Hamish McRae: Classic versus new

Don't be too dependent on it. Have someone look after it. Drive it sensitively and accept the irritations
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I have got the Bristol back at last. Some clot managed to hit me from behind at a red light and it took months to get it repaired. Aluminium is tricky to weld and it took a while to find a new back bumper. But having to borrow my daughter's Ford Ka set me thinking about the wisdom - or stupidity - of running a vintage car as my sole vehicle. It is a 1974 model 411 and very pretty. But old cars go wrong: would it not be more sensible to get a decent modern car and not have all the faffing about?

I have got the Bristol back at last. Some clot managed to hit me from behind at a red light and it took months to get it repaired. Aluminium is tricky to weld and it took a while to find a new back bumper. But having to borrow my daughter's Ford Ka set me thinking about the wisdom - or stupidity - of running a vintage car as my sole vehicle. It is a 1974 model 411 and very pretty. But old cars go wrong: would it not be more sensible to get a decent modern car and not have all the faffing about?

It is a question that readers often ask us. There is a seductive temptation to run a classic car, mostly because of the lack of character of new ones but also because modern cars depreciate and that means money down the drain. Classic cars, properly looked after, should hold their value and might even gain a bit. Against that, you have to admit that the best new cars are objectively very good. The engineers and designers have not sat on their backsides for the past 30 years.

Financially there is not a huge difference, provided you compare like with like. For example, you should compare a Morris Minor 1000 with any small modern hatchback; the Bristol with buying a three-year-old Mercedes E-class coupe, and an MGB with a Mazda MX5.

The basic calculation you then make is that the money you save in depreciation you spend in repairs and renovation. Put aside the £1,000 a year depreciation on the hatchback and that should keep the pot topped up so that the Minor can be kept in good condition. The Bristol, I'm afraid needs about £3,000 a year set aside to keep it going. The payments are unpredictable: you just have to grit your teeth when they come. If you don't, at best the car becomes even more unreliable and at worst it becomes dangerous. The main satisfaction is that the money does at least go to British mechanics rather the shareholders of some foreign car manufacturer.

Other costs? Older cars use more fuel. There have been huge advances in even the last five years, but I find I don't use the car frivolously - I walk more around London. Insurance can be lower, particularly if you can qualify for classic insurance. Most of the other costs - parking, road tax and so on - are the same. The road-tax exemption for pre-1973 cars helps for cars of that vintage.

What about the other issues, such as safety? New cars have an array of airbags and other protection devices, ABS brakes and better road-holding, so in theory are safer. In practice I'm not so sure: in a classic car you are less cocooned and more aware of the sounds of the engine and road.

Environmental concerns? New cars produce less pollution, no matter how hard you work to make older ones cleaner. On the other hand, roughly one third of the energy a car consumes during its life is used to make it in the first place, so keeping an old one going saves all the energy needed to make the replacement.

Maybe the key difference is that you do need to have a basic knowledge of how a car works. You have to check the oil and water and know where the fuse box is. And you have to listen, so that if something expensive is about go wrong, you can catch it in time. I have had my triumphs, such as rigging emergency headlight wiring through the heater switch when the lights went, and disasters, such as not noticing I had lost a fan belt on the motorway and ending up in clouds of steam. I forgot the fan belt also drives the water pump.

You also have to be sensible. If you are going to run an old car, have an inherently reliable design. Don't be too dependent on it. Have someone look after it. Drive it sensitively. And accept the petty irritations of old machinery. The reward, aside from the driving pleasure, is that you don't have to worry about selling it or buying another one ... though I did see a delightful 1954 Aston Martin DB 2/4 the other day. No, stop it, McRae. That really would be stupid.

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