John Simister ‘We need to act quickly to preserve the disposable generation,’ says John.
Why not save some for the future, wonders John
‘‘What is clear is that a premium badge is still no guarantee of extra longevity’
took part in a photoshoot at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground recently, which, as well as having an excellent track, is also home to a giant Manheim car auction. We love our classic cars; to us each one is special, and has a story to tell. But there is nothing like a sea of moderns, none older than three years, to kill that cosy relationship. Here, cars are commodities, nothing more.
Of course, every mainstream classic car has gone through a similar commodity phase, when no longer brand new but still having a high value to the motor trade. Then, over the years, the value drops and most cars go into gradual decline, eventually to meet the crusher. Fortunately, some of them escape that process and live to see their values (and rarity) rise, to enter the world that this magazine celebrates.
The mid-nineties to the mid-noughties are the twilight model-years of danger, I’d say. These are the years that fill the breakers’ yards. Anything older is now likely to have been through the end-of-life process, leaving no trace.
Assistant editor James touched on this recently (PC, July 2017), imploring readers to think twice about scrapping a serviceable car of this era when, often with minimal outlay, it could be enjoyed and preserved for future generations. A visit to a scrappie reveals shocking waste, cars cast aside because they have no value. Commodities again, but now obsolete. It’s salutary to remember that one of the first serialised restorations in PC was of a 1967 Morris Minor 1000. The magazine launched in 1980 so the Morris was 13 years-old, the age of an 04-reg car now which is at the younger end of our danger period. I can’t think of an 04-registered car that has needed the sort of major structural rebuild performed on that Morris; cars generally last longer nowadays, and death is more likely to come from mechanical or electrical malfunction, or simply through being worn out, than from rust.
As cars become more electronically complex, so they are more likely to suffer failures uneconomic to fix. The main dealers will charge too much to fix such faults, but specialists will grow in their expertise and will continue to offer the chance of renewed life to cars whose owners want it. That’s the future for such cars, much as it has always been, but today the challenges are greater and the pool of customers probably smaller, given the ease of ‘buying’ a brand-new car on a PCP.
It’s interesting to see how cars of the danger era have aged. There are still some obvious rotters, such as the Ford Ka and Puma, along with some surprising ones such as many Mercs, the E46 BMW 3-series and Jaguar’s S-type and X-type, but mostly the metalwork holds up quite well.
Rather than rampant rust, the age shows in the way plastic headlamp lenses, which started to appear in the mid-nineties, go opaque and yellow, how black or grey plastic trim goes powdery, how paint lacquer peels away. Plastic parts have always suffered under ultra-violet light, but these cars have more of them so the damage is more obvious.
What is clear is that a premium badge is still no guarantee of extra longevity, as the number of corroded fixings and rust-oozing seams on the 1999 Alfa 156 that I bought in 2002 revealed – never mind those crepuscular Benzes.
Anyway, I have just bought a fascinating and massively under-appreciated car from 1997 for a ludicrously small amount, given its condition, equipment tally and modest mileage. I ran a similar car as a long-termer back in 1994, and loved it. Now the breed is close to disappearing, so I felt it my duty to preserve one. A Staff Car Saga beckons, of course. Clue: it’s French.