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How old does a car have to be to be considered a classic?

We throw around this term classic car as if we all know and understand its exact definition, but do we? Is the term classic interchangeable with vintage and antique? There’s actually quite a lot more to it than you realize. In today’s blog, we’re taking a closer look at what really is the definition of a classic car.

What is a classic car?

According to Wikipedia, a classic car refers to “an older car, typically 20 years or older, though definitions vary.” That last part is the biggest problem of all! There are differences in opinion on what age or period the car is from to make it a “classic.” The common thread that most of the theories share is that classic cars are those of historical interest that people feel are collectible and worthy of either preservation or restoration.

In other words, in the minds of many, a classic car is simply one that has some kind of collectible, historical, or powerful nostalgic value to many, to the point that they can’t bear to scrap it and would rather preserve it instead. The key word here is “collectible.” For a car to be a real classic, there seems to be a need for some market force behind it; a demand from people to add the car to their collections.

Age is clearly an important factor, too, as we will explore in more detail below. However, age is not necessarily the most important defining feature of a classic car. There are hundreds of old cars. If age were the key factor, then everything from a 1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 to a 2000 Toyota Prius would be considered classic. There hardly seems to be a clamor of buyers lining up to buy a “classic” Prius. Therefore, we can surmise that collectibility and historical value have more real bearing on what is or isn’t a classic car. This can be seen especially by browsing the types of vehicles that we have for sale at GR Auto Gallery, not every old car is a classic by default. 

In a sense, then, classic cars are really just a subset of collector cars, and the term refers generally to street-legal car models --- typically 20 or more years old --- that have a high collector’s value. But what about vintage and antique, where do they come in?

Classic Vs. Vintage Vs. Antique

The other big question is how to differentiate more accurately between the other associated terms when it comes to looking at older cars. The three big terms commonly used are “classic,” “vintage,” and “antique.” Here’s how these terms are generally understood:

  • Classic refers to collectible cars that are 20-44 years old
  • Vintage refers to collectible cars that are 45+ years old
  • Antique refers to collectible cars built between 1919 and 1930

Once again, it’s one definition held by certain people, but others have their own ideas. One group that makes its own definitions very clear on these types of cars is insurance companies. Arguably the best-known nationwide dedicated provider of classic car insurance is Hagerty, and they divide their classic car periods into 2 distinct zones: 1980 and newer, and pre-1980 classic and collector cars.

Even cars from the last 20 years qualify for Hagerty collector insurance if they are, for instance, a limited or special edition, a supercar, or some kind of special interest or imported vehicle. That shows that Hagerty is even speculating as to what will become a “classic” by offering insurance to those who have not yet crossed that 20-year threshold but still hold clearly collectible and interesting car models.

What Adds to Classic Car Value?

We have already mentioned the key point that what really makes a classic car is collectibility, but what are the factors that add so-called collector value? Being in the business of classic car sales, and helping clients buy/sell over 10,000 cars, we have the decades of experience necessary to help you determine the value of your vehicle. At GR Auto Gallery, we initiated our vehicle consignment program as a way to help owners get the true value out of selling their special interest car online. 

1. Rarity

It’s basic economics that scarcity raises prices, and the same is true for classic cars. The rarer or harder to find a car is, the more naturally valuable it becomes. It’s not an absolute or universal rule, of course. Ford stopped producing the deadly Pinto models, but their rarity now doesn’t make them more valuable. So, on top of rarity, there needs to be more.

2. Iconic Status

Cars that are perceived as the greatest of their generation, or cars that were heavily featured in popular culture --- think the Ford Mustang in “Bullitt” or the 1963 Aston Martin DB5 in James Bond --- will certainly have massive collector value. They can sometimes amass a cult-like status. What’s interesting is that this can happen to all kinds of cars, from exotic supercars to the VW Beetle (thanks Herbie).


1963 Aston Martin DB5 in James Bond, “Goldfinger.”

3. Originality

Finally, collector value is garnered massively from whether or not a car still has its original features: exterior paint, upholstery, dash features, steering wheel, side mirrors, etc. The fewer modern components that have been substituted, the better. Serious collectors don’t want retromods!