When spying a classic car at a show or merely at rest in a supermarket car park, there is often a great temptation to make assumptions about the owner. I am the proprietor of a 1966 Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R and one might assume that I am less interested in road manners than in its Rolls Royce sourced engine. There are also certain vehicles such as a Land Rover Series IIA that denote the practically minded enthusiast - classics that are equally well maintained and well used. Occasionally, you will endure the deeply frustrating experience of encounter a car of sublime beauty only to find that its owner’s knowledge of the car’s heritage and engineering amounts to absolutely zero and is in inverse proportion to his/her inherited income. You have entered the twilight zone of the poseur – try not to gnash your teeth in envy/rage.
Certainly what an old car can imply – if not infer – is quite a great deal about your aspirations, and sometimes these are close to the original marketing campaigns. A Sunbeam Rapier Convertible or a very early MGB (especially one with disc wheels and a boot mounted rack) are often the provinces of the ‘chap’. Their sartorial role model is Leslie Phillips in The Fast Lady mode and they are some of the few motorists circa 2016 who know how to tie a cravat. At the opposite end of the spectrum are cars that reflect a more recent image, one quite at odds with its original persona. In 1957, a new Vauxhall Victor was the car of choice for commercial travellers who favoured jaunty trilby hats, a car that no Teddy boy could dream of owning unless his skiffle band career took off. Today, the Luton product with the fins and the dogs leg windscreen is frequently associated with latter-day rockers, who regard them in the same light as the music of Marty Wilde or Terry Dene – charismatic British interpretations of 1950s Americana.
Then there are the custimomisers, although a note of bathos often afflicts their painstaking work. A 1967 VW Type 3 Variant will forever be the ideal car for a progressive geography teacher, regardless of lowered suspension and the number of surfboards on the roof. Such modifications tend to highlight rather than mask the fact the proud owners hail from Swindon as opposed to Malibu Beach, no matter how loudly he or she plays The Beach Boys on the sound system.
By contrast, certain models proudly declare a driver’s lack of interest in automotive fashion to the wider world. Some years ago, a Skoda 105 Estelle or Trabant might have been the property of one ‘into post-modern irony’ but now Eastern European cars tend to be owned by those who appreciate their history as opposed to the myth. The same often applies to certain British Leyland products of the 1970s; given how attitudes in the classic press towards the Princess ‘wedge’ have altered in the past ten years, their owners may be forgiven a degree of smugness.
Then there are the cars that proclaim to the world that they are the property of a connoisseur, one who appreciates engineering skill and design genius in general. These can vary from ground-breaking mass produced models such as the Morris 1100 to the Tatra T603 used by senior officials in 1960s Prague, from the decadently expensive Jensen FF and Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 to the Renault 16TX. The joy of owning any of these cars is not in having the ego gratified by reactions from passers-by, pleasant though this may be, but in being behind the wheel of such an innovative machine.
And, there are some recent models that are often the transport of the pioneer. Their talent is for anticipating classic car trends and they scour Auto Trader or eBay for 10-year-old cars that have hit rock bottom and are now on the absolute cusp between banger and faintly collectable. Their efforts often intensify with the news of anther government-backed scrappage scheme, and to classic car writers a pioneer collector is an invaluable contact as they are the best source of wisdom about a once popular and now fast vanishing model.
However, assumptions about a car owner are sometimes proved to be utterly wrong – someone may have bought a Jaguar Mk.X because their wide-boy uncle owned one rather than via an appreciation of Browns Lane products. And the driver of a 4 Litre R might be less interested in its Rolls Royce power plant, for all of its refinement, and more in the fact that one appeared in the 1967 thriller Robbery…
Andrew Roberts is a motoring writer and columnist for various newspapers and magazines. Visit the Hagerty Classic Cars page for more interesting and entertaining classic car content from him and other well-known motoring writers.