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Classics 101: An Introduction to Classic Cars
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The Restoration Debate

A friend who's a bit of a contrarian once asked me why it's okay to restore automobiles but it's frowned upon to restore paintings and furniture, noting that it actually lowers the value of the latter when they are restored.
First, I had to point out to him that even rare paintings and furniture sometimes receive restoration work when necessary. Second, I explained that, simply stated, automobiles were meant to be used. Regardless of their selling price, automobiles were not purchased in order to be placed on display. They were intended for transportation, usually on public roads.

Classic automobiles were usually well cared-for during their early years of ownership. Many times, the next owners of a Classic were equally careful. However, like today, sometimes the second or third owner was someone who wanted an impressive automobile but really couldn't afford to maintain it properly. Within a short time, the car fell into disrepair and the next stop was often the scrapyard.

Sometimes the original owners of Classic automobiles just couldn't part with these automobiles. They were stored in garages and somewhat maintained. Sometimes the cars were given to chauffeurs, who appreciated the cars and maintained them until a collector appeared.

Few Classics survived the effects of the Great Depression and World War II. When they were discovered by the first generation of collectors, the cars required restoration work, both to make them roadworthy and to make them appear as they did when new. The first members of the Classic Car Club of America (founded in 1952) were collecting cars that ranged from 10 to 25 years old at the time. The newest ones could almost be considered used cars.

Within a short time--like their counterparts in the AACA and VMCCA--CCCA members had created awards for the best-restored cars. Accordingly to the club bylaws, that meant restored to as-new condition. As noted earlier, some cars required more work than others, depending on how well previous owners--and time--treated them.
For many Classic car enthusiasts, having a mostly original automobile that could be maintained and restored as necessary was enough. Since most Classics were luxury cars when new, they were well engineered and beautifully appointed. Most of them made excellent touring automobiles.

With the advent of trophies for the "best restored" cars, however, it wasn't always enough to have a superb automobile that still looked good and drove well. Now the car had to look like new. Full-time, professional automobile restoration shops began to appear. There were, and still are, individuals who are talented enough to do much of the necessary restoration work themselves. I really admire these guys. A fellow I know in Michigan does everything except plating by himself, and his work is first-class.

Along the way, however, something bad happened. We started restoring cars that didn't need to be restored. They were such nice originals that all they really needed was maintenance--upholstery repair, paint touch-up, minimal re-plating--that's it. A full-blown restoration wasn't necessary. Unfortunately, over the years we've seen a lot of these fine original cars restored. One by one, these original treasures have disappeared. Yes, there are some superb restorers out there who can restore a car to look as it once did, but many of them will urge an owner to think twice about restoring an outstanding original car. Several of my friends who are professional restorers have told me just that.

A few years ago I remember visiting with a fellow whose car had received a 100-point award. He told me that the restoration was easy because he'd "started with an incredibly original car, right down to the tools and manual."
"With a car that original, why would you want to restore it?" I asked. "There are only a handful of cars like that remaining." He didn't hesitate to answer. "I wanted a first place award and then to get invited to one of those concours shows," he said.

I asked him if he was aware that some clubs and shows now recognize original cars and, in many cases, present handsome awards. He replied that he knew that, but that he just wanted to have "a perfect car."
Which brings us to another subject: over-restoration. As beautiful as Classic automobiles were when they were new, the level of restoration shown on many of these cars today is unbelievable. These cars have been taken to another level, particularly with respect to the cosmetic restoration of the chassis.
I don't totally blame the restorers. They are craftsmen who are in the business of satisfying their customers. As clubs and concours events raise the judging bar, the restoration shops have no choice but to follow. If we could find a Classic Era automobile that had been hermetically sealed up 50 years ago and take it to a modern event, I doubt it would be a first place winner.

Several years ago, I remember seeing a row of restored Model T Fords at a car show. They were truly magnificent. I thought to myself, "If old Henry Ford came back and saw these cars lined up there, he would probably wonder what plant produced them."

Are we seeing cars restored to "as they were new" condition or restored to levels guaranteed to beat the competition? Years ago, someone told me that just about anyone can restore an automobile to concours standards, but that no one can make them original. He was right.

There are cars that have to be restored. There have been restored automobiles that have blown my socks off. But I continue to be attracted to those cars that have been lovingly maintained by a series of owners who resisted the temptation to restore something that should rightly be preserved for yet another generation to see and enjoy.

This article originally appeared in the June, 2008 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.

This article originally appeared in the June, 2008 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.