Is it a classic? Is it an antique? Is it a collector? Is it vintage? Just what is the correct way to refer to an old car that someone loves and enjoys? Truth be told the definitions are quite simple. And quite complicated. It isn’t uncommon for people, even those in the old car hobby, to confuse and misuse the terms. In fact, it’s not uncommon for different people within the hobby to have different definitions for some of these terms.

Let’s start with the term antique. According to Dictionary.com the word means “Of or belonging to the past; not modern.” It can also be defined as “Any work or art…or the like, created or produced in a former period.” When thinking in terms of cars and antiques, most people will have a specific vision (Photo 1). But is this the true definition of an antique car?

The oldest national car club in the country is the Antique Automobile Club of America. The AACA was founded in 1935. Even back then people saw the value and gratification in owning and driving older cars. The organization was founded with the goal of preserving and enjoying the history of all types of automobiles. Keep in mind that during this time automobiles were only a few decades old. Plus, the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression so many people could not afford a new car and held on to the ones they had. Often these cars would be in a garage and the owner would tinker with it. It wasn’t uncommon to see all sorts of 20 or 30 year old cars on the road, even rarities such as an authentic Stanley Steamer (Photo 2) could be seen puffing down the road.

Those folks who founded the AACA were seeing how rapidly the auto industry had grown and realized that once the economy recovered, it would grow even faster. They wanted to hold on to the memory and history of these old cars. They also realized that with each passing year a whole new batch of cars would face the potential of becoming an old clunker. With all of this in mind they set up a 20 year rule; any car that was 20 years old was to be classified as an antique (Photo 3). That means that today any car build in 1997 or earlier is technically an antique.

A number of car shows will adhere to this definition when defining which cars may be entered for consideration. Yes, there are some with even stricter age limits. For example, the most recent Pumpkin Run Nationals only allowed cars built in 1974 or earlier (Photo 4).

At one point in time, back in the 1950s, this 20 year old rule caused some people to get a little upset. Which brings us to the word classic. According to Dictionary.com, when used as an adjective, classic means “Of the first or highest quality, class or rank” and “Serving as a standard, model or guide.” It can also mean “Of or adhering to an established set of artistic or scientific standards or methods.”

Most people look at a fine old car, no matter the make, model or vintage, and call it a classic (Photo 5). On a personal level using the word classic in this manner makes perfect sense if you apply the above definitions. But find someone in the Classic Car Club of America and use the word classic to define any old car and you might find yourself in a debate.

The CCCA began in 1951 when a group of people who owned and enjoyed cars from the late 1920s and early 1930s were told that the cars they were driving were too “modern” to compete in various car shows and events, even though they were driving some of the most luxurious and beautiful cars from the pre-war era. So, to celebrate their pre-war luxury vehicles this group founded the CCCA in 1952.

With the creation of the CCCA came their definition of a true classic. According to the organization a classic is defined as “a ‘fine’ or ‘distinctive’ automobile, either American or foreign built, produced between 1915 and 1948. Generally, a Classic was high-priced when new and was built in limited quantities. Other factors, including engine displacement, custom coachwork and luxury accessories, such as power brakes, power clutch, and ‘one-shot’ or automatic lubrication systems, help determine whether a car is considered to be a Classic.”

For some this definition may seem pretty broad and for others, quite narrow. The cars that are considered Full Classics are the ones that generally some of the most elegant and most desired cars around. Whether that is a 1932 Chrysler Imperial CH (Photo 6), a 1928 Auburn Boattail Speedster (Photo 7), or a 1929 Stutz Blackhawk 2 Pace Speedster (Photo 8), these car garner attention and trophies at events around the world.

While the CCCA is believed to have created the term “classic car,” they did not mean to hijack the word classic and many members of the organization will readily use this word in conversations with others in the hobby. But when they speak of a “Full Classic” they mean those cars that are officially recognized by the organization. Yes they have been criticized by some who feel that they should be more open to the cars they accept anyone wandering through the upcoming Ault Park Concours e’Elegance will have to agree that these cars are magnificent. Over the years the CCCA has been open to adding cars to their accepted list of Full Classics but this is still a very exclusive club for very exclusive cars.

So with these definitions in mind we can determine that all classic cars are antiques but not all antiques are classics, at least not Full Classics as defined by the CCCA. This doesn’t mean that hearing someone call a four decade old Camaro (Photo 9) or Mustang (Photo 10) a classic is wrong. They are classic cars, just not as accepted by the CCCA.

What about the term vintage? Well, most of the meanings on Dictionary.com refer to wine and winemaking, which, to be honest, is a very nice topic to explore in its own right. But as the word can be applied to automobiles it would mean “Representing the high quality of a past time” and “being the best of its kind.” Here, too, this definition is rather broad and the situation isn’t made any easier since there is a lack of a specific vintage car club to define the term. (There is the Vintage Chevrolet Car Club of America dedicated to all types of Chevys, though.) This leads to some very open interpretations of exactly what is a vintage car.

Many people will talk of a vintage Chrysler (Photo 11) or a vintage DeSoto (Photo 12) without specifying a time frame. Others, including several concours events, will classify it as a car built during a specific era. Some will limit it to cars built between 1919 and 1930 (Photo 13). The Ault Park Concours d’Elegance classifies their Vintage Class as being Pre-War cars built from 1925 until 1944 that are not recognized by the CCCA as Full Classics (Photo 14). The Keeneland Concours d’Elegance down in Lexington is a little more generous allowing cars build between 1925 and 1949 that are non-CCCA Full Classics to be accepted (Photo 15).

Some car shows and events other than the various concours will label a class as vintage but most are more interested in specific years, makes and models. In fact, most people in the old car hobby are more interested in those than whether or not a car classifies as a classic or an antique or is vintage. But then there are collector cars.

What classifies a vehicle as being a collector? According to Dictionary.com something is collectable if it is “an object suitable for collection, originally a work of fine art or an antique, now including also any of a wide variety of items collected as a hobby, for display or investment whose value may appreciate.”

So what is it about a car that would make someone find enough value in it to consider it for a collection, even a collection of one? The simple answer is that they like it or want it. And that’s the crux of this whole hobby. Perhaps a person has come across a car like one they first drove (Photo 16) or it’s something driven by your parents when you were growing up (Photo 17). Maybe that person comes across something just like the first car that they owned (Photo 18). All of those memories might come rushing back and that person may have the desire to own that car, to collect it.

Many people in the old car hobby collect a car for these very reasons. Sometimes they will just have a car they grew up admiring and when they find themselves in a position to own one they seek it out and buy it. Other times there is a car that just catches their attention at a given time and they leap at the chance to own it.

A number of years ago my oldest son and I were out running some errands. We stopped at a store and he wanted some baseball cards. Having been a huge baseball card collector in my youth (thanks for giving them all to my little cousin while I was away a college which cost me a mint condition 1956 Mickey Mantle among others) I obliged. As I drove along he regaled me with the cards he got in those packs. Unlike my friends and I who collected those cards of our favorite players and our favorite teams, my son was of the generation where books were available listing out the monetary value of various cards. As he called out some of the names my son added what that card was worth.

Wanting to make a point I drove him to the nearby baseball card shop where we wandered in and asked the guy behind the counter what he would give for one of my son’s brand new cards. The guy told him he would buy it for a nickel. My son protested that the latest book said the card was worth over a dollar. My point was made that the monetary value of anything is only what people are willing to pay.

In the old car hobby this concept of collectability has gone completely insane. Today magazines dedicated to the hobby will have columns detailing the vast amounts of money certain cars rang up at recent auctions. Quite often those auctions are aired on cable television stations dedicated to the hobby. And there are web sites, such as Hagerty that offer up valuation charts for most every make and model.

It takes some disposable income to be part of the old car hobby at any level but it can get to the absurd in terms of these auctions. A certain old Mercedes (Photo 19) can easily go for over one million dollars at an auction while a rare and storied Ferrari (Photo 20) may sell at auction for over $50 million. These owners wanted to collect those cars for the prestige and investment quality of the car. Then there are people like my friend Don who spent pocket change for his beautiful 1959 Rambler American (Photo 21) compared to those auction gems. Or there is my friend Jamie and her 1964 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III which belonged to her father. She has been offered well more than what the car has been valued and always has and always will turn down potential buyers.

The term “collector” in the old car world is vaguer than any of the others. Any car can have value to someone for a different reason. That value is what makes it worth collecting. Go to a car show and ask the owner why they own their car. You will get nearly as many answers as there are people you ask.

For that reason it really doesn’t matter what you call it or how you classify your car. If it is 20 or more years old it is an antique. If it is a specific make and model as seen by the CCCA it is a classic. If it falls within the category designated by a given concours or other car event it is vintage. If it has value to the owner, it is a collector. No matter what you call it, it is a piece of history and well worth enjoying.

As the weather begins to slowly come around into spring, car shows and cruise-ins will start gearing up. Sunday April 30 is the 40th Annual Sharonville Classic Car Show which is the unofficial kick-off to our car show season. Prior to that, pick a warm Saturday morning and head to Fuel Coffee or check out your nearest Quaker Steak and Lube or one of the dozens of other cruise-ins around the city. Get out and enjoy those classic, collector, antique and vintage cars.

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