Preserving Antique Autos, Dents and All

The latest trend in vintage car collecting is saving history by keeping the cars as they are, rather than restoring them

Former tech company executive Manny Del Arroz plunked down more than $1 million for a 1950 Ferrari 166M Touring Barchetta two year ago, based on just a few photos. The car had been sitting in a garage in Arizona for 40 years. Del Arroz brought it to his Northern California home, expecting to have his mechanics do a complete restoration, removing the decades of dust, rust, and dents, much as they had his other vintage Ferraris. Once Del Arroz began examining the vehicle, however, he changed his mind.

He noticed the car was red on the outside, the color Italian racing teams used, but the upholstery was blue, the color for France. It also had green paint underneath, suggesting it had raced for Britain as well. "It's like a tree with all these layers of history," he says. Del Arroz also saw how one side of the car's body is an inch lower than the other and how the hood dipped a bit too steeply. "It's handcrafted," he says.

Del Arroz decided to keep the car in the condition in which he bought it. He still gets lots of questions when he takes it to car shows, most of them along the lines of: "Aren't you going to paint it?" But for him the thrill is seeing all the motorheads gawking at the car because it's so scruffy. "I've had $15 million cars sitting next to it, and nobody even looked at them," he says.

"Un-Pimp My Ride"

Del Arroz is riding the latest trend in vintage car collecting: preserving vehicles rather than restoring them. A number of car shows, including ones sponsored by Ferrari and BMW (BMWG) collector clubs, have added competitions for judging "preservation" cars. The prestigious Concours d'Elegance show at California's Pebble Beach Resort added a preservation class competition for postwar cars this August in which Del Arroz's Ferrari took first place.

The Concours had been judging pre-1945 preservation cars for eight years. Mechanics that specialize in vintage car repair are seeing increased efforts by owners to keep their old cars in as close to original condition as possible, even if that means putting up with, say, old-fashioned radios. "We call it un-pimp my ride," says Michael Kuntz, who manages the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, Calif.

Just what you can and can't do to keep a car in a preserved state is a little fuzzy. "We want cars that retain all or most of their original patina," says Peter Hageman, a judge at Pebble Beach. That means leaving the paint, leather, glass, and chrome alone. Adding seat belts, safer tires, or new mechanical parts is generally O.K. "We always encourage people to use their cars," Hageman says. Part of the surprise for car buffs, however, is seeing just how well some ancient vehicles run. "I've seen a 1917 Packard start with its original spark plugs," says McKeel Hagerty, whose Hagerty Classic Insurance covers vintage vehicles. "It was quieter than a modern car."

Holding Onto History

For collectors, deciding whether to restore a car or not depends a lot on what condition it's in. Tonight Show host Jay Leno says he had to restore a 1934 Duesenberg that had been sitting in a parking garage in Manhattan for 34 years. "It was too far gone," he says. "Too much rot." But he's kept a 1927 model that he found in a garage in Burbank, Calif., largely intact. "I try to keep them original when I can," he says. "Otherwise it's like buying a piece of Chippendale furniture and stripping the paint off."

The preservation movement is to some degree a backlash against collectors who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars restoring cars to the point where they gleam—the so-called trailer queens that never really get driven. Another motivation is the feeling that history is being lost by fully restoring cars. Robert Mozier, who owns a shop specializing in vintage car repair in Marina Del Ray, Calif., says he often finds parts in preserved cars—sometimes just arcane clips or clamps—that he's never seen before.

"If it was remodeled, somebody would have just thrown them over their shoulder," he says.

In some cases, preserving a car can cost more than restoring it. Miles Collier, a collector with a private museum in Naples, Fla., figures it will cost him twice as much to fix the body of his 1938 Delahaye Type 135, which is rusting away and needs some work, than restore it. Rather than smoothing out the panels as they would in a restoration, his mechanics will spend six months making sure they keep all the dents and wrinkles—work Collier likens to cleaning a dinosaur bone with a dental pick. "Car collecting is a relatively new field compared to painting and furniture," he says. "The thinking is, 'I used to have one of those and I'm going to shine this puppy up.' People are waking up to the fact the unpreserved cars are rare."

Automotive Archeology

So far, shiny-looking restored cars still tend to bring higher prices than the merely preserved ones. A 1969 Mustang Boss 429 sports car with 23,000 original miles sold recently for $250,000, according to Barrett-Jackson auctions. A fully remodeled version with a souped up Nascar-style engine sold for nearly twice that price. "The problem is most of the cars that have not been restored look like junkers," says Jack Nethercutt, a collector who runs a car museum created by his father in Sylmar, Calif.

Finding unrestored cars is often tricky. Tom Cotter, a collector, wrote a book about people with unique car finds called The Cobra in the Barn: Great Stories of Automotive Archaeology. His tips for collectors: Go "barn hunting" on weekends, because that's the time people have the garage doors open. He also suggests asking UPS delivery people, meter readers, policeman, and other folks with access to "the other side of the fence" if they know of any people in town with really old cars.

Some vintage car mechanics now find themselves talking clients out of major remodels. Paul Russell, who has restored many of Ralph Lauren's vintage cars, recalls one of his mechanics spending an hour on his hands and knees explaining to collector/comedian Jerry Seinfeld how they could preserve one of his vintage Porsches, a 1949 model that had at one point been raced on ice with studded tires. The mechanic explained that they could gently polish the original paint, rethread holes in the upholstery, and use vinyl that had been preserved behind the trim to repair other parts of the interior door panels. At the end Seinfeld asked, in all seriousness: "You're not going to lose that musty smell, are you?"

Click here to see 10 of the most beautiful vintage cars from the 2007 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

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