What makes a great classic car?

Any visitor to the recent NEC Classic Car Show in Birmingham would have a tough time answering the question – what makes a great classic car? With hundreds, probably thousands on show, from the bog-standard to the exotic, it’s hard to say not only why a car actually becomes a classic but what makes a great one. But I think it’s worth a try.

First of all its worth defining ‘great’. For some a great classic is one that lots of people love, like a Ferrari Dino or Lamborghini Miura, cars that are exotic and unattainable. For others the Austin 1800 is a great car because it’s unusual, spacious and in a lot of ways unique. I’m in between – I really like the Dino and Miura but they’re a bit obvious for me. So here’s my definition of a great classic car. To be really great I think a classic has to combine most of these.

1. It looks great A great classic can be awful to drive and unreliable but if it looks great, it’s in. This can mean that cars that didn’t make great ownership propositions when they were new – in other words, anything Italian – now have their time in the sun as classics. Other cars have always been loved, like the Jaguar E-Type. If it looks great, it’s in. Good examples for me are the Jensen Interceptor, Alfa Romeo Spider and Lancia Beta Montecarlo. A great classic should have the ‘wow’ factor.

2. It’s unusual A great classic car is often one that was a failure when it was new. I prefer the Alfasud over the Golf GTI, even though the Golf is a much better car. And the Golf is probably a great classic, but for me it’s Take That to the ‘Sud’s Smiths. The Alfasud was a fatally flawed car but it’s matured into a more interesting car than the Golf because it’s rare, looks better and has a more unusual specification (Flat Four Boxer engine etc). The same goes with the Jensen Interceptor – Aston Martins are generally more desirable but I like the Jensen’s underdog status and the fact that it isn’t the default choice. The same goes with the Alfa Spider – the MGB is more popular and easier to own, but it’s all a bit obvious isn’t it? The Alfa is more temperamental but it just has something about it that the MGB lacks – it’s unusual and different.

3. It’s great to drive A car that’s great to drive doesn’t have to be a B-road Banzai like the Subaru Impreza. It’s about the noise, the tactical pleasures of the interior, everything in fact that goes on when you’re driving. When you’re driving along in a classic it should feel like an experience. BMWs are great to drive but it’s all about the handling. A Talbot Avenger is a rough-handling car but as an experience for some, perhap with the whiff of childhood gently playing, it can be better.

4. It breaks down (or might)

The whole point of a classic is that it might break down. It doesn’t have to but if it wanted to it could. Part of the thrill, subconcious for most I suspect, is that driving it is a rare, special and unreliable treat. It makes driving a classic a bit of an adventure, because you’re not quite sure what will happen. This is what makes a classic so different from a modern – it will go wrong and when it does, you’ll have nothing to do but sit, relax and do nothing at all for hours!

5. It makes you smile

If a classic car doesn’t make you smile, take it back. Classic car ownership is about fun and enjoyment, about fulfilling a life’s dream. Classic car shows are great because everyone’s smiling and people are talking animatedly about the minutiae of motoring. It’s great! A great classic car will break down, it will cost much more than you expect but if it brings just a tiny ray of sunshine into your life, buy it!

This is my idea of a great classic. Let me know if you agree or disagree.

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