Long term this classic car industry of ours is in danger of dying out for a number of reasons. Firstly the youth of today don’t generally think of cars from the 1950s, 60s and 70s as classics. They just think of them as old cars, much as I thought of pre-war cars as I was growing up. My own personal definition of a ‘classic car’ is the ones that were around when you were growing up and aspired to drive and own. Growing up in the 1960s and starting to drive in the 1970s that puts 60s and 70s cars squarely in my sights. Anyone growing up in the 1980s and 1990s will have a different mind-set.
Many classic car clubs are suffering from falling numbers as their membership is literally dying off and youngsters aren’t joining to fill the gaps. A few clubs are working to try and reverse the pattern. The TR Register (of which I am a member) have a ‘Yoof Group’ and at the NEC Classic Motor Show in November 2014 I was pleased to see the ‘Young Members Register of the Morris Minor Owners Club’.
Fortunately Morris Minors, some Triumphs: Spitfires and TR7, and classic Minis are still relatively cheap in classic car terms and make good starter classics. Once hooked, hopefully the owners will graduate to more expensive Triumphs and other more expensive marques. That is assuming they can get insurance as insurers are very biased again drivers from 17 to 25 (particularly male ones) as they are responsible for a disproportionate number of road accidents. According to an AA report in England 37% of drivers have had a crash by the age of 23!
I can’t see the Jaguar Drivers’ Club or Aston Martin Owners Club ever having a youth section for a number of reasons: mainly old age and prejudice of existing members but also the escalating costs of Jaguars and Astons and the insurance issue.
We do our bit to spread the word about classic cars and about 10% of our hire customers are doing a ‘Try Before You Buy’ – making sure the car of their choice lives up to their dreams – before going out to buy one. At the 2014 Classic Motor Show at the NEC we had 4 people come up to us on our stand and talk about the cars they had bought after hiring out one of our cars as a test. However even we can’t fix the insurance issue as our own insurers have set a lower age limit of 25 for all our customers.
Assuming the clubs can can crack the ‘Yoof’ problem and encourage more people into our hobby this still leaves us with another problem which if we don’t crack soon, will leave us with a huge problem in years to come.
If you want someone to programme your home video or smart TV, you’ll probably ask your kids to do it. If you want your website updated, or lessons on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you head to the spotty youth or the 20-something guru. If you want your classic car fixing, you look for a silver haired mechanic who can tell what is wrong with your engine by listening to it and can balance twin or triple carbs by ear. Sadly by the nature of life itself these silver haired mechanics are literally dying off with very little sign of school leavers coming into the industry to learn their skills and replace them.
Youngsters don’t see manufacturing or servicing cars as cool jobs and most of them don’t have the patience to watch an entire TV programme without looking at Facebook on their iPhones, let alone complete a 2 or 3 year apprenticeship in an industry they perceive as dirty and underpaid.
However we do now have some heavyweights looking at fixing this problem (in the UK at least). The Federation of British Historic Vehicle Clubs (FBHVC), which represents most UK clubs, has put together an approved apprenticeship training programme in Historic Vehicle Restoration. The FBHVC believe there is a need to train 1,000 people over the next five years. There are two fairly local (30 miles way) organisations involved in this which should help – Bicester College and Bicester Heritage. I think it is Bicester Heritage that have the vision and drive to make some of this happen.
Anyone owning classic cars in the UK knows that the classic car movement owes a lot to Hitler, or rather to the RAF in their fight to defeat Hitler. Silverstone was a WWII airfield and its runways and perimeter road provided the ideal infra-structure to start racing after the war. The same goes for many other circuits around the country like Castle Coombe and Goodwood. Bicester used to have an RAF base, whose origins date back to 1916 and the fledgling Royal Flying Corps which morphed into the RAF in 1918. This grew extensively in the 1930s and was used as a bomber base in WWII. The base is now surplus to the RAF’s requirements and came onto the market for re-development. While part of the site is being used for housing, many of the 1930s buildings are ‘listed’ and not allowed to be demolished.
With incredible foresight a group of people have bought the 348 acre site, complete with runways and buildings. Their plan is to develop it as a centre for the maintenance and restoration of classic aeroplanes, motorbikes and classic cars. This is a non-trivial task as first they had to restore many of the buildings to a state where they could be used, but keeping the 1930s ‘listed’ fabric and style of the buildings intact. The authenticity of the buildings can be attested to by their use in the film ‘The Imitation Game’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.
Bicester Heritage already houses the following:
- Bicester Gliding Centre
- A shot blasting company – BMP Blasters – who can strip anything from the hangar doors to a Bugatti chassis.
- A classic car storage company – Historit – occupying 50,000 square feet of a bomber hangar.
- Kingsbury Racing Shop which specialises in racing and restoring four and a half litre Bentleys.
- A young vehicle upholsterer who runs a 1910 Overland veteran car and is so well known that he doesn’t need to advertise and has a waiting list of customers.
- Robert Glover – selling pre-war cars and cars from the 1940s to 1960s.
As more buildings are re-furbished throughout 2015/16 more companies will join these at Bicester Heritage with 12 more tenants due before the end of the first quarter.
I think a combination of Bicester Heritage providing a base for a cluster of companies in our industry, together with Bicester College and the apprenticeship programme from the FBHVC, are a beacon for the classic car industry. While I can’t see 1,000 apprentices coming over the horizon, I can see a reasonable number of people learning new skills, working in a unique environment, earning a good living for the future from classic car owners with enough disposable income to make it all worthwhile.
On a less serious note, it is nice to know that even in the dark days of the 1930s, with Britain preparing for war, the RAF had a sense of humour. Being a military installation all the buildings have numbers with the offices for Bicester Heritage in the Guard House – building 89.
The planners decided that the toilet block should be building 100!