Some of my earliest memories are of cars. More specifically, the car my family had when I was a toddler. I couldn’t tell you what the inside of my childhood home looked like, but I have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the interior of a 1997 Holden Commodore. When I see one on the road, those quintessential round ‘90s edges and smiling grilles remind me of trips to the zoo, storing my Tazos in the rear passenger ashtray compartments and wearing out Wiggles cassettes. So it’s weird to think that ‘90s cars like my old Commodore—cars that we’d easily call shitboxes today—are now defined as classics.
Any car over 25–30 years old is technically ‘classic’—even if they’re unremarkable. You’d think ‘vintage’ would be a better moniker, but automotive enthusiasts save that label for cars built before World War II. ‘Classic’ doesn’t denote aesthetic or historical value, just its ability to survive—and it’s not always survival of the fittest. For every rusting Ferrari and wheezing BMW, there’s an impeccably serviced Ford Falcon panel van or a mint-condition Corolla.
Despite the auto industry’s insistence, I find it hard to consider the cars of my youth worthy of being considered classic. But maybe this cognitive dissonance comes down to nothing more than legislative quirks. You don’t see many cars from the ‘70s or early ‘80s cruising down Australian roads today due to emissions controls and design rules. Outside of car shows or your uncle’s garage, you don’t see cars of that vintage that often, therefore calling them ‘classic’ makes sense—but ‘90s cars? They’re everywhere!
That might not mean they’re less worthy though. Mustangs and Corvettes are churned out in their thousands every year, yet people still pay attention when you say you’ve got one.
Exclusivity does not a classic car make. And survival is in and of itself valuable. Rubber degrades, metal rusts and leather wrinkles: cars need to be cared for, and maybe that act of care is what really separates a shitbox from a classic.
Australian society and culture in the last century has been unequivocally shaped by the automobile. Cars are not only vehicles: they, like any other text, are reflections of the aspirations and ideals of their era.
Regular Car Reviews—an automotive journalist and satirist whose bread-and-butter is making long-winded pisstake reviews of the shitty ‘90s cars that saturate our roads—makes this point: cars are as close as we can get to practical time machines. They represent a confluence of unique aesthetics and semiotics, from a certain point in time, flash-frozen into something you can ride in.
Cars are unique among forms of transport in that they routinely have a special emotional significance to their owners.
The memories we create, the personalities we assign them, make them more like a family pet than just a vehicle. Whether or not a governing body identifies them as a classic is nothing more than an acknowledgement of its age. In the end, it seems like nostalgia is just as important a factor—and in that case, the ‘97 Commodore is as classic as they come.