From Orvus soap to the Burra Charter: A guide for the preservation (and use) of classic vehicles

Orvus soap. B72. Dry-ice blasting. Vehicle-shaped object. 3D laser scanning. French crown-forming machine. Swimming pool noodles. Silica-gel packs (unless you can afford aircraft desiccant plugs). The Burra Charter.

The science of rust | The Henry Ford museum graphic
The science of rust | The Henry Ford museum graphic

If you’re not familiar with the things on that list, you should be if you’re a classic car owner because the importance of each — and much more — was explained by a succession of experts during “10 Best Practice Topics for Automotive Preservation” presentations at the recent Historic Vehicle Association Summit.

Fred Simeone of the Simeone Automotive Museum and Derek Moore of the Crawford Museum co-chaired the afternoon-long session because, as Simeone put it, the conservationist movement that is so important in other aspects of collecting – from furniture to art, and beyond – really hasn’t been voiced to the classic car community comprised primarily of individual hobbyists. We need, Simeone said, to get the basic ideas of preservation out there.

Part of that message is that conservation means careful preservation and protection that can prevent destruction while restoration is a form of repair to bring something back to a former condition.

Make a Clean Start. Moore opened the 10-subject list of topics by talking about surface cleaning.

“Why clean?” he asked, and answered: To reveal the vehicle’s original surfaces, to limit hidden damage to those surfaces, to reveal previous (but now hidden) issues, and to prepare for future preservation, if needed.

Moore suggested cleaning vehicle surfaces with Orvus soap, which is widely used in cleaning quilts and also horses and is available at tack shops.

Save the Paint! Clara Deck, senior conservator at The Henry Ford museum, covered two of the 10 topics. First, she offered a history of automotive paint and the care needed to preserve and repair various historic-era surfaces. She encouraged what she called “reversible techniques” and said B72 retouching gels (used in art preservation) can be used on a vehicle and, when no longer needed, are easily removed via duct tape.

Patina is corrosion (but) we like how it looks.”

— Clara Deck,

The Henry Ford

 

Battling Corrosion. In her later presentation, Deck noted. “Patina is corrosion (but) we like how it looks.”

She explained that in the world of museum conservators, a non-working musical instrument is called an “ISO,” an instrument-shaped object, but no longer a real instrument because it cannot be played. In the same way, she said, a non-running classic car might be termed a VSO – a vehicle-shaped object. Sometimes, she said, parts or pieces really must be replaced to keep a vehicle in operation.

Internal medicine. Before preserving and restoring cars, Brian Howard was known for the conservation and preservation of all sorts of historic artifacts. His company has been hired by the National Baseball Hall of Fame to remove old leather dressing from the museum’s collection of baseball gloves because of the long-term damage that dressing can do.

His subject at HVA was preserving textiles, leather, vinyl and carpet. He spoke about what he considers the “unnecessary replacement” of various interior components in classic cars. For example, he said, you may not have to replace seats and carpeting if you regularly remove those seats and vacuum them and the area beneath them as a way to prevent insect damage.

From Barn Find to Track Time. Paul Russell used his work on a 1953 Ferrari 375 MM as a case study for getting a historic racing car back on track. He went into the details of using penetrating oil in cylinders, transmission oil in a crankcase, flushing the engine with mineral spirits, fighting corrosion and maintaining seals and the importance of bench-testing under pressure and at operating temperatures once an engine is freed up.

Hitting the Road. Paul Ianuario, for 22 years the head of research and development for Michelin in the U.S., talked about wheels and tires, and mounting and balancing. He explained how to inspect and repair wooden wheels and how to clean metal wheels (including the use of dry ice blasting for the later). He also noted that tires manufactured as recently as four years ago cannot be sold for use on American roads and that tires need to be exercised regularly, at least once a month, to break up the “rubber chains” that otherwise form and limit performance.

Lights Out & Deep Freeze. While Ianuario wants you to drive your classic at least once a month to keep its tires in proper shape, Jay Hubbard of the National Automotive Museum (nee Harrah Collection) talked about putting your car away for the winter — or even longer. His advice:

  • Seek out unseen dirt – inspect, clean, dry
  • Lubricate after cleaning with a 40:1 mixture of water-soluble oil
  • Change your oil and run the engine for an hour afterward
  • Before the engine cools, place silica gel in all openings of the engine and in the exhaust pipe and use aluminum tape to seal (or use aircraft desiccant plugs if you can afford them)
  • Remove the battery and fuel, then blow out all fuel lines and flush with Avgas 100LL
  • Drain and vent the cooling system
  • Inspect gear oil and again, use silica gel to combat moisture
  • Disengage the clutch
  • Use DOT5, not Dot3, fluid in brake lines (unless car is new enough to have ABS sensors), and flush with alcohol
  • Check hydraulic accessories — windows, convertible tops, and consider using transmission fluid during storage
  • Use an RMI 25 radiator treatment
  • Take the vehicle’s weight off its tires

In summary, Hubbard said, the two biggest issues are the fuel and cooling systems.

Thoughts on Transportation and Display. Whether transporting your car to storage or to a show, Mark Lizewskie of the AACA Museum has a long list of things to do. Here are just a few of the points he covered:

  • Inspect your tow vehicle and trailer, including lug nuts, tire pressures, lights, chains, tie-downs, tire chucks, tools, cleaning supplies and fire extinguisher.
  • Slit Styrofoam pool noodles and slide onto wheel wells and over tailgate cables to provide protection.
  • If you haul the same vehicle in the same trailer regularly, make marks in the trailer to assure proper vehicle placement time after time.
  • Make sure your vehicle has sufficient antifreeze; you don’t always know that the truck taking it from it Florida to Arizona is going by way of Minnesota.
  • Disconnect the battery and, if possible, shut off the full supply; “A jarred carburetor float or loose hot wire can ruin your whole day.”
  • The tail of a multi-car trailer has the roughest ride; check for plenty of overhead clearance
  • Wrap axle straps with soft cloth or sheepskin seat belt covers.
  • Pay attention to tie-down buckles that may bounce during transport; too many fuel tanks have been dented.
  • Check doors, hood and other hinged items to make sure they are latched and will not pop open and swing around during transport.
  • Stop after 20 miles to recheck strap tightness (and everything else).
  • After you remove the vehicle from the trailer, check the trailer floor in case something fell off or leaked.
The Alfa as it arrived for restoration
The Alfa as it arrived for restoration

Digitally Guided Preservation. David Cooper, who has restoration shops in Chicago and in France, talked about his on-going restoration of one of 28 Alfa Romeos built during World War II, in this case a 6C 2500 Super Sport cabriolet for German field marshal Wolfram von Richthofen, and how the use of 3-D scanning technology and a photo album found at a French flea market are being used to return the car to its original configuration. (The HVA also is using 3-D scanning as part of its documentation for cars being included on the National Historic Vehicle Registry.)

A period photograph (top)  was morphed into a 3-D digitally scanned image to produce an image of how the car should look after restoration
A period photograph (top) was used to produce digitally generated image of how the car should look after restoration

Cooper said the restoration of the Alfa also is being aided by his discovery of two historic French crown-forming machines, sort of oversized English wheels which can be used to shape larger body panels and reduce welding of multiple pieces. Only a dozen such machines remain, two at Cooper’s shops.

Spreading Best Practice Standards. To develop and spread “best-practice” methods and standards for classic car conservation, preservation and restoration, the HVA and SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) are forming working committee, said Gary Pollak of the SAE.

A French crown-forming machine
A French crown-forming machine

Couch Time. I’ve changed the order of the various presentations to put Simeone’s talk on the “responsible use” of classic vehicles last — but certainly not least. He shared the Burra Charter and its goal to provide for the security, maintenance and future of artifacts of cultural significance, and to determine an object’s use based on those principles.

And then he asked, “Will aggressive use, racing long distance, high RPMs shorten (a vehicle’s) historical value?” And, he added, does it violate a vehicle’s historical significance to make changes that make it faster for vintage racing? What constitutes ethical use? Is it all about you and the owner/driver/investor or is it about the car, leaving you as conservator/steward?

The ensuing debate within the conference room became so heated that HVA president Mark Gessler intervened, cutting off discussion and suggesting there would be a cage match instead of a pre-dinner reception that evening.

One thing not open to debate: People are passionate about classic cars, their use and their preservation.

2 thoughts on “From Orvus soap to the Burra Charter: A guide for the preservation (and use) of classic vehicles”

  1. Very good information, especially about storing collector vehicles. I would bet a whole lot that less than 1 in 100 vehicles that get stored are prepared this way. I have been collecting, buying and selling collector cars for more than 50 years and I have never gone to this much effort to store vehicles. I can not say if I am right or wrong in the way I store cars, but Hubbards advice is certainly be best way to put a vehicle into hibernation. Sometimes I feel like my veins run with antifreeze, motor oil and gasoline. I have spent my entire life buying selling and restoring collector cars. It has been said “If you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life” I feel like i only work a half a day a week, the rest of the time I am playing. Love what you do, live life and prosper.

    Ron Ayers,

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