All you need to know...
Modifying modern cars can send your premium skywards, but does the same apply to common classic upgrades?
As a fresh-faced sub editor just starting out in car magazines one of my first assignments working for Fast
Ford magazine was to cover a modified Escort RS Turbo. Anyone familiar with Ford’s ’80s favourite will know that the blown 1.6 CVH can be tweaked to the tune of 250 bhp or more, but on this occasion I remember the photographer and I were left standing around while the technicians ran the car up time after time on the rolling road.
Curiously, they weren’t fine-tuning their set-up to extract a crucial few more horsepower from the car but were actually attempting to downgrade it – something I’ve never seen before or since.
The reason? The owner had just bought the car but being in his early twenties was struggling to get insurance cover on what was a 180 bhp engine spec. After some discussion the underwriters had decided that 150 bhp was an acceptable risk and the multiple rolling road sessions were all in pursuit of that magical print-out which I remember emerging from the printer showing 148 bhp.
At the time the turbo’d Escort was well under 10 years old and of course was considered by the world of insurance as simply a modified high-performance hatchback with premiums loaded accordingly for the young owner.
This little anecdote reflects rather neatly just what an effect modifications can have on the cost of covering a particular car – and even in extreme cases, of getting covered at all. You may have noticed last time you renewed the policy on your everyday car that one of the questions invariably asked is if the car is ‘standard and unmodified’ and it’s common knowledge that you’re running a big risk by not declaring even things that might seem minor, like a set of aftermarket wheels or lowering springs.
Should you need to make a claim and an assessor discovers the car is not as it left the factory then you could well find yourself without valid cover.
In the world of classic cars though, things are rather different, even though modifications are perhaps even more common than they are in the modern car tuning world.
In the world of old cars, upgrades like modified suspension and brakes, engine tuning and even complete engine transplants, are commonplace, yet don’t seem to be such a stumbling block when it comes to getting the car covered.
To find out why and to discover just what the position is for owners modifying classic cars, we spoke to the people at the heart of the specialist classic car insurance word.
As you’ve probably worked out by now, the big difference in everyday motor insurance and specialist classic policies is not just the age of the car or the driver, but the use owners tend to make of the car and the attitude towards the vehicle.
Brokers and insurers in this market tend to assess what they will refer to as the whole risk and take a more considered view than the automated system used to provide a quote for your family wagon which does daily battle on the school run and the M25.
Clearly, if you’ve spent a small fortune and big chunk of the last few years restoring your classic car then you’re likely to be pretty careful behind the wheel and also unlikely to be abandoning it
overnight on the wrong side of the tracks with a new iPhone lying on the seat. Similarly, even if you’re a committed fan of, for example, the Frogeye Sprite, someone driving 30,000 miles a year for business is probably not going to be doing it behind the wheel of an 948cc AustinHealey, which gives rise to the idea of a limited-mileage policy.
The fundamental question is whether modifications on older cars are viewed more favourably by insurers than with modern vehicles and Andrew Evanson, Senior Operations Manager for Lancaster Insurance, points out that it’s always sensible to speak directly with a specialist, since mods can be addressed on a case by case basis.
How old is classic?
The big question of course is what exactly defines an older car for the purposes of insurance and anyone who has ever been hopeful of getting a cut-price classic policy for a more modern car will know that there’s no hard and fast rule. “As long as it’s old and interesting” is one definition we heard recently which sums things up neatly, while Evanson suggests that a car can be considered as a classic if it’s used in a cherished way – for example, purely as a second car, on a limited-mileage basis. Again, it’s a case where speaking directly to an advisor is the sensible route.
The same goes for the age of the owner: there’s something of a myth around the idea of getting a classic car as a means of procuring cheaper insurance for a new driver and more than one specialist broker has pointed out to us in the past that even when he’s driving a sidevalve Morris, a 17-year old newly qualified driver isn’t an attractive risk to anyone. Once again, it’s something which is assessed on an individual basis.
Classic upgrades and cover
The chances are that much of this is common knowledge already, but to get a handle on the details, we suggested to Lancaster a few common upgrades often made to classics, to get a handle on how far you can go before premiums start to creep up.
Firstly, what about fitting a larger engine to your Morris Minor? It’s not unknown for owners of any A-Series-engined classic to swap out the original for the 1275cc unit in the quest to keep up with modern traffic. Although it’s a useful shot in the arm for your Moggy, it’s hardly a GTI-beater, yet it’s still an engine transplant, so how will you fare come renewal time?
Not so badly it seems. Many of the specialist insurers will have staff on hand who are personally familiar with the popular types of classic and in the case of Lancaster the firm’s Car Club manager turns out to be a Morris Minor enthusiast and serial owner. This of course means he’s well aware that putting a 1275 motor in a Minor doesn’t make you a Fast and Furious wannabe, but someone who’d rather not be struggling in the urban rush hour, with Evanson pointing out that such an upgrade would be unlikely to result in a significantly increased premium. Especially, he points out since owners doing this kind of work would often tend to make other upgrades too.
Not so many owners go to the extreme of craning in a complete new engine though, so what about more mild performance upgrades like, for example, twin carbs and sports exhaust? Similarly, it appears that since they’re such common additions, they’re unlikely to result in premium hikes.
Wheels & tyres
Moving out from under the bonnet, it’s always advised that if you’re fitting bigger wheels and tyres to a modern car then it’s essential to advise your insurers since at best you won’t be covered for their theft and at worst you may not be covered in the case of a crash. Things are rather different with older cars, since it’s so common to run different wheels and tyres for so many reasons. Owners of ‘50s and ‘60s cars will generally run radial tyres rather than the crossplies their cars originally came on, while non-standard wheels are commonplace, complete with non-standard tyre sizes. Meanwhile, owners of ‘80s cars not wanting to cough up for replacement TRX metric rubber will frequently switch to a different wheel and tyre combination in order to fit standard-sized tyres. Again, since this sort of thing is done generally in the quest for better roadholding and driveabilty, premiums are unlikely to be affected. Watch out if your wheels are of significant value though and you didn’t bother with locking wheel nuts as many insurers will take a dim view of this if you do come back to find the car on a pile of breeze blocks.
It’s much the same story when it comes to uprated or nonstandard suspension. Taking the Morris Minor as an example once again, telescopic damper conversions for the car are now sufficiently common as to be available off the shelf as a kit and as a result are properly engineered rather than a crude home-built solution. The popularity of this kind of conversion on the Minor and MGB means that they are viewed more as a safety upgrade than a go-faster mod and so tend not to be penalised by raised premiums.
A rather different kind of upgrade is the increasingly common five-speed gearbox upgrade and although it’s usually done in the name of refinement and generally improved useability, Evanson points out quite rightly that it’s not often done in isolation. More often than not, a fivespeed upgrade is one of those things which is added to make the most of other changes and so it’s a case which would be considered on an individual basis, with an insurer considering the whole package of upgrades which have been made to a particular car.
You might think it’s fair to assume that uprating an old car’s brakes would be one of the few mods without any insurance implications but there are brake upgrades and brake upgrades: from simply swapping to better pads, to installing a disc setup from another model of the same car and then the other extreme of installing an aftermarket disc conversion and servo which was never even offered on that model when it was new.
Again, taking the Morris as an example, Evanson points out that the original braking system is considered adequate for the standard car but recognises that an uprated set-up does reduce the pedal pressure needed and is in most cases a sensible upgrade. As anyone will know who has driven a Minor on drums in busy city traffic, not having to stand hard on the pedal makes for a less tiring and therefore safer experience.
So far so good then: it seems that most of the common mods on older cars really are something you can do without running the risk of ending up with an uninsurable car. There is one area though where it pays to be cautious and that’s all bound up in the way premiums are calculated. The world of the actuary is a mysterious place but motor insurance premiums are generally influenced by two main factors, certainly where modern cars are concerned: the risk of a claim being made in the first place and the cost of repair when it does happen.
That explains why something like a Sebring bodykit fitted to an MGB is one of the few popular changes which may have an impact on the cost of insuring the car. The reason? As Evanson points out, it’s down to the cost of repair, since professionally fitting a kit like this is an expensive business and repairing accident damage can’t be done with standard parts.
DIY or not?
When it comes to the spanner-twirling for a servo conversion or five-speed box, the specialist insurers in the classic market are refreshingly pragmatic and are well aware that working on old cars is all part of the hobby. Coupled with the fact that most popular conversions are available as professionally produced parts, this means that most insurers are happy to assume that the work has been done safely and competently even if it’s an enthusiastic DIY owner who has done the work rather than a qualified professional. You’d also rather hope that any issues would be picked up at MoT test time.
And finally, we’ve all got ourselves involved at times in those heated discussions about what the original spec of an old car may or may not have been. So often the details are lost in the mists of time that nobody can be quite sure whether a particular engine is original to a specific car or whether those twin carbs were an option back when it was sold – especially in cases where the original maker is long gone and the records aren’t available.
So what happens if you run a classic which has been modified a lifetime ago by a previous owner but nobody can really tell you for certain whether it’s standard or not? If you do have the misfortune to make a claim and it’s then discovered that the car you’ve always assumed is a standard example has been modified somewhere along the way, where do you stand? Luckily, as Evanson points out, the situation is pretty clear and you’re unlikely to face problems.
So there you have it. If you want to upgrade your old car to get the most use possible out of it, then it appears – as long as it’s an accepted classic – then the world of classic insurance makes it a lot easier.
Even a mildly tuned Minor is unlikely to be a costly insurance prospect.
Fitting 1275 power to your Minor (below) should see you without a big premium loading.
Sebring kits and other body styling can impact premiums through their increased repair cost in the event of a collision.
Telescopic damper conversions for MGB and similar (above left) are accepted as a common upgrade.
Five-speed conversions are a common sight these days but are usually only fitted in conjunction with other upgrades.