Spare parts and broken…cars

(With apologies to Bruce Springsteen)

Owners of modern classics often get the thin end of the proverbial wedge (and, no, I’m not talking about an Esprit or Murena…). There’s no tax exemption for us, no body willing to fight for our rights at European level (yes, FIVA, that is a dig at you), and some owners of older classics (and, indeed, some owners’ clubs) look upon our cars as grubby urchins trying to gatecrash the ball.  Such attitudes make no sense – most of us who love the cars of the 80s and 90s aren’t paid-up members of the Max Power fraternity, and we and our cars represent a significant part of the classic car movement’s future.

Change must – and will – come, but in the meantime all too many fine cars have found themselves in the wasteland that lies somewhere between the end of production and the beginning of their acceptance into the classic scene. Many simply become old bangers that are run into the ground then scrapped – logic dictates that replacing one old, cheap car with another is often more cost effective than meeting the cost of keeping it in good repair. And unless a car has a strong cult following, there’s little chance of specialists emerging to provide the support lost when the manufacturer and dealer network cast that model adrift. The result: a sharp decline in numbers culminating in few survivors and a dearth of spares.

Want an example? Okay, let’s consider the Renault 19 16V. Quick, stylish and endowed with excellent road manners, it was a highly regarded hot hatch in its day. It sold well on both sides of the Channel and still has many admirers. You might be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that it’s now enjoying a new lease of life as a popular modern classic. But you’d be wrong. According to it’s an endangered species in rhd form, with only 34* examples currently licensed in the UK. Which means that around 7000 have disappeared from UK roads since 2001. And to paraphrase The Boss, those cars have gone and they ain’t coming back.

That may be good for values – potential buyers of UK spec models aren’t exactly spoiled for choice – but it spells bad news in terms of parts supply. Having been out of production for two decades, many components can now only be sourced from donor cars. And that’s a real problem when it comes to parts specific to the UK model. With so few rhd cars remaining, remanufacturing components is not economically viable, so keeping one car on the road could mean having to sacrifice another.

Even cars with more healthy looking survival rates are not immune from the problems of a dwindling supply of spare parts.

The Lotus Elan M100 is a good example of this. Working out exactly how many survive in the UK is difficult because of the duplication of model designations between the original and 1990s Elans, but it’s safe to say that at least 1100 are currently licensed. Most key parts can still be obtained, but some are now as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. For example, the original rear lights – identical to those fitted to the Alpine GTA – are no longer available new.

Replacement lights can now only be obtained from Elans (or GTAs) that are being scrapped. That can, however, mean having to wait until a donor car becomes available and then having to pay through the nose – car breakers are well aware that demand exceeds supply and usually charge accordingly.

A few Elans have been retrofitted with rear lights from the Kia version (yes, such a beast does exist) or adapted to accept units from the Lotus Elise. However, the former (which lack rear fog and reversing lights) are also now well-nigh impossible to track down and fitting the latter involves rather more than simply swapping one type of light for another. Not ideal, but better than having to watch your pride and joy sit idle while the sun shines and the road beckons.

The lack of original parts leads to another problem. What happens if your cherished modern classic sustains damage to parts that are no longer available new? Insurers are notoriously reluctant to agree to used parts being fitted, which can mean that your pride and joy is written off even though the damage is minor. You may be able to buy back the salvage in the car and return it to the road yourself, but it’ll still be recorded as a write-off.

And it’d be a mistake to think that this is a problem that only affects rare or obscure classics. Few modern classics are immune from parts availability issues. Just ask owners of such coveted cars as the VW Corrado and Audi Ur-Quattro.

The most serious consequence of a parts shortage is that scruffy but otherwise perfectly viable cars end up being stripped for valuable, hard to find components. This, in turn, leads to a reduction in the number of entry level examples of that model, thereby pushing prices up. That may be good for existing owners, but the future of the classic car movement depends on being able to attract new blood, a task that becomes harder if everyday modern classics become less accessible and more expensive.

So what’s the answer?

Greater manufacturer involvement in commissioning and stocking replacement parts for modern classics would be of immense help. Indeed, some manufacturers already have heritage divisions that commission and supply replacement parts for out of production cars. However, remanufacturing and stocking every part for every model built over the lifetime of a company is neither financially nor logistically viable. Moreover, the heritage support currently offered tends to be weighted towards older, less complex cars, replacement components for which are easier and cheaper to manufacture and just as likely to be in demand.

Owners’ clubs can play a major role in persuading manufacturers to remanufacture vital components. It all comes back to supply and demand: prove that there’s a demand and supply becomes more likely. This also holds true for marque and model specialists, some of whom commission new parts for which there is a clear and currently unmet demand. If you come, they will build it. Possibly.

Of course, tooling costs and relatively limited demand mean that some parts will never be remanufactured. But that doesn’t mean that all is lost, as it may be possible to recondition such parts or adapt alternative components to suit. Finding a reputable company willing to undertake that type of work becomes much easier if a stack of potential orders can be waved at them, which makes it a task best undertaken by owners’ clubs and marque specialists.

Safeguarding existing sources of spares is also vitally important. Although manufacturers no longer adopt a scorched earth policy regarding their spares inventory for out of production models, it’s not uncommon for dealers to dispose of their stocks of old, low turnover parts in favour of high turnover items for current models. It therefore makes sense for owners’ clubs to acquire and stockpile such spares before they fall into the claws of the crusher or the clutches of greedy speculators, but they can only do so if they have the necessary funds – and that’s where their members come in. Being asked to financially contribute to a spares acquisition programme may feel like an imposition, but it could save you money and heartache in the log run.

To a greater or lesser extent, all of the steps mentioned above are already being taken. But more needs to be done if otherwise saveable cars aren’t to be taken off the road and stripped for spares.

Vacillation is not an option. To quote Frank Bullitt, time starts now.

* The figures quoted are for the hatchback version. A further 10 saloons and 21 cabriolets are licensed in the UK.