How Many Classic Cars Still Exist?
Have you noticed that there seem to be fewer and fewer classic cars on the road? Or have you ever seen a car that use to be common but suddenly, you can’t remember when you last saw one. My dad use to say “if you saw many 10-year-old versions of a certain make and model of car on the road, that was a good indicator that those cars were well built.”
For example: you didn’t see a lot of 1985 Hyundai Excels still in the mid-1990s but you still see 10+ year old Toyota Camrys on the road everyday, no matter what year they were built.
Attrition is a fact of life for automobiles. Many are produced, few survive. But just how few? This isn’t merely an idle question. Most markets, from art to supermarket produce, have a clearly defined supply that helps determine what those things cost. Even if rarity doesn’t guarantee higher value, knowing how many of a certain model exists matters to collectors. However, for many classic cars, that number is elusive.
Of course, the more special or significant a car is, the more likely it is to survive for decades. Take for example big block Chevelles, vs. straight six Novas.
Generally speaking, about 15 percent of vehicles leave the market every year. Of those, most are newer than you’d expect—those between roughly 10 and 20 years old see the highest rates of attrition, according to data from IHS/Markit. Where they go is a bit of a mystery. Many get scrapped, to be sure, but bookkeeping at junkyards is unreliable, to say the least. Moreover, a vehicle that’s “gone” could very well be parked safely in someone’s garage. This is particularly true of collector cars.
There are several ways to track these missing-in-action classic cars, starting with insurance data. Many classic cars in private collections, museums, and the like won’t be registered, but they’ll often be insured. We can also see when misfortune befalls these cars via insurance claims information. Failing that, we can comb auction transactions. A car that has sold in the last decade likely still exists, even if it appears neither in registration data or auction transactions.
What this digging gives us is something of a floor—at least this many likely survive. How useful that figure is, depends on the vehicle. For older mass-produced cars, that number can be unhelpful, partly because many of these vehicles lack unique serial numbers. (Cars sold since 1981 wear standardized VINs. Before that, manufacturers stamped codes as they saw fit; duplicates thus can appear across models and even brands.)
So How Many Classic Cars Still Exist? We look at the data.
There are, however, classic cars can be tracked confidently. Take, for instance, the 1971 Plymouth Cuda. Production numbers were well known, and Cuda VINs, unlike many from the era, specify engines. Combing through registration, auction, and insurance data, we can see that more than 80 of the 118 Hemi Cuda coupes built for ’71 are still with us. Of those, we consider 65 of those to be active, meaning they’re registered, insured, and/or transacted recently. That’s a 55 percent survival rate, which is quite impressive for a vehicle built 50 years ago. For sobering comparison, consider that more than a quarter of the model-year 2000 vehicles on the road in 2018 have vanished in the last three years.
The Cuda example illustrates a broader, encouraging fact: Although most cars have an expiration date, enthusiasts can and do save the special ones. That’s why, for instance, more than 350,000 1965–1966 Ford Mustangs are still on the road, and why the overall attrition rate for survivors from the 1960s is between just 1 and 2 percent, and also why there are estimated to be some 31 million enthusiast vehicles in the United States.
Although it’s difficult definitely how many classic cars still exist, we expect this trend to continue. The truly special cars that exist today, including several Mustang models, cars like the Dodge Scat Pack and Hellcat models, Camaro SS and Z28 models will be collector’s items as the world moves to electric cars and as such, there’s every reason to believe that these cars will still be intact and maybe still on the road 50 years from now.
So, the next time you come upon a once-familiar car you haven’t seen in a while, consider giving it a home. That may be its best chance of winning the war of attrition.