The Difference Between Old Cars and Classic Cars

There is one Saturday each year that is your day. You get up early and give a final shine to your prized 1965 Mustang Fastback. For years, you spent countless hours restoring it, and now one of your greatest joys is showing it off in your local Labor Day parade. People who don’t even know your name will compliment your restoration project.

“She’s a beauty. What a classic,” is a comment you’ll hear over and over.

The only problem with the compliment is, it’s not true. What you really have is an old car, not a classic.

Classic Car Club of America

The Classic Car Club of America is the keeper of the list of both American- and foreign-made classic cars. American cars from the 1960s that you may think would be on the list aren’t.

According to the CCCA, a classic car is one that is a "fine" or "distinctive" automobile, either American- or foreign-built, produced between 1925 and 1948.

Some state governments have found time to weigh in on the matter of classic cars versus simply old cars. Pennsylvania, for example, defines a classic car as any vehicle over a certain age, normally 20 years. Pennsylvania even went so far as to define precisely that a classic car is one that “has been maintained in or restored to a condition which is substantially in conformity with manufacturer specifications and appearance.”

If you’re wondering what the difference is between a well-maintained 1939 Aston-Martin and a equally well-maintained 1996 Honda Prelude is, in the eyes of the Commonwealth - it’s complicated.

Most enthusiasts agree that classic cars range from the 1930s to 1970s. The cars you’re likely to see at shows are the usual suspects - 1950 Buicks, 1951 Cadillacs, Mustangs, Corvettes, T-birds, and Camaros. It’s probably not a good idea to tell the owner who has spent years of his life restoring any of these cars that his isn’t a classic, it’s merely old.

Different types of restoration

If you want to find an old car to convert into a modern-day classic, you need to look for one of these types of cars: those that only need mechanical restoration, those that need cosmetic restoration, or those needing both. You have to be a super-restorer to do both mechanical and cosmetic restoration.

Mechanical restoration is for cars that are in good shape on the outside. Their paint, trim, and chrome are all free of bumps and bruises that you might expect from a 50-year-old car.

The problem is, they don’t run so well. If you have a choice between restoring an old car that needs mechanical attention versus a cosmetic restoration pick the mechanical project.

Cosmetic restoration is fixing any defects in the car that are visual only. The defects include rust, chips, dings, scratches in the paint, or a cracked windshield. Cosmetic repairs can require bodywork to be performed.

A car with extensive cosmetic damage might not be worth as much as you invest. Cosmetic repairs take a lot of time, patience, and expertise to do well.

Inauthentic restoration refers to when you just can’t stick to the manufacturer’s specifications, for whatever reason. A complete and authentic restoration includes not just the replacement of parts you can see - such as windows, trim, bumpers, and tires - but also the parts that are not visible, such as engine nuts and bolts. Let’s face it, finding parts for a car that’s 50 years old isn’t easy, so you may have to improvise.

To make matters even more complicated, if you add something new to a “classic,” you run the risk of it being declassified. As an example, many muscle cars (those built in the 1950’s and 1960’s) didn’t come with seat belts. So in order to comply with current state seat belt laws, some restorers install two-or-three point seat belts. Technically, these cars wouldn’t be considered classic cars any more.

The upside is, people in the car are safer and the car is street legal. The downside - if you show your car at a competition, you’ll lose points because installation of the seat belts means the auto is no longer in its original state.

Restoring a car yourself or hiring an expert

If you’re considering restoring your old car, you should know that it’s a good idea to have some mechanical ability before starting the project. You need to have some money, a willingness to admit what you don’t know, patience, attention to detail, and the determination to see the project through.

A restoration project can take a year or more. If you’re not able to put in the time due to family or work obligations, maybe hiring an expert is your best bet.

Bodywork and mechanical work are two very different skills - many restorers possess one skill but not the other. Someone who wants to restore an old car by themselves needs to know both. But if you don’t, farm out part of your project to specialty shops.

Once restored, an old car can be worth quite a bit. The most valuable old cars are ones that were brought back to their original factory condition. This usually involves extensive research, using correct original parts, and following the original design diagrams.

Is this a project for you?

Buying a soon-to-be classic isn’t terribly different than buying a new car. If you’re looking at the car as an investment, it’s important to run VIN numbers and try to find other documents that detail the history of the car.

If you’re looking to restore an old car and keep it, one of the worst things that can happen is that you buy the car, get it home, and find out that it’s had several owners who stripped the car for the original parts - and what you have is a collection of junk. That’s why knowing the car’s history is important.

Before you make the decision to take on the restoration project, ask yourself if you’re ready to commit a year or two to complete the project. If so, determine whether or not you have the space (such as a garage) to do the work, the money to sustain the project, a reasonably large collection of tools, the persistence to find parts that you’re missing in places near and far, and enough mechanical know-how to turn your old car into a classic.

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