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Cars: Vintage vs. Classic

“It’s a classic.” “That thing is so old it’s practically an antique!” These are some of the phrases you might hear when talking about older cars, but what really defines a classic? Take in a local car show and you’ll find a wealth of vintage and classic automobiles, from 1930s Oldsmobiles to original 1964 Ford Mustangs and possibly even an older model Ferrari or Lotus. You’ll also get a variety of answers and maybe some cursing if you try and get an exact definition of “classic.” There exists a radical distinction between classic, antique and vintage automobiles. To the layperson all three terms are synonyms, but in the automotive world, the differences are significant and numerous. Typically, a vehicle is judged on three criteria: age, price, and historic status, or if the car is rare or significant in some way. We’ll examine the distinct specifications of each term according to automotive enthusiasts.

What Makes a Car a Classic?

A classic car is anything manufactured more than 20 years ago, so roughly any vehicle before the year 2000; however, not all vehicles in that age range would qualify as a true classic. Typically, a classic car is a vehicle beyond 20 years old with original parts and driven primarily for sport or pleasure. The car cannot be radically modified from its factory condition. While your 1994 Chevrolet Astro van is technically considered a classic, it’s unlikely you’ll take it down to the car wash on Friday nights to show it off. A late 1990s Toyota Supra is a classic, for example, as Toyota stopped producing the Supra after that production run (Toyota would bring back the Supra in 2019). Different states and countries also have different legislation on how classic and antique vehicles are registered and insured, so check to see their criteria. Many states offer an antique or classic license plate as well. Examples of current, sought-after classic automobiles include a 1992 Mazda RX-7, a 1977 Chevrolet Stingray, or a 1987 Buick GNX. The fabled Lamborghini Countach and even the Diablo is now considered a classic car. The generation of children that grew up idolizing those vehicles has come of age and is able to purchase these cars, so there is a large market for 1980s and 1990s sports cars.

What Makes a Car Antique?

An antique car is a car that is more than 45 years old; therefore, an older classic car is now on the cusp of being considered an antique. Most classic cars from the 1950s and 1960s qualify as antique cars these days. Availability and demand also determine which classics are popular and considered antique. There’s no real distinction as to when a car transitions to the antique status and is up for considerable debate. Much of the distinction is predicated on the current automobile market and vehicles fall in and out of demand with regularity. As with classic cars, antiques cannot be radically modified from factory condition in order to qualify. If the vehicle has been rebuilt, it must be done as close to manufacturer specifications as possible to qualify as an antique. Updated and aftermarket modifications would disqualify the car.

What Makes a Car Vintage?

Vintage cars are the oldest of the old – anything manufactured prior to 1930. The most common vehicle is the original Ford Model-T. Since so many were produced in the 1920s, they are fairly easy to locate and remain a common vintage car restoration project. Other authorities expand the definition to state 1925; however, 1930 is generally considered the cutoff date. However, unlike classic and antique automobiles, vintage automobiles can be radically modified from their original status.

What Makes a Car Collectible?

A vehicle is considered collectible if it is rare or noteworthy in some way, but the old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” rings true here. More fittingly is the cliché, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” A collectible car can really be anything unique, niche, or interesting. Sometimes the vehicle is a collectible because it was the first or last of its manufacture with a certain design feature – i.e. a Trans-Am T-top. Others, like the 1968 Ford Mustang Bullitt, driven by Steve McQueen in the film of the same name, is collectible due to its association with his celebrity. The 1992 White Ford Bronco would just be a run-of-the-mill classic 4×4 these days if not for its association with the OJ Simpson murder case. A 1964 Aston Martin DB5 is both an antique car and a collectible, most famous as James Bond’s ride. Although vintage and antique automobiles are the most collected, anything with a colorful history can be considered a collectible car.

Additional Resources

By Alan Bernau Jr

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