Ur-Turn is your weekly opportunity to contribute to TTAC. Every Saturday we select a different piece submitted to our contact form, and publish it as a showcase for the diverse perspectives of TTAC’s readers. Today’s contribution is a a meditation on the coming classic car crisis, from reader Matthew Betts.
Classic cars have been part of American car culture since the 1950s, when rat rods roamed the evening streets and gas contained heavy metal. As years have passed, those classics have given way to the over-restored muscle car and the garage queen time capsule. Those cars have held the spotlight for quite some time, probably because the kids of the 80s lusted after the cars of the 60s, much like their parents. The next step in the progression of the classic car will be Japanese and turbocharged group from the early 90s. This new wave can already be found creeping into auctions with prices on the rise.
After this wave passes, what will be next, if anything at all? While this may seem like a crazy question at first glance, there are several drastic differences between the cars of the last 10 years and the cars of yore that will make long-term car of them a nearly impossible goal. Some of these differences strike at the very core of classic car culture.
Mechanical complexity is not that big a deal to a classic car lover. Some relish in the clockwork symphony of multiple carbs, or the sublime cacophony coming from a multi-cam, high-revving engine. Modern engines, while only moderately more complex mechanically, are vastly more difficult to maintain in the long term due to the control systems used. Can you imagine trying to resolve a software fault in a modern car in 10 years by yourself, without the required 10k dealer-only computer or any software documentation?
Previously, virtually all cars were able to be maintained using a fairly fixed spectrum of tools. Sure, there were specialty tools to make life easier, but they were shortcuts, not requirements. The biggest change here is with the aforementioned dealer computers. In the early-to-late 90s, the specialty computer was used primarily as a diagnostic device, rather than a vital tool. Modern cars cannot be serviced without these computers, as the computers are used to fix software problems directly that cannot be remedied any other way.
One of the core concepts in classic car ownership is customization, making it your car. This used to be relatively easy to do, as each system was independent. Changing the drivetrain just changed the drivetrain. In a modern car, however, every system is interconnected. As an example, a BMW 335i owner recently found out the hard way that changing the radio prevented him from having his transmission serviced. How are these systems related? They aren’t, except the chassis computer wouldn’t let the transmission software be updated unless all systems were validated first. Lacking the original radio, that system couldn’t be validated, so the car couldn’t be fixed. Eventually, the owner found the original radio in a closet, but otherwise, he would have had to buy a new OEM radio to the tune of 700$. He couldn’t use another used OEM radio because the OEM radio had to be uniquely paired to the car first, an operation that could only be performed once. When changing something as basic as the radio prevents major systems from functioning, that makes the car a single unit, rather than a collection of modular systems.
So how will the kid of today get their dream Jaguar XF in 20+ years? Some of the more technologically-advanced classic cars are showing the way: specialization. As the dealers move on to the next generation computer and tool set, they liquidate the old stock, which is required to fix the old cars. Some of these units will be picked up by independent shops. Even fewer of these shops eventually become known as the “gurus” of that particular car in a particular geographic area. They remain the sole people actually able to fix the car as it was originally meant to be fixed, as they alone will have the skills and tools to do so. Current examples of this include the BMW E9 coupes, the Volvo P1800, vintage Mercedes, and vintage Porsches. These cars often have one or two shops in the entire US dedicated to just that car type. They have all the original tools, original documentation, and the contacts to find all the NLA parts nobody else seems to find, or they make them in-house.
While specialization will ensure the cars will live on, there is a dark side: cost. Being the only gig in town (or the country) gives the shop the ability to call the shots in a way most indys could only dream of. This drives up the cost of restoration to the point of being well outside the capabilities of most Americans. Gone will be the stories of a kid and their dad bringing a car back to life, as dad won’t be able to buy a good used engine control computer without cutting into the kid’s college fund. A classic car will no longer be the result of blood, sweat, and copious swearing, but of shipping it to the other side of the country to the only shop that still has a working diagnostic/interface computer. Classic cars will no longer be testaments to the owner’s mechanical acumen, but of the size of their pocketbooks. This key change is the killing blow against the very core of the original car culture, who customized what they could afford with their own two hands, making the best of what they had.