When Is a Car Considered a Classic Vehicle?

Young man waxing classic car in garage
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Whether a car is a "classic" is—in one sense—in the eye of the beholder. Some will define it by certain key qualities or qualifications. Some will base it heavily on the vehicle's age. Others may consider this along with other factors such as the make, model, the engine, or the mileage. Sometimes, popularity among enthusiasts will dictate value.

But when it comes to lenders and insurers, the definition gets a bit more precise. So what makes a car a classic in the eye of the experts? In some situations, it can matter a great deal when your car is considered a classic.

A Simple Definition: Age

Here’s the simplest and broadest definition of a classic car: old. That’s right, the one thing everyone can agree on is that for a car to be a classic it must be old. Well, not including all of those auto magazine reviewers who like to declare some brand new model an “instant classic.” According to most car experts and enthusiasts, for a car to even have a chance at classic status, it has to have stood the test of time.

How The Experts Define "Classic" Age

Among organizations that specialize in classic cars, there's not a wide range of definitions in terms of age. The Antique Automobile Club of America, founded in 1935, defines classic automobiles as vehicles that are more than 25 years old.

The Classic Car Club of America is considered by many to have the definitive definition of a classic. A CCCA Classic is a “fine” or “distinctive” automobile, either American or foreign built, produced between 1915 and 1948. The CCCA goes on to declare that there have been 1,366,843 American classic cars produced (over half of which are Cadillacs or Packards, interestingly enough).

Classic, antique, and vintage cars may also be classified differently depending on the state. For example, in New York, vehicles that are 25 years or older can receive vintage historical plates, while Montana requires the car to be at least 30 years old (through 1934).

Classic Car Lenders and Insurers

If you are considering the purchase of a “classic” vehicle, it is important to know how the term is defined by lenders and insurers in order to qualify for specialized rates.

For example, the Hagerty Group, a major insurer and lending agent for classic and antique vehicles, notes that some cars may not qualify due to risks associated with how they are used. This could include off-roading, using the classic car daily or for commercial purposes, and motorcycles with performance modifications.

Some insurers will require that you limit annual mileage on your classic car to less than a certain amount—2,500 miles per year, for example.

Many lenders don't deal with classic cars, so you'll have to find one that specializes in this type of loan. Each company has its own definitions, so be sure that you fully understand whether you will be able to obtain a specialized loan or insurance policy before putting cash down on that “classic” car you’ve been dreaming of.

Classic Cars and State Agencies

If you’re looking to register your classic with your state licensing agency in order to receive special rates or a "classic" license plate, make sure that you know your state’s specific requirements. In Michigan, for example, a “historical” vehicle must be 26 or more years old, owned solely as a collector’s item, and used only for events such as club activities, parades, and car shows. Every state has its own set of rules in this regard.

The Bottom Line

In the end, the definition of a “classic car” comes down to personal opinion and preferences. Unless you have a specific need to define your precious vehicle as a classic, such as insurance or DMV registration, you can consider your car a classic whenever you choose to. In other words, if it’s a classic to you, then it’s a “classic.” Just know that that your definition may not fly with state agencies, insurers, or—should you decide to sell the car—other classic car enthusiasts.

Article Sources

  1. The Antique Automobile Club of America. "Official Judging Guidelines 2019," Page 1-1. Accessed June 22, 2020.

  2. The Classic Car Club of America. "Mission & History." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  3. The Classic Car Club of America. "About Classics: Why We Define Classics As We Do & By The Number," Page 2. Accessed June 22, 2020.

  4. New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. "Learn About Historical and Vintage Plates." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  5. Connecticut General Assembly. "Antique Car Registration." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  6. Hagerty Insurance. "How to Qualify for Hagerty Insurance." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  7. J.J. Best Banc & Co. "Collector Car Financing." Accessed June 22, 2020.

  8. Michigan Office of Secretary of State. "Historical and Authentic License Plates." Accessed June 22, 2020.