The Restoration Game: When to Say When

I have been in the restoration game for nearly half a century. More than 50 projects have passed through my hands, while I have served as a judge at national-level events for nearly two decades.

And yet, at times, this world still seems so baffling. The reality is that we’re often chasing a reality that doesn’t exist.

Let me explain. I have owned dozens of cars, many from the ’60s and ’70s. While quality has varied from marque to marque and from decade to decade, one truth is that most of the time, the cars just weren’t that great from the factory.

The paint quality was often atrocious; runs and orange peel were always prevalent. Build quality and fit and finish were hit or miss at best. Underhood details didn’t matter.

If a brand-new, untouched vintage car was shown at any concours event, it would fail miserably–unless, of course, we’re talking about a survivor class. Why the failing grade? As judges, we are taught to look at the paint quality and attention to detail. Even commonly unseen parts, like the wiring and bolts, need to be correct.

But is there a line between original and ridiculous? When I restored my Shelby Mustang, for example, I was told that in order to be correct, the chassis would have to feature red primer with the body color on top of it–all topped off, of course, with the right amount of overspray. The theory is that this is how the cars were originally built, so that is what is now deemed correct by the Mustang Club of America’s rigid concours rules.

Even that simple guideline raises questions. For example, how much overspray is considered correct? The truth is that the factory certainly didn’t concern itself with such minutiae; no one dreamed that some 50 years later, there would be a book detailing how the underside of a Mustang should look!

I faced a similar situation when restoring the Lotus Elan. Series 1 cars like mine had the body color in the engine bay separated from the raw fiberglass by a rough line that varied with every car built. My car had never been restored, so I could see how that line originally looked. And it looked terrible.

When I restored the car, I painted the entire engine bay in the body color–just as the factory did on the later cars. I think it looks beautiful, but deep in my heart I know that it’s not factory-correct.

You can imagine how often the conversation between a restoration shop and the car owner goes, “Yeah, this is ugly, but it’s correct.”

Choosing beauty over correctness can put one on the slippery slope to over-restoration. This is a touchy topic; concours judges can tell when a car has been polished too far, although it’s a tricky point to convey. There’s no hard and fast rule, but when every single surface is polished beyond any practical point, judges will usually determine that someone has gone too far and will deduct points.

Under-restoration is arguably the worse sin, though. Even at Amelia and Hilton Head, I’ve seen cars on the field sporting tires, steering wheels and electrical components that not only weren’t factory, but weren’t even period-correct. A new battery from a modern brand shouldn’t show up in a concours-correct ’60s car, for example. These cars don’t win at top-notch events.

I guess the answer is to seek a happy medium. Study, and I mean really study, what your car originally looked like. Make sure you’re using good resources, too, like original literature and cars known to be correct. (My dad and I restored a Model A back in the ’70s; it looks original since it’s an older restoration, but in fact, I’ll admit, it’s not totally stock.)

Besides doing your research, concentrate on getting the little things right. I have seen many cars lose out because the owner forgot to bring the tools or had a burned-out brake light.

In the end, though, there are as many ways to restore a vehicle as there are ways to enjoy it. If the concours scene doesn’t interest you, then ignore my advice and do what you want. The big thing is to enjoy your car. The rest, as they say, is just details.

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cosworth1 New Reader
3/22/21 4:05 p.m.

" Enjoy your car" may be the key phrase here. Do you enjoy your car, or do you enjoy winning more? There is a point where some people can go OTT with the whole correctness thing, just for the sake of winning. It no longer is a hobby, it is now an obsession.

wspohn SuperDork
3/23/21 12:49 p.m.

I have a very good knowledge level on the particular cars I used to judge in concours, but having said that, when it comes to my own cars I do what my own inner referee allows me and it is often to make minor improvements that make the car more fun to use, or paint them a non-factory colour.

It was interesting judging cars owned by people who were very invested in being right about  their cars and the restoration done on them. I almost came to blows with one owner who took exception when I pointed out that he had mounted his front bumper over-riders  upside down and that his defroster vents on the dash weren't supposed to point at the inside of the cabin, but at the windshield......

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