Digital tech puts future classic cars at risk of disappearing

Future classic cars

McLaren has to use a 20-year-old computer to keep its F1 supercar running (Picture © McLaren)

Many future classic cars are in danger of extinction because the technology that helps them run is disappearing. The vehicles are the so-called digital generation: cars from the mid-1980s onwards that feature electronic components. The problem is such a serious one it has been flagged up by the Federation Internationale des Véhicules Anciens (FIVA), the worldwide old car conservation body. 

Increasingly over the last 40 years, computer chips have provided the base for the Electronic Control Unit (ECU)that’s the heart of the modern engine. But the tech is gradually breaking and is now so old it’s in danger of not being replaced. Stephan Joest, a consultant in electronic vehicle components explained: “We currently have a clear window of opportunity when it’s still possible to preserve existing stocks of electronic components and their digital ‘source codes’. Otherwise, we risk finding ourselves unable to replace the ECUs. In classics from the mid-1980s onward, these typically control everything from engine management to air-conditioning and safety equipment.”

Mechanical components and body panels are relatively easy to be kept in tip-top shape, no matter how much or little the car is used. And if they can’t be repaired, it’s straightforward for a specialist to remanufacture them in years to come. However, digital components age whether or not the component is in use.

Stephan Joest said: “A startling statistic is that around half of 40-plus year-old ECUs are ‘dead on arrival’. That means they’re not working when installed freshly out of the box. The older the electronic unit, the harder it will be to find replacement units that still work.” The concern, according to Joest, is that this isn’t a concern that’s specific to particular makes of car; it’s an industry-wide problem.

The issue doesn’t just manifest itself inside the cars. Getting them serviced can be problematic too. In order to keep its multi-million pound F1 supercars running sweetly, McLaren needs a chunky Compaq LTE 5280 laptop computer from the 1990s. It runs Microsoft Windows 95 software, is glacially slow in modern terms and has a memory measured in tens of megabytes rather than terabytes. But it’s this machine that is compatible with the McLaren F1 and needed by technicians to interrogate the car’s onboard computer. McLaren is currently working on a solution that will allow more modern machines to plug into the F1.

Electronics giant Bosch has also recognised the threat to younger historic cars. Fritz Cirener, head of Automotive Tradition, said: “To keep future generations of classic cars running will be more challenging than in the past. Together with the manufacturers, we are working on this topic. There’s a long way to go but it will be worth it, if we want to preserve the technology for the younger and future user generations.”

If they don’t manage to find a solution, the digital generation of vehicles will become static showroom displays rather than roadworthy machines that the car fans of the future will be able to enjoy.

What are future classic cars?

Future classic cars

The Peugeot 205GTi is considered by many a future classic (Picture © Peugeot)

In order to achieve future classic car status, rather than simply growing old, motors must have something about them. Having the right badge helps. Models from Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and other cars with legendary road and racing heritage have a good chance of becoming a future classic. But as the unloved Jaguar X-type proves, that’s not a given. And there are plenty of cars from more run of the mill manufacturers that will also be considered classics.

Take the 1980s Peugeot 205GTi. Why is this considered a future classic and the 205XS not? It’s simple: the GTi still looks good, it was brilliant to drive and marketed with a motor racing programme that triumphed globally. It was also a car of its time: the sort of vehicle everyone under the age of 30 wanted to own. Alongside this glamour puss, the 205XS was the rather dowdy spinster aunt.

As another example, the first generation Toyota Prius marked the debut of the mass-produced petrol-electric hybrid car. At the time it looked like nothing else on the road. It is likely to be considered alongside future classic cars because it was the very first incarnation of a tech we now take for granted.

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