Necessary Madness: Confessions of a Reluctant Classicist
“Ooh – Please take me for a spin around the block, Steve,” squealed Liisa, our friend and host for the evening. Steve had arrived at Liisa and Mark’s house in his classic ’64 Sunbeam Alpine convertible (above) which was only fired up on extremely sunny days; so not very often. Which was fortunate, as I had seen the sweat and tears that usually accompanied the whole starting procedure.
I had arrived in my far-from-classic Audi A3. I like my car, a lot. It goes very well, rarely has any problems, has air-con and fuel injection and starts first time, every time.
Steve’s Sunbeam, on the other hand, always had problems, the air-con was the roof, off, and it never started first time – sometimes not at all. But he loves it, probably more than I love my Audi.
What is this madness that makes normally sane people become irrational about a car simply because it’s old? Maybe it has nothing to do with its age, but how it looks. Maybe, like the one-eyed, three-legged dog in an animal rescue centre, you simply have to take it home and dedicate your life to it, nursing it along for other reasons, rational or otherwise.
Perhaps owning a classic is a charitable act, keeping old dogs alive. I asked Steve later when we were all sat round the table… “I’d always wanted one, ever since I was a kid,” he told us. And that’s an answer many classic owners will offer, be it about a historic classic, classic or modern classic.
And therein lies the big question: what makes a classic a classic? For road tax purposes, anything registered before 1973 is tax exempt and regarded as a classic. (That’s the year I was born. Why can’t I be tax exempt?) According to HM Revenue and Customs, anything over 15-years old is regarded as a classic, meaning the cars I grew up with, like the Opel Manta, the Sierra XR4i, Renault 5 Turbo, are all classics too.
But be very careful to whom you say that… Peter Skinner of the Karmann Ghia Owners Club has his own reasons for loving old dogs: “I’m an engineer and like engineering solutions. For me the Karmann Ghia, and of the course the Beetle it’s based upon, is a wonderful tour de force of engineering.”
Now this makes sense to me. The Beetle was indeed ahead of its time in terms of functional engineering solutions. “I’m interested in how the designers arrived at these engineering solutions,” Skinner continues. “The Beetle was a clever, utilitarian solution.” But then the classic madness appears: “But I do also own a Citroen DS which, in comparison, is a dog’s breakfast underneath; a heap of crap that won’t start either. But I love them for it.” Oh dear, and it was going so well…
Graham Searle, who runs the Jaguar Enthusiast Club, has owned over 60 Jags, and there’s nothing his doctor can do for him either. His reasoning for the one-eyed, three-legged dog ownership stands up a little more simply because, well, they’re Jags. “Jaguars were automatically called a classic when they were made,” he says. “But what really defines a classic is far from tangible. There are official definitions of ‘classic’ but everyone has their own meaning. For me it was those childhood memories, the strongest memories, of a neighbour’s MkII Jag.
Nostalgia is a big part of it, regardless of how far back you look or how old you are. It’s all the same emotion, of harking back to better days, regardless of whether they were actually better or not. Classics are different. Modern cars all look alike. They’re boring. I remember when snooker was in its heyday and there was the boring but brilliant Steve Davis, with little charm or personality. And at the other end was the obnoxious, arrogant, unreliable Hurricane Higgins. But it the one who had the character, or rather the character flaws, that was the most interesting.”
Steve Garret, owner of a mint 1980 Escort XR3i, always to be found polishing it in his drive down the road from my house, also talks about the nostalgia: “I grew up watching the bloke across the road polishing his XR3i and dreaming of one day owning one. I didn’t realise it’d take over 25-years before I would.” And his car is nearly 30-years old now, so it must a classic, right? “Of course it is,” he says, “regardless of anyone else’s definition, this is my classic right here, because I have the same feelings of nostalgia for it as Old Charlie and his Austin Healey. It’s no different. And just look at it…
Car manufacturers are still trying to reassemble the DNA in the right order to create the same emotions this car did when it was launched. And they’re struggling.” That evening, at Mark and Liisa’s, came to a close and Steve offered to drop me home as I had been drinking. Foolishly he’d parked the Sunbeam nose first on a slope, where he needed to back-up. It was about 11.30pm, in a densely populated residential estate. The cacophony of noise as he repeatedly attempted to start the car and keep it from bogging down and stalling as he attempted a reverse hill start, was embarrassing, to say the least.
After ten minutes, now illuminated by the numerous windows around us, each filled with a curious and weary face, he managed to back out of the space. Another five minutes of bicep-pumping 20-point turns, and we popped and banged away with a wave, amidst a chorus of cheers. And not angry cheers, but amused and probably pitying cheers. As I got out at my house five minutes later and watched him roar away, I found myself muttering, “I’d love one of those.” I immediately went inside and repeatedly slammed my head in a cupboard door until the madness had gone.
Author Rich Beach and his other, slightly more classic, ride.
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