The case against patina: Perfect cars sure are pretty


When we drive our cars, they collect signs of that use—patina, in collector-car speak. The latest issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine, in which this article first appeared, explores the delight found in such imperfect cars. To get all this wonder sent to your home, sign up for the club at this link. To read about everything patina online, click here

Why the obsession with patina? What’s wrong with fresh and new? My real issue with patina is that I find the general understanding of what actually qualifies as such to be a bit, shall we say, slippery.

A story: While at an auction in the 1990s writing up cars for a magazine, I found a friend’s Porsche that was about to go under the hammer. It was a 356 ragtop, and it’s important that you know that my friend was extremely parsimonious. Which is a nice way of saying cheap. So cheap that when it came time in the late 1970s to paint his car, he balked at paying $2500 for a professional job, taking it to one of those “any car, any color, $69.99” places. The paint lasted a little over a weekend until it started to fade. And there were flaws, like bugs in the paint that you could see from 5 feet away. His solution? First, he ignored it. Then, after a year or so, he started sanding the finish, but—because sandpaper costs money—he used kitchen and industrial cleaners that he “borrowed” from businesses he frequented: Comet, Bon Ami, Scrubbing Bubbles, whatever.

After a few weeks, his Porsche showed a very mellow red, and, in all fairness, he had done a good job both masking and “sanding,” so one could imagine it was a paint job from the 1960s that had faded. He also had the seats retrimmed in the very cheapest vinyl he could find. The floor coverings were trash, so when another friend had his car’s carpets re-done, he asked for the used carpets for his car.

At auction, the punters were, to say the least, excited. “Look at that—my gosh—it’s almost untouched!” I heard another potential bidder wax poetic about the seat vinyl. Another, assuming the paint was original, speculated that “if the Porsche factory knew of the car, they would surely buy it back!” My friend, who was present at the auction, sat back, said nothing, and watched as his car sold at near a record price for the model.

I have seen a respected restoration shop use what’s called trompe l’oeil, or “deceive the eye” painting, on brand-new, out-of-the-box suspension components, which is intended to give the viewer a “convincing illusion of reality.” It would have fooled me, at least from a distance, had I not been forewarned. The car in question went on to win first in its class—the survivor class, that is.

Here is my takeaway with patina: Trust, but verify. Actually, forget the trust, and double down on the verification. Just like all the other idols we car collectors tend to fall over backward for (“low miles,” “matching numbers,” celebrity ownership, and “clean” Carfaxes), these issues are only as important as they are to us, the potential buyer.

Fresh and new is how virtually all cars enter this world. And that’s how they looked when most of us fell in love with them. When I was a kid, I dreamed of walking into the Datsun showroom and buying a new 1972 240Z. Buying one today with sagging seats and dirt on the carpets from 50 years of other people’s tushes and feet might not scratch the itch. Aside from the ick factor, the wear and tear is a constant reminder that I’m driving someone else’s dream. I want to fulfill my dream—the one from 1972. The classic car industry has that power: It’s called a restoration.

Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily my feelings, but that clearly is the way many people feel about their old cars. So, as we celebrate patina, let’s not dismiss the enduring appeal of a pristine car or the enthusiasts who spend the money to turn back time.




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    It is all in what you want. No right no wrong.

    My perspective is from a preservation point and a restored car will not decline at the same speed as one that is just cleared over rust.

    My goal is to preserve my vehicles as best I can.

    But one point we all need to understand today is when at a show most cars are much better than they were new. I took a 82 Camaro to a show with only 11K miles on it. The paint was as good as new as was the interior. But it was no where to the level of todays paint. This car looked like it needed work but it really was show room new.

    Unfortunately–this is too true at today’s vintage car shows. I have a friend who acquired a 3 owner 1971 VW Karmann Ghia Auto-Stick which is ALL original at 34K miles. Nothing restored–very fine paint–likely the only one in the World which is as it emerged from the factory. I told my friend to set up a plaque any time he showed the vehicle–detailing the condition and originality. Guess what–he has yet to win top class. At one show, an identical Ghia parked next to his. Same color repaint, chrome rims, etc., etc. Guess which one won the title? Of course. I told my friend that I would have loved to speak with the judges–what were they thinking? Today’s judges leave a lot to be desired! They tend to judge Fru-Fru rather than orginality. BTW–Bloomgton-Gold holds the copyright to the term “Survivor” and to “Bench-Mark Survivor”. Today’s vintage crowd tosses these terms about like so much confetti.

    Here is the deal on shows. The criteria for many shows can differs or vary.

    Most average shows are clean and detail. This cover most cars today and puts most on equal footing no matter the brand, model or modification. You could have an inline Maverick or blown Chevelle and it come down to who cleaned the best.

    Some shows it is originality and preservation of original parts. These are less cars like this and this comes down often to single make shows and clubs.

    Then you have Pebble Beach where they could pick a car for the quality of restoration or a worn car for the story or history of the car.
    At that show you never know what the judges may latch on to.

    To do well at shows you need to choose the type you want to participate in and learn what they are looking for and restore to the judging sheet.

    I did the clean and detail as this is the most common event. I have done better than well winning even on a national event scale.

    Like Roger Penske learn the rules and build to the letter of the rules. This is the fair advantage as you are not cheating you are just taking advantage of the box you are given to work in.

    I think the average person may misunderstand the difference between “patina”, “preserved”, and “factory appearance” when it comes to paint on the 80’s cars. GM paint was on par with $199 Earl Scheib or Maaco back in the 80’s (which was barely a step above a driveway rattle can spray job), but your 1982 Camaro would absolutely be appreciated for exactly the reasons you state if you take it to the 3rd Gen Camaro and Firebird Nationals held every June at the Carlisle GM Nationals. ( )
    I would love to see pix of your car if you would kindly post them, but even better if I could see it in person, so please message me if you would consider bringing it because I help organize the 3rd Gen Nats.
    I consult with buyers, sellers and people restoring 3rd Gen F Bodies in the US and Canada, and the first thing I try to make them understand is the car must retain its 1980’s paint quality (for better or worse) and IF its too far gone to preserve, then a PROPER factory finish MUST be done or the car is devalued. I am ALWAYS met with pushback about retaining the factory orange peel but once I show them good original paint on well-preserved cars, and explain they DONT have to spend $20K on an indoor car show quality paint job to make it look “factory perfect”, they eventually understand my reasoning.
    Remember all the Corvettes that were over-restored to way beyond their original appearance in the 90s and early 2000s? At first they were setting the standard and won every show beating out all the survivors and I’ve seen some survivors that were show winners before the over-restoration craze, get stripped down to the glass, body-worked to laser perfect door gaps and painted to look like they were built for SEMA or to compete for the Riddler. Now those cars are deducted points if they have too-perfect paint, and the survivors are sought after as “exemplars” in order to get other restorations correct. I have passed buying several recently restored 3rd Gens only because the paint was glass smooth, which made the sellers ask $7-$11K more then the car was worth only because they spent that much in paint. GM changed paint formulations in 1985 from solvent to water based, and F Bodies wore different paint (which resulted in just slightly different shades of the same color) depending on the plant they were made: Norwood cars wear East coast Paint and Van Nuys wear West Coast Paint. Without seeing preserved original paint cars from the different plants, regardless of the quality, restorers will not know how to do proper restorations in the future and people looking at the cars aren’t seeing them as they rolled out of the factory.

    Yes! It’s all in what you want.
    Happy is the person who can afford what they want.
    On another note: glad to now know the word “parsimonious”. 😲

    I would never buy patina intentionally. I would never make patina. The whole idea of a car with patina for me is that it is something that I can buy, drive, and enjoy without worrying about it or fussing with it for four hours before I put it away. I also just like the idea of it being original and unmolested. When people restore cars, they tend to way overdo it and take it to a state that never existed in its original life. Then, they tend to park it in the garage and drive it two times a year. I never want to be that person. I’ve watched it happen too often

    Actual patina is a thing, but the term is misused and abused nowadays. My original paint ’66 Beetle looks really good and polishes up nicely, but there are two places where you can see the primer has worn through and there are a couple of scratches I’d love to be rid of. Sure, it would be shinier with new paint, but not really “better” than in its original condition. I enjoy the car as-is, but the mechanicals are being sorted better every time I work on it. It isn’t so perfect that I can’t enjoy it and it isn’t ugly, either. Well, it isn’t any uglier than any other Beetle, anyway! 😉

    The most I’d ever consider doing to my car is touching up a few spots (professionally) and clear-coating it. I don’t want it too shiny and perfect as it wouldn’t look like the old single-stage paint, so I’m hesitant to do so. It is not, however, a rusty hulk with 3 different colors and holes in the floor big enough to let rats/cats in like so many with “patina” today. As long as the car is solid and safe (in a relative term) I don’t care if your car/opinions line-up with mine or not, but actual patina and what passes for patina today are two different things.

    People who don’t see the beauty of patina can not be convinced. They would want the little cracks (which have occurred over centuries) in the Mona Lisa’s paint repaired, or repainted. They don’t understand that those cracks tell a story, and pique the imagination of the viewer-the viewer who possesses an imagination, anyway.

    Patina is just cheap. Too cheap to pay for a point job. There are a few cases of original cars with slight amount of patina tha is okay. Just my opinion.

    My argument for restoration is: done right, it will help preserve the car for eternity. Restoration stops the rust, resets the engine, and recovers the interior thereby eliminating or reducing the aging process. Typically after restoration, an automobile is driven and stored better than from new and will conceivably last forever.

    I thought the same thing when I bought my original low mileage Corvette, because of the original paint shrinking and checking,I said it needs a paint job! But then realized it would reduce it to just another restored paint car.

    To each their own. Great that we live in a country where you have the freedom to do what you want to do to your car. DRIVE them, ENJOY looking at them, whatever makes you happy. Isn’t that what life is all about? When something becomes a beast of burden time to move on.

    I have found vehicles that have been well kept with minimum “patina and wear” due to frequent washing/waxing/interior maintenance almost always have been mechanically maintained as well. If they have let go of appearances, what has the unseen stuff (oil/coolant/brake fluid/etc) been subject to?

    I want a car with at least decent paint. It does not have to have perfect paint as that is not sustainable for a car driven on the road.

    When I was younger my cars had lots of patina and I dreamed of having something very nice and shiny. Now I do have shiny cars and I never want to go back. Well…maybe for a well-kept True original with a little bit of “wear and tear”.

    The patina of use and loving care in an old car is one thing.
    The “patina” of neglect and abuse is something quite different.

    I appreciate a very clean original car that has not been restored. In fact, a car like our 1968 Mustang is not worth a full restoration. A quality paint job alone would cost more than the car is worth. But having said that, I don’t believe in wear and tear. “Shine it must.”

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