Is Your Old Car A Classic – Or Just A Used Car?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Is that nicely preserved ’88 Buick in your garage a “classic ” — or just another old car?

The answer depends on who you ask.

Most states won’t issue a “classic” (or “antique”) vehicle license plate and registration until a vehicle is at least 21 years old. Some old car clubs (such as the Antique Automobile Club of America) consider the passage of 25-30 years the absolute minimum before a car transitions from being an old car to an antique.

The slightly snootier Classic Car Club of America goes even further. This group, which claims to have been the first to use the term “classic car,” refuses to acknowledge or accept any car built after the year 1948 — when mass-produced welded and stamped panels began to replace the more time-intensive, bolt-on/partial (or fully) hand-built processes that had been the norm previously.

CCCA regards only the coach-built cars of the 1920s and ’30s – V-16 Cadillacs, Bugattis, Auburns, Duesenbergs, Cords, etc. — as worthy, although an occasional exception is made for low-production, historically significant machines built later.

Here’s chapter and verse:

“A CCCA Classic is a ‘fine’ or ‘distinctive’ automobile, either American or foreign built, produced between 1925 and 1948. Generally, a Classic was high-priced when new and was built in limited quantities. Other factors, including engine displacement, custom coachwork and luxury accessories, such as power brakes, power clutch, and ‘one-shot’ or automatic lubrication systems, help determine whether a car is considered to be a Classic.”

Of course, this rather restrictive definition is far from accepted by all old car hobbyists — most of whom will never have the wherewithal to afford a Duesenburg SJ or Auburn boat-tail speedster.

Arguably, it’s not just a matter of the lowing masses (and lowing, mass-produced vehicles) vs. the elite (and elite, low-production, hand-built vehicles) that defines a “classic” car.

It’s about a car having survived its era; and more precisely — by dint of having survived, of its providing us with a three dimensional piece of history via which we can see, touch, hear and experience the past.

Oodles more ’55 Chevys were built than ’36 Cord 810s. But both are time capsules, each in their own way. The Cord tells us one story, the Chevy another. But both are certainly “classic” — in the sense that we shall not see their like ever again in a new car showroom.

When you do a walk-around of either at a vintage car show, you see things that remind you (or if you were too young, reveal to you) bits and pieces of a long-gone era — of technology and styling and forgotten “firsts” that in many instances were revolutionary when these cars were new.

For example, the Cord’s highly unusual (for 1936) front-wheel-drive layout — or the ’55 Chevy’s compact, high-powered “small block” OHV V-8, versions of which are still in production 60 years later. We see shapes and details etched into the dim recollections of our childhood brought back to life again; faded photographs from a time before our own resurrected in living steel, glass and rubber. The raspberry rip of a Flathead Ford; the burbling staccato of a 16-cylinder Caddy… .

It’s a thrilling experience to see (and hear) these machines. And to marvel and remember.

Old cars also bring context and focus, helping us to understand the ongoing evolution of automobiles: Bias-plys to high-speed radials; gravity-feed and carburetors to direct injection.

This process does require the passage of time, however.

Each decade that flows by can be likened to a gold prospector’s pan being shifted; the gravel washes away, the murky waters finally clear — leaving a few precious nuggets… if the prospector is fortunate enough.

As an example of this, consider the now hugely desirable and much-sought-after muscle cars of the mid-late 1960s and early ’70s. In their day, they were mostly mass-produced, cheap — and as expendable as an empty beer can. It was not so long ago that one could buy used Shelby GT350 Mustangs, SS Chevelles and big-block Mopars for the cost of a worn-out Corolla today.

It took a quarter-century for an awareness of the significance of these brash and fearsome cars to percolate; for the realization that they represented a unique era in automotive history, never to be repeated, to dawn.

By this time, the few that survived had become something very special indeed.

In the same way, 10 or 20 years from now, a well-preserved ’86 Tune Port Injected IROC-Z Camaro may well be morph from redneck lawn sculpture to high-dollar icon of the Reagan Years. Its design and technology will seem quaint — relics of a bygone time.

We’ll look, we’ll reminisce… and we’ll be glad to see one again after all these years.

This process is ongoing — despite the snorts of the CCCA that nothing worth mentioning has happened since 1948.

Brands have come and gone (AMC, Studebaker; Oldsmobile and Pontiac — even Yugo). Makes and models that were once as common as pull-top soda cans have disappeared as completely as the passenger pigeon.

When was the last time you saw a road-worthy Honda CRX? Or Subaru Brat?

Such cars, it is true, may never attain the rarefied status of the pre-war coach-builts — or even the muscle cars of the 1960s. But that does not mean the few roadworthy or restorable examples still around aren’t interesting to see — or that they have nothing to tell us about their times.

Or worth hanging onto.

And that, ultimately, is what a “classic” car is all about.


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