Classic shouldn’t mean old
Fellow car-spotting nerds will appreciate that the five minutes or so I spent traversing the N18 the other day were the most enjoyable five minutes of that day. How so? Because I saw two cars on that road that I had never before seen gracing Irish tarmac. The first was a Volvo P1800 ES, the shooting brake version of the car Roger Moore drove in character as Simon Templar. Now, a P1800 is hardly the rarest of beasts, but it’s certainly not common in Ireland and this one, on a Tipperary North Riding numberplate and with its coachwork finished in a rather stunning metallic emerald green, just looked fabulous, standing out amongst the sea of conventional grey, black and silver boxes it shared the road with.
I was feeling happy after that. It’s always a pleasant feeling to catch sight, however brief, of a nice car, especially one you’ve often coveted ownership of, and I was left with a pleasantly warm feeling inside.
And then, just a moment or two later, I saw something I had not just never seen on Irish roads previously, but never seen outside of the halls of a motor show or the boundaries of a race track. A C-Type Jaguar. The low, sinuous shape, shorn of all but the most vestigal windscreens, was unmistakable and suddenly the roundabout by the industrial estate became Arnage corner, and the driver, a mechanic bringing the car out of a quick test squirt, became in my mind Duncan Hamilton or Tony Rolt, at the end of a long stint, carving out a lead over the chasing Ferraris at Le Mans.
Of course, the illusion was a double one. Not only was this still resolutely Galway in November and not La Sarthe in June, the car wasn’t a true C-Type, but one of the popular replicas of the original Jaguar endurance racer, made by companies like Proteus or Lynx. The 72-D numberplate on the back gave the game away – under that aero skin lay not a purpose-built racing chassis and engine, but instead the humbler (albeit still rather impressive) mechanical parts of a Jag XJ saloon. Still, replica or not, it made my afternoon, and I spent a happy ten minutes following it around, the windows of my charmless modern Euro-box wound down to better appreciate the crisp sound of an XK straight-six engine.
Classics have that power in a way that modern cars cannot hope to emulate. Their rarity and the hobbyist nature of their ownership gives them a relaxed and charming mien that a plain daily commuter-mobile just can’t match. Even at the extreme end of the scale, it holds true. Take a Ferrari for example. See a modern-day Ferrari blast past you on the roads and your first thought as to the owner is likely to be “wanker.” See a classic Ferrari though (let’s indulge and imagine here a peerlessly beautiful 205 GT Lusso LWB) and you’re more likely to give a low whistle of appreciation before considering the resale value of your children.
Classic cars are many things, including it must be noted, expensive, unreliable, fragile and, on the days when they just won’t start, occasionally depressing. But they are lovely, make no mistake.
And yet, when was the last time you saw someone under the age of 30 driving one in Ireland? This thought occurred to me as I saw the C-Type blast off into the distance. Attend almost any classic car show or run in Ireland (usually, largely factually incorrectly, called a vintage run – vintage refers specifically to cars manufactured before 1930, or 1925 if you’re American) and you will notice most of the owners and drivers are, how shall we put this, of a certain age. To an extent, this is inevitable. The desire for ownership of a classic car is often driven by nostalgia for the car your dad drove when you were a nipper, or the memory of seeing something exotic on the telly as a child. Frequently too, it is only with age and commensurate financial success that you can afford to indulge in buying and running a classic.
But we also manage to put some specific barriers in the way of classic ownership for younger drivers, and I do think that is not just a shame, but fundamentally wrong.
OK, so price is always going to be an issue as is rarity. Classic cars are naturally thinner on the ground here than in the UK, where one is liable to trip over a Morris Minor or MGB at every turn. We have traditionally sold fewer cars in Ireland, so statistically there will be fewer survivors and our lack, until just recently, of an NCT test has hardly encouraged the preservation or maintenance of vehicles down through the years.
But let’s take insurance for a major example, indeed the most significant reason as to why younger drivers are actively discouraged from going classic. In the first instance, most insurers won’t cover you for classic ownership unless you’re becoming something of a classic yourself. 30 seems to be the lowest limit. Secondly, most insurers will demand that you also have a ‘modern’ car insured as your daily transport, a feat of finance that few younger drivers can afford.
Why am I so up in arms about this? Well, for a couple of reasons really. In general, I just think it’s a shame that this is the case. My love of cars was sparked initially by classics. I fell in love with old Minis, Series 1 Land Rovers and Jensen Interceptors. Instead of reading Max Power my teenage years were spent devouring Classic & Sports Car and Practical Classics. Classics are fabulous things, and the community that surrounds them is often fun and engaging, so why must we be ageist about it?
And then there’s the safety aspect. Yes, classic cars do without modern brakes, steering, electronic safety nets and, occasionally, seatbelts, so perhaps encouraging younger drivers into them seems perverse. But classic driving therefore takes on a slower pace – you have to drive within the limits of the machinery, and you won’t be long in figuring out where those limits are. Modern cars insulate and isolate you from the world outside. A classic will leave you well and truly upside down in the outside world if you don’t pay attention. If all learners were compelled by law to begin their driving instruction in a Morris Minor, or an original Issigonis Mini, on crossplies, imagine the levels of car control and mechanical sympathy that would be built in to the next generation of drivers. And learning in one of those cars would be way more fun than in some cheap and nasty modern hatchback, encouraging an abiding love of cars and driving. And if you love driving, there’s more of a chance of you taking the time to become good at it…