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What makes a classic? The question has been asked countless times before and it can almost become a bit tedious having to hear it again. There is no definitive clarification, though many have tried with simple rules and doctrines.

One thing is certain – and this declaration is of course at my very own expense – classic status has more to do with timelessness, rather than age in itself. Of course, some age is required in order to prove and demonstrate over time that the design has real substance. Often, it is the design which forms the basis of our judgment, and to a lesser extent the technical and mechanical components of a car, although they too have some say. The design is what we almost always relate to, and we have an expectation that it should exude elegance, cuteness or attitude and should invoke some sort of passion. For old cars it is especially important, as we have often experienced the glory of the design back when the car was new.

For a car’s design to be timeless, it is often defined by one or more of the car’s many design elements. Their forms and shapes can make such an impression that they are ingrained in our consciousness forever. The aesthetic value will at best correspond to ergonomic functionality, and in particular, have a function – a real use. But many examples show that they can also just be sheer cosmetics that will help form a cars “personality” or unique features. Design elements become markers of recognition for many, even for those without much knowledge about cars. Some car’s silhouettes are so characteristic that they alone are sometimes enough for recognition to instantly take place. Often, a very small image slice is enough for us to know exactly what we are looking at. Car enthusiasts, of course, go much further in recognizing smaller sections or lesser known design elements.

There have been bold and “loud” angles that we all lean to know from childhood, and there have been the subtle and refined ones which we only learnt about as our immersion in classic cars grew. One thing they all share is their place in the automotive history og design, but more importantly, they are the reason for a little boy’s excitement on a street corner with his small index finger pointing towards an old car.

One Response

  1. Tony Wawryk

    I agree that timelessness is one of the key contributors to what makes a classic, and of course time therefore needs to pass to prove it. Some designs have “instant classic” status conferred on them, which I think is a tad presumptuous, but when it’s bestowed on something – usually expensive and sporty – like an Aston Martin DB11, I get it, but I think even this is because there is a clear lineage with Astons of the 60s.
    Some become instantly recognisable just in silhouette – the 911, the Miura, the E-Type, among others, and indeed Soren is right to point out that sometimes it needs only to be a detail of the design. The examples above are well chosen, and many others such as the Hofmeister kink, a version of which appears on BMW’s to this day, the double-bubble roof on Zagato-bodied cars, or the elegant smooth fins on mid-60s Mercedes.
    I might be poking a hornet’s nest here, but something I find interesting is that very few designs from the 80’s and 90’s seem to be widely considered classic; indeed, none of Soren’s chosen examples is later than the 60’s. All Cortina’s Mk 1,2 and 3 are deemed classic; the Mk 4 and 5? The Sierra? Early Opel Kadett’s, yes, but the Kadett D or E, or the Astra? Escort Mk 1, yes, maybe the Mk 2, but the Mk 3? Not for me. And this despite the fact that I’m talking about a period between 28 and 38 years ago – time has not made these designs look better, certainly not to my eyes. Perhaps this is because my eyes and memories go back to the 60’s and 70’s and therefore I’m just naturally inclined to think this way?
    One that does qualify, I think, is the Audi Quattro, although that’s clearly linked to it’s motor-sport history (also the case for many other classics), it also looks great. A motor-sport history isn’t quite enough though – not many people think the Metro is a classic design, despite the 6R4. And before someone mentions the Sierra Cosworth or Lotus Carlton, it isn’t the design that has made them classics, it’s the performance – other than that, they look just as plain (or, in the Sierra’s case, plain ugly) as the base car. Just imo, of course.
    Apologies for the ramble…


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