The smell of hot oil, burning rubber on tarmac, butter-soft leather seats… Vision discovers the enduring appeal of a classic car
Cars as collectable items emerged in the USA and the UK in the 1950s, when enthusiasts realised hand-crafted sports cars and tourers from the 1920s needed to be preserved. This saw the key ‘vintage’ era defined as that from the end of the First World War to 1931, when Bentley was declared bankrupt after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
With the start of historic motor sport in the early 1970s, old racing cars also started to be saved for posterity, and people began to appreciate and respect the pioneering racing drivers who competed fearlessly in these dangerous beasts.
By the late 1970s, mass car ownership was established worldwide. Many of the humbler models that put our fathers on the road were worn-out and sent to the crusher. Surviving ‘classic’ examples of Citroens, Datsuns, Volkswagens, Austins and Fiats began to be looked after more carefully. Large owners’ clubs were formed by owners of classic sports cars from MG, Triumph and Alfa Romeo for mutual support.
Today’s classic car industry is now huge and thriving. A global figure is impossible to calculate, but the industry in the UK alone – home to many top restorers, craftsmen, dealers, auction houses, experts and race preparers – is worth £2.5bn. In February, the annual Retromobile exhibition in Paris was accompanied by three major auctions which together raised £64m, including five £2m cars and eight £1m cars. A world record price of £2.2m was raised for the beautiful and ferociously fast Ferrari 275GTB/4 which, as one commentator remarked, ‘made its £200,000 restoration seem like money very well spent’.
Driving any classic car is to revel in the theatre of the road. In a modern prestige car, you’re completely isolated from the way it functions and responds, but in a classic Jaguar E-type or Chevrolet Corvette, for example, the sounds, smells and rushing air make driving really exciting. In an old car, you need to master the gearbox and steering to get the best from it, but that’s all part of the fun.
And classics ooze the human touch in their styling and aura. Nothing quite beats the pride of the sunlight lighting up your chrome, the comforting aroma from leather upholstery, and just the faintest whiff of hot oil. They might overheat, steam up, shudder and rattle; but that’s usually your car trying to tell you something without the aid of computers and digital lights.
During my years editing the magazine Classic & Sports Car, we received hundreds of unsolicited articles from enthusiastic owners, many of them expressing their deep attachment to the old cars they cherished. But one recurring story was submitted to us almost monthly.
Our readers would visit Cuba and be amazed by all the 1940s and ‘50s classic American cars they encountered burbling along the streets of Havana – often as humble taxis. They sent us sets of gorgeous pictures of these elderly vehicles basking in the Caribbean sunshine, their owners smiling proudly alongside.
It looked like nothing less than a classic car paradise.
But the two-tone paintwork and chrome bumpers and hubcaps were emblems of motoring deprivation. For over 60 years since the Cuban revolution, imports were banned. Anything already on the road in 1959 was allowed to remain, though, so American cars from the likes of Ford, Pontiac, Cadillac and Chevrolet became sealed in a timewarp.
But things are set for change. New car imports have finally been permitted, and citizens can buy and sell cars as the rest of the world does. The American classics will probably be slowly retired, their status transformed from everyday vehicles to proper classic cars. As collectors’ items, though, they have some catching up to do with the highly-developed classic car arena elsewhere.
For one thing, they have been patch-mended using hand-fashioned spare parts. Some look great on the outside but the state of their inner workings would probably horrify any fastidious Ferrari or Porsche collector in Europe or the Middle East, who take great pride in maintaining and treating their cars like a highly-strung racehorse.
Showing it off
At some of the world’s greatest classic car events, enthusiasts congregate to admire each other’s cars, no matter what they are. And the Emirates Classic Car Festival typifies this sense of camaraderie and shared pride. Staged in Dubai by the UAE Automobile & Touring Club since 2009, it attracts classic car owners and fans from all over the region and beyond, much as the UK’s long-established Goodwood Festival Of Speed draws huge crowds.
Every year, the line-up is full of surprises and contrasts. At the 2013 event, for example, a cute Morris Minor van and a Volkswagen Kombi were exhibited alongside high-performance Ford Mustangs and vintage Bentleys in the stunning 200-car display.
“It’s no secret that I am passionate about both rally and classic cars and I look forward every year to displaying some of my collection,” said the Festival’s President, Mohammed Ben Sulayem. “However, each year I attend, the festival presents a greater temptation to add a few more to my garage.”
It isn’t just drivers who value motoring history. The important brands (or ‘marques’) do so too, with Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Ferrari and Bentley all supporting owners of their classic cars; some still offer brand new parts for models as old as the 1950s.
We can learn a lesson from these craftsmen, about the pride and fastidiousness in which they attend to vehicles that have been present at pivotal historic events. Perhaps their work will inspire future generations to safeguard what has been an impressive automotive heritage.