Motoring: The classic hobby that generates pounds 1.6bn

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The Independent Online
Classic cars: antisocial gas-guzzlers, or a force for good? John Simister looks at the evidence.

How do you feel when you see a "classic" car out and about? Pleased that a piece of history has been preserved, or outraged that we still allow these polluting old heaps to be driven?

There are forces at work to protect us from classic cars on the grounds that they are bad for our health, but the truth is that only the enthusiast's bank balance suffers. A survey carried out by the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs shows that the law-makers would do well not to make life difficult for owners of classic cars. Any deleterious effect on the environment is minimal, while the industry that supports the hobby turns over pounds 1.6bn a year for UK companies.

Of course, the federation would say that. It exists to protect the interests of classic car owners from encroaching, Brussels-generated restrictions, and closely watches legislation as it is enacted to make sure it does not affect the freedom to use classic cars. But the intention behind this survey was to prove that classic car owners, rather than a bunch of insignificant obsessives, have considerable economic clout.

The FBHVC sent a questionnaire to every member of every classic car club. For the purposes of the survey, "classic" meant any pre-1977 car with which its owner had a particular affinity. Owners were asked to complete just one questionnaire each, even if they belonged to more than one club.

The research was processed by the University of Central England, with the help of Classic Cars magazine, and the findings were presented to the House of Lords on 13 November. This is what emerged from the 36,000 returned questionnaires, and further research carried out by the FBHVC:

There are 658,570 pre-1977 vehicles in existence, 64 per cent of which are licensed and on the road.

67 per cent of cars are not used as regular transport, contributing to the low average annual mileage of 1,224.

The total UK vehicle count is 26.3 million, so roadworthy pre-1977 cars make up just 2.5 per cent of them.

Yet, despite this:

Annual turnover for classic cars - sales, repairs, restoration, parts supply, museum visits, events - is pounds 1.6bn, pounds 300m of which is generated by exports. That is more than you would need to run every racing team in Formula One.

More than 25,000 people are employed in providing products and services, many of them practising traditional, labour-intensive skills.

Car museums and collections are visited by 380,000 club members a year, 15 per cent of them from overseas.

There are many more than 36,000 members of classic car clubs, so some of those figures could be higher. Certainly the classic car industry is a big earner and provider of livelihoods.

Why, then, has the FBHVC felt the need to publicise its cause? Restricting the use of classic cars (though the Government is against the idea) would be an easy way to be seen to be "doing something to clean up the environment". Yet, properly maintained, they are no more polluting per unit of exhaust gas than a relatively modern car made just before catalytic converters became a standard fitment.

Factor in the low mileages, and the environmental impact of classic cars is minute. If you want to see and smell real stinkers, spend a day in London following buses, trucks and taxis up a few hills. That's where the real problem lies, with tired-out diesel engines.

The other pressure on classic cars comes from the makers of new cars, who want the Government to offer incentives for scrapping cars 10 years old in the form of a rebate on a new car. Environmental and safety issues are trumpeted as the driving forces here, but it's hard not to detect an ulterior motive. Such a move would distort the new car market in favour of small, cheap, low-profit cars, just as it did in France, where the scheme has now been abandoned. The environmental argument is shaky, anyway, because it typically takes a decade - a car's average lifespan - before the energy saved in running a new, more efficient car instead of a decade- old one matches the energy taken to build it.

Provided they are in decent fettle (and that's an important proviso), it's greener to keep the oldies going. And there's a vast industry, bigger in Britain than anywhere else in Europe, ready to help you do just that. The classic car movement does much good and minimal harm, and the Brussels mandarins should leave well alone.