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November 6, 2012

News & Features

When restored cars take a backseat to original

New York Times News Service

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A 1931 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A faux cabriolet was offered at the Bonhams auction featuring unrestored vehicles. It sold for $186,500. (Bonhams / New York Times News Service)

Among the rows of gleaming classics at collector-car exhibitions like the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, 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.

A significant auction devoted to the promotion of preserved classics was recently held at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia. The sale was organized by Bonhams, a fine art and antiques auction company.

"Good original, unrestored cars are now highly sought after, with the values of preserved cars escalating every year," says Rupert Banner, director of Bonhams' car department. "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 collaborated 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. Simeone has been collecting cars most of his life — longer than he has practiced medicine, in fact.

As a neurosurgeon, 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 mindset comes through in his new book, "The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles." 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 Simeone's book, Leigh and Leslie Keno of PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" say that to maximize the resale value of an unrestored car, owners should keep the original parts (even if they're damaged or worn out) as well as photographs, manuals and trophies.

In his book, 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, Italy, 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.

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