In most cases, old cars are rubbish. As James May once said, if they were any good, they’d still be made today. On top of that, modern cars are faster, more reliable, more comfortable, better handling, safer, and more economical, too. Fundamentally, they are better in just about every way possible. Despite all the odds, the inferior old cars not only still exist, but are positively flourishing these days. But why?
Well, there is no simple answer to this; however there is a combination of factors that plays a part.
First of all, there’s the design of the car itself. Old cars were created very much in an analogue world where pencil and paper were used to create the elegant shapes and flowing lines that would not be possible on the computer-based design software used by modern car designers. For example, take the front wing of a Jaguar XK120 or of a Ferrari 250 GTO. Hence the old cars in most cases considered to be classics.
These designs are simply beautiful in every way, and most importantly these are shapes that no modern designer would create today. In most cases the way the metal frame sits underneath the bodywork used during prototyping, it creates a direct influence on the car’s form.
These designs belong to a different era - an era that many people fondly look back on, where designers were not bogged down by constraints such as crash tests, or aerodynamics; instead they created shapes that reflected the mood and trends of that era.
Modern production techniques are to be blamed here. They have removed much of the character from new cars. Mass production “systems” coupled with soulless robots and computers on the production lines producing identical parts 365 days a years, are focused on meeting the targets and quotas set by the manufacturers to maximise efficiency and profit.
In the older days, car production was largely a manual process performed by coach builders using simple tools complemented by decades of craftsmanship to create panels by hand-eye coordination. The results of this are creations that not only have withstood the hardships of daily usage but also weathered the passage of time. Of course, not all were like this. Some were poorly designed, and built with even less care, and this is exactly what separates classic cars from cars that are merely old.
Mechanically, they were quite different, too. Car engines today are effectively a sealed unit, containing components that are unserviceable by the average person. Most of the components are controlled by an electronic computer, which takes inputs from the driver, and then channels them through systems such as the electronic throttle system, electric steering, the traction control, electronic clutch, the ABS system, and so on.
All of these systems were introduced to improve efficiency and safety, but if you are looking for heart and soul, they often rob the car of its feel and character. Older machines, on the contrary, are the real deal. They are skillfully balanced mechanical systems comprising hundreds of individual parts, tuned to work together in harmony. The driver gets a direct access to the machine, providing input and receiving raw feedback through the controls, resulting in an experience that is just not possible with the modern equivalent machines.
Driving a classic car requires a lot skills and a great deal of manual input from the driver; from adjusting the fuel/air mixture manually to selecting gears and controlling the power to the wheels through the clutch.
All of this needs to be done in a way that gets the best results out of the engine and transmission and not to mention, proper technique also protects the longevity of the moving components. Getting all this right is like a hedonistic game and more challenging than the modern equivalent of all electronic driver aids.
For classic car owners, they don’t embark upon a journey to reach a destination, instead the journey itself is the destination.
Nostalgia is also a large part in the appeal of classic cars. They all have a history - some have achieved great things in their lives, such as competing in and winning races or endurance events, while others have overcome challenges that are mundane but close to the heart of the owner. These machines were great enablers of a better life, provided mobility and freedom back when such qualities were rare. They went with their owners on major life events, and consequently became ineradicably associated with those events.
All classic cars have a story to tell about what they have accomplished in their lives, places they have been to, and why they are still in operation. The scratches on the paint or the cracks in the leather are seen by most as imperfections, but to a fanatic of classic cars, these are a record of the car’s character and chronicling its life.
Car manufacturers play heavily on the heritage and pedigree of their brands, but classic cars are the real-life testaments that define the heritage and established reputation of the brand in the first place.
Owning any new car is easy, all it takes is money, and with easy finance, even that is not very difficult any longer. However, you can't just buy a classic car off the showroom floor. They are no longer in production and are therefore innately limited in supply, as a result they hold a far greater and ever increasing level of exclusivity. No matter how rich you are, you can't buy a brand new Ferrari 250 GTO, for example, and even if you want an old one, you would still have to find someone, who is willing to sell you theirs.
All this effort of acquiring, owning and maintaining a classic car prompts questions of the owner’s passion for that product and their motivation for going to such lengths when owning a new car is so much easier.
A culture that has emerged surrounding classic cars, comprising of events such as classic rallies, historic racing, and classic car shows. Owners of these cars get a greater satisfaction from exhibiting their cars at these events and use them as a reflection of their own personality and taste.
A modern car typically has an ownership period of anything between 6 months and 5 years before their owners move on to something newer and better, but classic car owners see it in the opposite way; the cars will exist beyond their life time, and they are merely temporary custodians of something that will outlive them.
New cars are likely to get better and better every year. So, the two year old car that you have today might already be outclassed by the new model just released.
Conversely, classic cars, compete on a completely different level. It’s not about speed or efficiency, but about the experience, styling, craftsmanship, and exclusivity, all of which are timeless. Classic cars not just a lump of metal, they are a work of art that not only appeal to car lovers, but also to people who admire engineering, design, art and history.
That is why people do, and always will, love classic cars.