What does the future hold for classic vehicles?
And why enthusiasts and the public alike should care.
The automotive media is buzzing with discussion about electric vehicles, carbon emissions and the future of classics following the announcement of the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 in the UK.
The general consensus is that classic cars are not going to vanish overnight and the industry, which is worth around 7 billion pounds per year to the UK economy, is currently stronger than ever. The community also continues to support and raise significant funds for charities.
However there is an area I believe is often missing from the debate that should be ignored at the peril of the classic car world. We can talk about bans, taxes, and restrictions but running through all these topics is a single theme: They are just a few of the many barriers preventing newcomers discovering the hobby of classic ownership and enjoyment. I believe tackling this is crucial to the future of the classic community which consists of individuals, clubs, small businesses and charities that are the grassroots lifeblood of the ‘industry’.
We’ve all heard a story about a man, probably called Dave, who fully restored his Austin Healey Sprite in a shed to concourse standard. Or a chap called John who had always longed for a Jaguar E-Type, finally treated himself to one and now takes it racing at Goodwood. The trouble is whether in character you’re more of a Dave or a John, you are in characteristics more likely to have a lot in common. There’s no point me pussy-footing around this: the chances are most people getting into the classic hobby are from a privileged and homogeneous background. Car club membership for example is not representative of the general population. While I am on the younger side, at 33, as a white male in the IT industry approaching middle age I recognise I fit into the fairly narrow demographic of most classic car owners.
The thing is I can only just afford a classic car. I ran an MG Midget for several years, but financially it was still a stretch. However in recent years I’ve much preferred the financial equation of owning a younger ‘modern classic’ like the Alfa GTV. I also use my ‘classic’ more as a result.
My point is that with rising values, most young people are locked out of the chance of classic car ownership forever. Where once they may have been able to save their money and one day afford a ‘proper classic’ at the cheaper end of the market, and perhaps even trade upwards, this now seems an unlikely prospect. If you need a citation, check out the early episodes of ‘Wheeler Dealers’ which first aired in 2003 to see how rapidly things have changed.
It’s not only about money either - the classic car community has seen an increase in diversity over the years, but it really doesn’t reflect the rapid pace of change in the rest of the world.
In general there is a simple, if morbid, reason this matters: As older enthusiasts sadly take their last Sunday drive into the sunset, there may be fewer new enthusiasts coming into the community. The hollowing out of the community will not completely decimate the industry, but it will transform it into something different and perhaps risk destroying the soul of it. The skills and experience that are needed to keep classics on the road could start disappearing too.
There are lots of things that can, and are, being done to address this. There are schemes like the Association of Heritage Engineers, classic car ‘loan’ schemes for those new to classics and much more. But with the urgency of measures to combat climate change increasing, a similar increase in the pace of change in the classic car world may be needed.
As enthusiasts we will have to lobby for classics to continue to be used in some form. The very definition of a ‘classic vehicle’ may have to change. We will have to make decisions about which aspects of the community are to be encouraged, and which are in need of modernisation. We will need to find a way to endear the public to the existence of classics and work with other groups to reach compromises that allow our hobby to continue, while contributing a net positive outcome for society.
Above all we need to do what we can on an individual level to welcome people from all walks of life into the fold and help them so that one day they can in turn contribute to the community. Let’s focus on the positives: Being involved in classic cars is hugely rewarding. You can be a part of preserving history and heritage, educating new generations, raising money for charities all while enjoying the hobby on an individual and social level. Why wouldn’t you want to defend that in some way?
Just thinking about and discussing this subject will help generate ideas from which positive change can happen. That includes not glossing over challenging topics like the affordability of classic ownership and the diversity of club membership. This is of course against a backdrop of the one big question - what total level of carbon emissions from classics is acceptable, and how can it be offset or removed?
Classic vehicles needn’t fade into obscurity through neglect of the community or the need to look after the planet. But to keep their legacy burning bright some radical change may have to happen. You can embrace change and still preserve some of the good things from the past. Ignoring the changing world will not end well for most people that enjoy the hobby today: it will eventually be more expensive, more commercialised and less accessible. Even those in the ‘upper echelons’ of classic car ownership will be impacted by this. Not financially perhaps, but if society turns its back on classics it could be a cold existence at the top as a high value classic car collector whose prised automobiles are seen as relics that belong in the past.
As enthusiasts we know that classic vehicles and the community around them is about so much more than obsolete machines and we need share this with the rest of the world.
Let’s hope in 2021 we can all get back to doing the things we love. But let's also try to use the pause for thought that 2020 has created to decide how we go forward from here, so that we can all continue to enjoy them well into the future.
Thanks for reading. I’m @stew_sims. I’d love to find out more about how the classic community is evolving and write about where we go from here. If this kind of thing is your bag, subscribe below to get my latest posts as well as updates about my car by email: