What makes a car original, and how original? — Doug Nye

“Enthusiasm for fine and interesting old cars is an extremely broad church”

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It was I think motoring writer Leonard Setright who coined, or broadcast, the penetrating rhyme: “One man’s meat’s another man’s poison – my favourite car’s an Avions Voisin.”

Now anyone familiar with the – ahem – looks of the average Voisin (if any of them could be described as ‘average’) will completely grasp the point. Enthusiasm for motor sport and for fine and interesting old cars in general is an extremely broad church.

But there are points of contact between even the most isolationist disciples of one-marque interest – between the Ferrariphiles and the Riley nuts, the ’Nashers and the Red Bull Racing fans, the AMG-Mercedes F1 freaks and the old-time Sizaire et Naudin faction or even Les Bugattistes or the Alfisti. One major shared interest focuses simply upon what constitutes a right and proper surviving example of each marque. How can we assess comparative originality, the intrinsic quality of the artefact – when can a car be regarded as ‘original’? And ‘how original’?

Here it’s terribly easy to fall into an American-style collegiate debate, carefully dissecting and analysing every mortal intellectual – or pseudo-intellectual – viewpoint before emerging with some impenetrably worded overall conclusion from which many perfectly well-qualified contributors would probably still dissent.

I think it was some time back in the late-70s or early ’80s that Jenks – former renowned Continental Correspondent of this magazine and a man whose all-absorbing life amongst quality cars had taught him a thing or three – asked me to assist him in compiling a quality-assessment scale for what could constitute ‘originality’. What qualifies a fine car of any era to be considered of greater historical (and, perhaps regrettably, financial) value than its peers? What we came up with was this.

Given many well-discussed caveats about any motor car being an assemblage of parts consumable by use and even by the mere passage of time, a truly ‘original’ car, structurally, will have all of its five major component groups intact. They could be considered to be chassis – bodywork – engine – gearbox – suspension/axles etc (the running gear). One could also add the car’s paint finish if that also dated from the era in which the car was active at frontline level. And if it retained each of those five contemporary core features, then that vehicle would be truly exceptional – historically and qualitatively perfect.

Any surviving car which retains four of those five critical elements would also be pretty good, worthy – above average. Any car retaining three of those five could be termed average. Any car retaining only two of those five would be moderate. And featuring only one of those five features is pretty poor.

There is, however, a trump card in the pack. If the ‘one’ original item is the chassis frame, then the car assembled upon it is several times more justified than any other combination in having a claim to the identity’s original history. To post a worthwhile claim to ‘a history’ the chassis’  survival is truly crucial.

“On Jenks’ Sunbeam a front dumb-iron was stamped ‘FRUNT’ ”

Why should that be so? Simply because that chassis frame would be the single unifying part of the structure which in period reacted to the inputs of contemporary drivers – in the best cases, of one of the greats…

Even then there is another consideration which could confound us. That is the vexed question of such a divided structural entity as in a Jaguar D-type or E-type. Trust the British Midlands motor industry to screw us up. The Jaguar design’s structure combined a central monocoque ‘tub’ or unibody with attached tubular frame sections supporting front and rear suspensions, and the minor matter of an engine. Neither the D’s central tub nor the subframes could provide independent mobility. A D tub with rear frame would carry rear wheels only – no fronts, a belly dragger. A tub with front frame but no rear frame would boast front wheels only, a belly dragger…

Arguments have raged for years over which of those two major assemblies – tub and frame combinations – carries the whole car’s identity. Literalists (with no soul, I maintain) regard the front frame as carrying the identity because that’s where the number is stamped (and Jaguar sometimes described the front frame as the ‘chassis’; and the tub as the ‘body’). On Jenks’ 1924 Grand Prix Sunbeam a front dumb-iron was stamped ‘FRUNT’. Similarly straight-line industry thinking.

I and other like-minded enthusiasts instead regard a D-type’s central stressed-skin tub as having the greater claim to the identity, simply because that’s the bit that unifies the structure into a runnable entity, which carried the driver, and whose external surface was visible to spectators as the car was being raced, or as it drove by.

No doubt everyone here will have their own notions as to what embodies the essential spirit and history of a worthwhile car – what lays adequate claim to ‘the history’ – and some dopes/ dealers/shysters will even believe that ‘the history’ lies within the gift of any transient owner, for him or her to transfer as convenient from an old heap of scrapworthy junk to a brand-new replacement… We all know that’s happened.

In any case, our quality-cum-value scale seemed to make pretty good sense to Jenks and to me. But I do accept that we bearded blokes with lifelong motor mania can be… well… unusual…

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s