What Makes a Classic Car “Classic?”

This post is an edited excerpt from the book “Drop, Throttle, Oversteer: Collecting and Investing in Classic Cars” by Jason Paynter, who is also a certified appraiser of classic cars through G.D. Herring. Contact Jason today at jason@gdherring.com to learn more about he can help you with your classic car appraisal!


In the most basic of terms, “classic” means “aged and unmodified,” which means – you guessed it… the beater you’re driving around could technically be called a “classic.” And to you it might be a classic. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

So what the heck am I talking about? This is a little harder to define, but it does have to do with age, style, rarity, condition and above all feeling. Really? Yes, really! A classic car, at the end of the day, gives you a feeling like no other. Every time I get behind the wheel of one of my cars it feels like I am driving it for the first time.

Age

There is definitely some debate about how old a classic car needs to be, but at the risk of alienating all those Dodge Neon fans out there, let’s say the “classic car” predates the year 2000. Using this definition, we are considering cars at least 20 years old. But not all cars 20 years old will qualify as “classic.” Why? Well, this leads us to our second point of what makes a classic car…

Style

Style is extremely important when considering the classic car. Some of the cars in my collection are from the 1960s and the 1970s, some are from the 80s and some from the 90s. But I have to say, it’s not the age of the cars that made me select them. I chose them because they are stylistically iconic. Looking up the definition of “iconic,” you’ll find “relating to or having the characteristics of an icon.” Not terribly helpful, but it gets at the root of the idea.

The cars I collect evoke shared cultural memories of their time period, making them iconic and therefore “classic.” Technically, the 1974 AMC Matador Coupe, by virtue of its age is a classic, but would you know one if you saw it? Now consider the 1969 Dodge Charger. You know that car! . Think back to memories of the Duke boys jumping over the hood and into “the General” through the rolled down windows, as they escaped one more time. Love it or not, that is iconic style, and a critical part of what makes a car “classic.”

Rarity

When we talk about authentic collections of classic cars, we are talking about special, difficult to come by cars. This is why my kid’s BMW isn’t a classic. It’s not rare. It’s not unique. A collector, at his heart, is a hunter. Looking for that one-of-a-kind, hard to find, rarity no one else has. A collector will know the details of the car inside out. Read some of the descriptions on classic car websites to understand what I’m talking about here – you’ll find details like “crank windows,” “suicide door,” “dagmars,” and “window straps.” These aren’t things you’ll see on today’s cars or even cars from 20 years ago. Now we are starting to get to the heart of “classic.” There is value in the special and rare. Which brings me to…

Condition

A car can be the right age, iconic, and bursting with features, but if it’s not in good condition, it may not be of much interest to your classic car collector. Not to say restoration can’t be done, or a barn find isn’t worth investigating. But there is a special excitement for a classic collector when he finds out a prospect car only has 20,000 original miles and has only been owned by one or two people. When these rare, iconic automotive pieces of art have been well maintained, just try to stop a collector from traveling halfway across the country to take a look. He’s going to have butterflies in his stomach just at the thought. Which ends us with our final piece of the classic car puzzle, which is…

Feeling

I’ve said it before; there’s just something about it. When you love these cars, you get a feeling from seeing them, from driving them, and from owning them that is like no other. You get your hands on one, and you have to have another. It’s truly an addictive hobby.

Owning a classic car is simply a form of entertainment and the best part about it is sharing it with friends. I’m not talking about just tossing over the keys (there are insurance implications to letting someone borrow your car). I’m talking about piling your friends into the backseat for a ride. I’m talking about the memories. I’m talking about the guy in a Hyundai Sonata checking out the wood grain panels on your Olds Custom Cruiser station wagon. Owning classic cars is, in the best terms, just simply full-throttle fun. The looks, sounds, shapes, and design make each car unique and a blast to own.


Jason Paynter is a classic car appraiser, collector and enthusiast. In addition to being the author of the book, Drop, Throttle, Oversteer: Collecting & Investing in Classic Cars, he also hosts the Classic Car Corner podcast, on iTunes, Spotify and all your other favorite outlets. He lives in Louisville, KY with his beautiful wife and three sons who are (heaven help him) of driving age. Jason is also a certified appraiser and would be more than happy to assist in helping valuate your collection or answer any of your questions about cars. Email him at jason@gdherring.com.

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