YOU HAVE SCORED THE WINNING BID at Sotheby’s and acquired a splendid 18th-century John Goddard highboy, mellow with the patina of two centuries. You ship it to a restorer, who disassembles it into kindling, sands and buffs every scrap, rebuilds it with the latest alloy fasteners and space-age glues, and coats it with polyurethane that shines like a thousand mirrors.
You move into Fallingwater and call a vinyl-siding and modular-windows outfit to stop by and update Frank Lloyd Wright’s leaky old pile.
You buy a Vermeer painting and have the frame sandblasted, the crazed paint recoated and the whole canvas flushed so clean it gleams like a Kodachrome.
Well, of course you don’t.
Yet much the same thing has been happening in the world of vintage and classic automobiles, now that what was once a harmless hobby for gearheads has become, in the words of Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance judge Gordon Apkar, “the new sport of kings” The wealthiest classic-car owners compete to win the top prizes at the country’s most prestigious concours–which, besides the premier event at Pebble Beach, include Meadow Brook Hall (Michigan, in August), the Vuitton-sponsored event at Rockefeller Center in New York (late September or early October) and Amelia Island (Florida, in March). And this means showing cars that have been restored to perfection and beyond, sometimes at a cost of $500,000 in labor and materials, not counting the cost of the car.
“We’ve created a monster” says Ken Gross, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “We’ve raised the level of restoration to something unrealistic.” To the restoration traditionalist, realism is an old car restored to factory-new condition-no more, no less. Or, even better, an untouched old car still in nearly new shape, a time traveler that demonstrates the state of automobile-manufacturing technology in, say, 1930. To the more competitive–and often vastly richer–collector, realism is a glittering mass of rolling metal and paint, fabric and leather transformed into jewelry.
His car’s every surface is polished or painted–often polished and then painted –including everything under the car, inside the wheel wells and deep into what is usually the invisible greasy bits. Casting marks are ground off cylinder blocks, and suspension parts are chrome-plated, fire walls damascened and broadcloth interiors replaced with lizard skin. Pieces that were mass-manufactured are hand-polished to the luster of new pewter, and there isn’t a square inch of Isotta Fraschini–or Duesenberg, Marmon or Stutz–that would sully a white-gloved fingertip.
Not long ago, it was only the upper-crust exotics from the prewar years that got the major makeovers–Hispano-Suizas, Packards, Rollses and the like–but with the appreciation in value of virtually all unusual automobiles, today even American muscle cars of the 1960s such as Chevy Camaros with the LT1 engine and Hemiengine Plymouth Superbirds, are acquiring iconic status. “I’ve seen collector muscle cars whose inner fender walls have been color-sanded and rubbed down” gripes Craig Jackson, of Barrett-Jackson Auctions in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Back when GM and Chrysler built ‘em, they just sprayed a chassis black and–pssschtt–out the door. Some of these cars, I look at them and think, `You’ve got too much time on your hands. Or too much money’” he says, laughing.
Some collector-car clubs have reacted to the current fascination with overrestoration by stressing authenticity rather than perfection. Ford Model T and Model A judges have long prized accurate re-creations of the painted-with-a-broom look, and might award demerits to cars with perfectly stitched upholstery. “The Corvette guys have picked up on that and want restored cars as crooked and badly painted as they originally were” says former restorer Michael Duffey, a monthly columnist for Sports Car Market, a leading collector-car guide. “They have seminars on which way the paint dripped and ran in different years. They say, ‘It’s the way they were, not the way we wish they were.’ And that’s the dividing line between restoration and overrestoration.”
Why go to extremes in restoration? “The standard rationale is that the car could have been done that way if somebody had ordered such an interior or such detailing, since the coach-built cars were all custom jobs” Petersen Museum director Ken Gross points out. Indeed, those who think there’s no such thing as overrestoration point to the great one-off show cars of the prewar years as prototypes for pretty much anything your collector’s heart desires. Gordon Apkar, the collector who is also a classic-car judge, owns a Murphy-bodied Duesenberg that has chromed brake lines. “It was shown in the Waldorf-Astoria in 1928″ he explains, “and they wanted that thing to be as enticing as possible” The aim back then was to woo the wealthy into ordering a manufacturer’s finest rolling chassis and then a custom coach builder’s most spectacular bodywork. Seeing such a car nowadays causes some people to think, Yeah, I’ll do my car that way.
“[Complaining about] overrestoration is more like envy” says Don Sommer, the creator of the Meadow Brook Hall Concours d’Elegance. “The folks who have a lot of money, they’ll have a car restored nice. As I see it, you can’t overrestore one of these high-end cars. The amateur restorer who does his own work and maybe farms out some of the harder stuff, he gets all upset if he has to compete against a car that somebody has had a professional restorer do right. A car that a guy’s got $50,000 in can’t compete with the identical car someone else spent $300,000 on”
To Sommer and others, a concours is a grand event–not an excuse for nerds in overalls to stand around discussing Winfield carburetors, porcelain license plates and pot-metal-plating techniques. Certainly, opulent affairs such as Meadow Brook and Pebble Beach support his enthusiasm. “To the general public–people who don’t know a thing about overrestoration–the better the cars are, the more they enjoy them,” So “tamer explains. “You get the right mix of exciting cars and exciting people and get the public involved, and then everybody has a good time.” Don’t forget, he continues, “The pizazzy car is what’s going to win at the big shows.” And a big win is, for the bottom line of both a car owner and his restoration shop, the bankable equivalent of a Super Bowl ring, a Best Actor Oscar, a Whitney retrospective.
“There’s a battle of checkbooks going on,” says Pebble Beach regular Michael Duffey. “Heavier players who’ve gone to a shop and dropped $250,000 on a resto, they have a team of guys in tennis sweaters at shows constantly wiping off the car and cleaning the inside of the exhaust pipe with Q-Tips, as though it’s some kind of operating room.”
Unfortunately, this excludes and even repels collectors of lesser means but perhaps greater taste. “Some prime enthusiasts who have really neat old cars don’t want to participate in that,” says restorer Paul Russell. Russell’s Essex, Massachusetts, shop is one of the most admired of the top-end restoration facilities and the source of two Pebble Beach best-of-show winners–including Ralph Lauren’s magnificent Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic coupe. Russell’s forte is research. He goes to extraordinary lengths to determine how a car was originally built and finished, and then he restores to match. To stuff the seats of a Mercedes, he once got a bale of horsehair that came from the same kind of horses in the same region of Germany where Mercedes-Benz had originally gotten its horsehair. While directing his most recent major restoration, a 1949 Ferrari 166 Barchetta two-seat roadster, Russell traveled to Italy to visit the then-84-year-old designer of the car’s touring body, and came back with priceless advice and half-century-old photos of the car on the day of its original delivery. “To me, overrestoring is when you change the essential character of the car;’ Russell says quietly. “We don’t clean up untidy welds or forming marks on chassis rails. If something is aluminum, we don’t sand and polish it because it would look snazzy all shiny; we’ll refinish it and leave it as cast.”
Once any machine is “restored” it’s useless as an artifact. No longer can a chip of its paint reveal anything about 1920s nitrocellulose-lacquer technology; no more can its cylinder block speak of sandcasting methods. There is a mantra among conservators that says, “A car can be restored many times, but it can be original only once.”
“We lose most of our original cars to people who want them shinier,” gripes Robert Turnquist, who for fifty-one years has run Classic Cars Inc., and since 1962 has also run Hibernia Auto Restorations, a widely respected shop in Hibernia, New Jersey. “I have a ’64 Ford Galaxy convertible that went directly from the factory to a museum. Hardly ever been driven. Yet if I showed it today, I wouldn’t get many points for the chrome, which is standard quality, factory-flash chrome. When I bought a new Rolls-Royce, I couldn’t take it to a meet, because it wasn’t up to show standards. I think that’s wrong. A car should be shown the way a factory brought it out.”
So why overrestore? “This is a game of egos, and people with big egos don’t always bounce their ideas off others to see if their thinking is sound” Apkar muses. “Taste is a big factor, and taste doesn’t always accompany money. There’s one well-known car out there that was a fine, original, widely admired example, but a new owner decided to restore it. He tore out the gorgeous interior and replaced it with a 50/50 blended mohair and polyester, which didn’t even exist in the ’30s, when the car was manufactured, and it has an unmistakable sheen to it. The car looks … tarty, now. They spent a lot of money, but we all feel that here’s this once-elegant car that’s been lost.”
The collector-car market is maturing, and increasingly, originality in fittings and finish is increasing the value of the most lovingly restored–or better yet, unrestored-automobiles. Collector cars were trading for insane amounts in the late 1980s, sometimes among speculators who couldn’t pronounce Porsche, much less Figoni and Falaschi. Admittedly; the results weren’t all negative. “A lot of cars were restored that otherwise never would have been” says Amelia Island Concours judge Miles Morris, vice-president of the auction firm Christie’s International Motorcars. “People pulled the old XK Jag off’ the rusty pile and put money into it because they knew that they would get their money back. It’s always nice to save a car and put it back on the road, isn’t it?”