The stereotypical view of classic car ownership is of it being an indulgence. At one extreme the classic car is seen as some highly polished jewel that is to be cosseted until the perfect sunny day arrives, and then guided around bucolic back roads to a show. There, once a soft cloth has removed any minute insect corpses picked up on the way, it can be admired by all and sundry. At the other extreme it is a ropey old rust-laden clapped out heap that leaves pools of strangely coloured liquid wherever it goes and can only be relied upon to breakdown at some point. The truth of course lies somewhere in between for most classic car owners, but whichever side of the coin the reality lies, it doesn’t exactly encourage regular use.
But is occasional use actually good for the car? Low mileage pristine examples have their value tied up in sparing use but alternatively the legendary motoring journalist Denis Jenkinson (“Jenks”) claimed his Jaguar E-Type (run as a new car) was so reliable because it never even had time to cool down. So what are the general aspects we should bear in mind when considering whether to use our classic car more often?
The first thing that springs to mind is the classic’s penchant for iron oxide (or “rust” if you prefer). Even if you feel safe due to great swathes of fibreglass or aluminium alloy being involved in the construction of your classic car, electrolytic corrosion or hidden water-traps in the underpinnings can still enable corrosion to work its way in. Despite modern paint systems there will always be a ‘Forth Bridge’ mentality required in keeping the tin worm at bay.
Additionally, worn engines and gearboxes have to be factored in, and other parts that wear or break. Some classic car parts can be particularly difficult to get hold of, and the snapping of a slender window winder can lead to hours of searching through various sources to secure another. Equally a dented bumper or time-expired light switch may reveal just how rare such items can be.
Looking at today’s cars it is also undeniable that they are more reliable and comfortable than the average classic car. Re-seating valves and adjusting cable brakes are beyond old fashioned, let alone frequent oil changes or de-coking heads. Then there are the working heaters, door seals that don’t let water in, crumple zones, traction control and so on - the car of today is a world away from even the most luxurious conveyances of the relatively recent 1980s. If you choose to use your classic more often then you have to exercise both care and commitment.
The flip side of the argument perhaps starts with the moving nature of what constitutes a “classic car”. A Mark 3 Volkswagen Golf GTi or Peugeot 205 will provide a near-modern experience while still being distinctive. Japanese cars, whose popularity first arose from their reliability and higher quality switch gear, now have a strong fan base within the classic car community. Even the older cars can be more rugged than initially supposed. The next time you see an old black and white photo of a pre-war MG or Wolseley being blasted around a corner by some young Turk, take a look at the condition of the road surface. These old motors were built to take on punishing conditions that are rarely met today.
Returning to that theory of Jenks, there are also positive advantages to using your car more often. No matter how dry your garage seems there will be moisture in there, especially during the winter. Rust and corrosion is just as much a problem if your classic car isn’t regularly warmed and dried by the air flow generated through being driven. The hydroscopic nature of brake fluid means it will attract that same surreptitious moisture which can separate out if left for long periods of time. A pump of the brakes will then send it through to the cylinders (prone to seizing if not used at the best of times) where it can once more work its foul magic. 2 to 3 months will see fuel starting to lose its potency, admittedly of less interest to those with classics of a more agricultural nature but worthy of consideration to those with high performance engines. Then one must consider the effect of turning an engine over if the oil in the sump has been contaminated by condensation. Tyres too are susceptible to degradation without use. How many owners think to stand their car off the ground over winter to avoid flat spots forming?
Even driving your classic once a month can help but as someone who regularly uses their classic cars, the biggest advantage I have found can be summed up by the smile they invariably bring to my face, and to the faces of the people who see us on the road. You don’t get that anywhere near so often in a comfortable and reliable modern car.
Actuarius is a writer for Hagerty Classic Cars. Visit the Hagerty Classic Cars page for more interesting and entertaining classic car content from him and other well-known motoring writers.