Did someone really pay half-a-million for dirt and grime?

Photos by Larry Edsall
Photos by Larry Edsall

What do we do when we erase patina, when we cover over the historic evidence of the object’s travel through time to the present day? What do we do when we eliminate the very finger prints of the past by restoring cars to “original,” or “improving” them to make them better drivers or more successful racers? Once the evidence of an object’s travel through time disappears, history disappears. For an historical object to lose its history is to lose its reality, the only thing of any great value in the first place.

Miles Collier, The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles

If you’ve ever watched Antiques Roadshow on your local PBS television station, you no doubt have seen the reaction when one of the Keno brothers tells someone their family-heirloom, circa-1750 Queen Anne cherrywood bookcase on desk is worth $5,000 —  its value would be $120,000 had grandpa not refinished it.

Can you imagine one of them saying the same thing to the owner of a classic car while it is displayed on the fairway at Pebble Beach, where the brothers — experts not only in old furniture but in old cars — serve as judges?

Don’t laugh. It could happen.

In fact, it already has, perhaps not at Pebble Beach but at the recent Arizona auctions.

We quote Miles Collier, automotive historian and passionate preservationist, and mention that cherry-wood case and desk in the aftermath of the recent classic car auctions in Arizona. At Gooding & Company’s Scottsdale auction someone paid nearly $1.9 million for a dirty, dusty 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL “gullwing” with ripped interior and torn headliner that had been found after being parked for several decades in a garage. At that very same auction, someone, presumably someone else, bought a seemingly identical, black-with-red interior ’56 gullwing, except this one had been completely restored with gleaming paint, gorgeous interior and was ready for the road — and yet it sold for a mere $1.4 million.Did someone really pay half a million dollars for dust and wear and tear?

Which car is with more: Unrestored or restored?
Which car is with more: Unrestored “barn-find” or fully restored version?

“It was a very significant car in that it was an ‘unknown’ car to the collecting hobby and that’s certainly worth something,” said Garth Hammers, a car specialist at Gooding. “It had its original paint, and that probably should be in boldface print. They made 1,400 gullwings, and how many still have their original paint? Twenty, maybe 25.

“We have pretty stark and equal comparisons at this auction,” he added, noting the pair of black-and-red gullwings in the same catalog.

“The fact is, the original car is less replaceable than the restored car.  I drove the restored car more than 100 miles and it is the best-driving Gullwing I’ve ever been in. Everything was perfectly attended to and dialed in.

“But the car originally was red with a plaid interior. There’s a premium for original black cars, just like there is for original Rudge cars. Black was not as rare a color as you might think, I think they made around 100 of them. But over the years, a number have been painted other colors. Now, more and more are going back to their original color combinations (which can add $100,000 to the vehicle’s price when it is sold).”

Combine originality and rarity with a car that had been forgotten in storage for several decades and collectors get excited.

“It was the market speaking on an iconic car that has not been restored,” Hammers said.contrastgooding

And that dusty gullwing wasn’t the only unrestored car that drew a lot of attention — and money — at Goodings’ Scottsdale auction. A dingy (can any Ferrari really be termed “dingy?”) 1967 Ferrari 330 GTS that had been parked in a garage in Pennsylvania since an engine fire in 1969 sold for more than $2 million.

The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles was published in 2012 by the Simeone Automotive Foundation and presented the case for preservation instead of restoration. Collier and the Keno brothers wrote chapters for the book. Last fall, Collier and Leslie Keno were part of a panel that spoke about the Art of the Automobile before the RM/Sotheby’s auction in New York City.

As Collier noted in New York, “The vast majority of restorations are not original restorations. They are re-restorations of cars already restored once, twice, three times.”

What Collier and others like is the growing trend in the classic car hobby to apply “archival standards” that preserve rather than recreate history.

At that same seminar, Peter Mullin, who in addition to his own collection and museum is chairman of the Petersen Automobile Museum, said that in the last few years, collectors in the United States have “awakened to the fact that you ought to preserve things if they’re still in their original state.

You put your hands on the steering wheel that Rene Dryfus set a record with and you don’t want to change that.”

— Peter Mullin

 

“You spend a quarter-of-a-milion or $350,000 restoring,” Mullin said, “and it’s worth less than if you hadn’t done anything to it.

“We’re very much in the mode of appreciating originality, provenance. Original leather smells different. You put your hands on the steering wheel that Rene Dryfus set a record with and you don’t want to change that.

“But,” he added, “(unlike collectors in Europe) the U.S. has come to the table slowly on this subject.”

Slowly, but surely. Hammers noted that judges at a major concours d’elegance, the Elegance at Hershey, last year awarded best-in-show honors to an unrestored car, Robert and Sandra Bahre’s 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300B Touring Spider. The car was repainted in 1950 but otherwise had been left as is.

It was only the third time such a car had won such honors. In 1989, another Bahre car, a 1934 Packard 1108 sport phaeton with LeBaron bodywork, was best American car at the Meadow Brook concours in Michigan. In 2010, yet another of the Bahres’ cars, a 1940 Duesenberg SJ with Rollson coachwork, was honored as the best “domestic” car at the Fairfield County (Conn.) concours, where Mullin’s 1931 Bugatti Type 54 got the other Grand Prix d’Honneur award as best “foreign” car.

Bob Bahre, said Jeff Orwig, curator of the Bahre Collection, “has a philosophy that a great car is a great car regardless of its condition, and if it’s an unrestored car, that makes it greater yet.

“He had the foresight to figure this out some 30 years ago. When he found cars, their lack of perfection didn’t phase him.”Orwig said Bahre had a group of cars that didn’t leave the building because the hosts of shows and concours didn’t find them pretty enough. “Anyone else would have restored or sold them,” Orwig said.

Instead, Orwig said, when others also began to see the beauty through the dust, “suddenly, he (Bahre) is a hero.

Orwig said the cars are cleaned and kept in good mechanical working condition and can be driven.

“You change fluids and belts, the normal mechanical maintenance,” he said. “If a component fails, you make it functional without impacting its outward appearance unless you absolutely have to.

“They’re only original once,” Orwig said of Bahre’s philosophy.alfaconcours1

Or maybe not… The inaugural Arizona Concours d’Elegance was held on the eve of Arizona Auction Week. Among the cars arrayed on the lawns within the Arizona Biltmore was the world’s oldest remaining Alfa-Romeo, a 1921 Alfa-Romeo G1, that looked like it had just completed the Mille Miglia race (see photo).

In fact, the former racing car had been converted for regular road use after its racing career and later served as a farm implement in Australia. But when Tony Shooshani of Beverly Hills, Calif., bought the car in 2012, he thought its history should be preserved so he asked Craig Calder of FastCars Ltd. in Redondo Beach to do what Shooshani calls a “destoration” to return the car to its original look and operating capabilities.

The Alfa won an award last summer in the pre-war open-wheel racing class at Pebble Beach. Shooshani hopes to drive the car on the modern Mille in Italy, and to continue show it for several more years before letting it live out the rest of its life in an Italian car museum.

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