Why Are No New “Classic” Cars Being Built?

The First Subaru - the Subaru 1500. Image courtesy of http://www.subarusvx.es/.

The allure of classic cars is hard to deny: Their distinctive design, powerful engines, and overall high value places them among the most sought after investments for automotive enthusiasts. Because of their relative scarcity, these cars have increased in value and remain highly in demand among people of all ages.

If that's true, however, and these cars are increasingly popular because of their unique designs, feature, colors, and other factors, why not simply keep making them in American factories as was done in the past? What's stopping major automakers from resurrecting cars of the past and turning them into bestselling models of the present era?

As it turns out, there are several key factors working to keep classic cars "classic", even as prices and demand rise throughout the United States and around the world.

Consider the Safety of Classic Cars vs. Current Options

The 1952 Chevrolet Bel Air. Image courtesy of Rennet Stowe.

Any regular Sunday episode of "Mad Men" can show the modern car buyer about the pitfalls of classic cars. Manufactured in an era before government regulations required an intricate commitment to safety from all angles, these cars have a number of "features" that simply would not be considered acceptable by automakers, regulators, drivers, or even passengers, in today's economy.

Classic cars typically lack airbags, seat belts, and safety glass. Designed in an era of steel interiors and exteriors, classic cars typically have no "crumple zones" for front or rear impact and dashboards were often designed with steel parts. Steel, as one might guess, is neither safe nor accommodating during an accident. Even pedestrians are more at risk, since the hood of a classic car features no mandated slope, designed to reduce pedestrian injury in the event of an automobile accident.

Though nostalgia reigns supreme for the curb appeal and unique design of classic cars, it's hard for anyone to be nostalgic about the higher crash rates and fatality rates of heavy cars with longer stopping distances, which existed in an era before fiberglass, airbags, safety glass, seat belts, and dozens of other key features.

Consider the Technology Factors: Classic Cars Bring Only the Basics

The 1949 Ford Custom Tudor Sedan Vintage Advertisement. Image courtesy of Alden Jewell

The safety of modern cars is, in and of itself, a testament to modern technology. Current crash rates and decreased fatality rates can all be attributed to modern manufacturing processes, the addition of high tech processors and car computers, and all kinds of evolutionary changes that brought the private vehicle to where it stands today. These high tech changes are not, however, the only technology improvements that consumers look for in a modern automobile. Consider some of the most important selling factors of today's cars that simply don't exist in any officially classic car:

  • Improved fuel economy via government mandated CAFE standards, which forces high tech improvements to car engines.

  • Improved materials, like plastic, fiberglass, and even next generation carbon fiber, all of which make cars easier to design, manufacture, drive, and efficiently fuel up at the gas pump.

  • Integrated smartphone, Bluetooth, audio streaming, and other technologies that add passenger comforts to the car for longer trips.

  • Air conditioning, heated seats, and features like dual-zone climate control, for maximum comfort on the hottest and coldest days of the year.

Technology is the key reason that today's cars sell. In fact, most people look first at the car's high tech features before they consider engine size and power, cargo space, and numerous other characteristics. While the stark lack of modern technology in classic cars adds to their nostalgia factor and gives them a certain kind of charm, it's hard to argue that a hot summer day is not served well by a car with no radio, no air conditioning, and other added amenities for safe, hands free operation.

While Highly in Demand Among Collectors, the Classic Car Market is Quite Small

Image courtesy of http://nwautos.com.

The demand for classic cars is high, but only in relation to how many well restored classic cars currently exist for show or for purchase. Indeed, cars have a natural tendency to corrode, experience mechanical difficulties and suffer from a lack of available replacement parts.

It's hard to see how strong demand among a niche group of drivers and car restoration enthusiasts could possibly translate into wide appreciation for classic cars among the broader population. That represents a serious problem for automakers that once produced these now classic automobiles.

Since the dawn of the Model T, the driving factor behind affordable personal vehicles has been economies of scale. Car manufacturers are able to sell cars at an attainable price point, even despite their innovative features and complex designs, because of the sheer number of cars they produce each year. With mass production comes reduced cost, making the vehicle accessible. Because classic cars would likely enjoy no such mass demand, they would necessarily have to be produced in smaller quantities. That would raise prices, especially combined with required changes to the car's engine, safety features, and other elements.

In the end, new cars produced to match the classics would cost roughly the same as their original counterparts, but offer none of the same charm and nostalgic appeal. For this reason, classic cars will continue to live on as a collector's item and a window into a bygone era of car production and driver enthusiasm.

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