At every car club meeting, gray-haired elders debate the future of car collecting. They wonder if the current generation will wean itself from texting and playing World of Warcraft long enough to learn to use a Uni-Syn to balance their SU carburetors, or feeler gauges to measure valve clearances.
They also wonder where are the Austin-Healey 3000s, Jaguar XK 120s, and Alfa Romeo Giuliettas of the current era. Each was a distinctive sports car with its own look and sound, and all were reasonably affordable.
Part of the reason cars are so different today than they were 40 years ago is simply evolution and progress. Just as with refrigerators and lawn-mowers, automotive technology has moved forward. But much of the reason there are no interesting, low-production, affordable sports cars today (with the exception of the Lotus Elise) revolves around the government, safety, and clean air.
We're here to protect you
I maintain that when the government started smog and safety regulations 41 years ago, it guaranteed that pre-smog and pre-safety sports cars would become collectible, and post-smog cars would not.
In 1968, the U.S. government weighed in mechanically and stylistically on car design. By 1975, the program was in full force, and 1980s vehicles wheezed around like fairground bumper cars. Enhancing the collectibility of pre-1968 cars wasn't remotely related to the purposes of the legislation, but by making some types of cars impossible to build, that became the end result.
In essence, through the introduction of safety and emissions regulations, sports cars that could someday become collectible were no longer being produced in any meaningful fashion.
No other collectible artifact used on a daily basis had its collectibility affected by the government. While firearms are regulated, they are not used on a daily basis, except perhaps in St. Louis, Oakland, Memphis, and Detroit (the cities with the four highest crime rates in the U.S.).
The advent of uniform government regulations meant it became impossible for manufacturers to produce interesting cars in limited numbers, such as the 1966 Alfa Romeo 4R Zagato, of which just 92 were built. The 4R isn't a first-rank collectible, with its single-downdraft Solex carburetor and "hey look at me" faux 6C 1750 look, but it is an interesting car, and the world of car collecting is richer for its existence.
Manufacturers who couldn't retool to meet regulations simply went out of business (think Austin-Healey). Death-by-legislation has ensured that Austin-Healeys will always be collectible; there won't be any more built.
By 1975, the pool of sports cars had greatly diminished, and by 1980, they were all nearly gone, save Alfa Romeo with its sadly outdated 105 "Duetto" chassis, and the ongoing iterations of the Porsche 911.
The 5-mph government bumper regulations that began in 1975 led to nearly every car in the '70s having monstrous and ugly rubber bumpers protruding front and rear (think 1975-80 MG Bs), which also meant that the stylists had lost control over the exterior appearance of the cars they were designing.
Further, the advent of airbags, standardized by Ford in the U.S. in 1990, meant that dashboard and steering wheel design had to serve a different master than the stylist. There's a reason you don't see aftermarket Nardi wheels offered any longer.
No more racing your daily driver
As a sidebar, there was also an increasing differentiation between cars raced on the track and those driven on the street. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, racers discovered that the bigger the tires, the better their cars handled. Sports cars began to be designed with bulging fenders (think Alfa GTAm). To allow older cars to compete with the newer "wide-fendered" cars, the SCCA allowed older cars to add substantial fender flares in order to cover the new-style wider wheels and tires.
Ultimately, this led to race cars, even in production classes, being impossible to drive on the street-which was the demise of the "gentleman's racer" (think Ferrari SWB or TdF). Also, even SCCA production-class race cars began to look wildly different from the cars on which they were based. In fact, the only true "gentleman's racer" built in the last 20 years has been the McLaren F1, with a total production of 106 and a market value in the $3m range. Not exactly a mass-market item.
In general, sports cars built before 1968 could be used in competition or on the street: They could be built in limited numbers, their engines did not have to comply with emissions regulations, and their exterior and interior designs were immune from safety regulations. As a result they were handsome and therefore collectible. There have been no dual-purpose race cars built since the 1960s, again with the exception of the F1.
The era from 1968 to the present has seen an increasing homogenization of cars, as laws governing more aspects of car safety, economy, and emissions have been passed. The end result is that the number of truly collectible cars is fixed in time, and will not increase. The Golden Era of the motorcar is behind us.
We live in an era where pre-1968 cars are transitioning from industrial art to artistic artifacts. For the past 20 years, we've been in the used car hobby, with some old cars more interesting and expensive than others. For the foreseeable future, we will be in the antiques business, where old cars increasingly become surviving works of social history, evocative of the era in which they were built. And they will be desired, acquired, and used by an increasingly sophisticated group of collectors.
So at your next car club meeting, please, no more crying over spilled pilsner about the lack of modern collectible sports cars. The cars that we call collectible are, for the most part, a fixed group. There will never be another Big Healey, or TR4, or Cobra 289. The past is gone, and our task is to understand those cars and the eras they represent, while exploring their nuances of operation. New cars will always be better, but they'll always be less fun. As old car enthusiasts, that's the path we've chosen.
My mother, Frances Evelyn Gage, passed away on January 12 of this year. Eighty years of age, she died painlessly in her sleep. While I was raised primarily by my grandparents, my mother was always available for counsel and her home was always there, when I needed a place to lay a troubled head. We had not been close for decades, but during the past few years we reconnected.
One year ago she and my brother Gary came to our home for Thanksgiving dinner, and she got to see her newest grandson, Bradley. Her life wasn't always easy, but she consistently provided good cheer and offered light-hearted stories from my childhood whenever we got together. I miss her, but I believe she is now in a place where every day will be a good one for her.