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Depending on who you talk to, you might believe that classic cars are not long for this world.
There are a multitude of pressures on drivers of older cars – from rapidly rising petrol prices, schemes such as London’s ULEZ which charges drivers of older cars £12.50 per day to use their vehicles, and declining parts supplies.
However, while it can seem as though classic car drivers are firmly on the wrong side of history, Garry Wilson, CEO of the Historic and Classic Vehicles Alliance (HCVA) is trying to ensure that yesterday’s motors have a place on tomorrow’s roads.
“We were established to protect the future of our past,” says Wilson.
“There were organisations to represent all the clubs but there was no organisation to represent the [classic car] industry as a whole and its customers, the owners.”
“We’ve got some big headline members already,” says Wilson, “but I’m certainly not sniffy at all, I’m as happy to have the old guy driving his Mk.1 MX-5 as a member and a company that works on MX-5s, to a young lady driving a Bentley Blower, to the bigger companies, and everything in between.”
Wilson himself drives a Rover P5B, a smart four-door saloon produced by the British company between 1967-73.
“It sits most of the time because I’m so damned busy – I think it’s done 100 miles in the last two years,” says Wilson.
It’s easy to assume that Wilson and the HCVA are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the world is changing. However, as Wilson explains, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It’s all about dispelling the myths. My background, and pretty much most of my career, has been involved in the emissions improvement area,” says Wilson.
While driving an older car, with less efficient carburetted engines and no catalytic converter might produce more tailpipe emissions than a newer petrol or hybrid car, it’s important to look at emissions and pollution in the round, rather than focusing on what comes out of the tailpipe.
“There’s the reduce, reuse, recycle piece that the government talks about with regard to sustainability,” says Wilson, “you could argue we are the epitome of that as a sector.”
“We predominantly use UK supply chains which is really important for the government, although we’re not that vertically integrated as a sector,” explains Wilson.
“The carbon of our classic vehicles was embedded in a particular industrial era and now the industry is getting cleaner. But, by the same token, a lot more goes into a modern car, in terms of parts and plastics and processes. Our vehicles are being continually repaired and recycled, people aren’t just throwing them away and going to buy a new one with embedded carbon which could take around 60,000 miles to offset.”
The Alliance’s drive for sustainability doesn’t end there, however. The HCVA has recently partnered with Net-Hero, a platform designed to make it easy for motorists to offset their carbon footprint from 2 pence per mile.
“The reason we went with Net-Hero is because it’s an ethical program,” says Wilson.
“They’ve got government AAA-rated carbon offsetting investments using things like peatlands and afforestation, so people can immediately offset their carbon footprint.”
Of course, carbon offsetting isn’t the only way to make older cars better for the planet.
Most classic cars tend to look more polluting than they are in reality.
“Some classics, but not all, appear to emit an element of hydrocarbons,” says Wilson, “but that’s because most of them run on carburettors and consequently, there might, in a few cases, be some visible and smelly emissions but it’s not necessarily a huge amount of CO2 – they may just be running rich. But they only do 1,200 miles a year.”
“So, should we force people to fit catalytic converters and fuel injection? No, not really.”
“There is one of our members who produces an inline catalyst system that substantially improves Nox emissions even with well set-up carburettors” explains Wilson. “Now, I wouldn’t necessarily advocate that we go down the route of forcing people to put catalyst systems on their cars because classic car ownership isn’t just for the wealthy. To fit a catalyst and a fuel injection system will cost you probably about £5,000 – for your chap, or lady who has an MG Midget that cost him £8,000, that’s a huge investment.”
Synthetic fuels, meanwhile, are attracting a lot of interest, both for Wilson and the auto industry more generally.
“We would like you to go and buy your carbon offset and, ideally, when we get to synthetic fuels, make sure that you use them,” says Wilson. “Then you know that your classic car is net-zero, and that’s really where it should end when we get to synthetic fuels.”
However, while synthetic fuels are still undergoing development, there are a range of companies, including the UK-based Everrati and Electrogenic, that are producing electrically powered versions of classic cars.
Wilson, though, is slightly cautious about electrification – but not for the reasons you might expect.
“If you want to electrify a classic for various reasons, have at it,” says Wilson, “it’s your car. But my argument is please don’t do it thinking you are actually improving the planet because, if you fit new systems, you’re re-embedding carbon because the system has been manufactured recently, so now you’re putting new carbon back in.”
“My fear, though, is about who is doing this work? Are they doing it to Reg. 100 [the UN Economic Commission for Europe’s battery safety regulation]? Are they doing full-functioning safety evaluations? Is the weight distribution of the car right? Have they improved the suspension and the brakes?”
“Then you could say, ‘Well, what if we did an old [Nissan] Leaf system? That isn’t embedding carbon’ that isn’t a bad idea.”
“We’ve got one electrification company as a member,” explains Wilson. “I’m trying really hard to get another one onboard and I had a really good chat with him recently. He told me all about Reg. 100, functional safety on his conversions on classic cars – he’s doing an outstanding job.”
“Unfortunately, he’s fitting new systems and he’s bringing them in from China.”
Storm in a Teacup?
When it comes to fighting climate change, however, there are significantly bigger fish to be fried than the UK’s classic car scene.
“A survey was done recently that went out to a bunch of enthusiasts,” says Wilson, “and there is an average of about 1,200 miles per year done in the average classic. Now that was a group of willing enthusiasts so, in reality, I think we’re well below 1,200 miles per year if you take the average of the whole population.”
The associated carbon emissions from classic cars are dwarfed, according to Wilson, by phone and computer use.
“But if you take 1,200 miles in an average car, it’s really clear when you do the maths that it is substantially less emitting than your mobile phone in any given year,” explains Wilson. “So, you’re driving your electric vehicle, you and your husband have both got a mobile phone, you’ve both got a PC, you both leave them running at night, you leave the telly on standby, or you drive your classic – which one is better?”
“Now, obviously, I joke,” says Wilson, “because it’s not quite like that. But that’s what we’re getting at, they’re [classic cars] very sustainable – reuse, recycle.”
In fact, in 2019, just 0.2% of all UK road transport milage was attributable to classic cars. “As a sector, we are vanishingly small in terms of our contribution to the climate.”
Wilson and, by extension, the HCVA are not looking to stubbornly stand by their classic cars with wanton disregard for the climate and changing conditions.
“I was involved for seven years with the Advanced Propulsion Centre and Driving the Electric Revolution,” says Wilson, “and I’m fully supportive of EVs and all they bring. But we have to have a balanced portfolio. I think hydrogen will have its place, sustainable fuels will have their place, and EVs will have their place.”
“But classic cars are a part of our cultural heritage,” says Wilson, “and we should preserve them in exactly the same way we would want to preserve Blenheim Palace or your local church.”
What is clear from talking to Wilson, though, is that preservation does not have to be at the expense of the planet.