✨ “Take it easy driving – the life you save may be mine.”
― James Dean


Saturday, 17 August 2013

What is a Classic Car?

1965 Jaguar 3.8 MK.II - British Racing Green

Over the past six months or so there has been a debate in the UK about what constitutes a classic car. This debate is re-visited from time to time, normally either for tax or legal reasons.

It is difficult to know when our cars started to be called classics and some people have it coinciding with the publication of Classic Cars or Classic & SportsCar Magazines. For some people in the UK it relates to the rules on paying Road Tax (Road Fund Licence or Vehicle Excise Duty) – just one of the many ways that our chancellor has of extracting tax revenues from the UK motorist. In what now seems to be the dim and distant past, one of our more enlightened chancellors decided to exempt cars over 25 years old from paying road tax. Interestingly the cars were then classified as ‘Historic’ for tax exemption purposes, rather than classic, but the 25 year rule sort of stuck with many people.

Having said that, the MSA, who organise our own favourite run, the Euroclassic, and used to run a number of other classic car events, including the once famous ‘Norwich Union’, always used 20 years as their cut off point.

Then in 1997 the government changed the 25 year rule for road tax exemption. They obviously calculated that using a rolling 25 year rule, the number of cars that were exempt from road tax would keep increasing and they froze the date, changing the rule to only exempt cars that are ‘pre 1973’.

Every few years some of the car clubs get together and try to get the tax rule changed back to a rolling 25 years, but now that road tax is based on CO2 emissions the government has a ‘green ‘ reason for not changing it as well as a fiscal one, so I don’t think it will ever happen.

So what has kicked off the latest round of the debate? This time it is some proposed changes to the rules governing MOT tests on our vehicles. Currently all UK cars have to be tested once they are 3 years old and then annually (the so called 3-1-1 rule). Across most of Europe the testing regimes are 4 years, then every 2 (4-2-2). For many reasons it makes economic sense for many of our rules to be in line with the rest of Europe, although there is a large xenophobic tendency in the UK that don’t want anything that they perceive to be ‘imposed on us by Brussels’.

Studies have been done to calculate the cost (or savings) of changing the testing rules. Magically some prove that owners will save money, some prove it will cost us money. Other studies predict catastrophe across the motor industry for whom the MOT test, and subsequent repair work are a good source of income.

One suggestion is to exempt cars of a certain age from the MOT test in its entirety, on the basis that our classics are always well looked after, polished and maintained regularly and statistically have been proved to be involved in fewer accident that newer cars. So what date do we pick for classic car MOT exemption: 1960, 1940 or maybe 1920?

When I was young and poor, I regarded the annual MOT as a real pain as it normally found things wrong on the car that I couldn’t afford to fix. Now older, wiser, and not so poor, I believe the MOT is actually an extremely effective way of carrying out a thorough test on a car, for not a lot of money. We have our whole fleet of classic hire cars serviced each year. As they are working cars we never skimp on the maintenance and I tell the garage to replace things that are starting to wear, instead of waiting for them to fail. I have used the same garage for 30 years, so know them, trust them, they are thorough and wouldn’t rip us off.

However, occasionally even after a service, the MOT test has spotted a couple of small things that need fixing that weren’t picked up on the service. Maybe a classic car owner that only drives a few hundred miles a year, may think the MOT is unnecessary or excessive. But road use isn’t the only cause of deterioration. Some components degrade with time. Electrical contacts can oxidise or corrode, rubber deteriorates, brake and clutch fluid absorb water. The reason that England is a ‘green and pleasant land’, is that it rains a lot and not even government bureaucracy can halt the march of the tin worm. So overall I am not keen on changing the frequency of the MOT tests.

Anyway in its infinite wisdom our government has come up with the ideal solution to the problem. They have decided not to do anything at all. So apart from keeping civil servants gainfully employed looking at the pros and cons, and whipping up a storm across the industry and classic car fraternity – nothing will change.

This still leaves us with the question - what is a classic car? Is it 20 years old, 25 years, pre 1973, pre 1960, pre 1940 or what? Is a Morgan a classic whether it was built in 1960 or yesterday?

I have my own favoured definition which comes from our experiences of running The Open Road Classic Car Hire since 1997. We keep having this debate with customers about what they like, why they favour a particular car etc. And it generally comes back to one thing:

A classic car is whatever was around, and you aspired to, envied, or planned to buy, while you were growing up.

This means that it changes from year to year and with each generation of motorists. My favourites are the cars from 1960s and 70s (I was born in 1953). Older customers want cars from the 1950s. Younger customers want cars from the 1980s. I admit that my definition is not ideal for writing Europe wide legislation.

The challenge we all face for the future is keeping the interest of the next generation. The current clutch of 20 and 30 somethings have grown up in a period when the British motor industry no longer makes affordable sports cars (I rule out Jaguars and Astons as not being affordable). Sadly their idea of a classic could encompass anything from a Mazda MX5, Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru, Toyota MR2 or a VW Golf or Scirocco. Not a British Marque in sight.

This article was Tony Merrygold's "Letter from England" published in the May 2012 edition of the American classic car magazine "British Marque". 
- Info from Open Road Classic Car

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