Daily driving a classic car

There seems to be a consensus among many classic car owners and motorists that daily driving a classic is just a bad idea. It certainly does have its drawbacks, yes – but the idea of using a classic car like the Mini as your regular commuter has a lot more merit than you might think.

Take it from me – I’ve done it for a while now!

During my frugal student years in New Zealand, I drove my 1965 Mini with its puny 850cc engine to uni and back, every day. While the original Mini isn’t exactly known for its refinement or mod-cons, even by Mini standards my Mk1 was basic. It had practically zero sound deadening apart from an old bit of straw matting under the carpets, no rear seatbelts, and didn’t even have any side mirrors when I first bought it.

But none of that mattered. I loved driving it, and it was actually cheap to run (and insure!), perfect for my student budget.

Yes, that is me re-enacting a certain Mr Bean episode on top of my Mini on a drunken camping trip. Yes, it is missing a windscreen wiper arm. And no, it’s not a proper ‘Cooper S’ (but I wish it was!).

Now living in the UK, I’ve once again returned to using a classic Mini as my daily driver; this time in the form of a 1991 Rover Mini Neon. It actually replaced a modern MINI Clubman twenty years its junior… and I don’t regret it at all.

So what are the common objections to daily driving a classic, and how do I overcome those myself?

“Classic cars cost a lot to keep on the road”.

Now this actually can be true of a fair few old motors, especially those with large uneconomical engines and scarce availability of replacement parts. But if you pick the right car, these problems actually don’t exist.

The Mini for instance, particularly in its 1 litre guise, can be great on petrol even by modern standards. In fact after keeping track of my fuel bill and mileage over several months, my Neon works out to have better fuel economy than the 1.6 litre 2011 MINI it replaced!

There’s also a massive market for affordable brand new and second-hand parts for classic Minis, so much so that you could practically build a “brand new old Mini” with new parts, including the body shell.

Other popular classics such as the MGB and Volkswagen Beetle enjoy similar benefits, so would also be good candidates for a low-cost classic.

But what about maintenance and repairs?

Yes, garage labour costs can stack up when things go wrong. But the same could be said for any car, modern or classic. The difference is that with a classic, you’re much more likely to be able to tackle jobs on your own rather than having to rely on your local mechanic – making it easier to save money on some repairs.

Sure, an old Mini needs a bit of love every now and then… but so does every other car

Another thing to consider when looking at the overall cost of owning a vehicle is its depreciation in value. Anyone buying a brand new or near-new car can expect to lose an arm and a leg to depreciation every year, which can equate to hundreds or even thousands per month.

This is one of the real benefits of owning a classic – many older models are now going up in value rather than down, making them a surprisingly sound financial prospect. So even if you do need to budget more for parts, servicing and repair work, I reckon that’s more than outweighed by the money saved by simply owning a car that isn’t plummeting in resale value.

One final note I’ll make on cost of ownership is about insurance. Back in the day I was fortunate enough to be living in a country where insurance is dirt cheap for practically any car, but in the UK, the cost of insurance can easily exceed the value of the car you’re insuring as a young driver.

However, many classic cars are surprisingly a lot cheaper to insure than their modern counterparts, so something like a 1980’s-1990’s classic Mini City can make for a fantastic first car or cheap runabout.

Another mark in favour of daily driven classics!

“Classic cars are unreliable”.

A fundamental quality of any daily driver is its ability to get you from A to B, without you worrying about whether or not you’ll make the journey.

I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t been stuck on the side of a road in either of my Minis before – it has happened, I grant you that. But it’s rarely been something I couldn’t sort myself with a basic set of tools, a Haynes manual and a limited amount of “know-how”.

Minis are so simple under the bonnet, much like many other classic cars

In fact, I actually rather enjoy tinkering with my car. If anything it’s created a new hobby for me to keep busy with, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s also giving me a newfound sense of appreciation for mechanical bits and how they work.

Even with something as simple as an oil and filter change, it’s a satisfying feeling when you turn the key over and the engine fires into life (without oil splattering all over the driveway so you know you’ve done a good job!).

The simple nature of a classic car makes it easier to diagnose problems, and there are loads of knowledgeable clubs and people to help you if you really get stuck.

The same can’t be said of a lot of modern motors, some of which have surprisingly shocking track records for reliability.

Another thing to remember is that these old cars were the “modern” modes of transport in their time. Back in the day, cars like the Mini were driven reliably for hundreds of thousands of miles – it’s what they were made for!

Ultimately if you can learn a few mechanical basics and keep on top of routine maintenance, you can keep your classic happily on the road with minimal trouble. A few inexpensive upgrades such as modern headlight bulbs and electronic ignition kits are also a great way to bring a classic car into the 21st century for added reliability.

“Classic cars don’t have all the features I need”.

Maybe you’re hesitant to consider daily-driving a classic because it simply lacks the mod-cons and creature comforts that you’ve come to expect from a car.

It’s true that many classics are missing even some of the more basic features of modern vehicles – air conditioning, power steering, and heated seats were all rather exotic luxuries back in the day.

But the real question is, do you actually need these things from a car? Motorists of old certainly didn’t. And I think that one of the most appealing traits of a classic car is the quirky simplicity and back-to-basics feeling you get when behind the wheel.

I actually reckon that all of the features designed to make our lives easier in modern cars have really disconnected drivers from the road. When a car can literally park itself and turn on the headlamps automatically when it gets dark, there isn’t really much input required from the driver. We could quite easily forget how to even perform these basic tasks ourselves.

Driving a classic car forces you to engage with every aspect of the driving experience, tunes you into the car itself and the environment around you, and feels delightfully raw & characterful – even on a small journey to the shops and back.

And at the end of the day, if you really do miss amenities like a Bluetooth stereo and USB charging, such things are surprisingly easy to retrofit into a classic car. Even more modern features like comfy electric seats and power steering could be added with enough effort and expense, but would no doubt begin to detract from the very character which makes a classic car appeal in the first place.

A note on safety

Something that really can’t be argued against is the lack of safety technology in classic cars. Unlike new cars, most classics don’t have ABS, airbags, collapsible steering columns or crumple zones to absorb energy during a collision. If your number one priority from a daily driven car is its safety features, a classic probably isn’t for you.

Some people may tell you that classic cars were “made with proper metal rather than plastic” and “hold up to crashes really well”, but the reality is they won’t fare anywhere near as well as a modern vehicle in an accident and I wouldn’t want to make you think otherwise.

Interestingly when designing the original Mini, part of the ethos of chief designer Alec Issigonis was “active safety” rather than “passive safety”. This basically meant that rather than encouraging drivers to rely on vehicle technology to keep them safe in a collision, the vehicle should simply be designed in a manner whereby it offers good visibility, handling, and driveability; thus making it less likely to be involved in a crash in the first place.

I do believe there is some sense behind this. The Mini handles excellently, offers great all-round visibility, and is nimble and spritely enough to avoid trouble – if you’re skilled & alert enough to anticipate it. But there will always be times when even the best of drivers can’t avoid a crash.

It’s in situations like these where modern passive safety technology can prevent injury and save lives, so ultimately the choice between driving a safer modern car or a less safe classic car will depend on your willingness to take a personal risk. Maybe this comes down to your local roads and traffic conditions, whether you have young children to ferry around, and whether you’re completely confident driving a car with relatively primitive steering and brakes.

So, in conclusion…

As you can likely tell, I’m all for daily-driving a classic car, and I’ll always advocate for the venerable old Mini in particular.

It can make genuine financial sense, provides access to an enjoyable hobby and social scene, and offers a surprisingly reliable mode of transport provided you take care of the basics. On top of that you get the pure unadulterated driving experience that classics are known for, along with the inevitable “cool” factor of cruising around in an old school ride.

So if you’ve written off the idea of driving a classic car as your daily, give it a re-think – it could make sense for you after all!

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