Authentic Restoration's Passing Era

Want a brand-new Model A? Well, all the replica parts are available, and increasing numbers of buffs are finding that option hard to resist

My first experience with classic cars came in the mid 1960s, when my father was organizing a new chapter of the Model A Ford Club of America (MAFCA). At that time, Model-A Fords were very desirable collector cars, and they were snapped up left and right.

Back then the restoration process was much different than it is today. For starters, aside from periodical publications, there was not a lot of information available in print -- and certainly nothing like the information you can find on the Internet today. So if you wanted access to really good information in the early days of automotive restoration you needed to join a car club.

I fondly recall attending some of the MAFCA club rallies and swapmeets, where members traded parts and information in order to move their restoration projects further along. I marveled at the recollections of old members who had been employed by Ford (F) and worked on the assembly lines during the production of the Model A. It would be difficult to find this type of first-hand information today. It was a remarkable experience for me at the time.


  One MAFCA club member, a good friend of my father, had worked as a mechanic and later as a service manager at a Ford dealership during the late '20s and early '30s. The two spent their free time exploring old barns and following up on parts leads.

Many of their quests lead to old Ford dealerships in small towns, where for the price of hauling, the two would secure the entire inventory of new-old-stock (NOS) Model A and other pre-war factory parts. Along with parts, specialty tools such as engine-bearing molds and vintage diagnostic equipment were highly prized finds.

If restorers were lucky enough to find a NOS part for their project, there would be a dozen other parts that would have to be replaced with a good used part or the original part would have to be restored using the materials available for the period.


  The amount of reproduced parts was limited and these parts could be very expensive. It was the skill of the restorer that was important in determining the finished product. It was this factor that played heavily into the judging of cars at shows and club meets.

Today the restoration landscape has vastly changed. Many of these changes have been good for restorers, but not all. I seldom care to reflect on the negative aspects, but I believe it's necessary to note some of the challenges facing authentic restorers today.

The Challenges

Today, the biggest hurdle to overcome when attempting an authentic restoration are the products available to restorers. Quite frankly, they are too good! Yes, the quality of the restoration materials available today far exceeds the quality of materials used by the original equipment manufacture. You might be asking yourself, "What's wrong with that?" Well nothing, unless you want to do an authentic restoration.

Personally, I am not a purist when it comes to restoring older vehicles. But for those restorers set on completing an authentic restoration, finding the authentic materials can be challenging. For instance, paints and coatings used in the 20s and 30s are hard to find in areas of the country where environmental regulations have banned their use.

Lacquer based paints, popular with automotive manufactures until the early 60s have pretty much been discontinued by coating manufacturers. Now replaced by urethane based paints, it can be difficult to match original coatings using today's formulas. However, the failure to achieve the appearance of an original coating usually results in something that looks better than it did when it originally came from the factory. No real tragedy, but it denotes one challenge facing the authentic restorer today.


  There is also the danger of over-restoration. A recent article I read on doing an authentic restoration featured an author's description of how he applied 26 coats of hard-rubbed (sanded) black lacquer paint to the chasis!

In the 20s and for some time on, Ford and other manufactures dipped chassis (frames) in a tank of chassis paint and hung them to dry, drips and ruins where common place. The chassis is not something the customer sees much, and the finish quality wasn't very important as long at the steel was protected. It's the desire to produce a quality restoration that makes performing an authentic, original equipment manufacture (OEM) restoration nearly impossible today.

The same difficulties apply to reproduction parts with offerings of triple-plated show chrome, polished stainless steel replacement parts and other super high quality reproduction items that where never found on these cars when they were new. The availability of these superior products has made it nearly impossible to find good cars available for those seeking to do authentic restorations. But, is this really the problem?

The Cost

Today's restoration projects can run anywhere $10,000-and-up. Surveys taken by reveal that restorers spend on average $20,000 to $50,000 on their projects. With this level of investment, is an authentic appearance restoration really desirable today? It would be an interesting debate! But, there are those who still choose that path.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not a fan of the authentic appearance restoration. This is due to the large investment and considerable time required to complete this type of restoration. But also because with an authentic restoration the end result is very plain and not as showy as the finely restored cars preferred by most collectors today. The reality is that finely restored vehicles consistently have a higher sale value at auctions over vehicles authentically restored.

The high cost of an authentically restored vehicle also makes the vehicle impractical from a performance and safety perspective. For instance, one of the first things Model A Fords owners did with their earlier cars was to replace the OEM mechanical brake system with either later-production or aftermarket hydraulic brakes, making the vehicle safer to drive. This is something that an authentic restorer would keep and restore to original, making the car dangerous to drive in today's environment.


  Storage costs, maintenance, transportation, and insurance for authentically restored vehicles make them high overhead vehicles to own. And on a personal level, driving rock-stock copies as they came from the factory is nerve-racking and not as much fun.

The Trend

Today, you can buy everything to build a new early 30s Ford Model A from scratch -- from all steel bodies and fenders to reproduction engines. In nearly all examples, the reproduction parts are of a far better quality than Henry Ford was ever to attain at the Rogue River production plant in the early days of the Model A.

The demand for high-quality parts to build show and special interest cars (street rods) has created the ability for custom car builders to build a vehicle that looks like a Model A, yet has all the modern comforts and conveniences that today's new cars have.


  "Sacrilege" you might shout, but this is the trend being reported by the manufactures of these products and the direction the aftermarket parts suppliers are taking the industry. And, again the sales of custom-built classics bring a higher price at auction than their older, more original brethren.

One of the reasons for this trend is age. Not the age of the car, but the age of the enthusiasts who grew up with these vehicles and hold a desire to maintain their originality. Thus, we are seeing an end of an era where restorers sought originality to satisfy their goals.

Today, there is a passing of the baton to a new generation of restorers who have already begun to carve out there own niche as "custom restorers". The Authentic Restorer will never totally fade away, but as cars grow older, the challenge to maintain true authenticity will continue to expand. Authentic restorers will be a dedicated few, and we salute them for there efforts in originality.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.