A classic car is typically an automobile 25 years or older; however, definitions vary.[note 1] A common theme is that of an older car of historical interest is collectible and tends to be restored rather than scrapped, though sometimes age is not a factor. Classic cars are often considered a subset of a broader category of "collector cars," including restored classic cars and newer exotic vehicles. A subset of classic cars are known as antique cars, manufactured before 1980, or vintage cars, manufactured before World War II.
Organizations such as the Classic Car Club of America (CCCA) maintain lists of eligible unmodified cars called "classic." These are described as "fine" or "distinctive" automobiles, either American or foreign-built, produced between 1915 and 1948.
Post-World War II classic cars are not precisely defined, and the term is often applied to any older vehicle.
Australia has two main classic car registration categories, the Historic Vehicles Scheme (HVS) and the Classic Vehicle Scheme (CVS), the latter for vehicles over the age of 25 (or 30) yet feature modifications out of the range to be considered ‘Historic.’ Under these categories, owners are not required to pay the usual registration fee. However, the use of the vehicle registered under the scheme is restricted to a set limit per registration term.
Most classic Ford Falcons, Chrysler Valiants and Holdens (alongside Toranas, and Commodores) are on either of the registers. However, it is not uncommon for these cars to end up with full registrations.
The Vintage Car Club of Canada (VCCC) recognizes vehicles 25 years old and older. The VCCC is one of Canada's oldest collector car clubs. It has been a registered Society since the mid-1950s. Each year, a different Chapter hosts the annual May Tour in a different geographical location in British Columbia. The VCCC has approximately 2800 members in BC, counting spouses. The club has been a continuous member of the (NAACC) National Association of Automobile Clubs of Canada Corporation since 1971.
The National Association of Automobile Clubs of Canada (NAACC) recognizes stock and modified vehicles 20 years old and older. The National Association of Automobile Clubs of Canada is Federally incorporated as a 'not for profit' Corporation. Operational since 1970, it has been one of the largest collector vehicle associations in North America. The NAACC is responsible for doing away with 'Duty' at the Canadian border. All vehicles and related parts 25 years old or older are 'Duty' free when entered into Canada. As of this writing, the NAACC is represented in every Province in Canada. The Association sanctions two major Concours in Canada. The Cobble Beach Concours in Kemble, Ontario (Owen Sound) and the Crescent Beach Concours on the West Coast (Surrey, BC) are sanctioned by the NAACC.
Cars produced in 1915 and older typically fall into the antique class, and this includes the "Brass Era cars", that are defined by the Horseless Carriage Club of America (HCCA) as "any pioneer gas, steam or electric motor vehicle built or manufactured before 1 January 1916."
The "classic" term is often applied loosely by owners to any car over 20 years old.
In the United States, most states have time-based rules for defining "historic" or "classic" for legal purposes such as antique vehicle registration. For example, Maryland defines historic vehicles as 20 calendar years old or older, and they "must not have been substantially altered, remodeled or remanufactured from the manufacturer's original design". West Virginia simply defines motor vehicles manufactured at least 25 years before the current year as eligible for "classic" car license plates.
Automobiles typically range from the 1920s to the 1970s at many American classic car shows. Increasingly 1980s and early 1990s cars are considered "classic automobiles" and are displayed at many meets. The Concours d'Elegance car shows feature prestigious automobiles such as the Cadillac V16 or pre-1940 Rolls-Royce models. There are also terms such as "modern customs," "exotics," or "collectibles" that cover cars such as the AMC Gremlin next to Chevrolet Corvette or the Ford Pinto.
There are differences in the exact identification of a "classic car." Division by separate eras includes horseless carriages (19th-century experimental automobiles such as the Daimler Motor Carriage), antique cars (brass era cars such as the Model T), and classic cars (typically 1930s cars such as the Cord 812). Some also include muscle cars, with the 1974 model year as the cutoff.
The Classic Car Club of America describes a CCCA Classic as a "fine" or "distinctive" automobile, either American or foreign, produced between 1915 and 1948.
The CCCA is dedicated to preserving and enjoying select cars that "are distinguished by their respective fine design, high engineering standards, and superior workmanship." Other differentiating factors - including engine displacement, custom coachwork, and luxury accessories such as power brakes, power clutch, and "one-shot" or automatic lubrication systems - help determine whether a car is considered a CCCA Classic. The vehicles on their list "represent the pinnacle of engineering, styling and design for their era."
Any CCCA member may petition for a vehicle to join the list. Such applications are carefully scrutinized, but rarely is a new vehicle type admitted. Moreover, no commercial vehicles such as hearses, ambulances, or race cars are accepted as a Full Classic.
The CCCA maintains this definition of "classic car" and uses terms such as CCCA Classic or the trademarked Full Classic. The CCCA has estimated that 1,366,843 "American Classics" were built.
The Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) recognizes "motorized vehicles 25 years old or older, built in factories and specifically designed and manufactured for transportation use on public roadways and highways." Judging by the AACA evaluates such vehicles to be in historical or that have "been restored to the same state as the dealer could have prepared the vehicle for delivery to the customer." Specified AACA classic vehicles include "fine or unusual domestic or foreign automobiles primarily built between and including the years 1925 and 1942."
The United Kingdom has no fixed definition of a classic car. However, Two taxation issues affect them, leading to some people using them as cutoff dates. All cars built over 40 years ago are exempt from paying the annual road tax vehicle excise duty. Also, it is exempt from the yearly UK safety test known as the MOT test on the condition that no substantial changes have been made to the vehicle; however, the car can still be presented for test voluntarily. This is known as "Historic vehicle tax exemption." HM Revenue and Customs define a classic car for company taxation purposes as being over 15 years old and having a value over £15,000.
Additionally, widespread acclaim through car magazines can determine whether a particular vehicle is considered a classic. Still, the definition remains subjective and a matter of opinion. The elimination of depreciation can be a reason for buying a classic car, and picking 'future classics' that are current 'bangers' can profit the buyer and provide transport. An immaculate, well-cared-for prestige model with high running costs that affect its value, but is not yet old enough to be regarded as a classic, could be a good buy, for example.
In Germany, vehicles registered at least 30 years ago can apply for a special "Oldtimer" license plate with a 190€/year flat tax. These license plates have the format AB-CD 123H, with the final H implying "historisch" (historic) to preserve the so-called kraftfahrtechnisches Kulturgut ("vehicle of cultural value"). The cars are required to be in mostly original condition and a preservation-worthy appearance (grade C by popular car grading standards. At the same time,e separate mandatory safety inspections establish the car's roadworthiness. Modifications that enhance safety (seatbelts, disc brakes) and environmental friendliness (catalytic converter, LPG conversion if invisible from the outside) are universally accepted. Other modifications are generally accepted if they are contemporary with the car's first registration (±10 years; the burden on proof lies on the owner through historical materials like photographs) and new paint jobs of any color, including two-tone paint if initially offered and historic company logos, but not murals or custom patterns.
Modern classic cars are generally (but only sometimes) older, ranging from 15 to 25 years old. These are not always accepted as classics in some parts of the world, e.g., the Antique Automobile Club of America.[note 2]
In the United Kingdom, the modern classic definition is often open to the discretion of Insurance Brokers and Insurance Companies who regard a Modern Classic as a vehicle considered collectible regardless of age. The usage of the car is limited to recreational purposes, or restricted mileage is also considered.
There was a worldwide change in styling trends in the immediate years after the end of World War II. For example, the 1946 Crosley and Kaiser-Frazer changed the traditional discrete replaceable-fender treatment. From then on, automobiles became envelope bodies in basic form. The CCCA term "antique car" has been confined to "the functionally traditional designs of the earlier period" (mostly pre-war). They tended to have removable fenders, trunk, headlights, and a usual vertical grill treatment. In a large vehicle, such as a Duesenberg, Pierce-Arrow, or in a more diminutive form, the MG TC, with traditional lines, might typify the CCCA term. Another vehicle might be a classic example of a later period but not a car from the "classic period of design," in the opinion of the CCCA.
Classic cars are subject to various types of fraud, most notably provenance fraud, where owners falsify documentation and serial numbers to make a car's history seem more colorful and historic. Fraud also assumes the form of knowingly inflating a car's estimated resale value, as was referenced in court proceedings relating to JD Classics, hitherto one of the UK's largest and best-known classic car dealers before its collapse in 2018.
Classic cars are typically built to meet the national car emission levels that were present in the year of production of the vehicle. EU and US emission standards have increased in many countries since then. As a result, they may not be allowed to enter cities with special emission restrictions or low emission zones. Converting the car to run on a different fuel (i.e., SVO, LPG, CNG, hydrogen, ...) may decrease emission levels.
Classic cars often lack what are now considered basic safety features, including seat belts, crumple zones, or rollover protection.
In September 2009, ABC News' Good Morning America and World News showed a U.S. Insurance Institute of Highway Safety crash test of a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu in an offset head-on collision with a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air sedan. It dramatically demonstrated the effectiveness of modern car safety design over 1950s X-frame design, particularly of rigid passenger safety cells and crumple zones. 
The 1959 Chevrolets used an X-frame design, which lacked structural rigidity; had the IIHS used a pre-1958 Chevrolet with a perimeter frame design, the results would have been much better. Vehicle handling characteristics (particularly steering and suspension) and brake performance are likely to be poorer than current standards, hence requiring greater road-awareness on the part of the driver. In certain jurisdictions of the United States, using a classic car as a daily vehicle is strongly discouraged and may even be considered illegal in some places.
The British AA motoring association has urged motorists using or driving near classic cars to pay particular attention to safety. The issue received public attention following a 2013 case in which a driver in a hire 1963 MGB was killed immediately in a collision with a taxi.
Retro-styled (color-coded with chromed buckles) 2-point and 3-point seat (safety) belts are manufactured according to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). However, most classic car bodies (manufactured before the late 1960s) did not include safety belts as standard equipment and did not include readily available reinforced mounting points on the vehicle body. Therefore it can be problematic to install such equipment properly: specific studies and calculations should be performed before any attempts. Proper installation is critical, which means locating attachment points on the body/frame, assuring the strength by good reinforcement, and following the seat belt installation instructions properly to reduce the risk of malfunction or failure.
Some classic car owners are reluctant to retrofit seat belts for the loss of originality this modification implies. There have also been instances of cars losing points at shows for being retrofitted with seat belts.
Fitting modern tires is also a suggestion to improve the handling.
However, most modern tires may be much wider and have a lower profile than those used on classic cars when new. Therefore, they may interfere with suspension elements and damage the tire walls. The suspension of a classic car may not be suitable for radial ply tires, having been designed to accommodate bias ply tires only. Narrow classic car wheels may have been designed for narrow, high-profile tube tires and may be unsuitable for modern tubeless radial tires. Another problem with modern tires on classic cars is that increased grip requires increased steering effort; many classic cars do not have power steering. Many major tire companies have dedicated classic car tire marketing departments and will be able to give expert technical advice to address all these issues. It is critical to know how radial tires will affect the performance of a car originally fitted with bias-ply tires, and the considerations needed to compensate for the differences.
Upgrading braking using either bespoke parts, parts produced by the vehicle's manufacturer, from later versions of the same model, or later models that may be compatible with minor modification is an effective method of improving safety. Popular examples include drum brake to disc brake conversions, or adding a vacuum servo to cars with front disc brakes that did not initially have one.
Although they lack such advanced safety features as airbags, antilock braking systems, and other electronic controls, most US-market cars built in 1966 and later have basic safety features such as padded dashboards, seat belts, dual-circuit braking systems, and safety glass. A few of the newest classic cars (1980s and 1990s) have more advanced safety features such as airbags, anti-lock brakes, and side-impact beams. NHTSA began their 35 mph (56 km/h) full frontal crash test program in 1979, so these results are available for many post-1979 classic cars.
Despite these concerns, classic cars are involved in significantly fewer accidents.[unreliable source?]
There is a difference between the valuation of classic car models and the valuation of a specific classic car. For example, two examples of the same classic car model may have different market values depending on idiosyncratic factors such as mileage, service history, documentation, restoration quality, originality, participation in special events, distinctions and awards, and association with notable people. Regarding the valuation of different car models, it has been demonstrated that observable characteristics of aesthetics, rarity, engineering, and performance determine classic car model values. In addition, classic car marques play a critical role in the determination of model values and account for considerable variation in values, even after controlling for observable classic car attributes.
Following the death of teacher Nick Sennett, the AA says classic cars 'simply do not have the damage resistance of modern vehicles'