The best cars wear their stories, dents and all

James Mills

What is patina? The Cambridge English dictionary describes it as “a thin surface layer that develops on something because of use, age or chemical action.”

Our last family home had patina. It was a coach house, built in 1903 as the quarters for horses and their carriages, just across the way from the servants’ house which, in turn, was a short tunnel walk (different times …) from the main manor house. The horses had long since bolted, servants no longer checked to see which room’s bell was being run and the main house had been divided up. Our current home was rebuilt in 2016, and—unless you count the scratches on the glass of the bifold doors, left by a previous owner’s over-enthusiastic Dobermans—patina is nowhere to be seen.

Our 12-year old Labrador has a certain patina. You can see it in his face, in the way he now walks, unhurried, without a care in the world, and in his blonde coat that sheds fur more than ever. Paul Newman and Robert Redford had patina in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the sort you’ll never find in today’s airbrushed world of Marvel perfection.

With cars, the best example I have seen recently was a 1950 Jaguar XK120 Open Two Seater that rocked up to the Hagerty Hillclimb looking for all the world as though it had been dragged backwards from under a collapsed barn, lost for 50 years and worn and weathered by the elements and time.

Only, it hadn’t. It had been in continuous use since the day it left the Holbrook Lane factory, in Coventry. Every battle scar and repair over time remained intact, free from the magic wand of a restorer—even if, underneath, it was in A1 condition. Taking in that XK120 was like revelling in a fireside audience with David Attenborourgh, its stories and secrets shared in fascinating detail, from its hundreds of original event paddock passes to the visible sections of bodywork that had been cut out and made good in the sort of Franken-car fashion that might make some classic car collectors look away in horror.

A significant amount of attention is paid to concours events and mind-blowing restorations of significant cars. Hagerty is involved at all levels, from the U.K.-based Festival of the Unexceptional to New York’s Greenwich Concours d’Elegance. Yet often the one car you’ll hear visitors talk about is the “survivor,” the car that has remained unchanged, unrestored, and just the same as the day it left the factory. Only, it’s gathered a patina that wouldn’t look out of place in a pharaoh’s tomb.

That patina was everywhere I looked at the inaugural, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Patina, a car show for cars that, I humbly suggest, are rather like mine or yours.

Held at Lullingstone Castle, which is a hop from Junction 4 of the M25, I arrived in my 2003 BMW M3, an original, unmolested E46 complete with stone chips, a scrape ahead of one front wheel and a subtle but significant dent in the driver’s door—significant because it’s where Mrs. Mills reversed the family car into it. (Reader, I may have employed some sweary language.)

Patina BMW rear three-quarter
James Mills

Nobody seemed entirely sure where to put me, or the car, despite paying for an exhibitor ticket and taking along my eight-year old son so he could experience a car show for himself. We parked up behind a Hillman Avenger and 2CV Fourgonnette, but had to dash back to the entrance to get a picture of an MGA that was more weathered than the 11th century castle (which is mentioned in the Doomsday book).

That MGA belonged to organizer, Darren Sullivan Vince, from Kennington, London. The former software developer is part of the team from Waterloo Classics and SVH Events which came up with the concept behind Patina.

Patina MG roadster rear three-quarter
This weather-worn MGA is owned by founder of Patina, Darren Sullivan Vince. James Mills

“I have learned [from past concours shows] that there are people who say ‘My car’s not nice enough’ and feel awkward about attending an event and I felt that was just downright silly. I wanted to organize something for these cars that people love, that people want to drive around but don’t want to restore it for whatever reason.”

Is originality and the story of a car becoming increasingly popular with car enthusiasts, I ask Vince? “When people restore a car it erases the history of that car. It becomes a new car, which is beautiful and nice, but a concours classic car has no visual history to it any more. Patina to me shows a car’s history.”

Patina car festival friends
James Green and Matthew Long like to show their highly original Bluebird and 340 as much as possible. James Mills

The first visitors I bump into, by chance, happen to be known to Hagerty. James Green and Matthew Long had organised to meet at Patina, in their 1989 Nissan Bluebird and 1986 Volvo 340 DL respectively—cars that are remarkable for being original, unrestored and presented in outstanding condition. The pair attended the Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional, in 2021.

Both praise the concept of Patina, which sees a 1981 Aston Martin Lagonda Series II in black (my son’s favorite—“It looks like Knight Rider!”) squeezed in between a 1946 MG TC that’s been driven from day one and is claimed to be the only unrestored TC still in daily use, and a 1938 BMW 327 which is aptly described by its owner as being in ‘splendid oily-rag condition’. The contrast between the TC and a Dino, parked next to it, raises smiles from onlookers—as does the juxtaposition of a Trojan microcar and adjacent Aston Martin DB5, both equally original and storied.

Adam Florio, from Ham near Richmond, London, perhaps best sums up the spirit of the event. As he walks me around his 1969 Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3, which is in immaculate mechanical condition but gracefully wears every one of its 53 years on the surface, he points to a largish piece of flaking paint and steel that’s at the bottom of the nearside doors. “You see this lump here? You can see it’s still tacky”—it moves as he pushes a finger against it—”I knew it was falling off so in the back of the car I keep some windscreen sealer which I find it the toughest stuff, so I was sticking that back on this morning.

“My philosophy is I have friends who have classic cars and they polish them and they’re absolutely mint, and they breakdown on the way back from a car show. I’m the opposite, I want the mechanics and the driving experience to be spot-on.” I look under the car at the back axle area and it really is tidy under there.

patina mercedes benz 300 SE L
James Mills
Patina vintage mercedes benz sedan
Adam Fiorio’s Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3, part of which was glued back together that morning … James Mills

All around us are gently aging Heralds, XKs, Beetles, Volvos, Triumphs, MGs, Fords and even a Porsche or two. The back of an MGA’s hood looks like it has just encountered a category 5 hurricane, its plastic missing and sections fluttering in the breeze. Yet the roof still provide shade over the two seats—important on a day like today—so waste not want not and all that.

Patina served as a good reminder that it’s the stories behind the cars and the custodians that these machines are entrusted to that make for the most memorable day out. Oh, and that an original car can tell a story just as well as any history file.

I don’t think I’ll get my M3’s modest parking prang repaired after all.

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