TIME CAPSULE A 1931 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A faux cabriolet will be offered at a Bonhams auction featuring unrestored cars. More Photos »
By FRED HEILER
AMONG the rows of gleaming classics at collector car exhibitions like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Élégance, a few clusters of vehicles seem decidedly out of place. These cars are not white-glove spotless, and they lack the perfect paint, flawless upholstery and brilliant chrome seen on almost every other vehicle awaiting the judges’ inspection.
Entries in so-called preservation classes, these cars are shown with a patina that tells a story of decades of service, their faded finishes, worn seats, stone chips and rust specks verifying their biographies. Valued for their originality and historical significance, not for the quality of a restoration, they present the wizened, character-laden faces of survivors rather than the unlined Botoxed perfection of aging starlets with plastic surgeons on speed dial.
Unrestored cars may not be the headline-making winners of best-in-show awards, but preservation classes are increasingly a feature of concours events, and collectors are recognizing their special status by driving up their prices. “Barn find,” a catchall term for cars unearthed after decades of neglect, has become a buzzword on cable television and at auctions of vintage autos.
Indeed, a significant auction devoted to the promotion of preserved classics is set for Monday at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum here. The sale is being organized by Bonhams, the fine art and antiques auction company.
“Good original, unrestored cars are now highly sought after, with the values of preserved cars escalating every year,” Rupert Banner, director of Bonhams’s car department, said in a news release. “In the last two or three years, auction prices for preserved cars in their original condition have exceeded those for cars that have been restored.”
For the auction, Bonhams is collaborating with the museum’s founder, Dr. Frederick A. Simeone, whose collection specializes in racing sports cars, many of them left as they were the last time they competed. Dr. Simeone has been collecting cars most of his life — longer than he has practiced medicine, in fact.
As a neurosurgeon, Dr. Simeone lives by an intricate network of standards and procedures. But above them all is the guiding principle of his profession: first, do no harm. That mind-set comes through in his new book, “The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles” (Coachbuilt Press, $60), which goes on sale the day of the auction. The book details the ethics and aesthetics of car preservation, even proposing guidelines for collectors.
Some in the collecting community suggest that the shift toward preservation is a sign of maturing tastes. Others say it is simply a reaction to the overrestoration of show cars — evidenced by, for example, paint jobs that are much better than the original finish and body panels that fit more precisely than in any mass-produced vehicle. Such cars may wear leather where there was once fabric, chrome where there was only paint and paint where there was originally bare metal.
Because this hypercompetitive dazzle usually comes at a breathtaking price, a preservation trend might reduce the cost of admission to the car-collecting world, and that seems healthy.
In one chapter of Dr. Simeone’s book, Leigh and Leslie Keno of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” emphasize that a passion for collecting antique furniture and fine art is centuries old, and that careful preservation is nearly absolute for such objects. In contrast, car collecting is a relatively young pursuit in this country, mostly since World War II.
The Keno brothers provide startling examples of preservation prices. A William and Mary armchair from the 1700s with its original finish that has darkened over the years can go for more than $120,000, but one that has been stripped and refinished is worth a fraction of that. Another example is a rare banjo clock from the early 1800s by the famous clock maker Aaron Willard. In otherwise perfect shape, its gears were clogged with dust, so a well-intentioned repairman not only cleaned the movement, but also polished every part. The clock had sold for $28,000 after it was discovered, but when an auction house mistakenly assumed the old clock had new works, it went for only $7,000.
To maximize the resale value of an unrestored car, the Kenos recommend that owners keep the original parts (even if they’re damaged or worn out) as well as photographs, manuals and trophies.
One example of an untouched car bringing a premium over restored versions is a 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster that sold for $951,000 at a Gooding & Company auction in Arizona last year. The president of the auction house, David Gooding, said a fully restored SL would usually sell for 20 to 30 percent less.
Over the last decade or two, serious car collectors have increasingly acknowledged that a car can be original only once. As a result, the patina of preserved cars — weathered paint, worn leather and pitted chrome — have led to incidents of false patination. As preserved cars become more valuable, some owners are having significant damage repaired, but treated to look original. Dr. Simeone maintains that such repairs are allowable, as long as the damage and its repair are photographed and documented, then disclosed whenever the car is displayed or changes hands.
This respect for history and originality has given rise to the idea of reversible restoration. To repair major damage, new technology allows collectors to use soluble compounds for paint and body repair that can be removed in the future without harming the surrounding original paint.
The discovery of a barn find — an unmolested vehicle of value that comes to light when the detritus of an old shed or warehouse is pushed aside — generates great excitement in the collecting world. And in the view of many, so much the better if the car is covered with layers of crud; some owners are reluctant to clean their discoveries. But preservationists are very clear on this point: dirt is corrosive, so it should be removed as soon as possible. Like fine art, cars should be clean.
In his book, Dr. Simeone discusses the concept of material truth, that the historical relevance of a preserved object derives from its actual physical materials. If you stand before the larger-than-life statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, you know it was created by Michelangelo’s hands and it may make you feel different than if you were viewing a replica.
In the same spirit, a good replica of a Shelby Cobra may perform better than the original, but Carroll Shelby didn’t build it or bless it.
A program at Stanford University called Revs is analyzing the materials in classic cars and the effects of compounds ranging from sweat and skin oil to wax and acid rain. Founded by Miles Collier, a noted collector and preservationist, the multidiscipline Revs curriculum also explores the full spectrum of human interaction with the car. As expected, the Revs faculty has mechanical engineers, but it also includes archaeologists, lawyers, artists and human behaviorists. In one course, subjects are connected to sensors and monitored by cameras as they drive classic cars and futuristic new cars. In another, a classic car is literally restored during the semester using preservation techniques.
On average, automotive tastes are maturing, and without twisting anyone’s arm or wallet, unmolested cars are becoming more important in the collecting world, especially those in the one-of-a-handful category. A good example is the Simeone Museum’s Daytona Coupe — a sleeker, enclosed version of the legendary Shelby Cobra. It was built in the 1960s for the high-speed straights of Le Mans, to topple the Europeans’ domination of the 24-hour race (which it did). Only six Daytona Coupes were made, and years ago five of them were fully restored, erasing some of their unique history. The museum’s Daytona Coupe is the only one still wearing its original paint, so it also serves as an invaluable reference vehicle.
While none of the 60-plus cars in the museum are for sale, the Bonhams auction includes vehicles ranging from a 1924 Ford Model T 5-Window Coupe, with a presale estimated price of only $10,000 to $15,000, to a 1973 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 in the $340,000 to $380,000 range. Also offered is a 1932 Aston Martin 1 1/2-liter Le Mans 2-4 Seater. Designed to be driven to a race, win and drive home, the Aston was once owned by the British film director Basil Dean. Another original car, a 1931 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A two-door faux cabriolet, with coachwork by Lancefield, recently emerged from storage in Connecticut after 37 years.
Bonhams’s “Preserving the Automobile” auction will be Oct. 8 at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum, 6825 Norwitch Drive, Philadelphia, simeonemuseum.org. Automobilia goes on sale at 10 a.m. and cars at 2 p.m. Admission is by $30 catalog, which admits two people to the museum and the auction. Vehicle information atbonhams.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 14, 2012
An article last Sunday about the movement to preserve classic cars, rather than restore them, misstated the number of Shelby Daytona Coupes that were made. There were six, not five; only the one in the Simeone Automotive Museum remains unrestored.