Patina: The Good, The Bad, and How to Preserve the True Time-Worn Classics

Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

Story by Carl Heideman • Photography as Credited

To be honest, we can’t quite figure out the classic car world’s recent fascination with patina. Worn examples of automobiles are occasionally achieving higher prices than their restored counterparts—ones in significantly better condition. The value is in the patina, they say, or in the provenance that it symbolizes. Soon after these explanations are offered, our questions start pouring out in response.  

Is this obsession a subtle backlash to the over-restorations many cars have received in recent years? 

Is it an indicator that car collecting has “grown up” to become an established and respected hobby, like collecting fine art or furniture, in which original pieces garner more value than restored ones? 

Is it recognition that cars are driving machines—not sculptures on rolling pedestals—and should rightly sport some wear and a few road rashes? 

Whatever the case, we feel there are philosophical and perhaps even ethical implications that should be considered when dealing with patina. For many years, serious custodians of classic cars have quietly respected this special type of wear. As it has moved into the spotlight, however, its value and application have been diminished when used in the wrong context. In fact, patina has gotten so mainstream that people have starting going to great lengths to fake it, giving rise to what many consider the faux pas of faux patina.  

Before we get technical and discuss how to maintain and stabilize a car’s patina—and yes, even how to fake it—it’s time we stepped on a soapbox. We’re prepared for letters and emails from your own soapboxes, whether you agree or disagree with us. 

Our Stand on Patina

First off, we think patina and provenance go hand in hand. If a car has significant provenance and the patina reflects it, we feel it’s appropriate to maintain that finish. For example, if the car has its original paint, maintaining the factory history is a worthy cause—after all, a car is only original once. 

The same applies if the car still sports remnants of its period racing livery or the handiwork of an icon. Was it painted by the likes of Dean Jeffries or Junior Conway? Striped by Von Dutch? Preserve what’s left. 

A car’s finish doesn’t need a famous name attached to earn the title of patina. If an average Joe in the car’s past performed careful, high-quality work, and portions of the paint have rubbed through or some trim has lost its gloss, the time and cost associated with a full restoration would be significant. Perhaps a better approach would be to maintain the patina with a few touch-ups and some elbow grease. 

On the other hand, if the car received a bad respray in the 1970s and the paint is faded and flaking, we’re hard pressed to consider that patina. It’s just an old paint job that needs to be forgotten. We’re further amazed that someone would go through any effort to preserve such a finish. Wouldn’t a fresh repaint make more sense? After all, the car is neither original nor is the history of its paint important.

So far, we’ve been fairly objective about this topic. We could almost perform a cost/benefit analysis on most scenarios: Give us a car’s model, condition and provenance, and we could likely tell you if it’s worth preserving the patina or not. 

But patina is about more than just cost versus benefit—there’s a subjective side, too. Sometimes a car, despite ordinary origins and subpar workmanship, just looks cool with a bit of patina. Maybe it reminds you of something you owned—or drove past—years ago. Maybe it has just the right balance of dullness and wear, like a broken-in pair of sneakers or a favorite T-shirt.

Faux or For Real?

People seem to be increasingly overrepresenting—or even entirely misrepresenting—the originality and patina of their cars. Let’s discuss some ways to evaluate a car’s condition and spot the telltale signs that something isn’t a true, time-worn classic.

It’s getting more common for cars, whether they’re on display at shows or offered for sale, to boast original paint. Unfortunately, many of them don’t have original paint—or, at least, not all of it is original. The owners aren’t necessarily lying; many just don’t know how to tell, and they took someone’s word for it. 

Sure, we think there are still plenty of cars out there with quite a lot of original paint, but most of the ones we see in the motorsports world had some work done early in their lives—even at the dealer if they were damaged in transit. A trained eye can typically pick out resprays or blends very quickly. Here’s our inspection process:  

First we look around the trim for evidence of resprays. Even the best tape jobs can allow a little paint to get on the trim in some spots. 

Next we examine the edges, which is where resprayed paint, if it’s present, typically starts to peel. Areas like the doorjambs, the hood and trunk lid side flanges, and the wheel arches, if they aren’t peeling, will sometimes show evidence of “dry spray” where the paint respray application wasn’t heavy enough.  

Finally, if possible, we carefully sight down the car in appropriate light. This sometimes reveals blend lines or sanding scratches from unoriginal work.

Beyond paint, a great way to confirm a car’s originality is to make sure the degree of wear is the same throughout the car. A low-mileage car won’t have worn seat springs, for example, while a higher-mileage car won’t have fresh pedal pads. Under the hood, any oil stains, dirt accumulation and soft corrosion should be present in consistent patterns.   

Speaking of corrosion, evidence of rust repair is probably the most critical thing to look for. A magnet is a great tool for finding body filler in common rust-through areas—no magnetic attraction means unoriginal materials are present. 

In addition, many poor rust repairs are fairly easy to spot if you’re looking carefully. Consistency is key here, too. Are both dogleg sections of the rear-quarter panels shaped the same? Do the wheel arch flanges look the same on each side? Is the rubberized undercoating fresher on one part of the floor than another?

One last easy indicator: If there are stains in interior panels from leaking windows, look carefully for evidence of rust repair around the window channels or package trays beneath.

Photography Credit: Dirk de Jager

Stabilizing Bodywork

Once we’ve philosophized, investigated and inspected a car and have finally decided to celebrate its patina, it’s time to stabilize and enhance it. Priority one: fixing any past damage or damage in progress. Much of this damage is from corrosion, but remember, preserving a car’s finish when there’s too much rust-through will mean astronomical costs for a dubious result. We’re only going to stabilize a car’s patina if we’ll be tackling minor rust repairs.  

We start dealing with corrosion with a very good cleaning. This has a stabilizing effect—less dirt will absorb less moisture—but it also gives us a good chance to carefully assess the severity of the damage. If we find only light surface damage beneath the dirt, we’ll typically leave it as-is but keep it clean in the future. If we find holes or weakened areas, we’ll likely consider sympathetic repairs. 

When we replace the metal, we make sure the metalwork and welding is of the highest standard—no license plates or road signs held in place with pop rivets—and the body filler is kept to a minimum. If we had to estimate a maximum percentage of metal we’d replace on a car, it would be around 10 percent.

Photography Credit: Dirk de Jager

Layer After Layer

Sooner or later, we have to get the paint out as part of the preservation. Whether it’s a freshly welded patch panel or a new bracket that we have to dull down to look like the old one, our painting methods make the difference. As we develop a unique paint strategy for each project, we want to make sure that we match the color, texture and thickness of the surrounding paint. We also typically have to do some blending into the existing paint.  

We could write a lengthy exposé on the various paint products we’d use at this stage, and still we wouldn’t cover everything. Instead, let’s discuss some principal  methods and strategies we use to match patina to our new paintwork. Most of these methods work as well with spray cans as they do with high-end equipment and modern materials. 

Speaking of modern materials, we shy away from them in favor of period-correct ones when they’re available. For example, if a car is painted in lacquer, we prefer to repair it with lacquer if we can get it and it’s legal to use in our area. It’s also a lot more work to make an acrylic urethane paint product look like lacquer.

Before paint touches bodywork, we look carefully for evidence of how the area was originally painted. Did that bracket have a red-oxide primer base under its black topcoat, or was it just dipped in black paint and hung to dry? If it had the red-oxide base, our repair will, too. Was our car originally Pale Primrose but resprayed British Racing Green? If so, we may paint our dogleg replacement Pale Primrose first, then topcoat it in BRG. If you’re starting to think that matching patina with paint is a lot more work than simply painting something, you’re catching on well.

We’ve found that when it comes time to actually paint, working with very thin paint or very thin coats is usually a good strategy if we’re working with a smooth surface, like an old lacquer job that has been rubbed flat. This lets us build up the color and blend it into its surroundings.

A bonus to this strategy is that thinner layers usually have less shine. If we’re spraying with a gun, we overreduce the paint—sometimes beyond the paint manufacturer’s recommendations—and use many thin coats. We may apply 10 to 20 thin coats compared to just two or three for a conventional paint job. If we’re spraying with a can, we do the same thing: multiple very thin coats.

If the surface has any texture, such as orange peel, we employ a couple strategies to match it before we spray our thinner, wider layers. We’ll lay down a few heavy coats targeting the area of the repair; we even admit to throwing some dirt into base layers of paint to better match the texture.  

The bottom line: Do some experimentation to find the right combination of texture techniques first, then get the color and gloss to match. 

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Say No to New

We’re not just talking about bodywork when we consider preserving and repairing patina. Often, interior components, various brackets and electrical components will be part of the work. We deal with these parts separately.

For most of the non-bodywork components, we first try to replace them with a good used part that sports patina matching the rest of our car. Of course, sometimes we can’t find a good used one, but—as with relays—we can transfer the guts of a new one into the shell of an original. Another example is interior knobs and handles: Good used parts fit right in, but shiny new ones don’t look right. 

Don’t overlook the fasteners, either. Obviously used nuts and bolts will blend in better than new ones, but we’ve seen many cars wearing fasteners with incorrect manufacturer markings. The wrong type of used fasteners creep in, too—you shouldn’t see slotted screws in most postwar British cars, for example.

Wiring and hoses are areas where we shy away from old parts. Old, cracking wiring harnesses and hoses just can’t be safely pressed back into service. We therefore try to find new parts that most closely meet OEM specifications, then do our best to dirty them to match the rest of the car. A light mixture of dirt and grease can make a new wiring harness look correct, and for hoses it’s usually sufficient to rub them with dirt. We’re careful to use the right clips and clamps when we replace these components—modern pieces stand out.

Upholstery repairs can be difficult. Matching the pattern and color of vintage carpets and fabrics with new materials is nearly impossible, so we usually look for used parts here, too. The trouble is that used upholstery is often damaged in the same places as the upholstery we’re trying to repair. 

It’s very common for a driver’s seat to be much more worn than a passenger seat, so finding good used driver’s-side upholstery is hard. However, sometimes the passenger-side materials can be fitted to the driver’s side.

Another method is to use seatback material from a spare seat to repair other areas of a seat. Where do we find used materials? Beyond swap meets and online sources, the best way is to stay networked with people performing restorations. When they choose new upholstery, their used stuff may be available for next to nothing, especially if they know it will preserve another car.

Photography Credit: Dirk de Jager

Final Words

Patina may be all the rage these days, but hopefully the classic car community will realize that real patina formed after a lifetime of ownership is far better than “restored” (aka fake) patina. As we announced from our soapbox, we can understand a mild amount of restoration on a car with patina, but at some tipping point, it’s probably better just to make it like new again. Misrepresenting originality is a far greater sin than a proper restoration.

Photography Credit: Drik de Jager

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Comments
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wspohn
wspohn Dork
8/6/20 12:13 p.m.

Very good article.

Next, maybe we can address the issue of maintaining the degree of driver patination indefinitely.....devil

chrismseely
chrismseely
8/6/20 4:48 p.m.

I have a 1971 BMW 2002 with what I would call "Perfect Patina". Original paint, a little bit of surface rust here and there, but nothing structural, 1970's cigarette butts still in the rear ashtray, a few dents from a light fender bender, and a nicely broken in interior. It gets more attentionthan most fully restored 2002s at car shows and I'm not scared to drive it. 

chrismseely
chrismseely New Reader
8/6/20 4:50 p.m.

slantsix
slantsix Reader
8/7/20 11:00 a.m.

You can never really be afaraid to drive original "patinia" cars.. They are just as fun yet somewhat less stressful than the $100k+  resto that you just took delivery of.

 

 

Greg

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