What Is a Classic Car?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A classic car is a vehicle of cultural and historic interest that is at least 20 years old, and maintained in a like-new condition. There is considerable debate over the precise definition of a classic car. Organizations with an interest in such vehicles may have competing definitions, and government regulators also have their own standards for determining whether a car is a classic. Such vehicles may qualify for special treatment when it comes to registration, vehicle taxes, and related matters, and thus the distinction between them and other types of cars can be important.

As a general rule of thumb, a Ford Model T is considered to be an antique car.
As a general rule of thumb, a Ford Model T is considered to be an antique car.

As a rough rule of thumb, a classic car should be between 20 and 40 years old; older cars are antiques. Furthermore, it must be kept in a condition similar to that seen on the assembly line when it was new. Some small retrofits for safety or environmental health may be permissible; for example, drivers can add restraints to vehicles that were not originally made with seat belts. These modifications should be unobtrusive.

Classic vehicles have historical significance.
Classic vehicles have historical significance.

The car must also be recognized as distinctive and of unusual quality. Cars older than 20 years old may be on the road, but they might not be considered classics if they are in poor condition, or don't have a cultural value. The car should come from a reputable manufacturer. Demand can determine whether a vehicle qualifies as a classic car; if the car is highly salable and desirable, this implies that it has cultural value, while a car that would be hard to sell on the open market may not be a classic.

Collectors of classic cars may also evaluate vehicles in terms of the design characteristics they exhibit. Cars from a particular era tend to have distinctive visual appearances, like the curvy bodies of cars from the 1950s. A car might be a classic if it has an unusual feature like the first iteration of a new engine design or a unique visual accent, especially if that feature later became common as a result of the popularity of that make and model.

For government purposes, a classic car usually needs to fit within a narrow definition set out by a vehicle registration authority. Drivers who want to qualify for benefits like exemptions from emissions tests or lower registration fees should check with the authorities to determine whether their cars qualify. If a car does not meet the standard, claiming those benefits would be fraudulent, and the driver might need to pay a fine.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I was at a wedding recently, and the groom's dad came driving up in this apple pie 1971 Corvette. It was gorgeous! Turns out, he restores classic cars. That one looked like it had just rolled off the line in Bowling Green (the Corvette plant is in Bowling Green, Kentucky, not Detroit).

He said he loved doing the restoration but knows now why the headlights don't rise up from the hood anymore. He said it was a pain in the neck to find all the parts and to get them to work. But he did it and the result is one more cherry automobile!


I love looking at classic and antique cars. The original Mustangs are starting to make the journey from classic to antique. That's one of my favorite older cars.

I'm really glad the Big 3 car makers are drawing on past designs for current cars. The current Mustangs, Camaros, Dodge Chargers and Challengers are all reminiscent of their 1960s forebears, and I love it. I think the cars look sleek and sexy. I'm thrilled the pony/muscle car is making a comeback. Like it or not, America is a car culture and has been ever since automobiles were first sold. So it's appropriate that the pony cars are being redesigned and re-introduced.

Post your comments
Forgot password?