A Classic

My neighbors were talking about the water they get in their basement and the constant work it takes to maintain an older home. Both of our houses were built before 1935.

I asked if they’d prefer to live in new construction, all wall-to-wall carpets, flat, smooth sheet rock, simple 1/4″ trim around all the windows and doors. They screwed up their faces in disgust. They would much rather, they averred, pump a little water out of their basement two or three times a year than live in a modern, cheaply made, soulless McMansion.

We all nodded our heads and basked in the glow of our sanctimony, banishing thoughts of sump pumps rattling to life in the middle of a rain soaked night. Better to own a home with some character and style, and do the work to maintain it. Our homes are an expression of our values. The medium is, as we’ve been told, the message.

The metaphor extends.

Would you rather own this car, a 1964 Ford Thunderbird, or a 2004 Toyota Camry?

The Camry gets better gas mileage. It breaks down less. It is, perhaps, more dependable. But no one is ever going to pull up next to you at a red light, look over and yell, “DUDE! SWEET RIDE!!!!!”

In twenty years, classic car shows will still be filled out by the cars built between 1930 and 1970. Architectural Digest will still name check architects who built California bungalows in the ’30s and ’40s. They will still picture the thatched-roof cottages of British yesteryear.

The ultimate complement you can pay a craftsperson is to refer to their output, be it a house, a car or a bicycle, as a modern classic.

For a few years I flogged an ’80s Moser 51.151 around town as my everyday bike. The steel frame had been absorbing road shock for 25 years. There were scratches on top of scratches in the once cool paint job. It was/is a bike at the end of a very productive life. And, despite it’s advanced age and poor condition, guys would regularly ride up next to me at red lights and say, “Dude! Sweet frame!”

Modern building trends in house, car and bike industries are toward cheaper construction, machine-made products, and overall standardization. Such methods do not produce classics. Classics are produced by the hands of men and women who have put time and thought into their crafts. Classics strike a sublime balance between style and substance.

It takes a lot of marketing dollars to pass off a mass-produced product as somehow valuable in classic terms.

Classics sometimes leak and sometimes break down and eventually rust through, but that is true of all things. Entropy is anything if not consistent. With a classic, the quality persists, despite the predations of time. You know one when you see one, set back from the street on an ample lot, idling at a red light, or pulling alongside you on a group ride.

These are objects in whose lines you can see the contours of human thought, if not the sweat their creators shed. They are messages from the past, and encouraging signs that we have yet lost that thing that makes us special.

Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.



  1. Jim

    They made 93,000 of those Thunderbirds, on an assembly line. This was in the glory days of Detroit (and Windsor) with hundreds of thousands of workers, with lunchpails, filing into and out of the factory when the whistle blew.

    Yes, they have some artistic features. Yes, they are pretty and show signs of good workmanship and pride. Yes, they are more attractive – or even soulful – than a 2004 Camry.

    But they are not an artisanal design. They are merely a very nice mass produced design. And don’t kid yourself about the value of hand-fitted parts. It takes a hell of a craftsman nowadays to make something better than it can be made by CAD/CAM methods. But for a long time, “hand fitted” meant “our tooling is not precise enough to allow for high quality mass produced work, so we have to cobble each car/bike/plane together by hand at the end of the process.” See, e.g. the British motor industry circa 1945-1980. Beautiful, hand fitted, and built that way because their machine tools were lousy and the mechanical design complex and not suitable for large scale mass manufacture. I had an old MGB. I loved it. It worked great – when it worked. I also had a 2003 Camry – a car that was faster, better handling in some respects, and stone axe reliable. It was a better car in every way except for aesthetics.

  2. Souleur

    Robot, thats what makes a ‘classic’

    Great points.

    Classics are by definition ‘above the rest’ and a friend of mine said it best that classics are timeless, like music and a great taste, it endures.

    But classics don’t come easy necessarily
    My wife and I built our own house by hand and I swear my blood is in it
    I love my toyota landcruisers, the oldest one is the best
    I love my tools in the garage and lay each in their place

    and I love my steel beauty, a Boron XL Bianchi, which after having some rust issues, i took down and painted over again after 10 years of abuse, but she is wonderful.

    she is a classic

  3. ben

    man i think about this stuff all the time. good points.

    I used to live in a 100+ year-old house. Now I live in a 2 year-old house. Not a McMansion…but mass produced none-the-less and w/ the lack of soul to show for it. My heating bills are half of what they used to be, but somehow I still cringe at selling the old place. My wife and I cried when we left it…our first house.

    No interest in old cars other than to look at them. but then I ride bikes mainly right? I troll around town on an old Rossin. 20 years old so not super old, but made by hand and scratched all to hell like Robot’s classic. I get compliments too…”dude…down-tube shifters!”. Yep. And only 7 speeds in the back…which isn’t all that classic, and probably about 6 more speeds than most of the kids that like my bike would prefer.

    Classic isn’t necessarily better as Jim says. My new bike is faster than old Rosie. My house is more efficient and less wonky than the old victorian. But I appreciate some things about both of them…like the way Rosie soaks up bumps. I think if I had the cash I would definitely by a modern-classic steel-frame. Where’s my lotto ticket?

  4. Mike

    This summer, I was agonizing about putting my celeste Reparto Corse beauty to pasture for something new. Then I realized that all the bikes I was test-riding–even a couple with prices approaching 5 figures–weren’t cutting it. They had better acceleration, but fell short in many ways before even considering the classic style of the Bianchi. I realized how it got to be a classic in the first place.

    So I dumped the money into a new Campy drivetrain and nice wheels that weren’t too jarring to the eye…kept it all silver finish. And the bike is reborn, even better than before and a few pounds lighter.

    Two days ago, I got the “Dude, sweet bike!” comment on a ride, followed by, “You move pretty fast on that old thing!” And I just said thanks, even though I really wanted to tell him all about how good this bike is, that the beauty is more than paint-deep, that I wasn’t really having to work as hard as they thought to hold the pace. Maybe he’ll find his own bike epiphany some day.

    No regrets.

  5. Dan O

    Great post – this kind of debate rages in my defective mug as well. What’s cooler? What makes more sense? Something new and “without soul”? Or old and considered “classic’?

    I raced motocross in the late ’70s. Lately, I’ve been looking into the vintage racing scene. Sure, there’s some rose colored glasses at work – but to me, the motorcycles of that era have buckets of soul. The modern four-stroke motocross bikes do not. At least to my aging eyes.

    On the bicycle front, I have a 1997 Ibis Hakkalugi that I’ve been riding since new. It’s been my commuter and occasional ‘cross bike. It recently required a full overhaul – BB, cassette, chainrings, chain, cables, rear derailleur, etc. I debated between ordering a Pile-O-Parts to rebuild it, or sell the frame on eBay. Take the frame sale money and apply the parts cost towards a new ‘cross bike. Something lighter, 10 speed, carbon fork. Probably the smart move.

    Well, I ain’t that smart – so elected to restore the Hakkalugi instead. Huge grins putting it back together. Even with a bargain rebuild, turned out sweet. Finished it on a Saturday night, raced ‘cross on the next morning. Lots of positive comments from people checking it out, including race announcers as I floundered around the back of the field.

    Hearing the “Check out the old school steel Hakkalugi. Sweet!” booming from the speakers as I went by put a big smile on my face. I may be slow, but damn it – I’m styling…

    Modern production bikes are fantastic for sure. Older bikes represent something else – a different era, a smaller scene, a closer link to what maybe got us cycling in the first place. And there’s always something cool about that.

  6. Ben

    Will “kids” today have classic bikes to reflect back on or use as commuters. My old Rossin was my race bike when I was 16. My coach, his son, and everybody that I rode with rode steel frames. Mostly Italians. Now will there be kids holding onto their old bike as rock/rain/commuter bike? Doesn’t seem likely does it?

  7. randomactsofcycling

    I think Ben has said it well but we must all remember that a classic is definitely in the eye of the beholder. The son of one of my club mates certainly thinks his Dad’s Pinarello Dogma is a classic. Where as I think his old man did a great job to keep his son on a great little custom steel frame for so many years.
    I lust after an Aston Martin DB5/6 but my nephew would prefer a Dodge Viper to “cruise around in and polish every week”.
    There will always be classics as long as there is passion to ride.

  8. Simon

    I drive around in a 40-year old VW bus, and part of the reason I love it is that it’s representative of a time when things were designed to be maintained almost indefintely rather than chucked out – for example, the cylinder heads were ade with enough material for them to be remanufactured six times. A modern car – you’d just chuck the lot out.

    My bike’s a Pinarello Galileo, artwork in aluminium that could change anyone’s preconception about the ride qualities of the material. Best bike I’ve ever had, bar none, and it sports the white fade into blue italian paintjob I lusted after when daccordis and concordes were it and I was young and poor. I’ve been looking at it lately thinking how old it looks and wondering if I should start to develop some kind of anxiety about being nearly a decade out of date. I still love to just sit there and look at it, I still love to ride it, and it’s still quick enough…it might, one day, get a stablemate. But never replaced.

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