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Classic Cars: How Many Are Left?

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As a researcher for Automotive Mileposts, one question I am asked time and again is: "how many cars like mine are left?" The question may seem simple on the surface, but it really isn't. Providing a correct answer can be quite elusive. There are services that will tell you how many cars of a particular year, make, and model are still currently registered, but this really isn't a good indicator of how many still exist.

These services check with the various state agencies across the country to identify currently registered cars. What aren't accounted for are the cars that have been shipped overseas or out of the country over the years, as well as the cars that haven't been registered in recent history, yet still exist.

Consider how many vintage cars are tucked away in garages, barns, and warehouses. Add to that all the cars parked in fields, behind houses, next to buildings, in dark alleys, and the number grows significantly. Also to be factored in are the cars located at the salvage and parts yards, often in complete and restorable condition.

One can quickly see the difficulties of coming up with a realistic number of cars that have survived the years. Often a service will provide a report which states that only 200 of a particular car are still around. Yet a check on the current cars for sale listings will show 20 or more for sale at any given time. Is it realistic to think that a ten percent turnover at any given time is accurate on a rare car? It may be possible, although that seems a bit high. And one must also question the low number of survivors. Is it realistic to think that fully 96-97 percent of a model haven't survived 35 years?

This statistic becomes even more questionable when one considers the collectible status of many of these cars. Is it reasonable to assume a higher percentage of collectible cars have been stored away for a future restoration project, or to be sold for a higher price when the value comes up? I believe so.

I see old cars offered for sale all the time that the seller considers a truly rare find. The fact that it hasn't been driven in 20 years, shows rust through, and is missing parts matters not. The seller thinks it's truly a find, with a price to match. They don't consider that good originals and restored examples can be had for less than the cost of a restoration. This shows that there's an awareness out there that old cars come up in value as they age, which leads me to believe that there are more tucked away in storage than we suspect. All of them waiting for that special day when the owner finally decides to drag them out and return them to their original glory, or sell them for a small fortune.

People hold on to old cars for many reasons. Other than the fact that they perceive the car will increase in value as the years roll by, there's also a sentimental factor if the car belonged to a loved one when it was new. There's also the "grass is greener" theory, which allows people to justify holding on to a vintage car—they'll have more time/money/help in the future, and will be able to get the car back on the road.

Also consider the collectors that have 20 or more vintage cars. Often, the majority aren't driven, don't run, and aren't titled. Those cars are not accounted for, because there's no way for anyone to know they still exist. Few people are going to register and title Aunt Martha's Cadillac that's been parked in the garage since 1972, simply because they know it isn't going anywhere. Aunt Martha's Cadillac has effectively disappeared from all forms of tracking its survival, yet it does indeed still very much exist.

In fact, the majority of vintage cars that aren't restored or driven regularly are more than likely not registered. It's rare that an old car is maintained and kept in top condition, but not driven. A story was related to me once of a widow who kept her late husband's 1968 Imperial LeBaron for years after his death. She never drove it, but kept the car tagged, titled, serviced, washed, and waxed. It received the same care it had when her husband was alive, except it was normally only driven when it was to be washed, tuned up, or going for some other service to be performed.

The dark green paint looked as good when it was 25 years old as it did the day the car was purchased. The black vinyl roof and black leather interior were equally pristine. The car was certainly ready for a cross country trip. But this is the rare exception. More likely is the story of another Imperial, a 1975 LeBaron 4-door hardtop that was tucked away in the garage in 1980, after the death of a husband, and hasn't been touched since. The odometer remains at a very low 6,718 miles. This car, however, is not road ready. It hasn't been tagged since 1984, and it's certainly not listed anywhere as a survivor.

Only recently has the status of the car been addressed by the family. They were going to just have it hauled off, as they thought it was "just an old Chrysler." The family didn't realize it was the last year of production in the seventies for the Imperial, and that the car is a very late production model, fully equipped including a power sunroof. The black on black car with red leather interior is in appearance brand new. Mechanically, it needs quite a few things tended to before it's road ready again. Only after the family contacted Automotive Mileposts did they realize it shouldn't be junked! In this world of throw away everything, an old car that won't start is not considered an asset by many. In fact, it's often considered a nuisance that everyone just wants to disappear. I shudder to think how close this low mileage original was to meeting the crusher. It is currently being returned to operable condition, and has been titled and tagged for the first time in many years. So, the count for 1975 Imperials has now been increased by one.

There are many, many other cars similar to these, the majority of which have dropped from radar many years ago. It's obvious an accurate count of existing cars is next to impossible. Even as few as a hundred can drastically change the percentages of surviving cars. Is it possible that somewhere around the world a hundred cars of a particular make and model are tucked away in storage somewhere, unaccounted for? Certainly it is.

About the only way all old cars could theoretically be accounted for would be a worldwide count, where every household and business would have to account for all the old cars under its care. A daunting task, for certain. Salvage operators would have to crawl over old cars that have been stacked on top of one another in search of serial numbers. Aunt Martha's Caddy would have to be dusted off to check the VIN. Then someone would have to key all the numbers into a computer somewhere, create a database, then add the currently registered cars to that database as well. Only then could a reliable tally of survivors be achieved.

The cost to make all this happen would be prohibitive, of course, so there's little chance this would ever happen. The numbers currently being returned certainly leave a large margin of error. It would seem fully reasonable that another 100 percent could be added to the current registered totals, if not more, since there are likely more unaccounted for cars today than there are registered ones. Consider the 200 registered survivors I mentioned earlier. This number isn't from any specific make or model, but one used at random for this example. Is it realistic to think that another 200 are still in salvages, garages, and fields? I believe so. Quite possibly, there are more than 200 unaccounted for. So it's quite easy to see that the number of survivors could double very quickly.

So, when someone asks me how many cars like theirs survive, it's really quite impossible at this point to tell them. I can make an educated guess, but at best it's just a guess. I will go out on the limb a bit here and state that I believe there are a great many more vintage cars still around than people suspect. And as more people begin to understand their value, and their place in history, I expect more and more of them will be added to the numbers currently registered.

Instead of wondering how many still survive, it's probably best to enjoy the examples that are still around, and do your part to make sure the cars that can't be restored are used to best advantage. This means their usable parts are removed and placed back into service on another car, and that good cars aren't used for demolition derby's or monster truck shows. These last two are extremely frustrating to me.

In the mid-eighties, I used to drive by a used car lot on my way to and from work. Once I saw a very nice 1965 Imperial Crown 4-door, fully loaded including rear air, in the rare Black Plum color. It had a matching leather interior and was topped off with a white vinyl roof. The paint was slightly faded, but the body was razor straight and the interior showroom new. The car was fully operational and I assumed was for sale. A month later, I saw the car was totally trashed! It had been in a demo derby, and absolutely no respect was shown for what the car once was.

Later I noticed the back seat, with its once perfect Black Plum leather, had been tossed in a pile of debris at the back of the lot. Under these conditions, the leather didn't last long. Eventually, I quit stopping at the car lot if I saw something interesting, as I knew what fate had in store for it. And over the years, there were some really nice vintage luxury cars that passed through that lot. A black 1969 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. A 1973 Continental Mark IV with Silver Luxury Group. A triple white 1964 Thunderbird Landau. A red 1960 Continental Mark V Landau. I haven't been past that lot in many years, it's probably not even there anymore. I often think about some of those cars, and wonder if the ones that didn't get involved in a demolition derby somehow lucked out and got stuck away in someone's garage.

Quite possibly, the numbers of old cars will increase in the coming years, as more and more people become involved in the hobby. I look forward to the day when more and more vintage cars are pulled from their resting places and brought back to life. Making sure these old cars are preserved, and properly recycled when past the point of rescue, is good for the environment as well as the old car hobby. Just imagine how many great old cars are hidden away from coast to coast, once the king of the road, a treasured possession that someone had good intentions for, but has now become a liability, a forgotten pile of scrap to many.

How many are left? No one knows for certain, but I hope the numbers increase as the years go by, and some of these forgotten treasures once again see the light of day, with the sun glistening off its shiny chrome, and the pavement below passing quickly underneath as the old car once again moves forward and reclaims its place on the road.