The first flickerings of interest in classic
motorcars made after the Second World War began nearly three decades ago.
Now, that interest has grown into an all-consuming passion for millions
of men and women all over the world. Some use their classics daily, others
just on high days. Some preen them like beauty queens in the concours
d'elegance, parades of vehicles to the most elegant, best designed or
best turned-out of which prizes are awarded. Many owners are driven by
nostalgia, a need to own or recreate a piece of their past; others by
simple love of old machinery. As modern cars become ever more amorphous
and as image-conscious individuals wear their classics like designer suits,
as a statement, the classic is no longer the preserve of bearded, middle-aged
men. To own an old car has become trendy. For some, the word classic has
become debased down the years, seeming to embrace any number of awful
machines. To them, classics, derided by many in their prime, are now dignified
merely by rarity. In the early 1970s, however, could the pioneers of the
classic-car movement have guessed that the then-new Austin Allegro would
one day inspire an enthusiastic owners' club?
The attributes that make a vehicle a classic also bring the best cars
to the top in the tough world of work. This applies whether services need
them to be out in all weathers rescuing stranded motorists, attending
a breakdown or accident, pursuing villains and keeping traffic flowing
or simply carting goods around reliably.
Each service has its favorites, each vehicle's special abilities suiting
it to its chosen job. The Automobile Association (AA) (1905), finding
its motorcycle-and-sidecar outfits no longer efficient, bought Land-Rovers
almost from inception in 1948 to aid motorists. Likewise, the Royal Automobile
Club (RAC) (1897) used a selection of cars and car-derived vans: Austin
Sevens, Morris Minors and then Mini-vans for lighter-duty breakdowns and
Bedford CA vans and trucks at the heavier end before they universally
adopted the Ford Transit in the 1970s. In the 50s, the RAC ran six Isetta
bubblecars in London to reach motorists through the clogged traffic. These
tiny two-stroke' towing ability is not recorded!
The police have long used big, powerful and reliable saloons, from the
classic, fast, bell-equipped and evil-handling Wolseleys of the 50s to
the Rovers and Jaguars of the 70s. Various forces have at times tried
to beat the villains at their own game by adopting the same wheels —
Jaguar MkIIs in the 50s and Lotus Cortinas in the 60s. The police have
also tried out new types of vehicle. In the 60s, forces ran an experimental
four-wheel-drive (by Ferguson Formula) Ford Zodiac Mk4, which may have
paved the way for the near-universal adoption of the classic, big-hearted
Range Rover for motorway patrols.
In the 50s, a Morris Minor van with ugly rubber wings was a familiar sight.
Britain's General Post Office (GPO) thought the wings were unbreakable
and immune to minor knocks. Alas, they meant the headlamps sat up in separate
pods and setting alignment was nigh-on impossible. The GPO then turned
to another car-derived van, the Bedford version of the first Vauxhall
Viva, the HA of 1963. In France, the entire postal service was served
by a pair of rugged, front-wheel-drive hold-alls, the Citroen 2CV and
Renault 4 vans.
For "civilian" use, car-derived vans have long been another
way for makers to sell to motorists unfamiliar with the size and vision
difficulties of the large-panel vans like them. Since the 1920s, paneled-in
versions of most popular cars have been available. They are often simply
an estate version with the windows filled in and the back seat missing.
Before Purchase Tax applied to commercial vehicles, this was the cheapest
way to own an estate car — buy a van and fit side windows!
Ford's Transit of 1968 was the trendsetter whose name became generic for
one-tonne (1,016kg) vans. This much-loved, tough and surprisingly fast
hauler was a natural to carry everything from parcels to builders' gear.
It was a big hit with criminals, too: they could hide in it until the
coast was clear and carry a lot of booty. Where there's work to be done,
the chances are you'll find there will be a classic that has completed
Classics on Film and TV
Nothing does more for a classic car's kudos
than appearing in a classic film or television series. Who could forget
the Volvo P1800 in Britain's The Saint series of the 60s or the Alfa Spider
in The Graduate (1967) with Dustin Hoffman? Both made these cars world-famous
and boosted sales. As dynamic and often beautiful objects, motorcars have
always looked good on screen as set decoration or the focus of the action.
The catalogue of classic-car moments is huge.
The Americans have long been masters of putting the motorcar on screen,
in everything from Herbie The Love Bug (1969) to cult films like Vanishing
Point (1971), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) or Duel (1971). For many connoisseurs
it is the 1968 film Bullitt starring Steve McQueen that features perhaps
the best car chase ever filmed: his Mustang pursues a sinister Dodge Charger
at speed through streets of San Francisco to a superb V eight soundtrack.
The scene lasts 12 minutes, with McQueen, a good driver, doing much of
the stunt work himself. In his 1971 film Le Mans, McQueen did more driving
than acting and added to the list of motor-racing films such as The Green
Helmet and Grand Prix (1966) and Winning with Paul Newman (1969) that
were neither critical nor box-office successes.
robbers and spies
In British films, the crime genre has long been a fertile hunting ground
for classic-spotters. Robbery (1967, based on the Great Train Robbery)
has a hair-raising pursuit with a police S-Type Jaguar and felons in a
silver Jaguar MkII. In The Italian Job (1969), a tongue-in-cheek take
of an audacious gold robbery starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward, cars
outshone actors. The getaway cars are three Mini Coopers that make a cheeky
escape along Turin rooftops and drains. Other motorized stars include
a Lamborghini Miura, a pair of E-Types and an Aston Martin DB4 convertible.
Jaguars provide aura in gangland classics like Performance and Get Carter
(both 1971), while Villain (1971), starring Richard Burton, features a
payroll heist: look out for the Jaguar S-Type, Ford Zodiac and Vanden
Plas three-litre, all wrecked. And look out for the Lamborghini Islero
and the Rover 3.5 The Man Who Haunted Himself, also of 1970.
James Bond films feature cars heavily as part of 007's equipment. The
gadget-laden Aston DBS caused a sensation when it appeared in Goldfmger
in 1964 with its ejector seat, machine guns and radar. Toyota built a
special convertible 2000GT for You Only Live Twice (1967) but it had no
real gadgets. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) new Bond George
Lazenby drove a stock Aston DBS and a Mercury Cougar in an ice-racing
& Owning A Classic
or estate, two doors or four, open or closed – only you know which
type of classic will suit your needs and pocket but, generally speaking,
options like power steering, overdrive and air conditioning are always
worth searching out if you want the most usable classic in modern conditions.
Be prepared in most cases for higher maintenance costs or a lot more unreliability
than with a modern car.
Rust is the biggest enemy of the older car. Before the 1980s most ordinary
– and indeed many expensive – motorcars were only given token
rust-proofing, so if you live in a damp climate corrosion will be much
more of a problem. Unitary or monocoque construction was coming in across
the board by the 60s on, mass-produced cars, and any rust in the sills,
floor or inner wing areas with this type of bodywork will seriously compromise
the car's strength and rigidity.
Cars with separate chassis are generally less of a worry because the bodywork
is not self- supporting. That doesn't mean the chassis won't rust eventually,
and removing bodywork for s not for the taint-hearted. Aluminum panels
— as found on high-caliber classics like Aston Martins - don't rust
in same way but do suffer from electrolytic action between the aluminum
and the steel frame of the car.
Aluminum is also more susceptible to damage.
Glass-fiber bodywork doesn't rust, of course, and in most cases —
apart from the Lotus Elite — features a separate steel chassis,
too. However, the passage of time can cause the get coat to craze, which
is a specialist job to rectify. Taking paintwork more generally, look
signs of over-spray on door rubbers and window surrounds, indicating a
hasty respray. Bright work — badges, bumpers, grilles, etc —
is notoriously costly to refurbish and many pieces are difficult to find
for more unusual models.
Mechanically, older cars tend to be simpler, although by the end of the
60s fuel injection and complex air suspension was putting many of the
more expensive cars beyond the abilities of the home mechanic. Generally,
with the engine, you should be looking for signs of excessive smoke from
the exhaust and of overheating with water-cooled engines, particularly
if they are of exotic aluminum construction as with many Alfa Romeo and
Lancia models. Gearboxes should be reasonably quiet, though many 50s and
even 60s cars featured "crash" bottom gears which give a rather
evocative whine. Automatic gear changes won't be as smooth as on a modern
luxury car but, even so, changes shouldn't be rough, either. Woolly steering
and soggy brakes characterize many big saloons of the classic era, but
many sportscars of the 50s and 60s have handling that is rewarding.
Although scruffy interior trim won't stop you driving a classic, a car's
interior condition is vital to its feel and ambience. A Jaguar, for instance,
with damp carpets, peeling wood veneer and cracked or split leather seats
loses much of its appeal. Retrims are expensive and obscure interior parts
difficult to source. The generally far more basic interiors of sportscars
are easier to refurbish and, again, for the popular British marques everything
is usually available. Hoods are expensive to replace on sportscars —
look out for tears — while a hard top is definitely worth paying
extra for if you intend using an open classic all year. If you are determined
to buy a classic car, do your homework. Join the relevant club, get to
know the pitfalls of the model you are after, then go out and look at
as many as you can before making a decision.
"classics" appear all the time. These cars that, because of
sheer appeal, excellence or exclusivity, is instantly memorable and desirable
from first sightings at a motor show. Others, cult darlings such as the
Golf GTI, have become the definitive cars of their era and have never
truly fallen out of fashion with enthusiasts. Others again, such as the
Mini, VW Beetle or 2CV, still in or recently out of production, are simply
the modern versions of acknowledged classic designs. They don't have to
be supercars to qualify, although some of the most obvious contenders
clearly are: any new Ferrari or Lamborghini is so eagerly awaited that
its status upon arrival is guaranteed. In these cases, simply belonging
to the right marquee is enough to confer immortal desirability.
Porsche 911s all qualify as future classics because of their unique blend
of robustness and drivability, even if the dashboard design is as confusing
as ever. The wide-bottomed 928 will forever hover on the fringes of true
classicdom, although some of the early 944 Turbos will be allowed into
the hallowed club, and the Speedster-inspired Boxster is clearly on the
VIP list from the word go. It's all a question of attitude.
Dodge's awesome eight-litre V-ten Viper has already made a name for itself
as the AC Cobra of the 1990s, but its compatriot the Corvette has never
been the same since it was emasculated after 1970. Nearly all TVRs occupy
the same specialist slot - they are beefy, brutal, British and rear-drive,
with that gorgeous V-eight woofle. The Ford Escort RS Cosworth and Sierra
Cosworth, both astonishingly fine road cars, have won themselves a place
in the hearts of the sort of people who worshipped anything that followed
the rally-winning RS Escorts out of Ford's Advanced Vehicle Operation
at Boreham, Hertfordshire, in the 1970s. Buying yourself a Lancia Delta
Integrate gives the same full-on driving appeal with even more exclusivity.
The first-shape BMW M3 of the late 80s falls into much the same bracket
- a rock-hard driving machine - and effectively upgrades the reputation
carved out by the 2002 Turbo in 1973, but those in the know say the later
cars lack the raw appeal. As ever, the first versions are the purest.
Today's little classics
With cheeky good looks and world's-best handling. Lotus's new Elise, which
sadly may not survive a difficult birth, is obviously the Elan of modern
times. But for the nearest thing to a real Elan, look no further than
Mazda's MX-5, or Miata. Like the original, it's a 1600cc twin-cam rear-driver
with sublime handling -it even looks similar - yet nothing falls off it.
MGF's, while uninspiring in looks, handles so well that people will always
want them; it's also descended from the very first classic sportscar of
All Minis will be classics, however feebly powered; its trademark shape,
unchanged since it shot to fame in the 60s by winning Monte Carlo rallies,
will see to that. And so will that "Mini Cooper for the 90s"
- the Peugeot 205 GTI, the best example of that 80s phenomenon, the hot
hatch. The choice is huge.