Classic Cars, Modern Markets
New SEMA Research Profiles Vintage Vehicle Owners
By Mike Imlay
They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Classic cars and trucks represent a vital aftermarket segment, but understanding marketing opportunities in that space poses unique challenges. To help specialty-equipment businesses get a handle on the category, SEMA Market Research has released a new report focusing on vintage vehicle customers and their customization goals. Entitled “Classic Cars, Modern Markets,” the report contains the latest data on market sizing, consumer demographics, purchasing habits, vehicle usage, and even the shifting definitions of the cars considered to be classics.
“We’re talking about a significant volume of cars still driving around, still being cherished and loved by their owners,” said SEMA Market Research Director Gavin Knapp. “Of course, that means they need to buy parts from our industry. Obviously, classic vehicles are a great platform for accessorization and modification. We estimate that consumers spent almost $1 billion buying accessories and customization parts for older cars in the last year alone.”
The research was conducted in the fall of 2020 with a carefully selected sample of classic enthusiasts who participated through an online survey. The sample group was screened to fit SEMA’s target market of vehicle owners aged 16 and older, and the survey has a 95% confidence level.
“This is a topic that we’ve been considering for some time now,” said SEMA Market Research Manager Matthew Kennedy, the project’s lead analyst. “Part of the challenge from our perspective was how to attack it. However, once we did our report on young accessorizers, we realized that we could do studies that are not vehicle-specific but rather look at a constituency.”
This approach allowed the research team to focus on the latest trends in the classic and restoration marketplace as well as the ways newer accessorizers differ from prior generations. The resulting report is designed to help businesses assess market potential, profile target consumers, expand their customer base, determine product development, and hone their marketing and messaging. Kennedy said that it’s an important market to address.
“The Restoration Marketplace and Hot Rod Alley are sizable sections at the SEMA Show,” he said. “There are a lot of businesses that cater specifically to the market for older vehicles. We wanted to give them some high-level research to understand what their customers are doing—even if it’s data backing up what they already know. We also wanted to take a look forward and give some insight into what’s emerging in the space.”
According to Kennedy, the research confirms several trends offering new opportunities for vintage and restoration aftermarket businesses.
- Among enthusiasts, the definition of what constitutes a classic is changing. Once dominated by ’60s and mid-’70s musclecars, the vintage category is now expanding to include late ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s vehicles. There is also a noticeable gravitation toward trucks, especially among younger enthusiasts.
- Although the classic-customer demographic still skews older, a next-generation enthusiast base is steadily emerging. Regardless of age, practically all vintage enthusiasts view their vehicles as drivers to be enjoyed and shown off on the road.
- Because most classic vehicles are meant for driving, the popularity of restomods continues to grow, especially among younger accessorizers.
- Retail automotive chains account for most consumer purchases, but there is untapped opportunity for independents as well.
- Although consumers in this space mostly research online, they prefer to purchase from retail outlets where they can have meaningful conversations about their vehicles and parts.
“Obviously, this is a sector that our aftermarket industry grew up around,” Knapp said. “We had the people creating the deuces, then the Tri-Five Chevys, then the musclecar era, and that’s what people generally think about. But as we move forward in time, our definition of classics is expanding to some newer cars becoming in vogue or fashionable. We wanted this report to explore all of that.”
“One of the things we found is that ‘classic’ is a very subjective term,” Kennedy added. “The Classic Car Club of America says that it’s anything built between 1915 and 1948. But on the other end, Nationwide says a classic is something at least 20 but no more than 40 years old. Haggerty has pre-’80 or ’96-and-older, depending on the vehicle you’re looking at. From a more practical perspective, something that’s a no-brainer but worth pointing out is that classics are vehicles they’re not making anymore.”
The research found a strong correlation to the cars that enthusiasts found cool in their youth, meaning that the nostalgia factor differs greatly among age groups. Traditional classics and musclecars are perennial favorites, with ’70s and ’80s muscle also growing in status. In addition to pickups, truck enthusiasts are also now gravitating toward Jeeps and Ford Broncos. The list of emerging classics also now embraces Asian and European imports, including older BMWs, Toyotas and Hondas.
Economics and availability also play into hobbyist definitions. Unless it’s a barn find, it’s difficult to get ahold of Tri-Fives or other cherished older vehicles. The sheer expense of traditional classics is also driving enthusiasts toward more modestly priced later models. The money saved can then be spent on returning the vehicle to factory condition or even improving it. In addition, less costly later-model vehicles act as a gateway for younger people who want to take up the hobby.
Ultimately, for a lot of enthusiasts, “classics are a status symbol they want to own,” Kennedy said.
Since a vehicle’s intended purpose determines the products its owner will purchase, the report delves into the various visions that classic enthusiasts hold for their vehicles. Among truck owners, nearly half (48%) envision their vehicles as drivers. Conversely, car owners are more likely to envision their vehicles as restorations at 33% versus 19% for truck owners.
Overall, 28% of respondents said that they utilize their vehicles for pleasure driving, 25% as collector vehicles, and 17% for running errands. A mere 6% said that they enter their vehicles in car shows.
“In all honesty, there’s a big group that just wants a cool car that they can drive around in,” Kennedy noted. “They don’t necessarily have a big plan or vision to make the car perfect in every way, but they like the nostalgia of it. They like the classic look and feel, and they want to have that when they’re cruising the streets.”
Building Their Dream Cars
When it comes to preparing their dream vehicles for the road, this is a group in which a good portion of owners enjoy doing their own project work.
“A big joy for them is the process of getting in there, getting their hands dirty,” Kennedy explained. “It’s a bit more of an enthusiast market than the general population, but there are also folks who aren’t nearly as hardcore about it. Both types of consumers coexist in this market.”
Most owners ultimately opt for a mix of DIY jobs and professional work, turning mainly to general garages and mechanics (40%), a specialty part or product shop (28%), or a shop specializing in their vehicle type or vintage (26%). Many also turn to friends or family to get the work done (27%).
In terms of average spends, 40% invest less than $3,000 in their vehicles, 35% between $3,000–$9,999, and 25% spend $10,000 or more.
“When it comes to actually getting the parts, they’re going to a number of different places,” Kennedy said. “Some of those sources are online—particularly when you look at younger owners who grew up as digital natives. They’re going to eBay or a similar marketplace, or they’re buying direct from the manufacturer.”
Still, the majority of purchases in this space remain from brick-and-mortar outlets. Like most aftermarket consumers in general, classic enthusiasts especially like to see and touch products and get personal advice from experienced parts people.
Reaching the Classic Customer
For companies and shops trying to reach the vintage audience, a key strategy is to recognize and focus on the hobby’s social nature.
“The reality is that social and web presences are a big deal in this space,” Kennedy said. “This is also a group where a lot of folks are engaged in the community, getting out to clubs, to cruises, and congregating as an enthusiast community.”
According to Kennedy, when dealing with old-school vehicles and their enthusiasts, it’s absolutely worthwhile for aftermarket businesses to utilize Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media and the web to build relationships, especially with younger hobbyists. Offering project advice and showcasing parts that get the job done are exceptional ways for brands to win over these customers.
Another strategy is to address the increasing number of younger enthusiasts now taking up the hobby.
“Realistically speaking, the ownership base does skew older in the classic segment,” Kennedy explained. “But we also found that people under 45 are definitely an engaged group. There are some who are really passionate—not just about their vehicles but about being part of the classic-vehicle enthusiast community.”
In the end, Kennedy said, these newcomers are a group that the aftermarket can nurture.
“They’re out there buying a car they always wanted and putting in the work to actually make it their own—even more so than older customers in some cases. For a lot of them, it’s their first classic, and it’s their baby. They’re really looking to get right in and start working on that almost immediately.”
Get the Full Report
The “Classic Cars, Modern Markets” report is available for download from
The report was also the subject of a recent SEMA360 education seminar, which can be found at www.sema.org/virtual-education.