Restore, Revive, Recreate

The debate on where to stop when rebuilding your precious piece of automotive history

How much should you restore a car? It's a question that gets plenty of exercise, not least in these pages over many years. For a snapshot of current thinking, the RAC recently ran a seminar where a panel presented various points of view for debate, and if it didn't settle on one answer, it did help explain why some people or institutions sometimes make restoration calls we wouldn't all make.

Evert Louwman, whose Louwman Museum at the Hague is stacked with motoring treasures, put the purist viewpoint. He argued that if there is only one of something, it's a sin to duplicate it. Citing the famous Spyker, the first mechanical 4WD car built, he said "we will never, ever build the second one!". Someone brought up the Lancia D50 recreations, built exactly to type, containing original elements. In Louwman's view a unique car should be viewed as an artwork, pointless to copy. Yet most of us were thrilled to see one of these cars run at Goodwood, an experience which surely matches what 1950s spectators saw. The chances are that an original car is never going to run in public again; without such recreations we wouldn't have the chance to hear that brassy V8 shrilling across the paddock. And in a way recreations preserve the original: cars wither if not used, so where does that leave the owner of a vehicle which is the only one in existence? Every time it runs it's consuming itself. Not that Louwman is pedantic about this: there are cars in his collection he says they will never run, but he had brought the 1903 Gordon Bennett Napier over for the Brighton run.

Doug Hill of the National Motor Museum pointed out a conflict facing collections like his — the public like shiny cars which run. He agreed that there is an argument for certain historic vehicles to be left alone permanently as a reference — the Louwman collection has chosen not to restore the only pre-war Toyota in existence, which it found in Manchuria in a bad way — but that you need to exercise even very historic vehicles. Of course the NMM always sends cars out on the Brighton Run, accepting that over the years this means replacing worn parts, but they now have a 'parallel collection' of sacrificial pieces they can allow schoolchildren to get hands-on with.

When the conversation moved on to 'which state should you restore a vehicle to?' opinions differed, especially on competition cars. Aim for 'factory fresh', or 'most famous period', or keep it in its final form? Racer and Bonhams auction expert Robert Brooks gave the example of the Lance Macklin Austin-Healey. It had a notable works career before it was involved in the 1955 Le Mans tragedy and a substantial club racing history after that, so how should it end up now? Interestingly, this was one case where the room seemed to be in consensus: it's not a unique car and it is significant for one event above all, so 1955 Le Mans spec is appropriate. Which is what its new owner plans for it.

Brooks also offered up matching Astons, presented in different states: one gussied up with big engine, electric doo-dahs and air-con, one highly original with minimal intervention. "Is one of these 'wrong?" he asked. He thought not; they're not rare and were simply what the owner wanted to drive. He added a third: a barn-find needing huge amounts spent. "We estimated £150,000," he said. "It went for £300,000." Once only a historically important car would merit rescue from dereliction. Now it is a way in for an owner who wants to know he's bought originality and isn't scared of costs.

All of which led on to what 'originality' means. Collector and restorer Daniel Ward pointed out that while restoring a very early Decauville he had to decide whether to remove a conversion added by a previous owner — Sir Henry Royce. Not an easy decision. Similar choices face anyone with a historic vehicle they wish to enter for events such as the Mille Miglia, particularly when the temptation of high-profile concours such as Pebble Beach looms large.

Of course it's far easier to build a new body than repair old metal, and today you can buy brand-new Bugatti Type 35 and Alfa 8C engines. As the money in the business spirals, more 'mysterious' vehicles appear, with ever-better replication. Toby Ward, chairman of the VCC dating committee, says he's more than once had to disappoint owners by informing them their supposedly veteran car was manufactured three years ago. "It's hard telling someone their baby is ugly," he laughed. But the VCC has a new weapon — a hand-held spectroscope which can instantly analyse metal and compare it with known period items. Which was especially interesting to me: I'm writing this on the day of the Brighton Run, and last night I had dinner with a trio entered on the event. One is a restorer who has been offered a supposedly original Alfa 8C engine, resurfacing after years lost. The real thing would be a precious discovery, and my pal reckons he can tell from the crank if it's Thirties or new. But as the copiers get cleverer we'll need new technologies to distinguish their work.

The VCC device depends, of course, on a reliable database of known cars. The club has extensive records and expertise increases all the time, but as Toby Ward pointed out, this too can bring problems. "A lot of our early certificates are now plainly wrong," he admitted, "but for political reasons we won't be revisiting them." Imagine the squeals as a Brighton-worthy car suddenly crosses the 1905 date line and snaps from pension fund to chicken feed.

Closing the day, RAC chairman Ben Cussons asked if an international authenticity certificate was a desirable goal. You can get paperwork from FIVA, the MSA, clubs such as the VSCC and manufacturers, for example the controversial Ferrari Classiche scheme, which variously say a car is old, or one of ours, or safe to race, but there is no overall authority on originality. All, though, agreed that this task is simply too big for one body to police. Leave it to marque experts and disinterested historians, was the feeling.

So if there was a conclusion, it was only that these debates will bubble on as long as metal lasts. But while we all have our own positions — and I will always prefer a survivor with cracked paint, shabby seats and well-maintained running gear over any concours-winning 100-point restoration — it was a useful reminder that the other guy isn't necessarily wrong.