Mon, Aug 20, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Leaving well enough alone

The rise of the unrestored classic is making waves among car collectors in the US, but some wonder why they should follow the same rules as other collectors of historical objects


When it came time to freshen up Michelangelo's David a few years ago, a spirited debate broke out over which restoration process would be most appropriate for the priceless artwork.

Though the cleaning techniques under consideration varied widely in their aggressiveness, it is safe to assume that no conservator recommended sandblasting the 4.2m tall hunk of Carrara marble to remove the centuries of accumulated grime. A similar reverence for original finishes and the patina of time is developing among collectors of classic cars, an appreciation for automobiles that have been well preserved through the years rather than restored to showroom (or better) condition.

One sign of the evolving attitudes can be seen at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, which took place on Saturday on the Monterey Peninsula. Considered the premier US concours, Pebble Beach added a Preservation Class for unrestored prewar cars in 2001; this year, a second Preservation Class, for unrestored postwar cars, is included.

The new class is a validation of the values held dear by collectors like Gary Bartlett of Muncie, Indiana, who owns one of the most significant unrestored postwar cars, a 1957 Jaguar XKSS. One of 16 built before a factory fire ended production, it was the ultimate supercar of its era, essentially a street-legal version of the D-Type Le Mans racecar, and a favorite of celebrity playboys.

Bartlett purchased the Jaguar at a 1998 Christie's auction, virtually untouched from new -- a time capsule -- and the only one of the 16 XKSS's that had never been restored. The car, which was displayed at the 1957 Chicago Motor Show, had been all but given up for lost. In fact, it was hiding in plain sight, still in a garage, still in Chicago and in the hands of the second owner who had bought it in 1960.

Sloppy handwriting had resulted in the misreading of the owner's last name and sent countless searchers on wild goose chases over the years. A dealer of rare cars, contacted by the second owner, took charge of the XKSS and consigned it to the Christie's auction in London.

Externally, the car is exactly as it appeared in Chicago in 1957. The paint, the interior and even the tires, convertible top and top cover are original. Naturally, the car has a patina but it is utterly authentic and remarkably well preserved. Bartlett had the mechanical systems inspected and reconditioned as needed with original parts.

As a comparatively new pursuit, car collecting has yet to adopt the guidelines typically followed by collectors of other historic objects. Europeans have been a bit ahead of the curve on this; the mandate of the Federation Internationale des Vehicules Anciens, founded in 1966 in France, is to identify and classify vintage vehicles of all types and to assist in sorting out the differences among vehicles that are original, reproductions or fakes.

No equivalent organization exists in the US.

Tom Cotter, codirector of the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance, a major show held in Florida each March, said he thought the psychology of car collectors was somewhat different from that of other collectors.

Cars are an expression of one's personality, and "car collectors are often perfectionists who simply cannot resist putting their thumbprint on a car," he said.

"The first thing a lot of car collectors want to do when they buy a car is to tear it apart and make everything like new and to their particular preference," he said.

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