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Classic Cars vs Vintage Cars: Everything You Need to Know

Craig Thomas

For many car fans, owning classic cars—for which definitions vary, ranging anywhere from 10 or more years old to 40—is a long-held ambition. However, if you’re looking to invest in a classic car, you’ll need some understanding of this specialist 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?

Collectible cars

The first question you need to ask yourself is just how old you want your car to be—because 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 ones that 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 and how your insurer defines a classic. The Hartford, for example, defines classic cars as “a motor vehicle of the private passenger type which is 10 or more years old and may be used on a regular basis. Its value is significantly higher than the average value of other autos of the same make and model year.”

What Kind of Cars Are Considered Classic Cars?

As time marches on, the window of time that defines what is 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.” Collectible cars rely on numerous factors that help appraisers decide if they should be valued as a collectible car, however.
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). In addition to state laws, you’ll also need to familiarize yourself with your insurer’s definitions and rules. In the case of The Hartford, an antique auto was “manufactured at least 25 years ago, and driven primarily in parades and exhibitions, and infrequently for other purposes,” so how you plan to use the car also needs to be taken into consideration.

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.

A recent 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 likes of 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.”

Vintage car

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 (and a mechanic expert enough to fit them), which 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—is purely emotional or nostalgic.

What is a classic car

However, there are three basic areas that will influence a car’s collectability: age, rarity, and design:

  • 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 – in recent decades—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 also will be eligible for a lot of the same discounts on insurance as newer cars; for example, with discounts for fitting an anti-theft device in your car, or if you have other policies with the insurance company.

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.

One Response to "Classic Cars vs Vintage Cars: Everything You Need to Know"

  • Linda Christie | November 23, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    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?

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