What makes a car a classic? That may seem like a strange question to be asking when it comes to alternatively-fuelled vehicles, but it seems to me that many of the early hybrids and electrics are prime candidates for future collectibility ñ and itís not too soon to be thinking about it either.
First, thereís the question of age. The first hybrids from Toyota and Honda, the original versions of the Prius and the Insight, are now about twenty years old, a common threshold for classic status when it comes to areas such as classic car insurance.
But there are plenty of other reasons why modern electrics and hybrids have the potential to be classics. After all they are the earliest examples of technology that will one day power most of the cars on the road. For that reason alone, future enthusiasts are bound to find them interesting. And the numbers being made are quite limited ñ if a Ford Escort can qualify as a classic, surely the ground-breaking Nissan Leaf, made in much smaller numbers, can be one too.
If I had to single out one particular electric car for future collectability, though, it would probably be the BMW i3. The i3 isnít just a car with an electric motor ñ itís a car thatís been conceived from the start as an electric eco car and every aspect of the design has been rethought from the ground up. You can see that in the special tall and skinny wheels and tyres, the recycled cabin materials and the rear-hinged back passenger doors. Above all, though, itís the extensive use of strong, lightweight carbon fibre in the i3ís construction that really stands out.
Itís an open question whether the i3 is ten years ahead of its time or just a glorious dead end. After all, the industry seems to have decided that itís easier to increase electric carsí range by just adding extra battery capacity rather than by reducing weight through the use of expensive exotic materials like carbon fibre. But either way, I think there is enough there to have future connoisseurs of car design and vehicle engineering drooling ñ and paying up. The i3 has similar appeal as a classic to two other advanced cars of recent years, Hondaís original Insight hybrid and Audiís A2. Both, like the i3, had an element of ìreinventing the carî about them. Enthusiasts rave about the fact that the Insight was built alongside Hondaís NSX supercar, because of the similarities of their aluminium construction. I suspect the connections between the i3 and the more exotic BMW i8 will help the reputation of the i3 in a similar way.
One big question is whether todayís Teslas have the potential to be important classics as well. They certainly have plenty going for them ñ innovative design, full-range battery capacity, and a central role in establishing electric technology are just a few of the positives, but a lot depends on Teslaís long-term success. Past models from big surviving car makers get far more interest than similar old cars from manufacturers that fell by the wayside, not least because the surviving manufacturers invest so much in promoting their heritage. Just look at the scale of the classic operations run by Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar Land Rover, to name just two examples.
Returning to the role that rarity plays in classic status, itís worth noting that there are a few special factors that come into play with alternatively fuelled cars that are likely to thin out the numbers. Fears about long-term battery degradation, which might have been expected to take a lot of middle-aged and old electric cars off the road, seem to have been exaggerated, but Renaultís system of battery leasing could certainly complicate the appeal of a future barn find Zoe, if the previous owner has neglected to keep up the payments.
Some innovative cars werenít even sold to customers at all, but were leased out and taken back by the manufacturers. One example is General Motorsí electric EV1, which was first introduced in 1996. Apparently, the few survivors are in museums with de-activated powertrains, so the obstacles to investing in an EV1 as a future classic appear to be insurmountable. Honda followed a similar lease-based model with its first hydrogen fuel cell powered FCX Clarity.
The bottom line? Itís hard to think of todayís novel hybrids and electrics as future classics, but there could be rich pickings for anyone prepared to take the plunge.