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Vintage, Antique or Classic: What's the Difference?

We all know that older cars and trucks can be valuable, but only if they come with certain distinctions.  A car that is merely old may hold no value, but an automobile that is vintage, antique, or classic could be worth a pretty penny, especially if they were maintained well.  What makes these types of cars unique, and what separates one category from the next? Let's start with a little English lesson.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the terms thusly:

  • Vintage: Denoting something from the past of high quality, especially something representing the best of its kind.
  • Antique: Having a high value because of age and quality.
  • Classic: Judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.

As you can see, these terms share several similarities, notably a level of value related to age, quality, and comparable worth, relative to others of its kind.  This leaves us at something of an impasse, though, when it comes to differentiating among vintage, antique, and classic cars.

The good news is that agencies more qualified to judge automobiles than the Oxford English Dictionary have weighed in on the subject, and in many cases, the classification is subject to state laws, as well as potential guidelines issued by insurance companies.  As a result, the distinction could vary slightly depending on your circumstances; so, you'll want to check your state laws before buying or listing an older car.  Here, however, are a few basic guidelines to consider when it comes to vintage, antique, and classic vehicles.

Vintage

This is an interesting category for cars because, in some ways, it is the most specific and, in other ways, it has the loosest interpretation.  For example, the age range for cars in this category is extremely narrow, extending only from 1919 to 1930, or in some cases only from 1919-1925.  The vehicles, however, don't have to be in original condition to be considered vintage.  They can be dropped, chopped, modded, outfitted with non-spec parts and paint, and customized in a variety of ways without affecting vintage status. Basically, the only prerequisite for fitting this category is a specific age range.

Antique

If you like to browse antique stores, you've probably noticed there's a lot of old junk with a few gems mixed in. It's a little different with antique cars. In most states, any car over a certain age could qualify as antique, as long as it is kept in nearly original, factory condition.  This means it has been mechanically and aesthetically maintained and the parts are all original to the car. Generally speaking, cars of about 45 years old or older qualify under this category, but it can vary from one state to the next.  Michigan, for example, will register antiques plates to vehicles 20 years old or older.  It bears noting that cars and trucks could fit into both the vintage and the antique categories, as long as they're not modified.

Classic

This category includes cars in the 20-40-year-old age range (after which cars are shuffled into the antique category). Like antique cars, these must be kept in near original condition to qualify—modifications could reverse classic status. There is no overlap between classic cars and the other two categories.

If you have an older car you wish to sell, be sure to do a little research as to how to classify the vehicle before you list it. Collectors and auto enthusiasts tend to be very specific in what they are seeking. Listing a car as vintage or antique could cause some headaches if your car doesn't fit into the guidelines set by your state and insurance companies. And remember if you are looking to buy a specific vehicle, the seller might not understand the requirements and use the incorrect language in the ad.

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