Nothing quite shows your age like the memories you have of cars that are joining the classic canon.
What’s the turnaround for classic cars? How long does it take for that shift in perception to take place; that change in attitude required in order to usher a new member into the motoring elite? What is the essence of a classic car?
Well, by the looks of it, the whole process can take as little as a single generation.
While some cars have the feel of instant classics, they are relatively few and far between and even those that do, need a little time for their real influence to become felt. Perhaps what really matters when it comes to the true classics is how well they define the spirit of the age of which they are a part.
You only need to look at the modern, popular classics to see how well such models embody the zeitgeist of a given era. Take the Ford Escort as an example. These days, a quick glance at Autotrader reveals that well-maintained MkII Ford Escorts of the unmistakable ’70s boxy design will set buyers back anything from to £15,000 and beyond.
That’s the same price as a brand new model of Ford Focus (from a dealer trading at less than the standard Ford retail price, such as Matlock Ford).
That gives you some indication of how a car becomes a classic. Its desirability skyrockets to the point where people are willing to part with the same cash for something manufactured in 1987 as they would for something manufactured in 2014.
Now, although there is no fixed definition of what makes a classic car in the UK, HMRC has its own classification criteria for taxation purposes. It reckons that a car becomes a classic when it reaches 15 years old and still commands a price of more than £15,000.
That’s fair enough – we can deal with that as being an appropriate definition for their purposes – but it doesn’t add much for ours. It doesn’t help us in nailing down the general concept. You could just as easily hold that the only reason a car reaches 15 years old and still commands a price of more than £15,000 is because it is a classic. Therefore the classic status of a Ford Escort is explained by… its classic status.
It’s really a question of sustained desirability and that’s something very different from beauty or exclusivity. Keeping the Ford Escort as an example, it’s hardly a triumph of aesthetics and it was a model of mass production aimed at ordinary working individuals, couples and families. Its desirability remains in spite of its ubiquitousness and plain design.
The American Classic Car Club wants everything in its canon to be 30 years old or more, but that pretty much infers classic status too, in the sense that hardly any models make it to that age in good condition without retaining their desirability beyond the usual degree. More tautology.
Of course, plenty of 15 to 30 years old cars simply haven’t been deemed worth the effort to maintain. They never became deeply enough entrenched in our culture or into our aesthetic ideology and as such the motoring fraternity allowed them to fade into obscurity. You won’t find them on Autotrader for £15,000 – you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of them at the knacker’s yard.
No – it’s all about how a car manages to reflect what was so special, so peculiar, so unmistakable in and, of a given time and place that determines how readily we will cling onto it as a symbol or relic. The Ford Escort, like the East German Trabi or the Italian Fiat 500, is one of those popular treasures that better objectifies the style of its heyday than any of its coevals.
So ubiquitous was the third generation of Ford Escort that it’s hard to imagine a TV drama set in the late Eighties where at least one chief characters didn’t have one. It’s hard to picture street photography from the era in which it doesn’t make regular appearances. It’s hard to believe documentaries of the era don’t feature it.
And what really brings it home is the fact that many of us dreamily regarding those impeccable examples on Autotrader – so lovingly kept alive by their owners – actually used to drive one back in the day!
So maybe that’s what makes a car a classic: that sense of regret, that nostalgie du passé for the part of you that it represents, the ghost of the younger you somehow reflected in the garish paintwork of that awkward, boxy chassis and those round supplementary front spotlamps – as well as a £15,000 opportunity missed!