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When Does an Old Car Evolve into an Enthusiast Car?

Finally, we’ve been given an unambiguous definition: The answer is “from the tender age of 18 years”. 

Pfeeeeew, that sure took a load off my shoulders! Again and again we have discussed the subject at ViaRETRO, and as an editor I am confronted with the question almost daily: What is the definition of a classic car – and of course, every perceivable variant of that question. Even though the discussion has been ongoing since before ViaRETRO even came to be, the answer is not yet clear and probably never will be – especially as most people seem to primarily consider subjective criteria. But maybe that’s it? Maybe there IS no single answer to the question. Or is there?

A classic car.

As usual, it helps to stay on the objective, quantitative and indisputable side of things where everything can be measured, weighed, counted, computed and analysed. It’s the more productive approach compared to merely waffling on with statements like “if the owner himself thinks his car is special, then it is indeed special”, which is utterly useless in even the biggest and wettest of boozefed bar debates. So being more a little more scientific about it: What if we look at when people begin to think that any given car is something special? Then perhaps, we might get something useful to work with?

But what is this?

Sure. But how do we measure it? German analysts have an approach for this: They judge it with your wallet.

Namely, put your money where your mouth is. The adage may sound rather non-German, but in the classic car world it makes sense to look at money spent on maintenance or improvements.

And yes, indeed here lies the answer – coupled with use of a little logic. Cars are from day one inevitably getting older and will wear, which in return means they will show more and more faults with age. All else being equal a six-year-old car will have more faults than a two-year-old car. A twelve year old car will have even more and so on, of course.

Or this? Maybe the girl thinks the Omega/Carlton is a classic – but does that make it happen?

There are plenty of statistics available on cars faults – if you live in a country where cars must be MOT’ed regularly and where data is gathered together in an accessible manner. So we will of course have to look towards Germany.

A group of Germans (probably engineers and most likely during a late Saturday night-after-hours analysis with cola and popcorn) came up with the idea of investigating whether this curve of increasing number of faults would at some point during a car’s lifespan change direction – i.e. a car would suddenly start having fewer faults with age rather than more? And indeed: Yes, it does. From a certain age the cars simply begin to display less faults and errors again. Now, as we owners of old cars know very well, this does not happen all by itself or merely by putting them out in the sun. It happens only because the owners at that point start to spend more money on their cars than necessary to just keep them running: The reason they do this is because they start to consider the car as more than a means of transport.

And the year in which it happens can be finally and unambiguously fixed as the age at which a car evolves into an “enthusiast vehicle”. When does this happen? From the 18th year.

Amazing, isn’t it? Both the fact that there IS a finite result as well as the result itself. The tender age keeps me from using the term “youngtimer”, let alone “classic”! But the result is crystal clear nonetheless. And as I said, it really made my life much easier: 18 years is the answer.

As always, we obviously welcome our knowledgable ViaRETRO readers to continue discussing the matter in the comments section below…

A used car review of the Fiat Stilo put it this way: “The biggest attraction of the Stilo is its price. Its value drops like a stone”. The Fiat Stilo was introduced in 2001 making the model 18 years old this year: Many around the globe are on the brink of achieving enthusiast car status – or are they?


13 Responses

  1. Claus Ebberfeld

    Well, @yrhmblhst – in many ways that’s better than “when the owner says so” or “when other owners of similar vehicles say so”.

    Could you send me the list?

  2. yrhmblhst

    I dont have a comprehensive list covering the whole globe [yet] ; so simply send an application and each vehicle will be considered on an individual basis…

    All joking aside – not that I was joking even in the least – I find the Germans ’18 year’ designation interesting. AND, methinks they have made a rare mistake by not considering all/enough factors.
    Been thinking about this off and on today and a couple of {I believe} salient points might be brought up here.
    First, enthusiasm for / classic status involves MUCH more than plowing money into a car. As you said, we could go on for days about what all an accurate and all-encompassing definition might entail. And still might not agree. [see my original answer for that scenario tho]
    But what I THINK the German fellows are seeing and saying is thus, and it has some merit. If I understand it correctly and have read enough between the lines, they have seen thru registrations/MOT/TUV inspections, whatever, that there is a point on the fault curve at 18 years when the faults begin going down, hence, logic would state that the owners are putting time and money into the cars possibly beyond their fully depreciated value[s], ergo, they have become enthusiast vehicles / classic / special interest. That may or may not be the case.
    I cant speak with authority on Europe, but over here, at that age, a vehicle has about hit the bottom of its value scale – actually a couple of years before – and value then becomes determined nearly solely on condition. People may keep the car ‘up’ for a variety of reasons, not the least being the cost of new cars! They may not have any particular interest in the vehicle other than practical monetary one[s].
    Another thing is the ‘pool’ of vehicles to be drawn from at that age; by 18 yrs old, a significant percentage of the production of any vehicle is no longer on the road, be it thru accidents, theft, major mechanical repairs that exceed the value of the car or others issues. So, the population of 18 + yr old cars to be drawn from is relatively small[er] for the sample, and represents those that have [probably] been taken care of better than average throughout their life anyway and/or are just the lucky ones.

    I ‘get’ their thinking and reasoning, but I think it incomplete. I assure you my Grandma was not an enthusiast, nor considered her 30 year old Chevrolet a ‘classic’ , yet she hung onto it and maintained it regularly until her passing. [actually, my dad and I maintained it, but still…] She saw it as an appliance and saw no need to replace a completely serviceable item with another of probable inferior quality that cost more than she paid for her house. There is much more than simply upping maintenance on a vehicle to accurately note it as ‘special interest’ , enthusiast car or certainly classic. MUCH more – age is just one of the factors, a necessary but not sufficient condition. [yes, i know… Ferraris, Morgans etc etc are enthusiast vehicles from day one, but we’re not talking about those right now] But the German fellows work and research is very interesting. I shall continue to ponder…but until then, if that girl says that Opel is classic, I’m all on board with it!

  3. Anders Bilidt

    So on that note – at least according to our respected German, number-crunching friends – my 20 year old Volvo C70 T5 is now a fully-fledged classic car. Or at the very least, an enthusiast car. Discuss…. ;-)

  4. yrhmblhst

    Classic – no. probably never will be, at least in our lifetime.
    Enthusiast OWNED car, definitely. Nice driving car with some interest? yes. ‘Special Interest’ car – maybe, but not quite yet.
    It is my humble opinion – therefore objective fact – that nothing short of things like Ferraris, high horsepower Vettes, 2 seat Alfas, Morgans and the like – built after 1990, or 2000 at the VERY latest in some circumstances, will ever be a classic. They just dont have the character or restore-ability necessary.

  5. Tony Wawryk

    This is all interesting stuff, and the criteria used to work out what constitutes enthusiasts’ cars has some merit, though not without some holes as @yrhmblhst points out. I also have to say that an enthusiasts car is not, imo, the same as a classic. Naturally, that would open a whole ‘nother can of worms as to what makes a classic – for me, classic elements include looks, rarity, performance, some significance in motoring history, but of course, some – if not all – of these are subjective, which is what makes discussing our collective interest in what are basically old cars so much fun :).

  6. Dave Leadbetter

    There’s an interesting nuance here in that “classic” may not carry the same definition as enthusiast owned. But I am drawn to consider at which point specialist publications make the distinction. Nowadays the shelves are full of classic car magazines that feature all the usual suspects; MGBs, Spitfires, Minis, Morris Minors. If I rewind my consciousness thirty years to 1989 there was a new magazine launched in the UK called Popular Classics, if anyone recalls it. The first issue featured each of the above. At that stage the MGB and Spitfire had been out of production for less than a decade, but there they were, being presented as bona fide classics and enthusiast owned.

    The tipping point of 18 years referred to is probably about right. I’d define the transition point as the moment when it becomes a faff to easily find a like for like replacement in good condition for an acceptable price. A few years ago there were loads of serviceable BMW E36s knocking about. Not so much anymore.

  7. Claus Ebberfeld

    @anders-bilidt , has the number of faults on your Volvo increased or decreased in the last year or two? That’s the German method, not age alone.

    And I wholly agree that the method is not completely waterproof, as @yrhmblhst ‘s example of his grandmother shows. As his grandmother is probably not alone in overshooting the economically ideal time to change over into another and never vehicle their data will skew the numbers. So I’d say the German’s number of 18 years is in fact on the low side.

    Personally I also use the “method” mentioned by @tony-wawryk – i.e. taking into account “looks, rarity, performance, some significance in motoring history” and even more in order to determine a classic car significance score of some sort. As we all know the problem will be that Tony and I probably do not judge even the same criteria alike – if indeed we would ever agree on the criterias themselves.

    @dave-leadbetter’s method is not bad either. But in itself a bit difficult to put into an objective system. As the supply of good cars would be closely related to their prices (unless we are talking Allegros…) Dave’s suggestion could easily be re-formulated into “the point at which prices start to rise” or some variation/calculation based on that.

    Would that be better?

  8. yrhmblhst

    Mr Ebberfield – see response number one to the post…
    There, solved. :)

  9. Anders Bilidt

    @claus-ebberfeld, a Volvo with faults sounds highly unlikely!! Are you entirely sure you’re Volvo is in fact a real Volvo??


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