As the 20th Century drew to a close, we seemed to look back as much as forward, pining for what were, as we see it, better times. We can't revisit our Golden Age, but at least we can own and experience the material objects that evoke it : clothes, music, films, furniture and cars - classic cars. Glamorous, kitsch, humble or high bred, these mobile time warps powerfully conjure up a particular period.
The hobby of preserving and collecting cars built after the Second World War began to take shape in the early 1970's. Veteran (pre-1905), Edwardian (pre-1919) and Vintage (pre-1931) cars - as defined by Britain's Vintage Sports Car Club - have always been easy enough to categorise, but, by the end of the 1960's, post-war motor cars of the better kind were coming of age. To call them simply "old cars" no longer seemed appropriate : whether beautiful, fast or technically re-eminent, the post-1945 car had at its best all the gravitas of the pre-war machinery. Slowly, quietly, the "new Vintage" had arrived, filling the gap between Vintage and modern for a new generation of enthusiasts.
ABOVE : Classics so evocative as these - the AC Ace, Ferrari 166 and C-Type Jaguar - have always been in strong demand and are priced at a premium.
One-marque clubs for well-bred sporting marques such as Aston and Bentley had been around for years, but as enthusiasts for the less exalted makes felt the need to huddle together around a common banner, many new guilds and registers sprouted. Traditionalists had long complained that modern cars all looked the same:, but in the 70's there was a gut feeling that the motor car had seen its best years as safety and pollution regulations made inroads into designers' freedom. Styling, particularly in Britain, seemed to be losing its way.
No wonder older cars began to look increasingly attractive. They were plentiful, cheap, easy to work on and still very usable on increasingly busy roads. Drive an old car and you made a statement about your individualism: you weren't prepared to become just another faceless, sterile tin can on the bypass to oblivion or obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses in the yearly new-model scrum. It all came together in 1973, when a UK magazine, Classic Cars, was launched.
The new "classic" stuck, a useful catch-all term for a sprawling, ill-defined genre that, in just 20 years or so, has blossomed from an eccentric past-time into a multi-million-pound industry.
Not much happened for about ten years, until about 1982-83, when the nature of the hobby began to change dramatically. Slowly, under the noses of true enthusiasts, market forces took hold as it dawned on investors that really prime machinery could prove a fine hedge against inflation or an appreciating asset. Suddenly, the market hardened as Americans came to Europe seeking prime collectables.
At first, gilt-edged pre-war hardware - Bentley, Bugatti, etc. - set the pace in auction rooms, but by mid-decade, super cars of the 50's, 60's and 70's were hyped on their coat tails. Once-affordable Ferraris, Astons and Jaguar XK's and E-types became "investor" cars, commodities too expense and precious to be driven (which was rather missing the point).
As the auction houses pulled even bigger numbers, hype went into over-drive. Banks and finance companies offered loans to buy classics. The increasing ranks of classic car magazines bulged with advertising. Enthusiasts' gentle hobby was turned into an ugly, cut-throat brawl driven by greed. Many found themselves with cars that were worth more than their houses, machinery they were now too nervous to use. The boom couldn't last, fortunately. the recession hit in 1989 and demand quickly fell.
A HOBBY AGAIN
Today the market is stable again and most cars are where they could be - with enthusiasts and enthusiastic investors. Rare and high-calibre thoroughbred cars - especially those with a racing pedigree or an interesting history - will always be in strong demand. Fashion still has its part to play in the lower echelons of the market, but those who bought Citroëns and Jaguars have learnt about the dedication required to run an old car - some went back to their moderns, others caught a life-long bug!