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When did cars stop getting old? I used to hold the view that anything with plastic bumpers was a modern, but that viewpoint is now hopelessly out of date. Maybe it’s an age thing, but all of a sudden time seems to have shifted abruptly and disrupted all my motoring reference points.

I was musing over a high-performance hatchback recently. With 227 bhp and four-wheel-drive, it will hit sixty miles per hour in under six seconds. It’s got ABS brakes, an airbag, air conditioning and a catalytic converter. It’s economical, reliable and practical. It’s also a quarter of a century old; the Ford Escort Cosworth. This train of thought was further extended when encountering a Ferrari F40 a few weeks ago. How can this missile be 30 years old? Kevlar composite bodywork aside, there’s actually very little futuristic about it and the chassis construction didn’t break any new ground, but it still looks the part. It certainly doesn’t seem feasible that a showroom standard 2018 Golf R can match it to 60 mph. Meanwhile, the Escort Cosworth driver would still be waiting for the turbo to wind up.

Collectable? Of course. Awesome? That too. Classic? Well… naaaaah, maybe.

The problem is not so much that time moves on, as I will have to eventually come to terms with that for a variety of reasons. It’s more to do with the shifting definition of the classic car experience. Drive a typical saloon from the mid 1970s, and you’ll be fully aware that you’re in an old car. Starting it will involve pulling the choke out, and you’ll still need to let the engine warm to guarantee a smooth getaway. The controls will be heavier than your modern daily, the brakes will need a shove, and although it will stop well enough you need to plan ahead a little. The unassisted steering will probably be quite slow from lock to lock in order to keep the weight manageable. It may have a steering box rather than rack and pinion, and then you’ll really notice the difference. The ventilation may be marginal, but you’ll crank open the quarterlight to let some air in. Overall, it’ll play the part of a car quite competently, but you’ll always be aware that you’re having to put some thought and effort into driving it. That’s a good thing though – it’s the classic car experience – and that’s what sets it apart from the surrounding traffic. Even the casual pedestrian will recognise that you are driving something from another era.

Plastic bumpers galore.

Now step forward a decade and put yourself in the equivalent from the mid 80s. Your fuel is injected and managed by a computer chip. Your steering is probably powered. Your bumpers are certainly plastic. Car development leapt forward to such an extent during this time, that describing it as an evolutionary process barely seems to cover it. Suddenly there were low drag aerodynamics applied to the mainstream, fared in door handles and no guttering, whilst under the skin there were the beginnings of true platform sharing. In terms of design, materials and production techniques, there was a purposeful step forward. Think of the C3 Audi 100, the Ford Sierra and the Saab 9000 versus the generation that came before. Step into a car from this era and it will be very familiar to the modern motorist. Ok, it won’t have integral sat nav, hill hold, adaptive cruise control, autonomous braking or touch screen controls for the radio (thankfully), but it will have effective halogen headlamps, good rust proofing and maybe electric windows. There’s a good chance of ABS brakes and maybe even an airbag if you’re in something flash, all the essentials I’d want in an all-weather daily but none of the rubbish. To my mind, car design reached its peak in the early 1990s and has gone downhill ever since. For reference, the last proper car was the BMW E36, just so you know.

More plastic bumpers.

I very rarely hand over money for a classic car publication as it’s cheaper to read them whilst standing in the supermarket, but I bought one of the weekly classic car newspapers recently as I was spending the evening marooned on my own in a frankly disappointing budget hotel. It’s stashed full of features on cars which I would categorise as “used” rather than classic, barely even meeting the agreeable continental definition of “youngtimer”. Amongst the pages there’s an MGF buyers guide, MG ZR and Volvo 940 running reports and Mazda MX-5 content. A casual flick though the classifieds reveals that amongst the usual fare is a low mileage 1992 Mk3 Golf, very original and with a fully stamped service history for £1,495. That seems fine if you want that sort of thing, but I wasn’t expecting to find it advertised there. It’s not particularly old, barely retro and definitely not ViaRETRO.

Surely a Volvo 940 is now where near being a classic?

The same market that gives someone the confidence to ask £21,000 for a Morris Minor Traveller, has encouraged a very humble looking 1990 five door Vauxhall Astra with no MOT and 180,000 miles (yes, one hundred and eighty thousand) to be on for £4,000… yes, four actual grand! Having considered this trend for some time, the best (publishable) explanation I can come up with is, in somebody’s head an intergalactic mileage 1990 Astra is a desirable classic car deserving of some recognition. I wouldn’t hold out much hope of someone being a big enough glue sniffer to actually hand over that much cash for it unless they’ve made it themselves with their best crayons, but maybe it’s me who is increasingly out of touch. It is 28 years old after all, and if all you’ve ever known is integral sat nav, hill hold, adaptive cruise control, autonomous braking or touch screen controls for the radio, it probably feels positively prehistoric, or in other words, “a classic.” I’m certainly not sniffy about brands and pedigree, my Northern inverse snobbery sees to that. I’d be far more excited at spotting a Yugo than a Lambo.  I know quite a lot about run of the mill cars and shockingly little about exotica, and I’m proud of that. However, I would never be talking the Yugo up into something it isn’t.

And even more plastic bumpers!

I suppose I can cope with the likes of the Escort Cosworth being 25 years old, and I can see why they’re worth good money. If anyone was daft enough to lend me one I suspect I’d report back on how competent and modern it still feels, and how quickly the tyres wear out. I can also accept that a Mk2 Astra is now a rare sight, and if (gently) rising values mean that some are saved, I can’t argue with that. Such everyday transport is part of our cultural history. I can just about believe that the Porsche 924 has now had its 42nd birthday, but that always seemed ahead of its time to me so doesn’t really count. Liking cars of this generation is more about my reluctance to embrace 21st century motoring, rather than seeking to recapture the recent past, and to me that’s a clear distinction. Admittedly, there is a little nostalgia involved, but they are generally very capable and completely usable on a daily basis. Maybe it’s an age thing, or possibly car design and my own experiences just happened to come together in some sort of perfect convergence. Perhaps the 1980s cars I grew up driving were just too competent meaning they still feel fresh today. Surely the leap forward in technical advances around then serves to dispel any thoughts that I’m just imagining it. Perhaps it is only when our choices are limited to autonomous hybrids, that the exact nature of the physical driving experience won’t be such a differentiator. Having any driving experience at all will become sought after in its own right. It’ll be a very long time before we’re writing about Mk3 Golfs here, but the only certainty is that the old certainties are less certain than ever.

There’s certainly not much ViaRETROness in a Golf 3.

But if this is the bleak future, should we perhaps embrace that Golf 3 anyway?

14 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt
    Phew… Thank you Dave!! Just really nice to know that I’m not the only one feeling utterly confused and at odds with my own emotions…
    On one side, I must confess that it’s happening more often than ever, that I find myself dreaming – and even searching eBay! – for the likes of Peugeot 309GTi, Fiat Uno Turbo i.e., Alfa Romeo 75, 1st gen Toyota MR-2 and similar. Oh and I share your sentiments on the BMW E36 too.
    Yet, I just can’t get myself to perceive them as classics – not yet anyway. So I don’t want one as a classic. Yet, they’re probably too old to be dailies. Or are they? Argh… I’m confused…
    Reply
  2. Claus Ebberfeld
    That is such an interesting topic, Dave.

    First of all, you’ve nailed what makes actually DRIVING “real” classic cars interesting – they feel different. Call that “old”, “alive”, “demanding” or what ever you like, but they definately don’t feel like a modern. Which, I agree, is a good thing.

    You mention the 28-year old Astra. Hmm, my first classic was in fact only 25 years old when I acquired it – and I’d say a Triumph Spitfire qualified as a classic, even back in 1993. Forward several years and I suddenly found myself in a 1982 BMW 628 CSi (thanks to Anders, but that is another and quite convoluted story), at that time around 28 years old. This was much more complicated: It still had chrome bumpers and a lovely feel to its ways of driving – but at the time I felt it was too modern.

    And then today I find a 1986 Renault 5 GT Turbo out there in my garage – a fully-flegded plastic-from-bumper-to-wheelarch-extensions-inside-and-out-bomber. But a hoot to drive – and much to my surprise, a car that gains me thumbs-up from others out there in the traffic.

    Last but not least, you include a load of photos of more plastic-bumpered youngtimers – and I strangely find that I am not only attracted to most of them, but that I actually would like to own a 405 MI16, an Audi 100 Avant, the Renault 25 and even the Rover!

    I simply can not explain that sentiment. I don’t consider any of those (including my R5 GTT) “real” classics – but then at least they’re something else than a modern, and I can only interpret my own feelings along the lines of “these cars are on their way”. To where I am not quite sure – but I suppose to some kind of classic status recognition.

    Reply
  3. Dave Leadbetter
    That is what the core of the matter is to me, that we like our old cars because they provide an analogue experience in a digital world. All the cars pictured above represent the last of that era before everything started to get dumbed down. Claus, I suspect that your inner caveman gets a kick out of driving the Renault 5 Turbo because it is a much more raw experience than it’s modern equivalent. I know that is what I find with my cars. As they get closer to the present day that rawness becomes too refined. Being able to plug your portable telephone in to your car’s infotainment centre is not the sort of “connectedness” I want; I want to be connected to the road instead! Even the pretty low common denominator of the Golf 3 starts to look good in comparison…

    I seriously believe that the car enthusiast is an endangered species and for those who will be brought up on hybrids and all electric, it’s not really surprising. Will we ever see them preserved in the way that our cars are? I remain, a grumpy old man.

    Reply
  4. Tony Wawryk
    For me, there are classics, and there are plain old cars. I can’t look at an Escort XR3i and see a classic, or indeed an Astra GTE. Yet I can look at an Escort Mexico or a Kadett Rallye Coupe, and these are classics to me. Having said that, a plain Mk 1 Escort 1.3L or Kadett 1.2 is just an old car. Same with an MG Maestro Turbo (classic, or near classic) and Maestro 1.3HL (old). I could go on, but you know what I mean. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that there are people prepared to put the time and effort (usually their own, since most of these old cars are not worth professional restoration) into keeping the remaining few of these old cars on the road, and who knows, eventually they may also become “real” classics. Does the age of the car matter? Less so than it’s significance or some other aspect(s) of the car that made/makes it special – performance, styling, engineering, history, rarity, racing pedigree etc – the usual stuff. The E9 I had in the 90s was only 18 years old when I bought it, but was already a classic in 1994. Yet there are a bunch of cars that are now much older – like the ones Dave refers to – that to me will just be old, not classic. Claus’s 1986 Renault 5 GT Turbo – I’d call that a classic. A R5 GTL – that’s just old.
    I think what I’m getting at in a somewhat confused way is that while the analogue v digital driving experience is definitely a part of it, it needs more. Ramble over…
    Reply
  5. Anders Bilidt
    Not at all Tony – you made me giggle. Mostly because you’re clearly as confused as both Dave, Claus and myself. Even more so because you struggle in equal measures when trying to convince yourself that you’re not confused at all… :-)
    Reply
  6. Claus Ebberfeld
    Interesting, Tony, but I don’t quite see it that way: In fact I don’t even think my own 5 GT Turbo is (much) more classic than a GTL-version of the same model. Likewise with the Escort Mk1 1,3 – an absolute classic in my eyes, every bit as much so as a Mexico.

    Paradoxically the more humble models will at some point probably end up being more rare than their top-of-the-line siblings, as not as many were treasured early on – or indeed are now. That in itself makes them interesting to my eyes: I loved my 1979 Mitsubishi Colt in all its splendid metallic moonraker blue, for example – never saw another one here in Denmark.

    I recently looked at Mercedes 190 2.3-16’s, which I think is a fantastic car in many ways AND a surefire youngtimer and classic-to-be. But there are actually quite a lot nice ones out there and suddenly it seemed much more challenging to find an equally good 190E.

    As I admitted above – it’s complicated and I don’t understand it either!

    Reply
  7. Tony Wawryk
    Confused, moi? I thought I was clear as some very clear mud… ;) I guess ultimately one man’s (or woman’s) classic is another’s old car, and vice versa. But it doesn’t half give us loads to discuss when we’re walking around fields or exhibition halls of old and/or classic cars :)
    Reply
  8. Dave Leadbetter
    Interesting replies, and glad I’ve stimulated some debate. It seems there are two strands, first of all is it old enough (based upon a function of our own various ages), and secondly is it special enough? That last point is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Being a massive inverse snob I was proud to own the worst pickup truck in Derbyshire for a few years and now I now longer have a commercial vehicle in the fleet I really hanker after an Escort van. I don’t want a restored and perfect Mk1 or Mk2 though, I fancy 300 quid’s worth of beaten up Mk5 with plastic bumpers and all. Why? Because they are disappearing fast and are basically worthless so very soon they’ll all be gone. This is our cultural history! Honestly, if I had more storage space I’d be dangerous…
    Reply
  9. Tony Wawryk
    Dave makes a really great point – all of these cars that we love to talk about, classic, old or both, are indeed part of our cultural history, and for that reason alone, they are worth preserving, irrespective of monetary value. Nevertheless (warning: tortured and probably confusing and possibly irrelevant metaphor follows), an old copy of a book by Dan Brown (mass produced, mass appeal, a Metro, if you will) will never have the same classic status, even if all bar a handful have been thrown away or recycled or whatever, as an old copy of 1984 or Great Expectations. So there ;)
    Reply

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