A classic car is an older automobile; the exact definition varies around the world. The common theme is of an older car with enough historical interest to be collectable and worth preserving or restoring rather than scrapping.
Cars 100 years and older typically fall into the antique class.
Organizations such as the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) and the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) maintain a list of eligible unmodified cars that are called "classic". These are described as "fine" or "distinctive" automobile, either American or foreign built, produced between 1915–1925 and 1942–1948.
In the UK, 'classic cars' range from veteran (pre–First World War), to vintage (1919–1930), to post-vintage (1930s).
Post–Second World War "classic cars" are not precisely defined and the term is often applied to any older vehicle.
Cars 100 years and older typically fall into the antique class and this includes the "Brass Era car" that are defined by the Horseless Carriage Club of America (HCCA) as "any pioneer gas, steam and electric motor vehicle built or manufactured prior to January 1, 1916."
The "classic" term is often applied loosely by owners to any car.
Legally, most states have time-based rules for the definition of "historic" or "classic" for purposes such as antique vehicle registration. For example, Maryland defines historic vehicles as 20 calendar years old or older and they "must not have been substantially altered, remodeled or remanufactured from the manufacturers original design" while West Virginia defines motor vehicles manufactured at least 25 years prior to the current year as eligible for "classic" car license plates.
Despite this, at many American classic car shows, automobiles typically range from the 1920s to the 1970s. Recently, many 1980s and even early 1990s cars are considered being "classic automobiles". Examples of cars at such shows include the Chevrolet Bel-Air, Ford Model T, Dodge Charger, Ford Deuce Coupe, and 1949 Ford. Meanwhile, the Concours d'Elegance car shows feature prestigious automobiles such as the Cadillac V16 or pre-1940 Rolls-Royce models. There are also terms as "modern customs", "exotics", or "collectibles" that cover cars such as the AMC Gremlin or Ford Pinto.
There are differences in the exact identification of a "classic car". Division by separate eras include: horseless carriages (19th-century experimental automobiles such as the Daimler Motor Carriage), antique cars (brass era cars such as the Ford Model T), and classic cars (typically 1930s cars such as the Cord 812). Some also include muscle cars, with the 1974 model year as the cutoff.
Classic Car Club of America
The Classic Car Club of America describes a CCCA Classic as a "fine" or "distinctive" automobile, either American or foreign built, produced between 1915 and 1948.
The CCCA is dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of select cars that "are distinguished by their respective fine design, high engineering standards and superior workmanship." Other differentiating factors - including engine displacement, custom coachwork, and luxury accessories such as power brakes, power clutch, and "one-shot" or automatic lubrication systems - help determine whether a car is considered a CCCA Classic. The cars on their list "represent the pinnacle of engineering, styling and design for their era."
Any CCCA member may petition for a vehicle to join the list. Such applications are carefully scrutinized, but rarely is a new vehicle type admitted. Moreover, no commercial vehicles such as hearses, ambulances, or race cars are accepted as a Full Classic.
The CCCA maintains this definition of "classic car" and uses terms such as CCCA Classic or the trademarked Full Classic. The CCCA has estimated that 1,366,843 "American Classics" were built.
Antique Automobile Club of America
The Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) recognizes "motorized vehicles 25 years old or older, which were built in factories and specifically designed and manufactured for transportation use on public roadways and highways." Judging by the AACA evaluates such vehicles to be in historic or that have "been restored to the same state as the dealer could have prepared the vehicle for delivery to the customer." Specified AACA classic vehicles include "fine or unusual domestic or foreign automobiles primarily built between and including the years 1925 and 1942."
There is no fixed definition of a classic car. Two taxation issues do impact however, leading to some people using them as cutoff dates. All cars built before January 1, 1976, are exempted from paying the annual road tax vehicle excise duty. This is then entered on the licence disc displayed on the windscreen as "historic vehicle" (if a car built before this date has been first registered in 1975 or later, then its build date would have to be verified by a recognised body such as British Motor Heritage Foundation to claim tax-free status). HM Revenue and Customs define a classic car for company taxation purposes as being over 15 years old and having a value in excess of £15,000. Additionally, popular acclaim through a large number of classic car magazines plays an important role in whether a car comes to be regarded as a classic. It is all subjective and a matter of opinion. The elimination of depreciation is a reason for buying a classic car; this is a major cost of owning a modern car. Picking 'future classics' that are current 'bangers' is a pastime of people into classic cars in the UK. Successfully picking and buying one can result in a profit for the buyer as well as providing transport. An immaculate well cared for prestige model with high running costs that impacts its value, but is not yet old enough to be regarded as a classic, could be a good buy, for example.
Classic car styling
There was a worldwide change in styling trends in the immediate years after the end of World War II. The 1946 Crosley and Kaiser-Frazer, for example, changed the traditional discrete replaceable-fender treatment. From this point on, automobiles of all kinds became envelope bodies in basic plan. The CCCA term, "antique car" has been confined to "the functionally traditional designs of the earlier period" (mostly pre-war). They tended to have removable fenders, trunk, headlights, and a usual vertical grill treatment. In a large vehicle, such as a Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, or in a smaller form, the MG TC, with traditional lines, might typify the CCCA term. Another vehicle might be a classic example of a later period but not a car from the "classic period of design", in the opinion of the CCCA.
Modern classics (Youngtimer)
These vehicles are generally older, ranging from 15 to 25 years, but are usually not accepted as classics according to the Antique Automobile Club of America. The German term youngtimer describes older vehicles which have not yet become "old timer" classic cars.
In the United Kingdom, the modern classic definition is open to the discretion often by Insurance Brokers and Insurance Companies who regard a Modern Classic as a vehicle that is considered collectible regardless of age. The usage of the vehicle limited to recreational purposes or restricted mileage is also taken into account.
Drivers of classic cars must be especially careful. Classic cars often lack what are now considered basic safety features, such as seat belts, crumple zones or rollover protection. On September 10, 2009, ABC News 'Good Morning America' and 'World News' showed a U.S. Insurance Institute of Highway Safety crash test of a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu in an offset head-on collision with a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air sedan. It dramatically demonstrated the effectiveness of modern car safety design, over 1950s X-frame design, particularly of rigid passenger safety cells and crumple zones. The 1959 Chevrolets used an X frame design which lacked structural rigidity; had the IIHS used a pre-1958 Chevrolet with a Unibody design, the results would have been much better. Vehicle handling characteristics (particularly steering and suspension) and brake performance are likely to be poorer than current standards, hence requiring greater road-awareness on the part of the driver. In certain areas of the United States, using a classic car as a daily vehicle is strongly discouraged and may even be considered illegal in some places.
The British AA motoring association has urged motorists using or driving near classic cars to pay particular attention to safety. The issue received particular public attention following a 2013 case in which a driver in a hire 1963 MGB was killed immediately in a collision with a taxi.
Retro-styled (color-coded with chromed buckles) 2-point and 3-point seat (safety) belts are manufactured according to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). However, most classic car bodies (manufactured before the late 1960s) did not include safety belts as standard equipment, and do not include readily available reinforced mounting points, on the vehicle body, therefore it can be problematic to install such equipment properly: specific studies and calculations should be performed before any attempts. Proper installation is critical, which means locating attachment points on the body/frame, assuring the strength by proper reinforcement, and following the seat belt installation instructions properly to reduce the risk of malfunction or failure. Some classic car owners are reluctant to retrofit seat belts for the loss of originality this modification implies. There have also been instances of cars losing points at shows for being retrofitted with seat belts.
Fitting modern tires is also a suggestion to improve the handling. However, most modern tires may be much wider and have a lower profile than those used on classic cars when new, therefore they may interfere with suspension elements and the tire walls may become damaged. The suspension of a classic car may not be suitable for radial ply tyres, having been designed to only accommodate bias ply tires. Narrow classic car wheels may have been designed for narrow high-profile tube tires and not be suitable for modern tubeless radial tires. Another problem with modern tires on classic cars is that increased grip requires increased steering effort; many classic cars do not come with power steering. Many major tire companies have dedicated classic car tire marketing departments and will be able to give expert technical advice to address all these issues. It is important to know how radial tires will affect the performance of a car originally fitted with bias-ply tires, and the considerations needed to compensate for the differences.
Upgrading braking using either bespoke parts, parts produced by the vehicle's manufacturer, from later versions of the same model or later models that may be compatible with minor modification, is an effective method of improving safety. Popular examples include drum brake to disc brake conversions, or adding a vacuum servo to cars with front disc brakes that did not originally have one.