The late, great motoring hack Russell Bulgin argued long and hard about classic cars. He though they were uniformly rubbish and I disagreed. Neither of us were right of course, but classic cars do bring their own set of challenges to mechanics and drivers.
From the Seventies back, cars simply weren’t as reliable, or as safe and required regular and quite specialist servicing. Back then, car makers didn’t know (or care) as much about longevity, combustion efficiency, low-friction coatings and drivetrain design, safety structures, steering and suspension geometry, braking, or corrosion protection. Oils and lubricants, friction linings, electrical connections, tyres and even the fuels you put in the tank, simply weren’t as good as todays.
That’s part of the fun of owning an old car you might say, except for many it’s not. It’s one thing checking the oil and tyre pressures before going out, quite another pulling a Laycock De Normanville overdrive unit apart. Like it or not, younger generations simply haven’t grown up learning the required skills and don’t often have the tools or the workshops to enable them to tackle even quite simple jobs on an old car. When did you last see a new-build, help-to-buy house with a garage, let alone a workshop?
So, the expertise to look after old motors is dwindling and so are the numbers. While the average age of a typical car in the UK is 13.9 years, after 20 years the grim reaper takes its toll. Statistics differ, but DfT figures suggest the number of licensed pre-1970 cars in the UK is just 138,300. And the number of decent specialists isn’t exactly booming, either. As Tony Dron once wrote in a piece on owning a Citroën DS in these very pages: “before buying a car, you should find someone who will look after it for you” – wise words indeed.
In a world where millions of car parks and drives are filled with indistinguishable family SUVs paid for with copy-and-paste personal contract purchase agreements, the desire for difference is palpable. Older cars with their interesting coachwork, beautiful cabins and dashboards help fill that need, but where’s the fun in sitting by the side of the road waiting for the breakdown truck? And how well is an old car capable of enduring the kind of boil-the-radiator traffic jams that regularly plague our roads? In 1970 there were 13.5 million vehicles on the UK roads, last year there were 38.6 million.
While the market (or at least dealers and auctioneers) most prizes originality in old cars these days, that originality merely consists of a car that looks as though it just rolled off the production line, a look usually achieved by fitting new, non-original parts.
But however dubious that originality is, does it extend to the sort of glaring mistakes designed and built-in to many old cars? What about open rust boxes in the chassis, or leaking cabins and rubbishy windscreen wipers? I’m thinking of all the things that Bulgin cited all those years ago, the potentially dangerous suspension, inadequate brakes and hopelessly optimistic cooling systems?
Most owners would take the view that what the eye doesn’t see the heart won’t grieve over, but how far do you take this modernization? Who wouldn’t want a rip-roaring Alfaholics GT-R with its twin-spark engine replacement, carbon-fibre panels and Alfa Romeo 8C inspired upholstery for £198,000? Or what about completely remodeled Eagle E-Type Speedster with its £600,000 price tag?
Restomod is a ghastly term, but most of us do it, even if it’s just fitting electronic ignition, or better brakes – as one friend put it, “they don’t make tyres that awful anymore”. While the above cars are at the zenith of the restomod movement, even if you can’t and wouldn’t want to afford that sort of cheque-book modification, aren’t we all guilty of doing similar if only on a smaller scale?
I was thinking about this as I accelerated up onto Lambourn Downs on a fine autumn morning earlier this month in what to all intents is an MGB, except it isn’t. Frontline Developments has been specializing in MG parts, restorations, and modifications for decades and the Abingdon Edition MGB is one of the ultimate mods it produces.
Based on a heritage shell, there’s 700 hours of work in each car, painstakingly de-seaming, strengthening, painting, sound proofing and corrosion protecting the body shell, hand forming the bonnet, wiring it for modern electronic engine management and Omex electronic fuel injection, and all the creature comforts including electric windows, air conditioning, electronic power steering and remote central locking. In a nod to Mazda’s sincere imitation of the MGB with its MX-5, under the bonnet sits a 2.5-litre four-cylinder twin-cam Mazda engine pushing out a healthy 289bhp and 241lb ft of torque, which gives a top speed of about 160mph, 0-60mph in about 4.0sec, with economy of between 35 and 40mpg.
This is a seriously fast MGB, especially if you consider that even the rare MGB GT V8, of which just 2,591 examples were built between 1973 and 1976, could only muster 125mph and 0-60mph in 8.5sec and 22mpg.
It's still registered as a 1965 car, and a brand-new bespoke vehicle, but is it a restomod and more pertinently, is it still an MGB?
“I don’t really like that phrase,” says Ed Braclik, Frontline’s sales director. “It sums up some bloke in shed, although [he quickly corrects himself] some of them do amazing things in those sheds.”
He reiterates the point about non-original ‘original’ parts made above, saying that pretty much all classic cars are like Trigger’s Broom in that they’ve been through a continuous renewal process since they were first built. Moreover, a lot of Frontline’s work consists of sourcing replacement parts which are better made and of better materials than those generally available.
“You can buy an MGB rear-wheel bearing kit for £6,” he says. “Ours is £85 for one side, but it’s produced with a proper sealed SKF bearing. The bill of components for each car we build can get fairly horribly large.”
Priced from £88,475, the Frontline Abingdon races along a razor blade between new and old. In spite of its massive performance, it doesn’t require Type Approval since it more than qualifies as the 1965 car it is, and arguably it doesn’t even require an MoT test as it just about limbo dances into qualifying for exemption.
“You’ve got to make that declaration yourself, though,” says Braclik with a grin.
It's easy to get fixated with the performance (it’s certainly addictive on the road), but the remarkable thing about the Abingdon is its ability to take anything the road throws at it without quarter; bumps, slippery corners and potholes, up to a point. And that’s the thing about the best of these modern classics, the appeal lies in their thoroughly modern strength and chassis and braking capabilities as much as their modern engines.
I’m not sure that all restomods are credible, some are just too expensive, lost without identity in a hinterland of new and old, and playthings for the fungible nouveau riche, television presenters and equally vacuous folk. They belong in the same sort of market as those ‘continuation’ classic cars touted mainly by British car makers.
Others, however, (and count Frontline’s Abingdon in here) are recognisably what they were, but better, safer, more fun and involve less lying on cold, concrete floor being fixed up.
What’s driving the search for a modern performing classic is anyone’s guess, but some of the blame should be laid at the door of the anything-goes attitude of modern historic racing and car makers which continually fail to come up with exciting desirable motorcars. Only you can decide, however, on what constitutes good taste in this market.
So before you add the fuchsia-pink upholstery and squillion-watt stereo, or swap a four cylinder for a V8 and cross your fingers when declaring to the Type Approval inspectors, remember you might think you’re just looking fantastic, but everyone else is thinking you’re just a plonker…
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