Why traditional classic car hire is dead

When I set up Great Escape Cars it was all about a classic car version of conventional car hire. So in place of a Ford Mondeo for 24 hr periods you got a Jaguar E Type or Jensen Interceptor.  Lots of companies started doing this.  And for many years it seemed to work.

Except, quite frankly, it didn't.  There are now far fewer companies offering classic car hire and, as my hairline attests, there is one simple reason.  It is hard and stressful.  Most customers rent a classic car to celebrate a special birthday, a wedding or an anniversary.  And, most of the time, they have a great time.  But some of the time they don't because however well you maintain a classic car and however much money you spend on them, they are old cars with old car woes.  And most of these old cars were never much cop when they were new.

The place where a celebration and an unreliable classic car meet is not necessarily a stress-free environment.

The majority of customers hiring our cars by the day, weekend or week understand this risk, and it is one that we highlight in big bright letters on our website and in our confirmation paperwork.  But some just don't.  They are a small minority but they are angry and often vengeful.  And social media is their breeding ground.

Bad maintenance or just what old cars do?

When old cars break down on hire I entirely understand the upset it causes.  But it is a risk I can't eradicate, no matter how much money I pour into their maintenance.  I have even set up our own classic car workshop to reduce the risk and increase turnaround - we're the only classic car hire business with this facility.

And still we receive emails and reviews criticising us for hiring out poorly maintained cars.  This is particularly galling because it is simply untrue - everyone at Great Escape Cars is focussed on reliability.  But a 50 year old E Type that was poorly designed and built when it was new, will always be a poorly designed and built old car.  

Social Media Be Damned

They are not numerous but the complaints are unpleasant and time-consuming.  And they are all about our daily car hire.  Feedback on our road trips and classic tasters is overwhelmingly positive.  I run this business because I enjoy it - delivering that kind of experience is what gets me up in the morning.

After receiving a three-page complaint accusing my business, amongst other things, of causing dehydration because the customer forgot to take water with them on a hot day, I have decided it is time to do something.

The Cost of Breakdowns

Alongside the emotional cost for customer and supplier, breakdowns are an expensive business for a small business.  We have RAC cover but generally aim to attend with another vehicle.  As the cars can be anywhere, this incurs a heavy penalty in transport and staff costs.  Because we recognise the emotional impact we tend to be generous when it happens, including free hires and refunds.

Very quickly a £200 hire can become a £300 loss in direct costs.

Our Response

Of course, all businesses deal with customers across the emotional spectrum.  We are no different.  But we have a choice.  We don't have to do what isn't worthwhile. And it is sound business sense to limit our exposure to problems and the cost of rectifying them .  So we are.

We could do as other classic car hire businesses have done and simply shut up shop.  But that isn't my way.  I enjoy what I do and I'm proud of what we've achieved.  Why would I give that up?

Luckily Great Escape Cars is in a good position to respond. Because of the problems and risks associated with daily, weekend and weekly hire we have been migrating away from this for a while.  We've introduced new products like our road trips and classic tasters that seem to deliver what customers want more effectively and reduce our risks.

So 2019 is going to be different.  We're taking 60% of our cars off daily car hire and making them only available to drive on our road trips and tasters.  This leaves 9 cars on self drive daily hire, but we may well review that as the year goes on.  Alongside this change we're altering our Terms & Conditions and introducing an insurance policy covering the risk of breakdown.

The problem with classic car hire

But really, the problem with daily classic car hire is about a deeper issue.  Driving a classic car, even one you have dreamed of driving for decades, is all about the first 1-2 hours.  In that time the thrill, enthusiasm and joy are fresh and untainted by familiarity. As most classic car owners will likely attest, a little of a good thing is often enough.

However great or enjoyable the classic car, the reality is that the longer you drive the more you see its foibles and idiosyncrasies.  I own a 2003 Audi RS6, which I adore. But driving it daily kills my enthusiasm because I notice the hard suspension, the noisy exhaust and the wallet-draining fuel economy.

That's why we introduced our road trips and classic tasters.  That these achieve much greater satisfaction levels than our daily hire services indicates it may have been the right choice.

Not everyone feels that way of course, which is why we aren't exiting daily car hire completely.  But feedback from our road trips and tasters - and their huge popularity - suggests many do.

Road trips and tasters

Removing most of our cars from daily car hire means we can improve the proposition on our road trips and tasters and guarantee availability of certain popular cars on our events.  Alongside this we have also added duplicates of our most popular cars - including E Types, Mk2s and XJS'.  This means that we can improve availability, even when we suffer breakdowns, and ensure that everyone on our road trips gets to drive our most popular cars.

I am looking forward to 2019.  I am sorry that the trials and tribulations of daily classic car hire means less choice for customers.  But that is the reality.  We're looking forward to delivering more of the road trips and classic tasters that customers clearly want.


Graham Eason
01527 893733


Unknown said...

I have rented a car from you, a Rover SD1, and been on a driving day with my father. I can honestly say I enjoyed both experiences but the driving day was by far the best. Dad loved driving all the different cars, falling in love with your XJS. Keep up the good work, we hope to return soon.

Graham Eason said...

Hi Robin. That is really kind of you to say - I miss the SD1 in some ways, but it probably encapsulates the problems with hiring out old cars because it was fragile and unreliable. I'm so glad you enjoyed the driving day and hopefully we'll see you again soon. Best regards, Graham

Steven said...

Hello Graham,

What a good accurate article on running a classic car. The running /maintenance costs on my car and many others are now horrific. Since the world wide credit crunch in 2008 costs of parts and some services have rocketed. It is stressful at times hiring out an older car on big days such as self hire and driven on weddings. You are quite right in saying a lot of older cars were never that great in reliability...but then again they were good for their time. A lot of people forget that and expect them to be like modern cars.

By the way too improve reliabilty of the two main issues with older cars(and get rid of points)i have fitted Pertronix electronic ignition. This system works off of two magnets, and there are no moving parts. I have also drained all cooling water and poured in liquid intelligence 115 cooling liquid instead of water. The cooling liquid greatly helps the engine from overheating on hot days while idling in traffic. If interested you can read on my website the Pertronix ignition https://www.barrattscarhire.co.uk/petronix-article/ and visit the liquid intelligence website. The link to this is on the restoration info tab on each page.

I have often said that too many people turn to social media, not knowing all the facts...but thinking they do...not being understanding. It seems so many people and search engines place so much importance on reviews these days which i do not think is good as many believe all they read and if that is a bad unbalanced/unfair review then its not good. A lot of people focus in on bad reviews even if they are out weighed by good reviews. I personally think since 2008 we are now in a more selfish society which does not help if something goes wrong.

I would never offer my car for self hire, and i think its a very good business idea of yours to offer taster drives, reducing self drive to far less and even doubling up on some models, which must have been a large outlay for you.

Good luck
Steve B

Graham Eason said...

Hi Steve, many thanks for your post, which I totally agree with. The tips are helpful - we have switched all cars to electronic ignition but the coolant idea is one I've heard a few people recommend now. I'll check it out.
I've done this long enough to expect some people to always suck the life out of things. The reason for changing is because we can - we have developed products that suit us better. I'm not sure what the future is for classic car self drive hire - I wouldn't recommend it to someone considering it.