In the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson “You are not a true petrol head until you have owned an Alfa Romeo” But how practical is owning a classic car? Where is the best place and what should you look for when buying? Here is a simple guide to the future love of your life.
Buying a classic car is rather like inviting someone to join your family. It helps if they are of good character, you like them and enjoy spending time with them. And if they can earn their keep, so much the better.
They probably won’t, of course. It’s true that some classics have proved to be excellent investments; had you bought an Aston Martin DB5 25 years ago, you’d have seen its value increase almost tenfold. However, as with property, shares or gold, the best time to buy is when a car is undervalued or price rises may be expected, and that demands both extensive knowledge and foresight.
In any case, buying a classic car for speculative reasons is like buying a beautiful painting and keeping it in a bank vault. Cars are designed to move, and deteriorate if they don’t. Driving a classic – and maintaining it in a fit state to be driven – are the chief pleasures of ownership.
Nevertheless it’s all too easy to be seduced by the prospect of low-cost home maintenance, relatively cheap insurance and zero Vehicle Excise Duty on ‘Historic’ vehicles (those built before 1973 or, from this April, 1974). So before you take the plunge, you need to ask a few questions.
The most obvious is what sort of car you want, yet more important is what you want to do with it. Romantic weekends will be few and far between if you buy something scary, uncomfortable or unreliable, family excursions are impossible in a sporty two-seater and the pleasures of summer motoring in a convertible are soon forgotten in the 50 colder, wetter weeks of the year. If you only aspire to occasional drives, you might be better served by classic car hire.
All-year round use is also much harder if the car requires frequent maintenance. Older cars demand more attention but even a 1960s classic will need servicing every few thousand miles. If that matches your annual mileage it shouldn’t be too onerous, but bear in mind that a V12 engine will always be more expensive to service than a four-cylinder, and that obtaining essential parts for rare or exotic machines can be costly and time-consuming.
How handy are you with a set of spanners? If the answer is “not at all,” a basic car maintenance course will pay dividends; taking the car to a specialist for an annual service and MoT is one thing, paying someone £30 per hour to adjust the ignition timing every few months is quite another.
Access to a dry, secure and reasonably accessible garage is almost essential, and not merely as a space in which to tinker and to store an accumulation of spare parts; on-street parking is tough on classics and many insurers will expect them to be garaged at night. If you don’t have domestic facilities, the cheapest option is to rent a council lock-up for £25-100pcm, depending on location – you need not be a council housing tenant to do so. It won’t have lighting, however, which restricts DIY maintenance.
Another inescapable cost of ownership is insurance; with an annual mileage limit (say 3,000-5,000 miles) the premium on a popular classic will typically be a few hundred pounds. An ‘agreed value’ policy is a good idea, so if the worst happens the payout will reflect the car’s value as a classic, rather than scrap metal; you may obtain a valuation from the appropriate owners’ club, based on a written description and photographs. When quoted in club classified ads, this can be a useful guide to a car’s condition.
Having satisfied the practical and financial preconditions of ownership, your serious homework begins. Check the price guides in classic car magazines to see what you might realistically afford. Read as much as you possibly can about the car(s) you’re interested in, until you understand their strengths and weaknesses; models evolve during their period of manufacture and later versions might be significantly more (or less) desirable than the first.
Originality commands a premium and any alterations should be reversible, but few cars survive for 40-plus years in showroom specification and many will have benefited from well-known modifications to mitigate period flaws or improve reliability. Most will have been converted to run on unleaded petrol, for example, and some will have been fitted with electronic ignition, although such conveniences are less serviceable than their mechanical predecessors.
As your preferences narrow, join the relevant owners’ club (you’ll find a list in Practical Classics or Classic & Sports Car magazines). Read the club’s magazine, attend club gatherings and speak to experienced owners. Being enthusiasts by definition, they are invariably keen to encourage new blood and pass on useful knowledge.
For the same reasons, an owners’ club is usually the best source of cars for sale at realistic prices. Auctions might be cheaper, dealers more expensive, but in all cases knowledge is power, and everything you have learned will help you assess a car’s desirability. That said, it can do no harm to be accompanied by a genuinely knowledgeable friend or acquaintance from the club. Modern used-car inspection services are not helpful where classics are concerned.
A proper test drive is vital; a passenger ride is much less than ideal but without insurance it might be your only option. Prior research should prepare you to look out for model-specific problems or worrisome noises, and the more cars you examine the more you will be able to distinguish the usual rattles from the sounds of a worn engine, driveline or suspension.
Some faults may be remedied relatively easily but significant rust suggests the whole car has been poorly maintained; alarm bells should certainly sound if you find a “freshly restored” car with shiny exterior paint and moss on the inside of the windows. Missing trim is another no-no; some items are hard to source even for models otherwise well served by spares suppliers and re-manufacturers.
Whatever you do, take your time and resist the temptation to buy the first car you see. In the long-nurtured eagerness to obtain a dream machine, this common advice is often ignored. However, in the world of classic cars you may be certain of two things: you will eventually find a better example, and it will be worth waiting for.
Best of British – five great starter classics
AUSTIN MINI/CLUBMAN (1959-2000)
Evergreen and universally popular on road, track and rally stage. Huge fun to drive if you can squeeze into one. Beware fake Coopers.
MGB/B GT (1962-1980)
The MGB roadster and B GT coupé are extremely popular and highly valued. Later rubber-bumper models are less desirable but may be converted.
MORRIS MINOR/TRAVELLER (1948-1970)
Simple, unpretentious and apparently immortal, the saloon and Traveller estate provide classy yet classless transport for all.
TRIUMPH HERALD/VITESSE (1959-1971)
Small-chassis Triumphs (Herald/Vitesse saloons and convertibles and Spitfire/GT6 two-seaters) are easy to maintain and remarkably cheap.
TRIUMPH TR6 (1969-1976)
Perhaps not as pretty as the earlier TR4 but also less expensive; an archetypal British sports car with good spares and tuning support.
Prices for fault-free (not concours condition) cars, concours cars may be up to 30% on top of highest estimate.