Is it really possible to live a classic only existence?


Author: James ElliottPublished:

I will forever remember the period from August to the end of January as a golden age in my classic ownership. Not happy in the slightest, but golden all the same. For those fleeting few months, the youngest car in my household was the 1982 Lotus Elite, but even that was never used four-up with the family, a burden that was shouldered solely by a 1968 Jensen and a 1965 Triumph.

It was a never-ending delight during this halcyon six months to honestly tell everyone (for which read "boast like a rather unpleasant idiot to people who simply weren't interested in the first place") that we did not have a modern car. "Oh how brave," they would say and myriad other bemused condemnations dressed up as compliments. I took them all as compliments anyway: as a classic fanatic, how could I take them otherwise?

I should point out also that the "modern" we had previous to that time was a charitable donation from my parents, an unwanted late 1980s Rover 216SLi, so it was hardly as if we were jacking in a brand-new people carrier in some great retro Luddite gesture. That said, I do remember being just a tiny bit overjoyed when the faithful old Rover (in fairness it had served us very well) failed its MoT and required more welding than it was worth. Actually, putting a new wiper blade on would have outstripped the value of the car so its fate was pretty much sealed from the outset.

So, with the family away in France, I shed no tears as it went off to Wandsworth's great scrapyard in the sky and I naively looked forward to non-stop strictly classic use for the Elliotts with an evangelical fervour. Not your once-a-year day trips to Goodwood, mind, all day, every day classic hegemony. Little did I know at this point what a strain that would prove and that, ultimately, it would all end in tears. Mine.

Let's get this straight: during this period the cars never actually let us down, we were never stranded on the school run or long trips, the family never actually voiced any major objection (out loud, probably a good thing I'm not a mind-reader), the kids were safely strapped in and didn't vomit or anything. It went exactly to plan.

Exactly to plan except the mental trauma that is. You see, my wife and kids are not exactly classic friendly. Classic tolerant, to some small degree, yes, but not classic friendly. This instils in me a sort of isolationist paranoia, augmented by their reaction when there was a minor hiccough such as tardy restarting in the Jensen.

Sure, larger unreliability issues preyed on my mind on every journey down the A3 to the point that I actually saw mirages of the family half way up the banking behind the armco, stricken car waiting for recovery, two vulnerable young kids strapped into the seats to stop them running into traffic, scowling wife staring that she told me so.

But that wasn't actually the problem: the real issue was my permanently sensing (possibly with no grounds whatsoever) that they were all really just waiting for the car to go wrong, waiting for it to be proven once and for all that I was a selfish, family endangering, dreamer imposing my misguided love of classics upon innocent victims who should be spared.

And that was it in a nutshell: rather than the fear of a breakdown itself, it was far more simply the fear of the potential fall-out from one that crawled into my ear and became an unsettling, unwanted voice in my head. Carry on and inevitably at some point have my cars and my passion publicly disgraced, and possibly be shamed into flogging some as a result. This slow realisation of the unavoidable endgame made every journey slightly more nerve-racking for me than the last, until it was me rather than the cars on the verge of a breakdown while the family sat there, saying nothing, just waiting (probably, by this point I was not thinking straight at all and paranoia had taken over completely).

This madness, my madness, had to stop, so in January, unable to bear the "joy" of sharing my hobby full time with my oblivious-to-my-growing-insanity family any more, I went out and bought a massive mid-1990s Merc E-Class (like the one above) nicknamed the Bismarck – like the battleship – full of wood, leather, seats and knobs (most of which I have no idea what they do and no inclination to find out), and with the largest load area I have ever seen. If the missus found out how much this buying decision was influenced by the size of a piece of ripped out secondary glazing that I had to take to the tip, I would be in well-deserved trouble.

It is mundane, boring, practical, ridiculously big and, in fact, just obnoxious, but it makes me feel good. Not because it appeals to me directly in any way, which it doesn't, even though I can sort of admire it, and not because it is any more reliable – it is probably just as likely as the classics to break down – but simply and solely because if (or when) it does break down, I can point the finger of blame at a modern Merc built to make the Burj Khalifa look like a Twiglet, so my classics (and me, and my hobby in general) will be free to carry on our carefree existence.

That's kind of pathetic reasoning, really, but after six months of ferrying around the family, always just one missed spark away from catastrophic embarrassment and potential retribution, it seemed the only solution. Of course, I still use the classics whenever possible for the whole family, and always when travelling on my own – to the point that three of the four at least will outstrip the Merc's mileage this year.

Yet, like those dullard dads on a mission who set out to recreate an iron age village and end up trying to make a fire in the rain while their escapee family gorge themselves on Fry's Turkish Delight and Vimto bought from a local petrol station with his stolen credit card, I have failed miserably in my bid to force my family to live a classic-only existence.

I don't blame me (naturally) or the cars, because millions of families happily trudged around in these cars as their only vehicles when they were new often with little more hope of reliability than I enjoy now. It is simply that expectations have changed so dramatically since the mid-1980s, that to the rest of the world breakdowns should be as rare as moonlandings.

But at least I tried, and I will try again. They just don't know it yet. Maybe a Mk10, or on my budget more likely a 420G, will do the trick…


Martin Port

We had a classic-only existence for many years and managed absolutely fine for quite a while on a Morris Traveller, and then an MGB GT and a Minor Saloon. The turning point came when we realised that they were cheap purchases that inevitably couldn't go on for ever without serious work or restoration - both of which would have proved problematic as used every day.

Since that point, I will admit that we have always had a modern car of some sort on the drive. We're not talking exotic of course (£1500 Audi A4 and a second hand Renault Scenic Diesel being just two examples), but it does mean that we have an alternative method of transport that compared to the classics we choose to own is slightly quieter, faster and sometimes more comfortable. Even I have to admit that there are times when instant heat, or air-conditioning and a five speed 'box is handy - certainly when you have children (even if they do love the classics as well), and you want to do an eight-hour round trip to Cornwall to take advantage of some good surf.

But perhaps the biggest advantage to owning a modern-ish car as well as the classics, is that the old-uns might last just a little bit longer. It could be coincidence, or it could be because the price of the classics I have been able to buy over the years has gone up, therefore so has the quality, but they certainly haven’t felt as run-ragged since we’ve owned a modern as well.

Of course I would also advocate owning at least three cars – then at least one of them can be broken at any one time!

Art Editor, C&SC

Sir Driftalot

James and Martin,
good points so far, I especially liked James' "not exactly classic friendly. Classic tolerant...". From time to time it is frustrating to see the family's acceptance decrease. Starting with a family camping holiday to Lago di Como with the freshly acquired Giulia in 2000 (with a heavily pregnant wife and 3 year old son) having discussions with colleagues back then regarding sense of responsibility, we have reached a point, where the meanwhile grown-up kids (10 and 14) think dad's Giulia is cool in some way (as dad is doing track days with it), but still the wife's company car (a 2007 BMW 320d Touring, a really good car by the way) is quite often winning as a consequence of comfort requirements like AC, quietness, stereo, bloody cupholders etc.. Anyway, I found my inner peace with commuting, trackdaying, doing the school run from time to time and sometimes going to the pub in my Giulia, some 6000 kms a year. Oh, and to get back to James' essence: I only broke down twice in classics: gearbox failures in a 1966 Renault 16 and my current 1977 Alfa Romeo Giulia.
Yours, Alex

"Why doesn't someone tell Pedro it's raining" - Chris Amon, 1000km Brands Hatch 1970
Paul Sutton

I can remember a spell as a boy when my family led a vintage only existence. The garage was home to a Vauxhall 30/98 in mid restoration, two single seat Austin 7 racers, an 'Ulster', two 'Chummies', one early and unrestored, and an ERA (a half share, sadly now long gone). There was also a 1924 BSA and a Norton Jubilee. The everyday car was the more 'modern' of the two Austin 7 'Chummies', which never broke down or at least never for long enough to leave us stranded. Mind you without heating, it was something of a challenge in the winter. However, as Martin points out it did mean that restorations were required on a pretty regular basis. It has left me with a passion for vintage and classic cars but despite making regular use of an 'Ulster' and a '69 Marcos I too have to have a modern, partly because of the need for four seats but also because my own family's tolerance - and enjoyment on the part of my children - of classic and vintage cars wouldn't extend to all year round use...


Interesting article.

I spent about 5 years in South Africa, a few years ago, with an exclusively "classic only existence" - proves it can be done! I lived in the Highveldt and later in the Western Cape. My daily drivers were an open top S1 E-Type and an immaculate 420G (for when I needed a little more space). The beauty of relying on classics from this era is that if you should ever suffer a breakdown, it is possible to fix by the roadside if you have a big enough hammer and screwdriver - no electronics or fuel injection here!

My daily drivers were supplemented occasionally when I drove my Proteus C-Type to race meetings - I wasn't old enough to appreciate Jaguar's Le Mans heydays but wanted to experience the zeitgeist of thar era by driving to and from races in the way they used to.

I have such fond memories of my "exclusively classic" years and, assuming you have some basic mechanical ability, aren't too "precious" with your everyday classic and don't mind the occasional reminder that you are driving a 40+ year old car - the rewards are well worth it. :)

Building the Legend

James Elliott

Seems pretty clearcut then: without kids it is possible (and many of us have proven that, I was a classic-only guy myself for the decade prior to kids actually), but with kids (especially younger ones) it simply isn't possible. Come on, there must be someone out there who has managed it.

Group Editor, C&SC

Valve Bounce

I can lay claim to a classic only existence for the last 25 years plus a one child family. I might be cheating since because nowadays I work from home most of the time and I do live in London just a few minutes from tube and buses. However, I did work in Watford for a long time which involved a 10 mile trip up the M1 every day.

In my experience you’ve got to have at least two (preferably three) cars, one must be practical with easy parts supply and a just a bit boring, especially if you’re leaving it in the street. I’ve had a Volvo Amazon (is that cheating) for 15 years that has never let us down.

Current status;
1970 Mercedes V8 – Engine is out, and a new mortgage has been applied for (what do they make their pistons out of??) it’s on the bench and just needs putting back together.
1963 Triumph TR4 rally car - not enough seats for the full family but called into service in emergencies currently running but in need of slight cosmetic work…
1966 Volvo – got through it’s MOT as usual but the tester said in a stern voice “there are so many advisories I’m just going to put the worst down...”. So some rust repairs on the cards, should only be a couple of weeks off the road (I’m an optimist). All made a little worse since Charlie Garratt of shut up his old Volvo shop so I need to find a sympathetic and cheap welder.

Most spine chilling memory – Driving the family out to Hertfordshire for a celebratory lunch the day I bought the Mercedes. On the way back the fuel pump packed up and left us stranded by the side of the A10 for EIGHT hours with a 18 month old baby… followed by the £800 bill for a new pump. The joys of classic motoring.

plastic penguin

Really depends how many miles you do, so for instance, would be dodgy if you're a rep. Likewise, we have a young daughter - OH is a wheelchair user - and the very thought of using a classic knowing it is likely to cough and splutter every now and again doesn't inspire confidence as a 'daily use' car.

That said, if you're a single person, and don't mind lugging a hefty toolbox in the boot, then it's very doable as a single entity.   

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