All you need to know...

Mod­i­fy­ing mod­ern cars can send your pre­mium sky­wards, but does the same ap­ply to com­mon clas­sic up­grades?

Classics Monthly - - Con­tents - Words Paul Wa­ger

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.

En­gine swaps

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.

Mild tun­ing

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.

Ex­tra ra­tios

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.

Stop­ping power

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.

Kit­ted out

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.

All orig­i­nal?

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.

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