Altering cars to one’s own taste has been a constant since vehicles became affordable.
Whether performance was the aim – often spurred on by the requirements of grass roots motorsport – or if looks took precedent (an industry which didn’t really gain traction until the ‘Fifties as disposable income increased) debates and disagreements have flourished.
To modify a car or not is the question our friends at Lancaster Insurance are asking today…
‘Original or modified’ is a particularly pervasive question among the historic vehicle community. By their definition, old cars offer an experience unlike models available today, because they’re no longer being made. Two schools of thought have long existed; to preserve the car as it was when new (to varying degrees dependent on budget) or deviate from the original specification and modify on a sliding scale to retain the benefits of an older car with some of the features of a newer model.
Those are the outliers; if neither performance nor appearance modifications appeal, you might want to consider uprating components for reasons of safety. Modern cars are heavier and taller than their older brethren. Being seen and being able to stop would appeal to most drivers’ sense of preservation; lighting laws amended in 2021 allow pre-1986 cars to use LED headlights without failing an MoT or voluntary safety test.
It’s not just headlights that can be changed within the boundaries of MoT exemption – you can do a surprising amount to modify your car and it is still considered a ‘vehicle of historic interest’ (VHI) within the law and still be granted MoT and clean air zone exemption. This is not the case throughout the world, however: the rules of modification in Australia and Germany, for instance, are far stricter than the UK’s.
These include, but are not limited to: drum to disc brake conversions (the efficacy argument for handbrakes rages on); radial tyres replacing crossplys; electronic ignition; dynamo to alternator swaps, and electrified trafficators (or directional indicators).
Go further than that and you risk not keeping the aforementioned benefits that classic cars enjoy. While you’ll be able to keep driving a heavily modified car, it may need an MoT every year, despite being over 40 years old, and your insurance premiums may be affected – though, it must be said, Lancaster Insurance Services, and others, will do their best to accommodate your vehicle with underwriters.
The rules defining ‘substantial modification’ (changes that would stop the law recognising the car as ‘historic’) were laid out on 20 May 2018, and concern changes to the bodyshell, steering/suspension, and engine.
What of magazines, then? The specialist press takes a wide a view as it can, balancing the mood for nostalgia with a pragmatic view that best satisfies their readership (and advertisers).
Paul Guinness, editor of Classic Car Buyer, the weekly newspaper, said: “If classic vehicle owners feel their cars will benefit from some upgrades, who are we to argue?
If it improves the safety, performance or driver appeal of a classic on today’s roads to modify a car, I don’t see a problem. Many upgrades are also sympathetic to the age of the car, reflective of its period – so when it comes to fitting a 1275cc Midget engine into a Morris Minor, plus disc brakes for extra safety, I can see the logic. But of course, it’s not for everyone and I respect those who insist that originality is important.”
What of the market, then? What does it prefer when dealing with historic vehicles and modern classics? It’s worth noting, however, that the public market is very different to that of the private market (cars traded between club members) and modified car communities, such as the all-marque Retro Rides forum, which caters for as broad a spectrum of cars as it can, both in terms of content and within its ‘for sale’ pages.
Zak Mattin, owner and founder of classic car dealer, IGM Pedigree Motor in Cheshire, suggested that work that fixed known key flaws, or reversible modifications, were the most attractive ones on the open market.
“It totally depends on the car and the modifications,” he said. “Personally, on modern classics I can’t stand massively over-sized modern alloys on a car that would never have had them in period. Overly lowered and stiffer suspension is a big minus too. But I don’t see anything wrong with a stainless exhaust that enhances natural engine noise but I don’t like excessively loud ones.
I’ve got no problem with uprated brakes (and some cars really do need them) or uprated dampers. I don’t mind an upgraded stereo if it looks period correct (such as that modern Blaupunkt) which have been developed to enhance older cars, Porsche have even brought out their own range of such items for the older models. If there is also an upgraded component such as K-Series steel head gaskets, that is no bad thing either.”
Uprate and tune to your heart’s content while the car’s yours – but keep the standard parts in storage if market values suggest that originality will fetch a higher price. Knowing your intended audience also helps; cars with broad demographics, like the MGB or Morris Minor, will find a home whether modified or otherwise; clubs like the MG Owners’ Club or Morris Minor Owners’ Club run as a broad church, the former running a well-established and popular multi-model racing series.
With few exceptions, the ‘broad church’ model is how clubs choose to operate.
“We welcome all cars, though, and if the owner loves it who are we to judge” said Gavin Bushby, press officer and treasurer, Fiat Motor Club GB, speaking of the Fiats and Fiat derivatives that the club caters for.
He added: “Safety related modifications I think are generally accepted as an improvement. I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue 40 year old tyres should be kept, or indeed that crossplys are better than radial. Braking modifications improve much older cars, and things like electronic ignition are generally seen as an improvement.
Some larger tyres and upgraded suspension parts improve handling and safety too. I think more extensive modifications including engine swaps and revised suspension setups could be viewed as an improvement if done properly. Badly lowered cars and ill thought out modifications can completely ruin a car, and we’d very much take the view that the manufacturer spent many millions on the original setup for a reason.”
To conclude: preference rules. Laws concerning the use of historic vehicles have, thanks to campaigning efforts of the likes of the Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs (FBHVC), been left open to sensible, safety critical interpretation should owners want better features in their classics.
As the FBHVC’s communications officer, Wayne Scott, explained: “We strongly encourage the preservation of historic vehicles as examples of transport heritage and have campaigned of course to ensure that through MOT exemptions etc., historic transport is able to take to the UK roads without the burden of modification to make them adhere to modern preferences.
We do this so that transport heritage can be preserved, enjoyed and experienced in its purest form, unhindered by compulsory legislation. However – importantly we know that enthusiasts vehicles are just that – their vehicles – and so would never look to dictate to our community what they should and shouldn’t do to their vehicles, it’s up to them.”
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