratulations from the older owners who felt this was the way forward to help preserve the classic car scene. Sadly, this effort still feels to be out on a limb compared to what is accepted in the wider classic car scene.

    But it is a start.

  3. This idea of banning classic cars from London is laughable. It’s not as if you’re going to see a traffic jam on Euston Road that’s full of Vauxhall Victors, Mk 2 Cortinas and Morris Minors?
    Mind you it might be a nice idea for those of us who can still remember when nearly all the cars on the road were British.

  4. The same thing has been done in Malta. Once a 30-year and over car passes an ‘originality’ test (which costs about £40 to register it as such and + handing in 5 photos of the rear, front, side, dash and engine bay) it is deemed to be a classic with an annual road tax of £6.50 a year. The originality test gives points of the vehicle’s period / original features. Modern paint jobs, engines by different manufacturers, modded wheels, wrapping, dashboard swaps, chassis modifications and so on are immediate fails. The car doesn’t have to be in a roadworthy condition at this stage as this is just a registration procedure.

    To be roadworthy, it still has to pass a VRT (local version of an MOT) with emissions tests and all, but that’s fair enough to ensure that classic cars are kept in good running condition. Insurances also give special rates for such cars (around £50 a year for 3rd party cover only per fleet of classic cars per individual) with milage restriction with a circa £20 fine for every 100km which are surpassed over the 1000km. The cars are recognised via special codes on their logbooks and a code on their tax discs, without needing to change number plates.

    I can’t understand why the DVLA doesn’t introduce a rolling system like this one. It would require less change of laws (to change the date ever so often), create an efficient system and ensure that well kept classics (not anything over 30 years of age)

  5. Francis (@2) makes an excellent point. Cars have always been an easy target for politicians who don’t really give a damn about the environment but just want to be seen to be banging the drum by the voters. Once again the rights of the individual are being eroded by the politicians, many of whom have no interest in classic cars.

    One mans ‘classic’ will always be another mans ‘gas guzzler’, so trying to define what is and what isn’t a classic is a pointless exercise. The only thing we need to unite upon is that ‘retro’ drivers, whether they be conventional classics or customs and hot rods, have as much right to be on the road as anyone else providing the vehicle is maintained to a legislated standard.

    If fuel is a problem…. then LPG is the answer. The only people to lose out is the government, but no doubt they will increase the tax on it if a lot of drivers convert to LPG. A bit like they did with diesel in the 80’s. Either way…. they will never convert me into driving a modern car…. I’d rather pay the road tax.

  6. Can’t see it being an issue in Edinburgh, the hassle trying to manoeuvre around the trams will put paid to that….

    Joking aside, There are a lot of cities up here that don’t have nearly as much traffic as London or Birmingham, and plenty of open country roads to drive them on rather than congested cities.

    As regards definition, David 3500 makes a valid point. The Mini carried more or less the same design over 40 years, so a 1959 car and 1999 car would be classified differently – yet it is still referred to as the ‘classic’ Mini. We certainly need to legislate what is and isn’t a classic, and take it from there. It might not be perfect but it would be a start

  7. Is the science correct? Alarming figures for deaths due to air pollution have been around for years and form the basis for action by Europe – but they are the same overpaid clowns who thought the solution to global warming was bio-fuels.

    We have since learned that climate change was rather more complicated than they thought and not happening at the predicted rate – so is the basis for this action on air quality sound? – so far as I know no-one has ever challenged it – presumably as its not very exciting research and no funds are available.

  8. Less subsidised buses on the capitals streets would be a good move, assuming they are still subsidised…..

  9. “Less subsidised buses on the capitals streets would be a good move, assuming they are still subsidised…..”

    Oh yes they are, and to the tune of around £600 million a year.

  10. @10, Halving them and knocking a 1/3rd more off would be a good move, instead of empty buses traipsing around all day.

  11. I work as a transport planner for a council and agree with Keith. Just because rotten air quality was acceptable 30 years ago doesn’t mean it is now – and in some heavily trafficked areas it’s bad enough to provoke asthma attacks. Surely no-one would want to argue that’s an acceptable state of affairs.

    So, what to do? First is to think realistically about what politicians say. London won’t be zero emission for a long time – but it will see a progressive reduction in pollutants as more vehicles (including buses) adopt electric propulsion. What that means is probably that it would be ridiculous to ban older cars now when they’re a tiny proportion of total traffic, but that it might not seem so crazy in15 years if 80% of vehicles on the road are not generating emissions at point of use. Huffing and puffing about “people with classic cars all keeping them well maintained” won’t help. Hands up here anyone who’s bought an old car only to find it needs lots of work because of previous neglect…

    So I think Keith (as usual) sets exactly the right tone. Band together with a big hitter, or organisation or two, set up a definition, and agree something with the powers that be. There’s another angle too – emissions policies are determined locally – without a definition of a “classic” there’s a danger Councils will determine their own – and you really don’t want to get into a situation where some Councils ban anything without a catalyst, others anything pre-1986 and others only allow pre1974 cars on alternate Sundays when there’s an “n” in the month.

  12. There are probably two million Ford Focuses on the road and probably only a few hundred sixties Cortinas on the road with the majority of them outside of London. It’s obvious what would cause the most pollution, so any attempt to ban classic cars from London would be totally pointless and petty.
    However, pettiness towards motorists has become some kind of national sport in the last 20 years. How many people are sick of money making parking restrictions, where if you’re late by one minute, some inadequate jobsworth will stick a hefty parking fine on your windscreen, and for all it’s been banned recently, there was the scandal of wheelclamping where people had to pay hundreds of pounds to have the clamp released. Not forgetting speed cameras, unnecessary double yellow lines, bus lanes and speed bumps that have contributed little to road safety.
    Now for all I am in favour of decent public transport and understand not everyone can drive, could you imagine if Jeremy Clarkson managed to get his wish and ban buses? This would rightly cause uproar, but the amount of aggro drivers has to endure is rarely commented on.

  13. It would be sad to keep out older cars from central cities due to overzealous pollution controls. I know in the USA, almost all states have special registration classifications available for vehicle 25 or more years old with modest annual registrations fees, low or no ‘car tax’, usually based on the value of the vehicle in some states and limited or no safety or pollution testing required. It would affect the full range of cars from original Minis to RR’s that do limited mileage.
    I suspect one reason for the current policy in the UK is that some would keep and use a 25 year old + car just to dodge the taxman.

  14. Genuine question – do people **really** take properly cherished classic cars into big cities on a regular basis?

    I thought classic car ownership was the preserve of old duffers in the shire counties…

  15. This idea that if your car is on an ‘approved’ list of classic cars and you can prove that it’s still ‘original’, then it gets some kind of special historic status is the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.

    It would need to be inspected regularly as you could sell it on to me the day after getting it certified and I would throw the old cross-plys in the skip. No point risking an original car by driving it on poor quality tyres. Then I’d replace the 4 speed box with a 5 speed because reduces the revs at speed which makes the car more tractable, whilst reducing engine wear. The good thing about this one is that it saves fuel too! (greener).

    Now what about the brakes, I could maybe improve them too cos the original ones….. etc etc. This is why a system based upon a single inspection wouldn’t work and who is going to police it?

    The last time I got stopped by the police was in a ’72 Opel Manta. We ended up talking about the car (like you always seem to when you drive old cars). The officer didn’t recognise the model, but noticed the Opel badge on the boot lid. Told me his brother had an Opel Frontera, which struck me as being totally irrelevant at the time. Told me it was a cool looking car and then drove off. Still don’t know why he stopped me. Do you think he’s going to think…. hmmm a ’72 ‘A’ series Opel Manta. This should have a 4 speed gearbox because they didn’t introduce a 5 speed box until the B series model came out. I don’t think so.

    Don’t forget that sometimes, particularly with pre 1950 cars, second hand parts are not always available. At the moment you can modify another manufacturers equipment to fit but under the proposed rules this would no longer be possible.

    It will be a shame if all this red tape gets introduced just so folks can save a couple of hundred quid a year. In the bigger picture the tax saving is negligible. The sort of people who drive classics every day are enthusiasts, you have to be to do it every day, but personally…. I don’t see the point of paying to drive a characterless POS whilst having a garage full of beauties that never get to see the light of day. Except for maybe the odd weekend in Summer when you drive it into a field and stand next to it all day.

    If you want to drive your old car in the city….. convert it to LPG using the money you are saving from the road tax exemption. Sorted!

  16. Glenn @ 13 about those Focus (Foci ?) say this legislation comes in 2018 – the Focus will be 20 years old a classic no less…..

  17. Hmm. Speaking as someone who lives (and keeps a classic) in central London, I’m not too worried. These proposals crop up from time to time and tend to be dismissed as unworkable. C London is crammed full of old cars, ranging from high-end classics cherished by wealthy enthusiasts to battered 30-year old saloons owned by residents who only cover a few thousand miles a year and don’t feel the need to keep up with the Joneses. Plus, there’s a lot of parliamentarians who own, or sympathise with, classics (including youngtimers: half the Commons seems to own or have owned an XJS), and many of them are in decision-making positions.

  18. Wasn’t SMMT involved in this somewhere? In my cynical mind I interpret that as trying to boost sales of new models by usin classics as a scapegoat.
    Come on, SMMT, refute that.

  19. Maybe ANPR software may be developed to eek out the old stuff at peak times and thus generate “a income stream” sometime in the distant future.

    The trouble is, in terms of transport and infrastructure and planning, we are 30 years behind.

    Service deliveries in the small hours are preferable as would a cutting edge underground and rail system.

    And HS2 is an expensive joke.

  20. Keith has raised an important issue and one that needs wider coverage than here.

    To start with, low emission zones are a good thing. Anything that improves air quality is welcome, as those who live near main roads and suffer respiratory illness will testify. Those who have the misfortune to live in a built up area near a motorway junction (e.g. Gravelly Hill, Birmingham) have the worst air quality in the country.

    Having said that, I can think of several instances where a Low Emission Zone could cause problems for those who use well maintained classic vehicles.

    1. Rallies
    The rallies and outdoor events are a big part of the classic vehicle scene and people do want to see vehicles on the move, not stationary like a caged exhibit in a zoo. An LEZ could put paid to the parades that form part of many events.

    2. Hire or Reward
    Those that own classic buses often hire out vehicles for weddings, proms, retirement events etc. as a way of raising money for their upkeep. Let’s say a bride and groom decide to hire a classic bus to take their wedding guests from the church to the swanky hotel where the wedding reception will be. The problem is the church is in a town centre subject to a LEZ, so the owner of the bus says “no can do”. It’s debatable if the 1960’s bus with its diesel engine would actually produce lower emissions than having to use several limos to take the party on their journey to the reception.

    3. Filming
    A TV company decide to produce a drama set in the 1970’s and do location filming. They make great effort to remove all traces of the modern age using CGI and persuade some local households to take down their satellite dishes for the weekend. The producers want to use 1970’s cars like Austin Allegros, Ford Capris, Marinas plus a 1970’s Transit to make an authentic street scene from the era. The street just happens to be in a low emission zone….

    There needs to be some sensible derogations, to allow use of classic vehicles in situations like these.

  21. Keith
    five letters- FBHVC ! This should be the co-ordinating body for any activities aimed at preserving mobility for classics. It’s what it does…

  22. @ Kevin 24

    Good point about filming, although in series like Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes only the cast cars ever seemed to move!

  23. A car is a car whatever it’s age; so long as it is maintained to a level consistent with it’s design then there should be no legislation on where and when it is used. Or perhaps those born before 1960 should be banned from London?
    Air pollution is undoubtedly an Issue, only removing all cars and thus people will solve. Perhaps limiting the number of people in London is the answer?

  24. I could not care less about London anyway, maybe the London-centric fools that dream up legislation think its the centre of the earth.

    Is it the paragon of manufacturing? Is it car maker central?
    Or is it the nerve centre of bloated bankers and crooked politicians and spiv stock market con artists?

    Wall the place off for me, and place a lid on top. Hermetically sealed with Boris in.

  25. Who really would want to drive around London? You seem to spend most of the time wasting petrol in first gear and, unless you can actually afford to park, spend ages finding a street where you can find a parking space. It’s a paradise for traffic wardens, car park companies that charge the earth and car haters.

  26. …and yet London is a full of exotic cars very often being driven daily, every time I’m there I see a bunch of the weird and wonderful I’d never see any where else. Where the money is the cars seem to migrate to!

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