FEB 27th 2015

Thank Frankel it's Friday: Just what is a 'classic' car, anyway?

I am indebted to my fellow contributor Chris Harris for alerting me to the presence of a rather unusual advert on the Car & Classic website. What’s unusual is not the car itself, for once there was quite literally nothing more usual on our roads than a Ford Escort, but the choice of advertising medium.

For this is neither a BDA-powered RS1800 nor even an Escort Cosworth. In fact it’s not even an RS2000 nor a bleeding XR3i. It is – steel yourself – a 1988 1.3 Popular.

You may now think I’m being frightfully snobbish, pouring scorn on this honest car of the people, but I’m not. For a start it was not an honest car of the people but a rather poor excuse for family transport even 27 years ago (I know, I’m so old I tested them when they were new). Indeed absolutely the best thing I can think to say about it was that it was quite a lot less terrible as the Mk IV Escort that replaced it. Which is not much of a recommendation.

Yet there is something remarkable about this particular car and it is doubtless the reason the vendor turned to Car & Classic to sell it: in all those years it has amassed a grand total of 17,600 miles and when you look at the pictures, you’ll not doubt the veracity of the claim.

But then the seller overreaches himself. Six lines in, he describes it as ‘a very usable classic’ when it is, of course, nothing of the sort.

Forgive the somewhat elementary observation but ‘classic’ and ‘old’ are not synonyms. I’ve never driven a car that was bad when it was new that somehow the passage of time contrived to make good, let alone classic. I’m not saying bad cars can’t be interesting, but for that to happen they have to have had something intrinsically noteworthy about them when new. An Austin Allegro with a square steering wheel is interesting because, well, it has a square steering wheel, not to mention superior aerodynamics going backwards than forwards. Even the hilariously hideous Pontiac Aztec – and if you’ve ever watched Breaking Bad this world class clunker will need no further introduction from me – is interesting because it’s fascinating to imagine a boardroom full of executives sitting around a table to sign it off and one by one going, ‘yup, that’s good enough for me.’ But that doesn’t make it a classic and it never, ever will.

The Escort doesn’t even have such conspicuous awfulness going for it. To call it a washing machine on wheels is an insult to white goods. It is a nothing car, a device devoid of character, designed to do a job to the lowest standard its manufacturer thought it could get away with.

Depressingly enough it was Britain’s best selling car, a fact I deplored at the time because it made me, as someone who earned his living advising people what cars to buy and which to avoid, feel entirely impotent. Indeed compared to Ford’s marketing budget at the time, the entire UK motoring press was pretty powerless. These days where anyone can find out anything about any car with no more than a click of a mouse, such mediocrity would never have found such favour.

So what does make a car a classic, or at least one in waiting? It need not be expensive now or when it was new. But it must be today and have been then a car that was both interesting and fundamentally good at what it set out to do. That is the essential platform and why a Citroen 2CV has as much right to be considered a classic as any other. Upon that you can add rarity, beauty, technological prowess, brand value, historical importance, driving dynamics, competition success and so on until you arrive at a Ferrari 250GTO. But without any of these things, an old car is just that and nothing else, regardless of condition, mileage, how you choose to describe it or where you choose to advertise it.


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