Don’t drive your classic car enough? Give it a purpose

How many miles did you drive your classic car last year? There are two annual mileage checks on my much modified Triumph TR3A: the Ministry of Transport safety test (soon to be disbanded for 40-year-old automobiles in the UK) and the mileage-limited insurance policy. I’m ashamed to admit this, but last year I covered fewer than 150 miles—the sum of the return journeys to my local MoT test station and Davron, the Wiltshire-based specialist for a comprehensive annual service. In other words, I did nothing with a valuable classic car other than maintain it. And the cost? With service, insurance, and a couple of bits of trim, it was more than £3000 ($4200), almost a tenth of the value of the old Triumph.

Talk to specialists and they’ll tell you that I’m not alone. Rare and valuable classics don’t do a lot of miles, to be fair they never did, but I hear more and more stories of more prosaic 1950s and ’60s classic cars like mine that do little more than motoring gently between service and inspection.

Is it worth it, if all you’ve done is maintenance mileage and tidied up those black carbon trails of shame on the coachwork from your exhaust? I’m not sure.

triumph tr4 missing headlight convertible
Don't let the little things keep your classic trapped in the garage. Andrew English

Sure, there’s the tinkering factor, that psychological relaxation of fiddling and titivating an old machine, but not everyone has the spacious workshops of television classic-car gurus. Some of us live in snowy areas (for me, wintery Britain), where fettling involves lying on cardboard sheets on a freezing floor in a cramped garage. Working on my car most often means pushing it outside, where even in late spring you get wet and cold in seconds. Then there’s the almighty heave to get it back inside (“Just like old times,” Mrs English grunts as we rock and roll together, but not in a good way). Starting the engine to move five yards simply fills the drive train’s innards with corrosion and, after those few damaging seconds of running on maximum choke, you reverse into the garage and into the back wall.

Ooops, did I really just write that? Yes, in much-regretted haste, I reversed my Triumph straight into a host of immovable objects, mainly trolley jacks and tool boxes. The result? A badly split rear wing and dented door and a big bill from Mick Jolly, the local body shop. Ouch!

triumph tr4 fender repair
The price of hasty moves in the garage is an expensive fender repair. Andrew English

It’s made me wonder what the point of it all is. I mean we’re all supposed to love a classic car aren’t we? But what’s the answer to this lack of use conundrum?

Here in the UK we regularly see the lift-and-dust classic-car article that suggests a number of ways to earn money from your little-used classic. How about the movies? A bit of elbow grease and a couple of day’s work on set, see the stars, pop the stills in the car’s history and pocket some cash. Except that almost never happens. Filming almost never goes to plan and then there’s the weather, which means you’re usually stuck on set for days. And what if the stunt driver loses it into the side of your prize flivver? Or the director of photography decides to attach a camera to your car and the subsequent damage to paintwork and interior trim makes a day at the movies an expensive indulgence on the scale of reversing into a garage wall? Advertising work used to be a well paid alternative to movies, but speak to anyone who once earned a sizeable crust out of a modest car collection by pushing soap powder, shoes, or gasoline, and they’ll tell you that ship left port a long while ago. Similarly hiring your car to wedding companies or the like, can reasonably be filed under “more trouble than they are worth.”

Besides, it’s not so much the money as purpose we’re seeking here; something to encourage you to spin the key in the ignition once or twice a year like you mean it.

Some owners put red rings in the diary for historic racing days, such as the Goodwood Festival and the autumn Circuit Revival, or the summer Silverstone classic. And to be sure, it’s great to have an excuse to get the car out, but if you’re all going to the same place, the traffic jams can be awful. There’s a great danger that you can end up re-enacting one of those 1930s sepia-print images of motor-racing crowds queuing in endless lines of fabric-bodied saloons along country roads. It’s not much fun, idling your engine, going nowhere fast.

rac spring classic rally citroen
The author's daughter, approximately 30 years younger than any other participant on a recent road rally. Andrew English

My old TR is configured as a rally car, so that’s what we’ll do—or will we? International navigation classic rallies are wealthy baby boomers’ automotive-package holidays these days, where couples tour the world in professionally-maintained classics without even lifting a wrench, dining each night like minor potentates in l’hôtel de posh. I took Scarlett, my daughter, on one in Wales in a borrowed Citroën ID a couple of years ago; she loved the challenge of the navigation, but was at least 30 years younger than any other competitor. At what she later described as “a gruesome gala dinner,” one doddery old competitor snapped his fingers at her and waved an empty bottle of wine as if she were the waitress. And the richest competitors are now employing professional navigators to ahem, keep them at the front, which seems a bit like cheating at Patience. 

Racing? Many years ago, this could have been an option. I raced my original TR4 when I was 19 years old. It was my only car, and I drove it to work, fixed it on the street, and then come Sunday I tore round the circuit. These days, however, the millionaires have taken over, along with professional race teams, leveraging the value of the cars against the unbelievable preparation costs where cars are built to a standard where they handle like a modern car and need no mechanical sympathy, just good car control, to drive fast. One such Lotus Cortina was recently offered in the UK for £150,000 ($210,000). Back in 1964, when new, this car would have sold for just £1100 ($1500). Hillclimbs still offer a chance to drive hard without ruinous preparation costs, and there are categories for standard cars, but not everyone wants to steam around like a lunatic on weekends.

1984 brighton speed trials andrew english triumph tr4
A youthful version of your author with his first TR4 at the 1983 Brighton Speed Trials. Andrew English

There are, of course, ready-made events, the classic-car race meets, the concours bonnet-polishing fests, the Woodward Dream Cruise, and Corvette Homecoming and the like, or just simple club meetings. Breakfast meetings have become popular in the UK, and in the States there are the Saturday morning car clubs and Cars and Coffee. I went to one once, in Berkeley, California, across the bay from San Francisco. Participants wandered around, kicked each others’ tires and went for a desultory Chinese lunch in a local restaurant—it wasn’t exactly my definition of fun.

When I was young, my grandparents used to take us for ripping seasonal trips in Grandad’s Wolseley saloon, which had a wooden dashboard and a stiff choke knob which he had to pull with both hands. We’d burble out in spring into the Essex countryside to collect moss for hanging baskets and admire the primroses. A picnic was essential: cold chicken thighs and pork sausages, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs, Nan’s fiery piccalilli, thick slices of floury white buttered bread, and a flask of tea with the milk carried separately in a small glass bottle—oh, and a seed cake.

Summer trips were to pick fruit. Nan would assiduously comb the local press for the announcement that Tiptree Farm was discounting its fruit for jam makers and off we’d set in the Wolseley, armed with huge mixing bowls, plastic containers and a picnic, of course.

triumph tr4 dash in dissay restoration
The author's current Triumph TR3A with dashboard disassembled. Andrew English

This year I’ve decided to overkill on red-letter days. I’ve joined the local motor club, Farnham and District, which runs 12-car rallies. This is a quaint, legalese way of describing a one-evening navigational road rally, with a maximum average speed of 30 mph, which challenges the navigator rather than the car and ends up at the pub. What’s not to like? We’re also considering a trip to France to a classic event, which of course involves the tunnel or a ferry and that crossing the sea aspect automatically makes it an adventure. There are a couple of local speed hill climbs which might tempt me and perhaps even a weekend rally. I’m becoming a habitué of classic rally sites, calendars, and tourist boards, which list wallet-friendly events.

Above all, I’m trying to get my head into that space it used to be in when I first went out and competed; where the fear of what could go wrong didn’t stop me participating. I have years more experience, more tools and knowledge, so I should be able to sort out most problems by the side of the road. The red pen is out ringing things to do and the picnic basket is readied.

So what do you do with your classic? How have you solved this conundrum? Let me know.

triumph tr4 commercial motor test andy english
Andrew English
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