2 September 2010

It's Only Original Once

There’s no experience quite like owning and driving a well-preserved car that’s never been restored.

Few people could imagine the Musée d’Orsay in Paris sending one of Monet’s “Haystacks” paintings to be “freshened up” at the restoration shop every decade. Nor could they imagine an antique furniture collector stripping the original finish off a Chippendale desk and applying a thick coat of shiny new polyurethane to make it really “pop.” Yet that’s what car collectors have been doing for years, often to well-preserved unrestored cars.

Placed in context, acts of alteration that would have been gross transgressions to collectors of other historic objects are readily understood. People have been collecting art since the Renaissance. Furniture collecting and stamp collecting both have histories that go back at least 150 years. Car collecting is clearly a post-World War II phenomenon. As a young hobby, it’s natural that car collectors made their own rules.

Lately, however, the collector car hobby has shown signs of falling into line with the sensibilities of other collecting pursuits in valuing originality above all else. This isn’t to say that collectors will stop restoring cars – in many cases, it’s the only option for effective preservation – they’re simply becoming more discriminating about when to restore a car and when to leave it alone. The work of the Bloomington Gold organization and the increased number of preservation classes at major concours have doubtlessly played a part in the rise in status of unrestored cars, but it’s difficult to discern whether these events simply reflected a preexisting trend or act as a catalyst for the movement. In reality, it’s probably a bit of both.

David Burroughs has perhaps done more than any single individual to champion the preservation of well-cared-for unrestored cars. In 1978, he changed the focus of the Bloomington Gold Corvette event from a typical car show where vehicles competed against each other to one where they were judged against a standard of authenticity.

Early on, though, a troubling thing started happening with alarming regularity: Individuals would show up with very nice original cars hoping to leave with a Gold Certificate (indicating the highest level of factory accuracy), and because their cars had acquired a patina with age – “worn in, not worn out” as Burroughs often says – they’d leave with a lesser Silver Certificate. Since competitiveness has always been a part of car collecting, often these would-be gold seekers returned the next year with a freshly restored Corvette. “All of the history was scraped away and the owner was left with a shiny object that had little or no connection to the people who built the car,” says Burroughs.

The situation that had been unintentionally created was deeply disturbing to Burroughs and prompted him to create “Survivor®” certification in order to discourage the practice of restoring well-preserved original Corvettes by recognizing their special status. He’s since extended this concept with the annual SURVIVOR Collector Car event held in June immediately after the Bloomington Gold Corvette event.

In the mainstream concours world, preservation classes have been springing up with greater frequency. Pebble Beach added a post-war preservation class several years ago to complement its pre-war preservation class. These classes now rank among the most interesting and talked about classes at Pebble.

While the eligibility criteria for various events differ – and there are varying degrees of originality – for a car to be considered “original” and “unrestored” it should still display the majority of its factory-applied finishes on all exterior surfaces (frame or unibody included), its factory-installed drivetrain and its original interior. Consumable items like tires and wiper blades are not required to be the originals although it’s particularly fascinating when they are.

Ian Kelleher, president and COO of RM Auctions, has long been captivated by unrestored cars: “Cars are only original once, and owning an unrestored car gives the owner a unique opportunity to preserve a piece of history.” According to Kelleher, the driving experience differs as well. “I once owned two ’59 Cadillacs, one restored and one unrestored. The original car drove better than the restored car and when things broke, they were easier to fix. Because of that, I hardly ever drove the restored car, but drove the original practically every day.” And when the time came to sell, Kelleher sold the restored car first.

In addition to being a major collector car auction house, RM also operates a successful restoration shop. In most cases, there is simply no alternative to doing a nut-and-bolt restoration, yet Kelleher has on occasion advised clients to leave their cars alone because they were simply too well preserved to consider altering them. He also expresses admiration for the work of restorer Nick Alexander, whose woodie collection RM sold several years ago. “Although Nick owns a great restoration shop, he does everything possible not to restore a car, leaving as much original as humanly possible.”

According to Dave Kinney, publisher of Hagerty’s Cars That Matter and author of a recent white paper on unrestored car values, really well-preserved unrestored cars with bullet-proof histories can often fetch more than a No. 1-condition restored example of the same car.

“The unrestored, single-family-owned Aston Martin DB4 that sold at a Paris auction a few years back made almost double what a perfectly restored DB4 would have because the market perceived it to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” explains Kinney. “But a great original ’65 Mustang might carry just a 10- or 15-percent premium over a similarly equipped restored car. With so many built, there’s always a possibility another one will turn up.”

Mike May, of Northport, Mich., collects steam-powered Stanley automobiles. A self-described “purist” with a love for original cars, he’s owned an unrestored 1934 Packard Model 1104 Super 8 coupe since 1985. “It was original, just unbelievably well preserved. I asked the owner what he thought it was worth and he said he thought it was worth the price of a restored one. I agreed and bought the car. I’ve never once thought of restoring it.”

It was remarkable that at a time when restoration rather than preservation was the norm, both buyer and seller were so far ahead of the curve.

There’s also an educational aspect to unrestored vehicles. “A while back,” recalls May, “I took my car to the Packard Experience at Hickory Corners and it stole the show from the restored cars. People were looking at the props for the trunk rack and other details like the paint on the frame and the brake drums.”

The number of events open to unrestored cars is growing rapidly. But as Ian Kelleher notes, the most satisfying use of all for an unrestored car is “simply to drive it.”
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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