Blog : Why, oh why…

…Can’t there be a hard and fast rule about what constitutes a classic or not?

A nice easy formula would be the way forward, but it seems that there are just too many variables to consider.

Obviously, I’ve been thinking this of late, and I really find it difficult to get my head around the ‘classic’ argument. You know the one… What is a classic and what isn’t? After all, there are many cars that I would consider classic, but don’t get near the magazines because they are too new or too humdrum.

Look at the dictionary definition of the word ‘classic’ from Merriam-Webster, and you’ll see what I mean:

1a) Serving as a standard of excellence: of recognized value b) traditional, enduring c) characterized by simple tailored lines in fashion year after year

2) of or relating to the ancient Greeks and Romans or their culture : classical

3a) historically memorable b) noted because of special literary or historical associations

Now, if you take these definitions and try and place your car in there, you will see that it becomes quite difficult. Think about some of our beloved BMC>MGR cars – would we consider the Austin Allegro to be serving as a standard of excellence? Or the Morris Ital as historically memorable? And yet, at the same time, a 12-year old MG ZT 260 V8 would be considered a classic because it is most definitely enduring, as well as serving a standard of excellence.

So, it is possible to have a brand new classic car, if you follow this line of thinking. And let’s face it, moving away from the BMC>Rover stable, there are plenty of new cars you would call classic if you go by the book – who on Earth would disagree that the Pagani Zonda is a classic… the same with the MG XPower SV.

A brand new MG ZT 260 V8 would be
considered a classic because it is
most definitely enduring, as well
as serving a standard of excellence

These are exceptional cars, which are full of character, have been created with a singularity of purpose and loved by an army of fans that transcends their customer bases. However, that leaves the issue of what about the less exotic? I may question the validity of the Allegro or Marina’s case for being classics, but you cannot argue that there are lots of people who cherish theirs, as well as a thriving support industry out there.

But are they classics or merely old?

I’d say old, but I suspect that I would be severely outvoted on that one – and one of the finest qualities you can have as a person is the ability to listen to (and take on board) the opinions of others. So, on that score, our Cortina MkIVs, Cavalier MkIs and Princess 1700s, are most definitely classics, even if two of the three were pretty rotten when they were new.

And that’s the rub – it’s impossible for one person to define what a classic is, and it comes down to individual choice. Mind you, that still does not stop me from bristling every time I see the word tagged to something unworthy of the name.

Anyone remember the 1995 Fiesta Classic? Or perhaps the Polo Classic?

I rest my case…

Keith Adams


  1. A good attempt Keith but I suspect even with the opportunity to write a 100,000 word thesis on this very subject you would still struggle to come up with a simple, quantifiable and satisfactory definition. In truth there will probably never be one.

    Which then brings me onto the term ‘Modern Classics’. Admittedly the title alone is quite a jarring confliction, but this sub-area of the broader “classic car’ conundrum creates just as much controversy because it covers the more recent period of the 1980s and beyond. You also sense that some governing bodies and representatives of the classic car movement only have a lukewarm commitment to assisting it.

    I actually run a ‘Modern Classics’ section at a large classic vehicle rally held in the south west each year and it amazes me what some people think should and should not be accepted. As this display is also trying to show an affordable entry point into the wider classic movement and hopefully attract younger blood into some cars of the 1980s and 1990s, I tend to refuse entry to some very expensive cars and instead focus on the once every day cars that are now a rare sight because of low surviving numbers. After all how many of us can honestly identify with a Ferrari or a Bentley from this era, which are already well catered for by the car clubs?

    Entries in the past have included Maestros and Montegos, Sierras, a 1990 Nissan Sunny estate, Renault Fuego, Fiat Strada, Saab 900 Classics, Renault 5 GT turbo and even the Volvo 240. The public love it because they can identify with these cars and often have an interesting tale to tell. With this level of interest it does raise the question of are Modern Classics any less worthy of being considered as “classics” and embraced by the wider classic car scene and representing organisations than ‘true’ classic cars?

    Admittedly if my own garage and finances were to suddenly to become rudely obese overnight, money would quickly be changing hands for the privilege of owning various Rovers such as the P5B Coupe and SD1 Vitesse (as age-related classics) and more recent examples from 1993 to 2005, not to mention a few Land Rovers from 1995 and even a Jaguar F-Type. Oh, and having my 1989 MG Maestro restored.

    The wider classic car movement will likely scoff at my shortlist of what I view as interesting ‘classics’, but each one I would be able to give a justifiable and rational reason of why it shouldn’t be forgotten by the enthusiast movement. More importantly, why they have such a special place in my own heart. Surely that is what a ‘classic car’ should be about?

  2. OK, Keith, I’ll bite! It is, of course, a familiar essayist’s trope to reach for a dictionary definition, as a starting point for a good natured debate. But this is doomed to irrelevance, in face of the huge diversity of ways in which different people, and the infinite variety of motoring ‘tribes’, view the history of motoring.
    These views, often shaped by the motoring environment of our formative years, are personal and subjective, rather than rational. For the survival and preservation of (let’s just call them) ‘older cars’, this is just as well, because on purely logical grounds, the time and money that we do expend, reviving and caring for them, would instead be directed elsewhere.
    Of three models which you mention, I had my share of seat time, back in the day, in MkIV Cortinas, Mk1 Cavaliers, and 1.7 Princesses. In today’s non-judgemental popular culture, the simple fact that one of these has survived when nearly all its stable mates have rusted away, can be enough to attract the description ‘classic’ – or, of course, ‘vintage’… But on my personal classicometer, I wouldn’t buy your assessment, of all these three being classics.
    Enjoy the debate !

  3. Possibly a bit brutal but is a classic simply one over ten years old/fully depreciated that is worth more than its scrap value or if broken for spares? Anyone worked out a Venn diagram?

  4. I think it’s anything which meets two or more of the following criteria:
    – unusual (ie of technical interest or simply not often seen)
    – aged
    – in more or less the condition it left the factory (ie not heavily modified)
    – held in sufficient esteem by the owner that he/ she is prepared to stand next it in a field all day answering questions from members of the public!

    More seriously, in an age of mass production and mass motoring, many more people are likely to have happy memories jogged by something on the fringes of classicdom (say a Daewoo Nexia) than stuff which is unequivocally classic like a Riley RM. So I think a broad definition is the way forward. Perhaps the fault is in trying to apply the adjective “classic” to cars at all – it gives a falsely narrow definition.

  5. Sorry Keith, this is (or should be) a totally pointless argument. If anyone likes a certain kind of old car, let them enjoy playing with it. It is (or should be) irrelevant what anyone else thinks about it. Each to their own.

  6. I’d even add an eighties Lada to a list of classics, even if very few survive. A very simple, cheap car that sold well to people who wanted a family car at half the price Ford were charging and proved to be quite a reliable, tough piece of machinery.
    Mind you, some cars like FSOs and Yugos could never gain classic status, as they were so awful when new and had zero redeeming features to save them.

  7. I think this originally started with the VSCC’s definition of cars.The really old ones were classified as ‘Veterans’ which I think covered all cars up to WW1, then after that, up to 1929, (I think), the classification was ‘Vintage’. So what were the cars after 1929 ? They became ‘Post-vintage Thoroughbreds’, but most of the Pre-WW2 cars that most people bought were excluded AFAIK. Then after the war what classification was there ? Well, to most people of the 50s and 60s, hankering after new cars after the starvation of the 40s and early 50s, old cars were ignored or tolerated. They became ‘Old Bangers’, and ‘Old Crocks’, and almost nobody wanted them.

    However, in time, those youngsters who had “grey porridge” motors in their youth, wanted what they had hankered after in that youth, and bingo, the ‘classic car’ emerges !!

    For me, a classic car is anything from about 1930 onwards. However, whilst I like to look at such cars at shows, I do prefer to have a more modern ‘classic’ if only because is is easier to drive and keep up with modern traffic.

  8. Here’s my yardstick for classic status;

    Last year I advertised my Mother’s low-mileage, unusually high-spec, late model (05 plate) Rover 25 GSi on Car & Classic where there were a few other ‘special’ 25’s advertised. The result was a sale to a BMC/AR/MGR enthusiast with whom I chatted for some time about our other classics.

    Recently I was asked to sell my Uncle’s 1999 T reg Honda Civic 1.6 Auto (400 shape). Just 2 owners, 58k from new, full service history. A little bit special, I thought, so I looked at Car & Classic. There were none at all advertised, although plenty similar on Autotrader. So Autotrader it was – resulting in a sale to a local Polish chap just wanting a cheap reliable banger.

    Conclusion – the 25 (that one at least) is ‘classic’, the Civic is merely ‘old’

  9. Perhaps ‘collectable car’ would be a better label than ‘classic car’? Definition being a car owned and maintained not for its original purpose of ferrying people and things about but for other additional reasons e.g. nostalgia, rarity, sentimentality, education etc.

  10. It is an argument that occurs in retro gaming circles – what is a retro system? Only now have the likes of the PS2 and original Xbox been embraced (the Dreamcast was deemed retro a long time beforehand due to Sega pulling support at an early stage), however the PS3/360 have been out for 12 years, even games like Bioshock are coming up on 10 year old.

    And just as game systems have aged well, so have cars. In the 80s and 90s my dad would be excited by examples of 60s and 70s cars, whereas nowadays a 1997 car would pass and nobody would bat an eyelid. Something like a mk3 Cavalier just blends in traffic, whereas in the 90s a mk1 would turn heads.

    I once had a theory I termed ‘banger valley’.

    A car is new, highly desirable. Then it is ‘nearly new’ still nice, the model is probably still in production.
    Eventually goes through the used car stages until it becomes a cheap old banger, not particularly desirable, a disposable car. Eventually reaches end of life, perhaps scrapped due to uneconomical repair, or banger raced.
    It is at it’s lowest point in terms of desirability and price, the trough of the valley.
    However the survivors start appearing and start getting noticed, “haven’t seen one of those in a while”, slowly increasing in desirability and eventually price, until they climb up the valley in terms of – if not classic – then a rarity.

    Though I was thinking about it, the oldest and worst car I owned – a 1992 Orion – if I saw one now it would probably turn my head, but I wouldn’t have particular fondness towards it.

    However the likes of my old 1996 GTV, examples are now increasing in price. And I reckon the Accord coupe – examples which haven’t been ruined by “fast and furious” wannabes – will be a future rarity (they were a rarity even when new!).

  11. Almost everything made up to the late 1970s seems to be at least classic, but slowly 1980s cars are becoming collectable, mostly the more expensive & desirable examples, & gradually the 1990s cars are getting into this category.

    There seems to be a niche of people collecting limited edition models from the 1980s & 90s before they all disappear.

  12. 20 years old, minimum. More like 25-30 years old for anything that isn’t fast or good looking.

    I insure my 17 year old XK8 on a classic insurance policy, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just plain “old”, not really a classic. I’d feel a bit of a fraud attempting to exhibit my car at a classic car show alongside all the E-types and XJSs.

    Traders using the phrase “appreciating classic” on undeserving old bangers is one of my pet hates!

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