8th August 2019

Eco-friendly classic cars?

Imagine a world with no new cars. A utopian existence where everybody can balance a pair of carburettors, a welder is on every street corner and nobody makes it to work on time the morning of winter’s first frost. The question is, if we all drove classic cars, could the world be a greener place?

Reducing emissions has become about more than simply cutting tailpipe gasses and it is the lifecycle figures of new cars that have had us thinking. According to independent reports, a standard petrol-powered car generates 23% of its lifecycle CO2 during production, while a battery electric vehicle (BEV) produces 46% of its share before it has rolled a wheel. Over the course of their lifecycle, based on usage of 150,000 kms, a mid-sized petrol car will produce 24 tonnes of CO2 compared to 18 for the BEV. This takes into consideration fuel and vehicle production, use and end of life.

So, what if we were to eradicate the emissions produced during manufacture by instead relying solely on classic vehicles? Obviously, we need indulge our imagination by putting to one side the financial implications of effectively ending the multi-billion-pound global automotive industry...

It’s possible to view classic and heritage car ownership as the very definition of sustainable motoring. It is an often-quoted estimation that around 70% of the Land Rover Series and Defenders that rolled off the line during their 68-year production run remain on the road today. A good chunk of the remaining 30% live on by nobly giving up parts to keep their siblings on the road while themselves resigned to a life of decay.

Too utilitarian for many, perhaps, but the global success story of Land Rover is testament to the usability and lasting legacy of many older vehicles. While tailpipe emissions of classics will, in the main, be higher than those loaded with efficient, modern technology, reliance upon classics would encourage more efficient utilisation of public transport. This would help slash commuters’ carbon footprint. In 2017 the average UK commute grew to 1 hour. For even the most ardent classic car fan, the thought of 2 hours driving a 40-plus-year old car either side of a day’s work, 5 days a week, would diminish the original satisfaction derived from classic ownership. In short, the car would become a less convenient choice.

With fewer cars on the road, driving could become more pleasurable once again. Parking spaces would no longer be too small and pedestrians would be safer: the sound of a V8 breathing through stainless exhausts would provide far more warning of an approaching vehicle than the near-silent hum of a BEV. 

A world reliant on classics would invigorate traditional engineering and mechanics’ skills. Oily rag maintenance could replace plug-in diagnostics and a specialist’s tools could once again feature a feeler gauge and a selection of hammers. At the very least, the dreaded call into work to explain your tardiness would follow a lift of the bonnet and a visual inspection of the powertrain, rather than an internet search of common fault codes through a furrowed brow.  

Ultimately all of this is a bit of a daydream but, who would want to live in a world that’s being saved by a Rover V8?

So, what are your views on classic car ownership being an effective route to reducing emissions? Let us know what you think in the comments.  

Hard to know where to start, but this article is full of flawed assumptions. Firstly, it is of course true that products that have a longer life are intrinsically less harmful to the planet. But this doesn't make them sustainable, they are just less harmful. There is no utopia available which includes internal combustion engines and petroleum fuels. Secondly, that V8 gas guzzler will not fit to that 'average' lifecycle CO2 profile, it will be far worse. On that point, can we have a source for those lifecycle calculations please? Thirdly, the older a vehicle gets, the proportion of its lifecycle carbon generated through use will get greater. For a classic car, 150,000km is probably a very conservative estimate of its total life mileage. In its later years it will all be about the the tailpipe emissions which, as older cars are far less efficient than their modern counterparts, will be considerable. Fourthly, as our global energy supply continues to move from carbon-based fuels towards sustainable alternatives, the input CO2 for all manufacturing will decrease significantly, as will the CO2 use of electric vehicles, many of which at the moment are in fact still dependent on fossil fuels in the electricity supply network. Finally, 'eco-friendly' (itself a misnomer, because we are talking here about degrees of harm, none of it is 'friendly' to ecosystems) is not just about CO2. These beautiful old gas guzzlers are chucking out all sorts of other toxins which are harmful to human life as well as the planet. Quite apart from the tailpipe emissions, the health impacts of brake lining dust, tyre wear residues and other pollution are now well documented. I'm not arguing that classic cars should be removed from the road, but let's not be under any illusions that they are 'eco-friendly' or even more 'eco-friendly' than alternatives.

Designic, 01/02/2021

The last three years before I retired I put 10 - 12000 miles a year on my 1971 MGB GT carrying my tools and spares for my job. The only mechanical work done was servicing. Even though I'm now retired it is still my everyday car and is used a lot. Earlier this year I did a trouble free 1000+ mile trip to Scotland.

Oily Hands, 08/08/2019