Pop culture’s effect on classic cars is like a fine wine – it has aged well over time.
Cars have always been a formidable part of pop culture. Race cars, in particular, have greatly influenced the nature of pop culture in their own unique way.
With how fast the automotive industry grows, it is easy to consign older cars and technology to history. Some cars will never be popular or sell well – but that is just the nature of the beast.
However, others remain incredibly popular today despite being made in a completely different era. These are cars that were made decades ago and are still championed for their looks or engineering.
These classic cars have become a mainstay of pop culture. Whatever form in which they are used or however they are celebrated, many classic cars are as popular in the modern day as they were when they were first rolled off the production line all those years ago.
Why are classic cars popular?
Some things will always be ‘cool’. Across most generations, it is fashionable to be nostalgic and throw back to the past. Many people lived through a cultural revolution, and many wished they had.
As a result, in recent years, society has had an insatiable taste for all things vintage. Anything deemed ‘retro’ – books, films, music or clothes – has gravitated back to the centre of pop culture, particularly in big cities. Think about the boom of ‘vintage’ shops, or ‘vintage’ weddings.
The same applies to cars. One could argue some cars will never lose their ‘coolness’ factor and that is what helps them last the test of time. There is a certain truth to that, but the way these cars are portrayed in modern media is a big factor.
Because pop culture is not just about celebrating everything new. Think about the Glastonbury Music Festival – the most popular festival in the world. Its acts are a delightful mix of old and new: some have only just started their musical journey, while others have been doing it for half a century.
The rise of the ‘classic’ car
Classic cars are treated similarly in pop culture. The most popular ones, by today’s standards, were trendy when they were first launched. The Jaguar E-Type, for example, sparked a revolution in sports car culture throughout the 1960s.
Many manufacturers began to change the way their cars looked in what became a bygone era for sports car production. Cars became objects of desire. It solidified their history as a symbol of status. Whereas previously a car was a symbol of wealth, owning a sports car suddenly became symbolic of sex and fashion.
The effect saw sports cars become synonymous with music, film and television. Suddenly, the trendy youth had pin-ups of sports cars on their walls alongside their favorite artists or celebrities. Steve McQueen driving a Ford Mustang made it cool. Mick Jagger being photographed driving an Aston Martin DB6 around swinging London made it cool.
For other cars, appreciation grew through longevity. After 60 years, the Porsche 911 remains one of the most well known and dynamic sports cars in the world. Through its significance and placement in pop culture, and its timeless shape, demand has grown to own older generations of the model. There is a real appreciation for the technology used at the time all those years ago.
We should also recognise how the classic car market changes over time. Trends shift as frequently as generations – but there is a general rule that if car was cool back then, it is still cool now.
Use of classic cars in pop culture
Classic cars are prevalent in many different subsections of pop culture. Whether it be in films, television shows, music videos, vintage rallies – even Royal weddings! Classic cars are extremely evocative when it comes to playing on emotions.
But let’s remember - these classic cars were once new. So, for example, when McQueen drove the Ford Mustang Fastback in 1968 action flick Bullitt, it was a model new to the market. That car, involved in one of the greatest car chases ever filmed, later sold for a record $3.7 million in 2020.
But there is a culture of using ‘classic’ sports cars on screen. The first series of cult 1980s New Wave television series Miami Vice screened in 1984: the lead character drove a 1972 Ferrari Daytona until it was replaced by the more modern 1986 Testarossa for Season 2.
Classic cars are used on screen to depict setting. Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 pop culture epic Once Up A Time in Hollywood – set in 1969 Los Angeles amid the changing film industry – used an array of classic cars from that era.
When classic films are remade, newer versions of the cars that starred in the originals are sometimes used. But there is often a cameo for the classic model – a nod of the cap, if you will. For example, this was the case in The Italian Job with the MINI Cooperwhen it was remade in 2003.
Similarly, the Daniel Craig-era James Bond film Skyfall also starred an Aston Martin DB5 – the model’s sixth appearance in the franchise’s history.
Music, museums and marriage
It’s not just on the silver screen that classic cars shine. They feature heavily in music videos that are a big part of pop culture. In 1988, Billy Ocean used a 1964 Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet in the feature video for Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car.
Guns N Roses used vintage Bentley in the video for November Rain – one of the most expensive and most-watched music videos of all time. A 1960s Shelby GT also featured heavily in the band’s video for Don’t Cry in 1991. Prince, Jamiroqui and the Gorillaz have all relied on classic cars to tell stories in their music videos.
What happens to these classic cars after filming? Many are sold off to private collectors who want to own a piece of history. But others are donated to museums, where the public can still go and pay to view them. The James Bond museum in London’s Covent Garden, for example, houses several vintage Aston Martins from the films.
Similarly, some cars are curated into design museums because of their impact on the automotive industry. The Jaguar E-Type, Porsche 911, Volkswagen Beetle and the Cisitalia 202 GT Car all feature in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Royal Weddings – and weddings in general – are a big market for classic and vintage cars. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle drove an all-electric Jaguar E-Type with a 1968 shape to their reception in 2018. Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding featured an Aston Martin DB6 Mk2 Volante.
The internet and gaming boom
The birth and subsequent growth of the internet and gaming has seen classic car use extend in modern pop culture. There are hundreds of thousands of videos dedicated to classic car models and culture on YouTube.
Their prominence in video games is plain to see. Cult video games such as Grand Theft Auto, Gran Turismo, Need For Speed, Forza Motorsport and even The Sims all feature classic cars heavily throughout.
The boom of photography apps in pop culture, such as Instagram, has given people new ways to romanticise and market classic cars and the culture that surrounds them. Thousands of coffee table books featuring beautiful photos of classic cars are continually sold, as are posters depicting ‘retro’ scenes.
Even manufacturers are not exempt from glamorising and celebrating their pasts. There has been a clear rise in continuation cars – classic cars remade in limited batches, such as the Aston Martin DB5 – from car companies in recent years.
The birth of Restomods – restored classic cars with newer, safer engines and technology – are also a modern way to enjoy a classic car with a twist.
The effect of classic cars in pop culture
This means classic cars are continually consumed in most modern mediums of pop culture. From books to social media, the classic car is still accessible in every walk of modern life.
Pop culture helps educate newer generations about the history of the automobile – from a time when they were not so commonplace. It allows members of older generations the chance to once again enjoy experiences and emotions associated with classic cars.
It is increasingly important the classic car continues to be embraced by and included in pop culture. As the nature of driving changes, we do not want to risk losing the cars that have meant so much to both people and society as a whole.