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According to old-classic-car.co.uk finding an answer to this question ranks with establishing the meaning of life (well almost), as there can be no other debate likely to raise the hackles of one group of enthusiasts or another. This is what I'll try to discuss here, with key links included to other pertinent areas of my website including along the way.
Older cars can be grouped more or less by the year they were made, such as with vintage and veteran cars for instance, vintage cars (as defined by the Vintage Sports Car Club I think) are anything built pre-1930. A car built between 1930 and WW2 is generally classed as being a Post Vintage Thoroughbred, quite a grand moniker for many cars that fall into this group, which at the time were less than grand. After this time things get significantly less clear, with the term ‘Classic Car’ being applied by various quarters to any car from the 1940s right through in some cases to the 1980s even.
Confusing things even more, for the UK enthusiast of classic cars, is the zero rated road tax, and the new DVLA classification of historic car (formerly PLG, which remains for later cars).
A visit to your local classic & vintage car show will do little to clear up the situation. Amongst the many displays of accepted classics, such as MGBs, Rileys, old Jags, Triumphs and so on, there will be displays by enthusiasts of much later cars such as the Toyota MR2, Opel Manta, Ford Granada and other fairly recent cars. A local show costs around £3 to enter the grounds of the country estate that it is hosted at, then a further £5 - £6 per person to get into the show area itself, so thats £8+ before I get into the show.
But back to the main point. An alternative idea may be to pop down the local newsagent and buy a copy of a magazine devoted to classic cars. A quick flick through certain magazines will do little to help - alongside (say) a serialised restoration of an Austin A40 you stand a very good chance of seeing a buyers guide for a Peugeot 205GTi. Even insurance companies who specialise in older car's are now taking on board the fact that as many not-that-old cars now attract a strong following (witness the Pug GTi and MR2s again), branding cars over 10 years old as ‘modern classics’, which may be a satisfactory way of classifying things, with pre-1980 cars usually approaching the full ‘classic’ status.
At the end of the day, the term ‘classic car’ is now accepted as applying to any car over say 15 years of age that has some fan base to draw upon, with one or two exceptions for truly interesting more recent automobiles.
I have made no mention of so-called ‘Modern Classics’ simply because these are cars that motoring pundits predict will attract the true full-on fanatical following of older car fans in the not-too-distant future.
Becoming a classic car owner involves as much or as little fanaticism for the subject as you wish to take on. Many classic car owners are content to fiddle with their old classic Morris in their spare time, with the car rarely ever seeing the light of day.
Some join owners clubs, some of whom then fully immerse themselves with the running of the club and/or its events throughout the rally season. Many owners are content to display their prized historic vehicle at shows up and down the country, whereas others get a taste for historic motor racing and prepare their cars for battle , whether it be side to side full-contact sports such as saloon car racing, or the more gentlemanly (though no less competitive) attraction of speed hillclimbing.
For some only absolute perfection will do, the concours arena being their natural habitat, where the ultimate spotless condition of a classic can often mean more than the driving experience of that car, many being trailered in cocooned transporters to avoid flies meeting their maker on the paintwork.
At the other end of the scale are those for whom originality is best, and a damp shammy leather over faded but original chromework and an oily rag carefully wiped over the mechanicals is favoured - not for them an old car resurrected with 80% or more of new parts, with the resulting car having a historical link with the past in name only.
Then there are those diehard owners for whom owning one or more old cars is not yet enough, and invest yet more of their money in old car memorabilia (often called automobilia), with period tins, petrol cans, enamel signs and so on gracing their garage, or in the case of those as-yet unmarried, living rooms, kitchens and so on. To read up on this subject, see my Automobilia page, or a page dedicated to Motor racing Memorabilia
Often once an interest for classic autos has set in, further pleasure can be found by widening the scope of the interest to include classic aircraft, vintage motorcycles such as from Norton, AJS, Matchless, Harley Davidson and others, old commercial vehicles (ranging from pocket size delivery vehicles through to classic fire engines, municipal trucks and army lorries), or even obscure machines such as vintage lawnmowers, elderly bicycles, mopeds, go-karts, scooters and mopeds.