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Vol. 1, No. 3
March 23, 2002

Eye of the Beholder
by Andrew Angove

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We've all heard the saying "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Not surprisingly, this is also true in the collectible automobile world. The likes and dislikes are as varied as the people who collect and restore the cars. Soaring rocket ship tail fins might be a turn on for some, or maybe it's miles of dazzling chrome trim, or bullet-shaped front bumper guards. Some like Fords, others prefer a Chevy or Chrysler, much the same as when the cars were new. Some find the great marques that are no longer being built attractive to restore and preserve, such as Packards, Cords, or Duesenbergs. Vehicles can generally be broken down and segmented into a couple of categories: economy, sports, family, utility, and luxury. And generally, you'll find several categories of collectors as well:

The Over-Restorers—these are the people that make the car better than it was when it was new; factory original isn't good enough for them, they want to correct all the factory mistakes, flaws, and generally elevate the car to something higher than a means of transportation. If there was a factory weld visible in the corner of the trunk when the car was new, chances are they've smoothed it out so you can't see it. Their car is now almost God-like, and it's treated better—much better—than it was when new.

The Purists—not as intense as the previous group, but you will find a few trailer queens here. Every screw, every washer, every fastener must be correct. The purists understand that the car had flaws when it was new, and unless it causes a dependability problem, or a safety issue, they usually leave the flaws alone. In some cases, the flaws actually make the car more valuable in their eyes, and they generally know the car inside and out, at least as well as the designers and engineers who created them did. The purists are walking, talking shop manuals of information for anyone who cares to ask them a question. You'll often find them holding official positions in the clubs and organizations for their particular vehicle. If the car only had an AM radio available in it when new, thou shalt not install AM/FM or a CD player. And if you're going to enter your car in a show to be judged by a purist, you'd better make sure those rear seat cigarette lighters work properly first, because they will be checked!

The Modifiers—this can be a scary group. They appreciate the older cars, and restore them so they run great and in many cases perform better than new. Wild custom paint jobs, high tech sound systems, and just about any modification their imagination and wallet can handle are all done. Sometimes there's very little left of the original design, and it can be difficult to determine what year/make/model the car was originally. Sometimes these modifications are done tastefully and executed professionally; and sometimes they aren't. The results can be tragic, especially if the car was a nice original before the modifications began, or an especially rare or desirable vehicle.

The Enthusiasts—this is the well-rounded group that generally appreciates fine vintage cars, and they enjoy driving them. They are active in car clubs, on Internet mailing lists, and do it for the love of the car as well as for the social interaction all this provides. Their cars can be beautiful restorations, original survivors, daily drivers that have had some deferred maintenance, or cars that haven't been driven in years or are good for parts only. They aren't as picky about perfection, and if they want an AM/FM radio or a different color of paint, that's okay.
A great many collectors will fall somewhere between these categories. There's no right or wrong here, just different ideas of what car collecting is all about. I once knew of a guy who spent a lot of money restoring a car. He actually spent about three times as much money restoring it as what he could ever hope to sell the car for. Money was no object, he wanted the best of everything for the car, it didn't matter to him what it cost, he loved the car and was dedicated to making it better than new. The car had been modified somewhat during its restoration, it was original as far as the mechanical, interior, and body were concerned, but there were a few changes made that were not correct for that particular model and year. The car had wide whitewalls on it. And a continental spare tire kit mounted on the rear end. It also had a set of wire wheels and a shade of red paint that was from another year. This might not sound bad, but the car was a 1965 Thunderbird Convertible! This car wasn't available with wide whites, or a continental kit, or wire wheels when it was new. These three items together have distorted the clean lines and appearance of an otherwise beautiful vintage car. The fact is the car just doesn't look right with this configuration of accessories. And the shade of red selected for the paint doesn't quite have the same hue as the red interior. In bright sunlight, the paint has too much purple in it, and it clashes with the brighter red interior. Sure, the guy loved it this way, and a few of his friends also liked it. But at car shows you could hear people walk away from it saying, "that's too bad", "he ruined that car with the continental kit", "too flashy for my taste", or "it would cost a fortune to put it back the way it's supposed to be".

Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, and the guy who restored this car found that out when he tried to sell it. No one felt the wide whites, connie kit, and wire wheels were worth the premium he was asking for the car with those items. Fourteen months later the car did finally sell, after the continental kit was removed and the price was lowered by a considerable amount. One of the first things the new owner did was replace the tires, with a more appropriate thinner white wall.

The point here is: you can do whatever you want to with the car. It's your car. But don't expect everyone else to like what you've done to it. If wide whitewalls and continental kits are your bag, find a car that would have had them available when new instead of adding them to a car from another era. Instead of putting these items on a 1965 Thunderbird Convertible, which didn't offer any of them when new, why not go for a 1958-1960 Thunderbird, which did offer the wide whites and spare tire carrier. Or, a 1955-1957 Thunderbird. Or almost any mid-fifties Cadillac. There are a lot of choices.

If you must make changes, do it so that the car can be returned to original condition easily and inexpensively. Putting the original steel wheel rims and wheel covers back on the car is no big deal, if you still have them. Changing a set of tires to the correct width white wall can be done easily enough, but it's an additional cost that potential buyers might want an adjustment made for in the final sales price of the car. Removing a continental kit and repairing the holes drilled to mount it can be time consuming and costly, as well. And we all know what a new paint job costs!

If you're planning on keeping the car forever, and you don't care about what happens to it after you're gone, then go ahead and do what you will with it. But understand that you will limit the market for your car. A great many will not appreciate the modifications, and will feel the car is worth less due to the expense of putting it back the way it originally was. And for some reason, many of these restored and modified cars no longer have the original parts available to put them back in original condition. Whether they were lost, stolen, or sold is usually a mystery, and if they are available they aren't in the same condition as the rest of the car. And according to those with first hand experience in this area, it always costs more than you think it will to undo something someone else has done.

Consider the grieving family members left behind who will most likely want to sell off the old cars and parts left behind by their beloved family member. They don't really know what to do with it all. They might know how much money is in each car, and they might have an idea of its total value, but they are not properly prepared to wheel and deal with another collector when it comes time to sell. Rarely does one sell a vintage car for more than the cost of restoration, and this is the nature of the beast. Collecting vintage cars is a hobby, and as such costs money; all hobbies cost money. So you must remember you will probably lose money when you or your family eventually sell the car. The amount of money you put into the car, and the amount of money it sells for can be brought closer together if the car is kept original, with minimal changes. Most people looking for a vintage car seek out original examples.

This isn't to say that all modifications are bad. Adding seat belts to make the car safer is always a good choice, and almost everyone will make exceptions for this. Some will want to modify the brakes to add dual master cylinders or disc brakes. Again, for safety reasons, few will argue with these changes, if they're done properly. But a well maintained brake system, even if completely original, is usually adequate for most conditions these cars will be exposed to. Few of them will be driven on long trips in the mountains where brake fade is a concern, and it's important to remember that these systems were able to stop the car when it was new, and this was under a wide variety of conditions that most vintage cars will never see today.

I don't really know what category I fall into. I'm not an over-restorer, as far as correcting all the little factory flaws. I do mostly prefer to see cars restored to their original state, with few modifications. Updated sound systems are okay with me, as long as they're done tastefully and don't detract from the original look of the car. I don't mind changes in wheels or paint colors, as long as it looks right for the period in which the car was made. I don't care for color combinations that don't go together, where the interior color just doesn't really look good with the exterior color; or the paint color is obviously not correct for the year. If the car wasn't a three tone paint job when new, chances are it won't look good with three different colors on it today. And I like to see materials used that are correct for the year, if they're available, and I believe most people will agree with me on that.

Not too long ago, I attended a car auction, and there were some really great cars there. I spotted a silver 1965 Buick Electra 225 Convertible with a black interior that looked great; there were a few very nice early Mustangs; a couple of sixties Corvettes; and an unusual 1970 Thunderbird Tudor Landau with the optional Green Fire metallic Glamour paint and green Special Brougham cloth interior with front bucket seats and console. It didn't have any other options, though. No power windows or seats, not even air conditioning! And as I was looking at this T-Bird, I saw another one across the room. It was a Caspian Blue 1964 Thunderbird Landau. And it looked stunning! It had a matching dark blue vinyl roof, and wore rear fender shields and deluxe spinner wheel covers. As I approached the car, it just kept getting better. The paint was beautiful—obviously a very expensive job—and the vinyl roof was the correct color and grain for a 1964 Thunderbird. The chrome was perfect, all the body panels lined up beautifully, and everything looked original. My first impression of this car was that it was one of the nicest '64s I'd seen in a long time. Then I looked inside, and that's when the bad news began!

Anyone familiar with 1964 Thunderbirds knows that a Caspian Blue exterior color normally would be paired with a blue interior, a black interior, or a white interior. Well, this car had a blue interior in it. Dark blue. Everywhere. The blue used in 1964 was a light silvery blue, and it was coordinated with dark blue accents on the instrument panel, bucket seat backs, and carpeting. It was also available only in a choice of all-vinyl, an optional leather and vinyl combination, or a cloth and vinyl combination. The cloth used in 1964 was a textured cloth called Pompeii, which had metallic threads imbedded in it. I'm sorry to say that this particular 1964 Landau had been reupholstered in VELOUR! Dark blue velour. And it was literally everywhere you looked. Door panels, headliner, seats, rear quarter panels, you name it! The car that I had originally thought was a "9" on a scale of 1-to-10, dropped quickly to a "2" or "3". There's no doubt in my mind that this was a top-quality upholstery job, the pattern on the seats matched, the wood trim had been reinstalled on the door and rear quarter panels, and everything else about it was correct for the year and original.

As I was looking at the car, another guy walked up to me and asked if I knew who owned the car. I replied that I did not, and he commented how nice the car was. He pointed out that the information posted on the windshield of the car indicated the car was an original 46,000 mile car with complete documentation. Everything was original except for the new paint job and the interior. According to the note placed on the windshield of the car by the seller, the original cloth and vinyl interior had sun faded in spots, and the cloth was getting thin. So, the interior was completely reupholstered! Now, I haven't tried to locate original Pompeii cloth in light blue lately, but I've got to believe that something a bit closer to the original is available. I understand if an original material or pattern is no longer available, and an attempt has been made to match it as closely as possible. If it's not available, it's not available. However, I do know that light blue vinyl upholstery kits are widely available, have been available for some time, and at fairly reasonable prices. Light blue leather is also available. Either one of these choices in my opinion would have kept the car original, and no one would have ever known the difference unless they checked the trim code.

I understand that there are those who do not like vinyl or leather for seats, they prefer cloth and that's why cloth was offered as a no cost option when the car was new. But the change to velour was a big one, and ruined the car for anyone who wanted an original. The guy that came up to me while I was looking at the car approached me later and asked if I knew much about 1964 Thunderbirds. I told him I was familiar with them, but didn't know a lot of technical things. He asked about the interior of that car, and said he was told by the seller that it was an almost perfect duplication of the original interior. I told him that to the best of my knowledge, velour wasn't used in cars until the seventies, and that an all dark blue interior wasn't offered on a Thunderbird until 1966. The guy said if that was the case, he wasn't interested in the car as he wanted something that was correct for the year, and didn't need a lot of work. My apologies to the seller for running off potential buyers, but the guy was given incorrect information by the seller. Whether intentional or not, I can't say. But if it was intentional, shame, shame on the seller for not being more honest. People that misrepresent cars give the collector car hobby a bad name.

The car didn't sell at the auction, and the high bid on it was several thousand dollars less than the reserve. If someone had a rusty '64 with a nice interior, the car would have been a good one to buy and change out the interior. But not for the price the seller wanted. Had the car been upholstered in original style vinyl or leather and vinyl, I believe it would have sold at that auction. I noticed the expression on the face of several interested parties as they peered inside the car, and realized the interior wasn't correct.

Making modifications to vintage cars while restoring them is a matter of personal taste. Be wary of making changes that are expensive, or not easily undone. The value you place on those changes might be a big negative for others considering purchasing the car in the future. And potential buyers usually make little, if any, allowance for those items if they don't really want them. Just because an accessory is available for purchase for a particular car today doesn't necessarily mean it was offered when the car was new, either. Continental kits are available for a wide variety of cars, including 1961-1966 Thunderbirds and 1961-1965 Lincolns, among others, all of which did not offer them when new. These cars look strange when so equipped, and can develop some poor handling and ride characteristics due to all the added weight on the back that wasn't planned on by the designers.

Some people find the heavily modified classics to be their idea of the top type of collectible automobile. These modifications can sometimes cost a great deal more than a concours quality restoration back to original condition would cost. Chopped tops and custom body work on the exterior along with a custom interior and performance modifications can run into big bucks! Consider the cost of repairing one rusty body panel. Now imagine the cost of that type of work being done on most of the body panels on the car! That's what happens with many customs, each panel is very time consuming to modify. Not to mention the cost of performance modifications in the form of air suspension, fuel injection, wheels, and tires, which can all cost a small fortune on their own. It's really fascinating to view some of these cars, as many of them exhibit ideas that you wish the major manufacturer's would pick up on and implement. The attention to detail is impressive, and you can normally judge the quality of the modifications by the amount of attention given to every detail.

I've noticed small details on restored cars that have either been overlooked or ignored, which would make them almost perfect if tended to. Often they will have after market accessories on them that I know cost a lot of money. I wonder why the restorer didn't tend to the details instead of tacking on extras that don't belong. The cost of the accessories alone would easily have covered the cost of parts and labor to really make the car pristine.

So there you have it. Whether you decide to over-restore a classic car to make it as perfect as humanely possible, or you desire to return it to the condition it originally left the factory in, or drive it everyday in anticipation of the day you will undertake to restore it, or if you just gaze upon the rusty and battered car that needs a lot of time and attention to be drivable again, and dream of what it will be like when it's finished, the path to restoration you ultimately take will be the correct one for you. Just make sure you consider all the options and consequences before get started. A car that has been over-restored, returned to 100% factory original, or is heavily modified will likely never be worth what you've put into it. At least, not in your lifetime. Consider what options exist for the car when you are no longer around to care for it. Classic cars are a part of our history, they are a snapshot of time as it once was, a time that we will never see again. All we have left to show of that time are our memories and the things that were created and designed to be used by people during that period of time. Vintage car enthusiasts are caretakers of the era their cars came from. It is an important responsibility, and a satisfying one as well.

As I said earlier, there is no right or wrong here. Just make sure you do your research first, and that your priorities are in order before you commit to something that can't be easily undone, or is likely to be a deterrent or make the car less valuable to others later. Think about it long and hard before you spend your dollars on these vintage car trappings that don't always look as good to others once installed. There will always be better things to spend that money on.

Copyright © 2002, Automotive Mileposts, Inc.
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