What makes a classic car?

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 25, 2011 - 9:02 PM

Seventeen models will be retired at the end of 2011. All of them have a shot at becoming classic collectibles.

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Seventeen vehicle models have un-met their maker this year. From the locally familiar (Ford Ranger) to the universally obscure (Nissan Altima Hybrid), from commercial duds (Buick Lucerne) to hugely popular lines (Mitsubishi Eclipse), these cars and trucks have come to the end of the assembly line in 2011.

And every last one of them might be considered a "classic" a few decades from now.

But what makes a classic?

"If someone wants one because they had one as a kid, that's what makes it a classic," said Dan Wilkin, owner of Dan's Old Cars in Miltona, Minn. "If it was their grandpa's car and they loved it, that's all it takes."

Unless laws change, any of these wheels can have a "Collectors" license plate slapped on them 20 years after their model year. But those who are serious about these matters tend to use a different gauge.

"I don't feel a '91 [Ford] Taurus is a true collector," said Scott Ellingson, owner of the Ellingson Car Museum in Rogers. "Thirty [years] is generally what I've always worked on, and even then, what 1981 cars are classics now?"

Good question. Compared with the big fins, chrome grilles and other "looky"details of mid-century cars, the past 30-plus years have seen fewer flourishes and more homogenization from producers.

"Most of newer cars are considered throwaway cars," Wilkin said. "But 30 years ago, people thought the 1950s cars were throwaway cars."

At local "classic car" gatherings, the benchmark goes beyond three decades, said Cavan Lasch, who has helped run West St. Paul's Downtown Beat Classics and other shows. "Most hot-rodders believe in 1975 on down [in years]," Lasch said. "If you have a car that's 1975 and older, you can go to all shows except for 'Back to the '50s,' which is 1964 and older.

"But you're going to get different opinions, absolutely."

The same goes for surmising which of the models being phased out now might become coveted items when somebody's grandkid gets nostalgic. The closest thing to a consensus for a future classic was the Ford Crown Victoria, which has been around so long that an earlier model already is a classic.

Also in its favor: widespread use by local law enforcement: "You see a lot of old police cars at our shows," Lasch said. That's especially true at an annual confab called (wait for it) "Cops and Rodders."

Local car buff Ken Goff said the rear-drive Crown Vic also has "a popular platform," which it shared with the Mercury Marquis and Lincoln Town Car. "This is not just the end of a model, but the end of an era," Goff said.

Those assets could help overcome one drawback -- massive production, which Ellingson said would relegate the Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger to non-classic status, at least for a half-century or so. "They made too many of them," he said. "Rarity does mean value."

There are a lot of Mazda RX-8s out there, too, but that import has a shot at being a collectible, Goff said, because it is "the only Wankel [rotary engine] car around. Some thought 30 or 40 years ago that this might be the future."

He and Ellingson differed on the sportiest of the models meeting its demise this year, the lightweight Lotus Elise. Ellingson said it "just doesn't have enough exposure. Classics have to be something people see."

But Goff said that could work to its advantage. The Elise will become a classic "because it's a Lotus, and there are very few, relatively speaking, compared to anything else in the under $50K range.

"Of course this is just my take. The others will not much be missed, though the [Honda] Element was a fine vehicle, practical in the extreme."

"Practical" might not be high on the list of attributes for classic-seekers come the middle of this century. The safest prediction: One man's classic will be another man's clunker.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

  • PEELING OFF

    The following cars will no longer be made:

    • BMW ActiveHybrid X6

    • Buick Lucerne

    • Cadillac DTS

    • Cadillac STS

    • Chevrolet HHR

    • Dodge Dakota

    • Ford Crown Victoria

    • Ford Ranger

    • Honda Element

    • Lotus Elise

    • Mazda RX-8

    • Mazda Tribute

    • Mitsubishi Eclipse

    • Mitsubishi Endeavor

    • Nissan Altima Hybrid

    • Volvo S40

    • Volvo V50

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