Car Era Overview:
Confused about the proper term for that cool old car you saw/bought/wish to own? Well don’t be embarrassed, it’s not straightforward. Some states have official designations since they’re doling out license plates. There’s a number a car clubs and organizations who’ve categorized and labeled cars for judging. At the end of the day, it’s still open to interpretation.
Still, it’s a good idea to get some sort of conformity of definition, so we at the Kicker Blog are happy to add our two cents. We’ll give some reasoning for our groupings in the post that follows, but our chief concern was the simplest, time-based distinctions we could find. (We used style and technological comparisons as a second factor and we acknowledge that there will be inevitable overlap.)
Let’s start with a quick recap of common terms and their real definitions:
Antique – Somewhere between 30 and 50 years of age things begin to be considered antique. (BTW: Most of our writers fall into this category.) With vehicles, it starts between 30 and 45, because in the grand scheme of old things, cars haven’t been around that long. This classification is extremely age driven, though if a car is not in good condition it doesn’t qualify for special plates in most municipalities. If a car is heavily modified or updated it is no longer considered antique.
Classic – this is the most abused term we’ll discuss. Consider the oxymoron—instant classic. We all know what it means, but come on. The opposite side of the spectrum is organizations like the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA), who have a list of cars they deem to be classic (most of which are older than 1948). If it’s not on their list it’s not classic as far as they’re concerned and in the world of classic cars that carries weight.
For now, just notice that the category of “classic cars” isn’t synonymous with “antique cars” but they overlap. As with the term antique, making a lot of changes or upgrades to a car erodes its status as a classic.
Vintage – is a term that largely applies to items originally manufactured (roughly the time of WII) before 1948, so this also overlaps the term antique. However, when applied to cars not all vintage cars are considered antiques, and not all antique cars manufactured before 1930 are considered vintage. Sorry! At least you can make some updates to your vintage car without destroying the value.
Milestone – As you might guess, this is a handy term applied to cars that changed how designers and/or consumers thought about cars, so they’re important, and collectible, despite not fitting in with other cars of their exact era. (e.g. ’55 Chevy or early Mustangs).
Collector – This term applies to cars purely because they are desirable to collectors, not necessarily because they are old. Rarity can be a much bigger factor. Typically cars that were the bread-and-butter seller for their manufacturer will never be collectible. There’s just too many of them out there. Think limited edition like the 2006 Ford GT, which was designed in homage to earlier GT’s and allowed collectors to pick up a modern version of an unattainable classic.
Brass Cars – Not unlike the term Milestone earlier, this handy term can be applied to early “horseless carriages” that don’t qualify as “Vintage.”
Modern (“20th Century” or “21st Century”) – Starting about 1980 when car mass-production refined to a point that nearly all design uniqueness disappeared. Cars are designed to attract specific, well established market-place groups.
Here’s OUR best classification of Car Eras:
Brass Era – 1919 to 1930
Pre 1919 cars, often hand-made, small number manufacturing runs (by modern standards), featuring prominent brass fittings and radiators, and remarkable lack of a formal braking system. Definitely a Luxury Item. Powered by Pioneer Gas, Steam, or Electricity. (Brass Car is a US term, within the British Empire cars made during between 1896 to 1915 would be known as Edwardian cars.) These cars were used by world leaders, dignitaries, and military generals as well as wealthy business magnets. (e.g. 1905 Jackson Model C, 1903 Stanley “Steamer” Rocket)
Vintage Era – 1930 to 1948
Can be further divided into Pre-War, War, and Post War in relation to WWII. Distinguished by separate headlamps, small radiators, and beaded wheels. (e.g. 1919 Ford Model T, 1921 Hudson Super Six phaeton.) This era car is built to be accessible to the masses, but the focus is pure transportation. It’s assumed that consumers desires are fairly uniform—luxury, mobility, and novelty.
Classic Era – 1948 to 1980
This era began a wide variety of features to focus on the interests of population groups. Some brands focused on luxury, while others on ease of repair and durability, and still others focusing on load capacity. The true sports car was born and soon evolved into many varieties from two-door coups to muscle cars.
What sets these cars apart from the era before is that manufacturers no longer assume what one car buyer wants will work for the next. What sets it apart from the next era of the automobile is a devotion to car design and style as an expression of its owner, as long as certain basic needs are met.
20th Century Modern – 1980 to 1999
As with other modern era items ‘function over form’ is the litmus test of design quality. This era is also set apart by massive improvements in safety features, which also increase the price tag of cars even as automation and cheaper components have reduced the manufacturing cost. Safety and fuel economy are now key features. Toward the end of this era, the dominance of uni-body construction and cab-forward design will cause nearly all cars to look like every other car of the same class (All sedans will look like a Ford Taurus/Toyota Camry, etc.)
21st Century Modern – 2000 to current
In reaction to the homogeneity of the early modern era, cars made in this era incorporate some classic car stylings. The cost of vehicles has continued to climb, and car ownership per capita has begun to fall. It’s likely that new forms of rideshare and transportation will continue the decline of cars. Cars continue to be owned by the general consumer and marketed to defined groups of people based upon needs, like family size or the fuel economy.