For many car fans, owning classic cars is a long-held ambition. However, if you’re looking to invest in a classic car, you’ll need some understanding of this specialized area of the auto market, in order to make the most of your purchase.
Our comprehensive guide tells you everything you need to know about buying a classic, antique or vintage car.
The Difference Between Classic vs Antique Cars, and Classic vs Vintage Cars
If you have a real affection for cars, owning something older—with a little more character—is one of those life goals that you just must tick off the bucket list.
But what should you buy?
The first question you need to ask yourself is just how old you want your car to be. How far back in automotive history you want to go can have an impact on the costs involved.
Terminology is important here, as you need to know the difference between classic vs antique cars and classic vs vintage cars. The terms are often used interchangeably, yet you’ll need to understand the differences between them. An added confusion is that different places in the United States have different legislation relating to their use, so you’ll need to check the state laws where you live.
What Are Classic Cars?
Classic cars or classic trucks are usually between 20 and 40 years old, depending on which source you consult. It should be maintained as close to its original manufacturer specification as possible: A car that has been significantly modified may no longer qualify as a classic. Another definition of a classic car is one that has been built since 1925, but again this will depend on your local state laws.
What Kind of Cars Are Considered Classic Cars?
As time marches on, the window of time that defines a classic makes some cars ineligible for the status, while at the same time making others newly eligible. So, while many cars from the 1960s were previously stone-cold classics, now they’ve drifted off into an older category, making room for cars from the ’80s and even ’90s.
Because of this, a new generation of buyers and private sellers are now entering the classic car market, in search of the cars that they perhaps used to read about in auto magazines as teens. This has led to significant growth in demand for cars such as BMW M3s, Nissan Skylines, touring cars of the era and supercars. This 40-something gearhead nostalgia means that cars such as a Lamborghini Countach or a Ferrari Testarossa—cars they were only able to dream about when they had pictures of them on their bedroom walls—are now within reach. Many of you can now buy your dream classic cars!
Hans Wurl—a specialist at Gooding & Company, an antique and classic car auction house—has seen this phenomenon first-hand: “What we’ve found is that as the age of our clients has gotten younger, there are people who really wanted to buy the cars that they loved when they were children and obviously that has kept the market moving towards younger and newer cars.”
What Makes a Car an Antique?
A classic vs antique car is easily confused, but an antique car is older. Referring to your own particular state laws is again important—many will require the use of a special license plate—but, in most cases, an antique car is one that is over 45 years old (this is the definition used by the Antique Automobile Club of America). There are exceptions, though: The state of Michigan defines an antique car as one that was manufactured at least 26 years ago and is “used as a collector’s item.” However, collectible cars rely on numerous factors that help appraisers decide if they should be valued as a collectible car.
Like classic cars, an antique car should be as close to its original specification as possible, although modern spare parts will be permissible because of the difficulty of obtaining rare original parts.
What Kind of Cars Are Considered Antique Cars?
The kinds of cars that would previously have been considered classics—those from the automotive golden eras of the 1960s and ’70s—are now old enough to be considered antique.
What’s considered popular varies from state to state and even neighborhood to neighborhood. In many regular suburbs, you’ll often find older muscle cars, but if you go to a more upscale, affluent neighborhood, you might find rarer performance classic cars, like European sports cars such as BMW 507s or Japanese cars such as the Toyota 2000GT.
An analysis of online searches by ClassicCars.com uncovered regional preferences, state by state, to find the most popular antique cars in all 50 states. Unsurprisingly, muscle cars came out on top, with various model years of the Dodge Charger being the most-searched collectible car across the United States, helped no doubt by nostalgia for the famous General Lee on TV’s Dukes of Hazzard. The Charger was followed closely by the likes of the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet’s Corvette and Camaro, and the Pontiac Firebird. Throw in the Chevrolet El Camino, Ford Bronco and Pontiac GTO, and it’s clear to see the affection that buyers have for good ol’ Detroit iron.
Offering us the view from an auction house on cars for sale, Wurl says, “There will always be a big market for muscle cars and pony cars in the U.S. We’ve also found that mid-century and newer European sports cars continue to dominate the marketplace here. We handle a lot of examples of Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin, and there continues to be a lot of enthusiasm for those marques.”
Vintage Car Age: When Does a Car Become a Vintage Car?
Finally, there are what are called vintage cars. Vintage car age can vary greatly depending on where you are. What constitutes a vintage car depends on who’s defining it, but, as a rule of thumb, it’s a car that was built before 1930 (1925, by some definitions). So, it’s a car from the very early days of motoring except anything that has been modified into something like a hot rod.
What Kind of Cars Are Considered Vintage Cars?
Within this classification are very early cars from what’s known as the Brass Era, named for the brass fittings that were used as lights or radiators in the automobiles built between 1896 and 1915. As Wurl says, “There’s actually been a very robust marketplace historically for those cars and that’s continued. There’s still a really strong market for quality Brass Era cars.”
The whole vintage car market has, perhaps surprisingly, a big following among collectors, as Wurl notes, “There’s still a lot you can do with the early American cars like the Model T. The main enthusiasm remains in coach-built bodied cars: As the general market for cars of that era here in the U.S. shrinks, the cream is really rising to the top. So, a special coach-built automobile—whether it be a Packard, a Cadillac, a Lincoln or a Duesenberg—is always going to hold its value better, and retains a certain level of enthusiasm, even in a marketplace where that market is shrinking.”
And, while some of the cars in this market can cost as much as $10 million, Wurl also says that the entry price can be a lot lower: “You could certainly buy an old Model T for less than $10,000, and you could also buy a Model A Ford that will get you into all kinds of driving events.”
Questions to Ask Before You Buy Your First Classic vs Vintage Car
What should you buy when it comes to classic vs vintage cars? Chances are, you’re looking to lay down a decent chunk of change on your classic car or vintage car, so you need to think about exactly what you want—and why.
The most important consideration is that you must want the car. As Peter Haynes, a consultant with auction house RM Sotheby’s, says: “To anyone who really loves the hobby, they will only ever advise that somebody buys what they love. That’s the only solid bit of advice you can really give anyone. If you like something, don’t obsess too much about whether you think it’s the car that is going to do the best financially for you or not. Because if you own a car that you don’t like, there’s simply no point: There’s no pleasure in the ownership. People really ought to be led by their hearts, primarily in terms of choosing either the era of car or the type of car that they want.”
As Wurl adds, “You also want to decide what’s important to you. Usability is a big thing: you might want something that keeps up with modern-day traffic that you can use on public roads. Or you might want something where there is a large club community or something that is very high performance. Those are all considerations. I think it helps to work backward from what your goals are and what you want to do with a car when it comes time to decide which example to pull the trigger on.”
It’s also worth considering how easy it will be to maintain the classic car and obtain spare parts. The rarer the car, the more difficult it will be to get spares. It’s also harder to find an expert mechanic for it. That will mean more time off the road and, as a result, fewer opportunities to enjoy driving it.
Once you’ve zeroed in on the car that makes your heart beat faster it’s time to let the heat into the equation and get some proper advice. Wurl says: “We always recommend that people talk to some sort of an expert who can help them make an educated decision. There’s often a large sum of money involved and there are plenty of cars that have flaws. It’s important to find someone who can point those flaws out to you, so you don’t make a mistake when it comes time to purchase.”
Collectible Cars: What Makes a Car Collectible?
There are numerous factors that go into deciding what collectible cars are, many of which—as we have seen—are purely emotional or nostalgic.
However, there are three basic areas that will influence a car’s collectability:
- Age: The older a car is, the fewer examples there are likely to be around, especially ones in full working order. But there’s also an element of historical significance and the car’s place in automotive culture. A car might have heralded the dawn of a new design language or a new technology, which will pique the interest of classic car fans.
- Rarity: Special-edition or limited-run models are clearly desirable because ownership bestows a sense of exclusivity, the knowledge that you’re a member of a very small club. Sports car and supercar manufacturers are particularly keen on producing small batches of cars with higher performance, so these cars are much sought-after right from their initial launch, something that doesn’t erode as they get older.
- Design: We all like to own beautiful things and cars are no different. A well-designed and aesthetically attractive automobile, such as the Lamborghini Miura or Jaguar E-Type, will always have collectors queuing up to buy into ownership, so demand will always be high.
Insurance for Classic Cars, Collectible Cars and Vintage Cars
The increased popularity of collectible cars – whether they are classic cars, antique cars and vintage cars – has led to a huge shift in how they are insured. It used to be the case that the owner of a collectible car would just add their pride and joy to the same policy covering their daily driver, which would often increase premiums significantly.
That’s all changed now. There are numerous specialist insurers and major companies in the market that can help you find the right antique car insurance policy. For example, if you have a classic car, The Hartford’s Nutmeg Agency can place you with a specialty carrier that will provide the kind of coverage you need. Its antique and classic car insurance is designed specifically to protect the unique cars that are so important to owners at a rate that is now more affordable than ever before. A classic or antique vehicle may also be eligible for a lot of the same discounts on insurance as newer cars.
Are you ready to take the plunge and buy a classic, antique or vintage car? Or do you already enjoy owning and driving one? What’s your idea of the perfect vehicle? Let us know by commenting below.
My family has 1956 Fairlane with Thunderbird engine. It has been in garage since 1972. It has 38K miles and all original. It is 4-Door. I have been told 4-Door is like 30% of value of 2-Door. Someone threw out value after getting new tires and basic engine prep to get it running that value is 13K to 18K. The car even had plastic covering seats. That person said if it was 2 door that it would have value about 50K in pristine condition.
I was about 23 when I first saw a 1939 Packard. Fell in love with it! Maybe someday…
I currently have a 1996 GMC Sierra 3/4 ton pickup. Great truck!
I’ve had four 70’s Corvettes, first one a 68 BB, the other three owned in past 20 years, with one from past 10 years being my favorite (won over 25 trophies). Now that I’m 70, I’m thinking of either getting one like my very first car, a 1957 Olds (yes I had a 69 Camaro too) or a 1952 car (year I was born). I’ve been hankering for a old car.
I drive a 92 and 91 Mercedes they drive well and are kept in excellent condition what are they considered?
1990-1996 Mazda Miata MX-5 appear that they are becoming a collectible car.
To me, “classic” is a meaningless term. It means whatever you want it to mean.
“Collectible” is any vehicle where there is substantial interest where owners buy, maintain and restore vehicles or original condition or near-original condition. These vehicles are supported by owners groups, annual meetings, newsletters, etc.
“Antique” is any vehicle manufactured prior to WWII. It includes “brass era” vehicles as well as mainstream vehicles manufactured prior to 1945.
“Vintage” is a descriptive term that could be applied to any of the above. It means the vehicle is substantially equipped the same way it left the factory, with its original engine, paint, interior trim, etc., and has not been modified or “upgraded” in any way. By definition, this would exclude custom street rods, vehicles with swapped engines, frames and suspensions replaced, etc.
I guess I would be considered a true “car guy”. I owned over 40 collector cars., the oldest was a 1911 EMF (Studebaker), newest was two 62 Corvettes. We currently have 3 Model A Fords, 31 Cabriolet, 30 PU, 29 4DR, plus a 35 Ford Cp, 55 Chevy Bel Air & a 55 T-Bird. I got my 1st Model A Ford when I was 15 and have owned 18 of them over the years. It’s a great hobby & I feel very lucky to have been able to do most of the work on them myself.
I have owned a 1956 ford 100 pickup for over 50 years and my insurance company has never offered antiue or classic insurance except for state farm insurance. I drive it maybe 5 days a year for show & shines. The Ford is presently not insured to drive on the road. Too expensive to just drive for a few days of the year. i just keep polishing it and start it up once a week. I currently have the Hartford insurance and sold my Mustang cobra jet convertable.
I have a collection of British Classic Cars. A 1959 Triumph TR3, 1960 Austin Healey 3000, 1962 Austin Healey 3000 Mk11, 1973 MGB and a 1976 Triumph TR6. My wife is always complaining to sell something!!!
Re Classic cars: Ken Purdy would’ve violently disagreed with your definition. Think Pierce-Arrow, Peerless, Deusenberg etc. Of course times change.
I got a 1989 chev 1500 silverado. All orginal. I wood like information on bestest way to insure me truck Thanks
Joseph – Thanks for reading Extra Mile! For more information on classic car insurance, you can contact one of our specialists by calling 800-555-2510.
We have a 1931 Ford pickup and a 72 Nova. My wife want a 1960 Red Corvette.
I drive a 1969 vw bus everyday
It’s a lot of fun and at least once a week some one wants to buy it. I am 70+ years old. Never grew up.
I just bought a 1975 Cadillac. It is in excellent condition. And at a very reasonable cost.
Properly aligned wheels ensure your car handles properly, and therefore increases the life of your tyres and increases your safety.
Properly aligned wheels ensure your car handles properly, and therefore increases the life of your tyres and increases your safety.
I have a 1941 Buick Special 4 door that is low mileage. At 80 years old, it’s in great condition.
My little mini collection cover a couple of categories. All are special to me. My 1961 Chevy Impala, bubbletop, is the jewel in the Crown. I also enjoy, my 2002, Z28 Camaro convertible, and my 2002 Chevy Monte Carlo SS. All are very low mileage, originally equipped cars. The Z28 has 39k miles, the Monte SS has 14k miles, and has been in the family since new. The Impala at 61 yrs. Of age, has clocked barely 23k miles, and Carrie’s it’s original Roman Red paint, and interior proudly. It also has it’s original drivetrain. 283 V8 withfactory 4 bbl., dual exhaust, and Powerglide auto trans. The pair of 2002’s aren’t quite what you’d call classic, but at 19 yrs. Of age, soon will be. GREAT ARTICLE!
I have been driving my 1998 Nissan Sentra for 17 years. It runs good it has just 127,000 miles on it and I just put new tires on it. Is it just old, classic, or ?
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I purchase a beautiful 1972 Cadillac Coupe DeVille in 2013, gold outside with a white vinyl top gold leather inside, beautiful automobile has approximately 60,200 miles on the clock, runs and drives beautiful. I feel very proud can own a piece of Detroit history. Thanks Big Joe in Longview Texas
I’ve got a classic car for sale Toyota Corolla Kudos automatic1993 with mileage 46000 mile “very good condition “
I own a 1999 Mercedes Benz 320 Station Wagon all wheel drive. Kept it serviced by Mercedes Benz for 20 years. Is it a classic yet?
Basically, you have an older used card. Stations wagons in general are not considered classic cars; some are collectible, such as the 1950s Chevy Nomads. If you are considering selling it at some point, my recommendation would be to join and reach out to MB enthusiast clubs. Your station wagon might be the ideal vehicle for someone towing a valuable 300SL to a show.
Car is now 23 yeArs old