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What exactly is a Modern Classsic?

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

By Tony Batchelor

The Smart W450 Coupe. First introduced to European roads in 1998, yes unbelievably 20 plus years ago, by Mercedes-Benz as a 21st century vision for urban mobility. It is a car of the time, a milestone in Mercedes Benz history and set the benchmark for future urban driving.

Smart W450 Coupe – image MoMa

It is indeed a significant car, but the question is can it be regarded as what is now more commonly termed a "modern classic", but what is a Modern Classic?

This question I am asking myself was prompted during a recent relaxing weeks stay with some friends at their home in France. Enjoying their company, as well as the fantastic open countryside, the almost billiard table smooth French roads which were painstakingly constructed by the Romans (well built their slaves I expect), and the thrill of driving on the wrong side of the road especially around roundabouts, all made for a great stay.

In addition, my friend is an ardent petrol head, and whilst relaxing in their nicely restored farmhouse in front of a log burning fire and sipping some pleasing vin rouge, I found time to dig my way though his pile of classic car magazines. One publication in particular caught my eye entitled Modern Classics, well the three copies he had kept me occupied most of the week in reality.

From the title and cover images you can guess the content. What I would say about the magazine is if you are getting fed up with the usual nitty-gritty nut and bolt car repair magazines, or reading about and looking at pictures of cars you may never see or touch, let alone possibly afford, maybe you might like to pick up a copy of Modern Classics and give it a try. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and before you start think, no I am not on a sales commission. For more info see

I was particularly interested in the article on Bargain Hot Hatches, and specifically the MG Metro. One of these had turned up at the September Classic Car Connections gathering at Westerham Brewery, and I said at the time it was a rare car and I must confess I got a little excited (yes ok over a Metro). But from what the article says I was proved right, as according to the writer for its time it was not a bad little car, and apparently only 85 are still in existence.

The said MG Metro at Westerham Brewery

Having read all three magazines cover to cover, well several times in fact, I came to the conclusion that I could not with any certainty define exactly what is a Modern Classic. Even with the help of several bottles of best French vin rouge, my tired and getting increasingly squiffy little grey cells were simply not helping.

The difficulty with defining what is a “Modern Classic” car it seems is that it is entirely subjective to an individuals opinion, what may be a classic to one person is not necessarily to another. The key word here is subjective.

This might be the reason why at classic car shows there is an increasing number of cars on display which are comparatively new, such as BMW M Series, Mercedes AMG, “Scoobies” and Evo’s. Then there is the Morgan and the Caterham, those cars are still manufactured so how can they be classic cars when they may have just left the showroom? My son has a 15 year old version of the Caterham which is pretty much the same car you can buy new today.

My starting point in my quest to establish what exactly is a modern classic I decided to contact the Modern Classics Editorial Team and asked them if they would define the criteria.

I received a very prompt response from Assistant Editor Nathan Chadwick, who advised the magazine largely covers vehicles manufactured between 1980 to 2010, although that timescale is not hard and fast. It seems the Editors can “blur the lines at either end” if there is also an element of style to a particular car. A couple of examples were quoted, these included the Mercedes-Benz W123, Jaguar XJS and Mercedes R107, which they compared to something like the VW Golf Mk1, Porsche 928 and BMW E24 6 Series.

In Nathan's view he does not really consider the first three to be modern classics, despite their being built well into the 80s. This is because they were conservatively styled and somewhat retro when they were new, whereas the latter three are of a style that is rather more modern classics-esque.

In the Modern Classics view with newer cars there has to be an element of something you can't get now; and good examples are high-reving naturally aspirated petrol engines, hydraulic steering racks, and manual gearboxes. The magazine does feature turbos, electric steering racks, paddle shifts and automatics, but in their view the definition of a modern classic towards the newer end is that it has to have that “x factor” that makes them special.

Also the car has to be memorable and cherishable, whether they are a hot hatch, a luxury "cruiser", a supercar, super saloon or even an endangered every day car. In the latter case the Nissan Sunny was defined which was featured by the magazine earlier this year.

Datsun Sunny, for those who cannot remember - image The Telegraph

Interesting examples offered by Nathan at Modern Classics which I would comment on a couple as follows. The replacement for the E Type, the car described by Enzo Ferrari at its launch in 1961 as "the most beautiful car ever made", was always going to be a hard act to follow. It needed to be an exceptional car to replace the much loved and arguably the most iconic car the UK motor industry has ever produced. Ok accepted it is a toss-up between the E Type and the Mini.

Unfortunately the XJS could never live up to that expectation, but having said that it sold around 115 000 models compared to the E Types 72 000. The XJS, designed by E Type creator Malcolm Sayer, clearly had something going for it, undoubtedly a really classy car in its own right, a true Jaguar. On that basis you could argue it should be regarded as a modern classic, being "entirely subjective" of course.

Big cats - image Amazonuk

I agree however with Modern Classics comment about the Golf Mk 1. I believe it was meant to be the replacement for the Beetle until VW realised they simply could not stop producing Beetles as the model was still selling in significant numbers. At the time of launch the Golf was a complete turnaround in terms of design and engineering for VW which set them on a successful path producing front engine / water cooled models. A gamble on the part of VW, possibly so, but it has appeared to have paid off.

I once owned a Volkswagen Golf Mk1 and I still have fond memories of it, without I might add wearing my rose tinted specs and some 35 years later. Brilliant little car, even my very basic 1100cc model. Love the Italian styling.

- image autoevolution

Therefore in summary the Editors of Modern Classics are looking at memorable, cherishable, X-factor “special” and, of particular interest to me, endangered cars between 10 (ish) and 30 (ish) years old.

This information was most useful, but my previous comment about modern classics being entirely subjective to an individuals opinion still remains. I like to deal in facts, and the fact is when defining ages of established classic there are four generally recognised periods for classic cars.

There is a Veteran Car, which is identified as being built up to the end of 1914, a Vintage Car built before 1930 and Post Vintage refers to cars from the 1930s until the end of 1945. There is also Historic Classics, these are defined by HMG Legislation which refers to cars at 40 years and over. It seems however there is no such definitive description capturing a Modern Classic.

100 plus years of motoring, my favourite is in the middle - image Car Insurance

Another 100 plus years of motoring. I like this image also, so two for the price of one - image

In an attempt to find some facts which defines a Modern Classic I conducted some on-line research. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, the web includes a vast amount of "subjective" opinion and so I was left none the wiser.

That however was pretty much what I expected with the internet. I therefore decided to revert to the old fashioned method of fact finding and actually speak to someone on the telephone who is an, if not “the”, authority on deciding if a car is a classic or not. I phoned a couple of insurance companies in order to find out the criteria they apply when insuring vehicles.

Of those insurance companies I spoke to, a couple stated that their starting point for classic car insurance is when the vehicle is 20 years old, one said 10 years and older and the other did not set an age limit as they look at all vehicles on an individual basis. It also seems that the Modern Classic “category” can be sub-divided into three sub-categories, which they deem to be a Modern Classic (20 years old plus), Collectable (car / age at the insurers discretion) and Specialist (your Morgan’s and Caterham’s). Naturally there are conditions around limited mileage and it not being the only car the insured can drive.

Therefore in conclusion, it seems from a factual perspective a Modern Classic can be anything up to 40 years old, be it of any intermediate age, deemed collectable or specialist, then at 40 years it becomes officially recognised as a Historic Vehicle. The period up to 40 years what identifies a modern classic is entirely subjective to an individuals opinion.

Having solved the riddle of what is a Modern Classic, this particular blog for me was quite thought provoking. For example how is it that so many cars have survived and gone on to become regarded as classic cars. However, when you consider the number of those cars actually manufactured, those that have survived is a relatively small percentage, so the lucky few must have a charmed life and forward thinking owners, like modern classic owners maybe.

Thinking back to the sort of cars I was driving in the 1970’s, which if they survived would go on to become Historic Classics, there seemed to be a 10 year lifespan for cars. When a car reached the 100 000 mile milestone the general thought was that it had reached the end of its life. This, coupled with the inevitable rust problem, contributed greatly to the final outcome for the car, the breakers. Alternatively you could take it to a local council crushing facility, or just dump it in the road and let the council collect it. (see my blog Images of rusting old cars, is it art?).

Another potential classic car bitten by the rust bug resulting in a pop-up playground 1960’s style. Been there, seen it and still got the scars to prove it. I guess it was better than errrrr ... vandalising cars. - image BBC News

Worth a caption competition this - Kid in the tank top jumper is saying " That will teach the owner to park his car outside of his own house in future" Little girl and boy on left saying "our mum told us not to play on old cars" My mum told me that as well, but once around the corner and out of sight etc ...

In the 50’s and 60’s your average working man / woman did not think about preserving their cars for future generations to enjoy. No, if your car had high mileage and the rust was looking bad, or you were fed up patching it up with filler, if possible you got a new MOT, and got rid of it quickly and on to the next one. Back in the day there were people who would "sell" you a new MOT Certificate, no doubt they have long gone now.

So how is it average working mans cars survived 30, 40 or 50 years, not all of them have been hidden away in garages or barns, they must have had some use over that period. When someone asks me if the 85k mileage is correct on my 50 year old Vitesse I say it is most unlikely, as on the basis I have described previously, ie 100k pa and the rust bug, it should have done 500k and fallen apart long before now.

Moving forward we now have a situation where enthusiasts are recognising the concept of future classic cars and preserving them earlier in their lifespan, and this is where modern classic car owners come in. Mechanical reliability of cars from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s varied significantly, BMC / BL tended to be more reliable, a coat laid over a ford engine in the winter usually resolved cold starting problems. French cars, yes .........., well, German cars less affordable for the average working man. Vauxhall and Italian cars shared the rust bug. Japanese cars were considered a joke and laughable, but who is laughing now.

This is a Datsun B10 1000 “Sunny” which apparently one of the original batch of press cars that arrived in the UK some fifty years ago. It is claimed to be the oldest surviving officially imported Datsun (now known as Nissan) car in the country. - image Lancaster Insurance

Japanese car makers quickly realised the UK market wanted more, so they started sending these over to see off fast Fords and basically undermine our sports car market.

Datsun 240Z - image SWVA

As mentioned previously, rust tended to be the car killer. However, modern cars do not suffer so much from mechanical issues, and rust is definitely a thing of the past. Possible issues for future modern classics is the availability of sophisticated electronic components, how many of us have already suffered electrical faults in their modern cars. It will also be interesting how future classics might be fuelled, will there be sufficient petrol in 40 to 50 years time or will they all be converted to electric?

I think this pic was released on 1st April, but could it become a reality? Presumably there would be some sort of sound system to go with the, errr.. I was going to say engine, but motor - image Aston Martin.

Either clever photo editing or someone has ruined a big cat - image The New York Times

I am a 70’s child when it comes to car ownership. I have said in a previous blog that owning a Wolseley 1500 back in the mid-70’s focussed my mind in later years on the type of classic car I would eventually purchase, lots of wood, leather / pvc and chrome. Therefore I am not best placed to speculate on the type of cars future classic car owners might covert like I covert our current Historic Classics.

Modern cars featuring bulbous bulky dimensions externally and swathes of plastic internally do very little for me, although there are a couple of cars which I consider are the exception from a design and aesthetics perspective. You note I do not mention speed or BHP, I have a saying for cars which I would not choose to own, which is along the lines of “I do not care how fast it goes I would not be seen dead in it”

So what will be the classic cars of the future. The magazine Modern Classics offers a great number of suggestions, and below I offer some thoughts of my own which some readers might agree with, and some not, it is purely subjective.

Without doubt the original Mini revolutionised not only car design but the way the world perceived motoring. It is unfortunate that the British owned motor industry was in such dire straits in the 1980’s, that the US, European and Far Eastern car manufacturers overtook the UK and sped off into the distance. Unfortunately a worthy replacement for the dear old Mini was never produced by the British Motor Industry, and it took a few years after BMW acquired the Mini brand for a new model to be developed and marketed. Although the 2001 BMW Mini was a great little car in its own right, it would never be OUR Mini, but if you removed the Mini badge it is a great little car and a future classic (in my view anyway). - Image

Sadly now the mini has grown to the size of a Transit Van it makes a mockery of the name Mini, and for that reason I cannot see anything but the 2001 to 2007 models ever becoming classics. On a positive note it is 100% recyclable - image Daily Mail

I like early German cars, and in the case of the beautiful and elegant original Mercedes Gullwing I would go so far as to call it desire. I know someone who works for John Surtees looking after his fleet of cars and motorcycles, and he has driven Mr S’s Gullwing on a number of occasions. He said he would be driving along a motorway or dual carriageway and cars would come up alongside and drive next to him, the occupants of the other car just looking at the Gullwing.

The Gullwing, the beauty and the new version - image opposite lock

Having compared the 2011 version with the original I cannot see anyone bothering to drive alongside and just look at it. I do not suppose however they would get the chance, it will most likely be in the outside lane travelling at the legal limit (of course). Desire it, no to me it is just another bland Mercedes sports car with some fancy doors. A future classic, what do you think?

I particularly like Italian styling and I was attracted by the 2004 Version of the Maserati Quattroporte. To me it stood out from the big BMW’s, Mercedes and Audi, although it might not be as good a car it has more style and class.

I was going to suggest it might possibly look better than the original, but then I absolutely love early 1960's Italian styling and I spent some time just looking at the original. On reflection I am going with my heart and say if it come to a choice between the two it is the original 1960's version for me. As for the 2004 version becoming a classic, well I believe it indeed will.

Maserati Quattroporte 1967 version - image Classic Trader

As for the Smart W450 Cabrio being a Modern Classic, without doubt, it will always be a classic in my eyes. A challenge, see if you can actually find a 1998 model for sale in the classified ads. But if the simplicity of the very early models does not provide you with that "wow factor", maybe something a little brighter and eye-catching might tempt you.

How about ...........

I give you the Smart Brabus Edition Red from 2007 - images Historics Auctioneer

Post Script

I had planned to include the Lamborghini Miura in this blog but I changed my mind and used different examples. However, I just happened to find these images which are now left over and it seemed a real shame to leave the images in a folder on my PC. I thought you might like to gaze at them also. Enjoy

Was it ever "a future classic", no, it became a classic the moment the designers decided to carefully lift the design off the drawing board and make it, or should I say create it to be more precise.

- images Car magazine

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