10 July 2007

Counterpoint: Original Please

I know the type of house John Gunnell once lived in. As a kid in the 1980s, my cousin’s neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, lived in the same type of house. It was a monument to the 1940s and 1950s, from the carpet to the furniture to the white GM refrigerator with the giant chrome handle that looked straight off the hood of a 1954 Chevrolet truck.

Mrs. J., as we called her, was one of those wonderful women who kept an immaculate garden and house. Pictures on the wall proved that the house had changed little since she moved in after the war. But when something broke, Mrs. J. repaired it. She didn't tear down the history she'd experienced in the house by remodeling it.

I look at unrestored cars the same way I look at Mrs. Johnson’s house. The patina and the dated furniture told the story of Mrs. J. and the people that she loved. Sure, the house wasn’t as fresh as it was when she moved in during the 1940s, but it was clean and neat. An unrestored car is just the same way. Such a car may not be as fresh looking as a restored or new car, but if it’s clean and presentable, it’s even easier to enjoy. And it will probably attract more attention than a restored car.

When people walk up to my unrestored 1955 Cadillac, they run their fingers along the shiny, thin spots in the paint where the primer shows through and they gaze into the slightly dulled chrome. Even in a sea of $15,000 paint jobs, the well-traveled Cadillac stands tall. They admire my car like I admired Mrs. J.’s house.

There are no “do not touch” signs plastered all over my car. And when I see people gently place their hand on the car’s thin spots and smile, I smile with them. These people respect the car and are learning about the quality built into my car when it was new. When they ask if it’s original, I proudly tell them that the paint is the very same shade that Cadillac applied to the metal in late 1954, and it’s seen 134,000 careful miles.

As a Series 62 coupe, my car is the least expensive Cadillac available that year, and I point out that the car was likely someone’s first Cadillac. The original owner probably saved for many years to buy the car, dreaming about the day they would own a Cadillac as they diligently tallied the total of their savings account each month to count the days to when they could buy the car.

When the dream of Cadillac ownership finally came true, they made sure the car always looked as nice as it did when it rolled out of the factory. They may have even tried too hard, as their wax jobs slowly burned through the paint in a couple places. Those thin spots are the places where those previous owners left their careful mark on the car.

The car would certainly be an easy restoration. Its panels and bumpers are straight and devoid of rust, and its original interior wouldn’t need to be touched if it hadn’t discolored through time. But to replace, replate and repaint all of its parts would wipe away the history of the car and all of the gentle owners who respected the car and its beauty for fifty years.

Because the Cadillac is original, it’s cheaper to own and I worry less about driving it. As long as I keep it clean and drive it as carefully as Mrs. J. kept her home, I won’t need to spend thousands on a paint job, more thousands on chrome replating and even more thousands on new upholstery.

When I drive the car to car shows and swap meets (it’s been driven to five states in three years) and it gets a chip or two in the hood, I simply fill them in with touch-up paint. Trust me, I’ve fretted over new paint jobs on other cars, only to watch rocks and people in Cavaliers destroy all of my prep work and the skill of local body men in one swift movement.

In an unrestored car, touching up the paint is just another part of the upkeep, and I don’t have to worry about making an appointment to have the entire fender re-shot to keep it looking new throughout. Those touch-up spots are a badge of honor.

Trusting the parts on an unrestored car can be nerve-wrecking, but not anymore of a challenge than driving any other car of an equal age. Mechanical problems do crop up, and I have been stuck on the side of the road. But I’ve been in the same predicament in a restored car, and it’s an unavoidable fact. Parts of an old design fail, whether restored or not, and there’s nothing we can do about it but replace or rebuild them and move on.

My unrestored car is not the only original car that gathers attention. In fact, the more aged a car looks and the older it is, the bigger the crowd that gathers. Watch a barn-fresh car pull into a car show. People instantly forget about the show-stopping restorations around it to examine the ghostly remains of a car that has been appreciated in its original state by all of its owners. It’s a shame to the craftsmen that restore old cars, but it’s a fact, and it’s one that hasn’t escaped many of them.

I know a restorer whose work often places at Pebble Beach, but if you look in his garage, you’ll find it filled with unrestored cars in No. 3 condition. He lovingly refers to them as “old girls,” and he has no plan of ever pointing his paint gun in their direction. He likes them just the way they are.

People will pay dearly for the chance to own unrestored cars, too. Recently, a Bugatti Type 57 Atalante sold at a Christie’s auction for nearly twice its pre-auction estimate, putting its price not very far below that of a restored version.

Low-mileage originals pose other issues concerning preservation. Should their original, date-coded hoses be replaced when they become brittle? Should their factory-installed batteries and belts make way for new parts to make them drivable? I say no. Such cars that maintain their original parts help restorers of less-fortunate cars make them correct.

These cars and their components tell the tale of the factory’s procedures and processes, and a car that keeps these parts can help hundreds of similar cars return to the road in a condition as close to new as possible. Owners of such low-mileage cars rarely drive these vehicles anyway, so they are rarely missing out on the driving experience. If they do choose to replace such parts, then the original components should be documented by photography before their removal, tagged and saved on a shelf near the car.

The 1957 Plymouth Belvedere buried in Tulsa may be a low-mileage car, but it's a separate case study altogether. Though Tulsans hoped the new car they buried would come out looking just like it did in 1957, it was not to be. Water seeped in and erased the gold and white paint and any sign of upholstery, replacing the entire car with rust, dirt and shreds of the special Metalum cover that was intended to preserve it.

Many have wondered if this car should be restored, and like a low-mileage car stored in a cool and dry garage all of its life above ground, I don’t believe the Plymouth should be touched. The truth of the matter is, there’s not much to restore, even for a collector with deep pockets. Even before the car came out of the ground, I publicly stated the car should not be touched by the hand of man.

But once the Plymouth’s cover was lifted off the car and part of its bumper was scraped of the rust-color muck covering it to reveal gleaming chrome, I started to change my tune. What if the vault the Plymouth was once buried in was filled with a rust remover, like Rustbeeter? Would the rust be removed and the gold paint revealed? Is there still a shiny Plymouth hidden underneath the orange-colored shell?

The truth of the matter is no. Since the car hit the fresh air, its deterioration has accelerated, and the car is dropping a trail of rust chips like a horse leaving its mark in a parade. Sandblasting the paper-thin body car would only leave a pile of rust and sand, four tires and broken glass on the ground.

Leave that Plymouth alone. It’s a testament to the vision, though misdirected as we later learned it was, by Tulsans to preserve the past for the future. It also made for one big party that will probably be unequaled by any other car event to come. In the meantime, I hope Tulsans find a way to stop the car’s decay. Fortunately, there are plenty of other 1957 Plymouths out there to restore, and even a few well-preserved original Plymouths to help others restore their less-fortunate Plymouths correctly.

Angelo VanBogart is the editor of Old Cars Weekly


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