Over the past decade the classic car market has caught fire and reached the dizzying—and quite frankly unhealthy—heights of the present environment. But along with multi-million-dollar auctions and stratospheric valuations even for some of the plainest models of generations past this seemingly perpetual phenomenon of expansion has also resulted in some rather amusing trends. One of the unlikeliest of them is the newfound fascination for owning a brand new, “original” classic. The paradox in this concept is evident, and perhaps even symptomatic of our times, but somehow car manufacturers have found a way to monetize people’s fantasies (isn’t that what great car manufacturers always do?) and to achieve the impossible: given the right amount of money, time and luck these days you can drive out of the car dealer at the wheel of a zero mileage “better than new” beauty from the 1950s or ’60s. Whoa.
Curiously, the concept of a new-old car is neither outlandish nor novel: for decades enthusiasts and nostalgics have been able to purchase replicas of all-time favorites for relatively affordable prices. In terms of the automotive industry, however, the word replica is marred, tainted with the worst connotations of amateurishness, forgery and cheapness. So much so that even when it comes appended to some of the most evocative names in the history of carmaking it is enough to shed an unholy sense of baseness on tremendously desirable models.
Merited or not, the terrible reputation attached to replicas had to be avoided if manufacturers were to cash in on the potential of exclusive customers wishing to buy new units of models produced half a century back. Enter the spontaneous invention of a brand new category: the continuation series, a rather uninspired term coined by original manufacturers to designate extremely limited production runs of discontinued but exceptionally sought-after models. This trend has been especially strong in Britain, where a particularly long and proud tradition of craftsmanship has not only made the exercise possible but also viable. Therefore it might come as no surprise that, though only recently in tremendous vogue, the idea of continuation series has appealed to English car manufacturers for a long time.
If one carmaker should take the credit for inspiring others to develop continuation models, though, then that should be Jaguar. For instance, in the early 1970s Lynx Motors, a renowned restorer of racing Jaguars, began to manufacture custom-made replicas of the original D-Type on the more common E-Type chassis. Produced in very small numbers between 1954 and 1957, only 71 original D-Types ever made it out of the Jaguar factory. Unlike most replicas at the time, Lynx’s recreation was mindful of every little detail, producing nearly identical copies. By the 1990s the company added first the rare Jaguar XKSS to its fold, then also the E-Type Lightweight and the C-Type. Lynx stopped producing cars in 2005, having reconditioned over 50 D-Type and ten XKSS with so much success that today they are regarded as classics in their own right.
Lynx might have been the first company to produce a replica worthy of the sensational Jaguar models of the 1950s and ’60s but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Eagle Cars was established in 1984 as a specialized restorer of what to this day remains quite possibly the most glamorous British sports car ever produced: the Jaguar E-Type, originally launched in 1961 and discontinued in 1975. Since 1991, however, Eagle has embarked in the re-manufacturing of its own upgraded E-Type, revamped and brought up to modern standards. As well as the Eagle E-Type the company boasts three other models, the Speedster (an E-type-inspired roadster), the Low Drag GT and the Spyder GT (a combination of the previous two)—a full family of cars, each worth roughly half a million dollars, to reflect, perhaps, the many ways in which the E-Type might have evolved had it not been axed by Jaguar in the mid-seventies.
Another bespoke manufacturer that has focused its attention on recreations of onetime Jaguar models is Proteus Cars, a small company specialized in the production of C-Type replicas. While only 53 original C-Types were built by Jaguar between 1951 and 1953, Proteus has churned out over 250 of its own version since 1982, using first a Mk II chassis and later an XJ6. At roughly $150,000 the carefully crafted Proteus C-Type with its lovely aluminum body is a good alternative for an unusual and pretty sports roadster.
With all these niche manufacturers making solid names for themselves on the back of recreations and redevelopments of original, if outdated, Jaguars it comes as no surprise that the company eventually decided to join what is clearly a profitable market. Indeed, the biggest surprise might be that it took Jaguar Heritage until 2013 to actually develop its own continuation series with six new units of the Special GT E-Type or E-Type Lightweight. Originally presented in 1963 as a race car, only 12 of the 18 allocated serial numbers were actually produced, with the other six remaining in motoring limbo for fifty years. Jaguar might have taken its time before reexamining its own previous output but when it finally did the company spared no efforts to exceed its own remarkable standards: using a CAD scan of an original E-Type Lightweight Jaguar Heritage produced a car true to its origins and more sophisticated than its many replicas. The result: despite a whopping $1.7 million price tag all six units sold in a single day. This in turn encouraged Jaguar Heritage to embark on another continuation project, this time focusing on the 1957 XKSS, a street-legal race car based on the immensely successful D-Type, of which 25 units were originally meant to be produced. A factory fire, however, destroyed nine of the cars before they saw the light of day. Sixty years later Jaguar is expected to complete the original production run of the XKSS with nine new units which have already been allocated to collectors even though the final price is yet to be established (though it is estimated to hover near the $1.5 million mark).
If Jaguar’s incursion in the continuation model segment is a success story, Aston Martin’s pioneering move to “complete” its production run of the superb DB4 GT Zagato, one of the most celebrated cars of all time, was simply inspired. Originally Aston Martin had planned to build 23 of these beautiful specimens but relatively tepid demand meant that only 19 were produced between 1960 and 1961. In 1988 Aston Martin Works Heritage released the remaining four units in what was quite possibly the earliest form of what is now known as a continuation series. A second continuation run followed in 1996 when two more units were put together from spare parts. Though the DB4 GT Zagato was always an expensive car (you could buy ten Minis for the price of one back in the day, and still have plenty of pocket money left over) recent valuations have placed it among the most high-priced cars in the world, with one of them fetching as much as $14 million at an auction in 2015.
On a somewhat more modest bracket, Bristol, one of the last survivors of the once long list of independent carmakers active in Britain, has also been remarkably successful at recycling its own product: round about the turn of the new millennium Bristol made available the so-called Series 6 of its hallmark 411 model. Since then, any of the 287 units produced between 1969 and 1976 could be restored or upgraded to better than new condition by the manufacturer itself for approximately $150,000, thus resulting in a modernized and fully functioning original Bristol, fit both for everyday use and for display on any classic car concours.
Bristol’s reconditioning project is conferred with a semblance of authenticity by the fact that the company has never ceased trading or even moved factories. This is not the case with Alvis, a name recently plucked from the ashes of history which since 2010 has joined the continuation series wagon. Dormant since 1967, Alvis now offers the possibility of purchasing any of a number of models, each series limited to a maximum of 25 units, custom-made in the old style, using the drawings and procedures found in the factory archives yet complying with modern regulations. Additionally, for just over a quarter of a million dollars the company has made available a small number of reconditioned period chassis of the 3-liter Park Ward Drophead Coupe model from 1966, fitted with an original specified engine, original interior and instruments made from spare parts.
The most remarkable example of a new classic, however, might well be available for under $50,000 at a Morgan dealership, even if the company doesn’t strictly speaking feature an actual continuation series. That, however, is just a matter of semantics because while the 4/4 model has never been discontinued, the look and feel of the car is still very much that of the Series 2 from 1956, itself an evolution of the original 4-4 launched twenty years earlier. Both the 1.6-liter roadster and the 2-liter Plus 4 four-seater tourer are still individually assembled by hand, and while technological advances have brought them somewhat nearer to the future these two Morgan models keep all the charm and the joy that made British sports cars the benchmark of the carmaking industry in the 1950s and ’60s.
In some sense that is precisely what all these fancy projects, with their various levels of sophistication (and their respective price tags) seek to capture, that intangible, evanescent appeal of times past. In all likelihood an impossible ambition, it’s true—yet at the wheel of these glorious beasts the elusive finish line might not seem so far at all.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday, August 13, 2016.