A glutton for punishment, The Automobile‘s Publisher has invested in perhaps the archetypal example of post-war British ‘grey porridge’. Acquired at Brightwells’ sale in Leominster in November, it is a 1954 Ford Popular 103E saloon – an Oily Rag example if ever there was one.
The Automobile magazine head North
“North Yorkshire,” declared our Publisher.
“We’ll hold this year’s Oily Rag Run in North Yorkshire.”
There was method in his madness, however. In a show of extreme generosity, brothers Daniel and Toby Ward had offered to open their private collection of important early cars to us, and provide a slap-up lunch, too. Knowing just a few of the treasures stored within their ample barns, the thought of a 600-mile round trip suddenly didn’t seem quite so strenuous.
After a week of on-off fettling The Automobile’s Ford V8 Woodie, at the last minute we elected to take our 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr instead, banking on its two-speed rear axle and cavernous interior to provide a relaxed cruising car for the journey along the painfully dull but mercifully direct A1. Three-up, filled with luggage and drinking petrol at an alarming rate, the V-12 more than proved its worth and we arrived in the charming spa town of Harrogate in good spirits.
The following morning we emerged from the Old Swan Hotel to watch the first cars arrive. Soon enough the whole car park was overrun by the decrepit, dilapidated and downright disreputable motor cars of the Oily Rag fraternity. With the full complement gathered, we embarked on the first leg of the journey and headed towards the Wards’ collection. Nick Bell took the rôle of lead car in his delightfully scruffy Alvis 12/50 Sportsman’s saloon, followed by George Stanton’s 1924 Humber 8hp which went on to win the coveted prize for Most Feral Car.
he Ward brothers’ collection did not disappoint. Their intelligent selection of truly interesting cars, encompassing everything from a 1892 Peugeot to a 1934 Rolls-Royce 20/25 and housed in a purpose-built two-storey barn decorated with period automobilia, is truly a sight to behold. In addition to the cars, the Wards have a passion for early tractors and steam-powered traction engines, housed in another huge purpose-built shed. These collections proved almost as popular as the cars, and both Daniel and Toby took great pleasure in steaming up some of the engines, the reassuring chug-chug of these mechanical elephants providing a gentle, nostalgic soundtrack to the excellent barbecue tended by the brothers, who proved themselves to be perfect hosts and true enthusiasts.
After lunch, we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from this quite remarkable collection for the second leg of our journey, an amble through country lanes towards the charming town of Richmond, where our tatty convoy descended on St Nicholas, the historic home of Keith and Jilly Schellenberg, who had graciously agreed to be our hosts for the afternoon. The formal gardens were open to visit and provided a welcome distraction for those of us who had somewhat overdosed on motor cars earlier in the day, though Keith’s trio of Vintage Bentleys was on show in a quiet corner of the maze-like property for those willing to seek them out.
Fully refreshed by Jilly Schellenberg’s tea and cake, the participants began to disperse. After seeing off the last, evidently well satisfied entrants, we piled into the Lincoln and headed south. Settling back into the grey cloth seats, with the throaty V-12 humming away, we reflected on yet another successful Run. The generosity of our hosts and the enthusiasm of the entrants had once again proved just how popular the Oily Rag ethos has become in recent years. As we rolled into Surrey a little after midnight, shattered and starving, we couldn’t help but admit it: North Yorkshire had been the perfect destination.
(This article originally appeared in the December, 2013 issue of The Automobile. More photos from the run can be seen on their website)
The Oily Rag concept, at least in the motoring world, has been pioneered and championed by our friends at The Automobile magazine, who not only own an enviable collection of Oily Rags themselves, but each year organise a celebratory run for unrestored pre-1960 cars in a different area of the UK.
This year, on Sunday, 28th September, the fourth Oily Rag Run will take place in picturesque North Yorkshire. The starting point is the famous Old Swan hotel in Harrogate with a gentle meander through quiet roads in unspoilt surroundings to the home of the Ward brothers, Daniel and Toby, who are opening their private collection of important mostly early vehicles, with a further even less well known collection the destination in the afternoon.
The big attraction of the run, other than the rare chance to see these very private collections, is the opportunity to meet other connoisseurs of entirely original machines, followers of the Oily Rag philosophy who most likely don’t own a bottle of polish between them.
If you would like to join the run send an email with details of your car to email@example.com before the end of August
Photographer Brewster Moseley has scoured the salvage yards of Montana looking for rusting postwar cars which he photographs in extreme close-up to create almost abstract artwork that revels in the subtle beauty of decay. He searches out unusual bonnet ornaments, patterns in faded paintwork and pitted chrome trim, using his camera to focus the eye on the fascinating details that might otherwise be missed when viewing these derelict Detroit giants from a distance. More of his wonderful photographs can be seen on his website and in the July issue of The Automobile
What a pleasant surprise to find two new books on a subject so dear to our hearts, and both from American collectors whose immediate predecessors , not all that many years ago, would have been only too eager to strip down an important historic racing car or a dilapidated Delahaye or Talbot-Lago Aerodyne and give it a “ground-up” – a full, nut and bolt restoration to far better than new condition in the expectation of taking Best of Show at Pebble Beach.
Fred Simeone is now one of the most senior and best respected concours judges in the United States, specialising in the Preservation class, for for whose introduction (at long last) he was partly responsible. His book, in particular, is a serious treatise on the Oily Rag philosophy, dealing at length with such topical questions as “To race or not to race?”, “How to use an untouched treasure responsibly” and “What to do with and older restoration?”. A long chapter devoted to parallel collecting fields such as clocks, furniture, pictures and even ceramics points out that museums, in particular, now turn their backs on restored examples of even the finest and rarest of such objects unless it can be shown beyond all doubt that the process had resulted in no significant loss or, worse still, gain. These institutions now prefer to buy objects which have never been touched, when procurable, and to leave and display them that way. Why? Because they have become aware of the liberties that are often taken in the restoration process to enhance value. One essay makes it clear that dealers and auctioneers have already picked up on this trend, often suggesting reserve prices up to four times higher for what we in our field would call barn finds than for tarted-up equivalents.
One reason for this change of attitude, of course, is that the supply of untouched older automobiles is diminishing worldwide as long term owners die off or reclusive hoarders, tempted by high prices, bring them reluctantly into the light of day. As Fred Simeone himself points out, established current collectors seldom sell prized exhibits, which of course only intensifies competition for those that do come to the market. Fakers, lured by financial rewards that were undreamed of until recently, respond to the situation in the old familiar way, leaving untouched vehicles as the only foolproof response for curators who want to be sure they are preserving examples of original materials, craftsmanship and finish.
But can they be so sure? One of the most fascinating chapters in the Simeone book is a photographic essay featuring the dismantling and analysis of a Bugatti Type 35B, chassis 4959, engine 204T, which turns out to be, as claimed, one of the works team that contested the Targa Florio in 1930. But the body, despite appearances, is a much later assemblage of largely genuine components, very few of which started life together and none of which was originally associated with the chassis. The conclusion is that the vehicle in question was assembled in the UK in all innocence by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable owner a long time ago, when discarded body parts were freely available, cash was in short supply and the end result was of no great value anyway. This is by way of illustration of Simeone’s point that, in the absence of proven provenance – ie, documentary evidence, as opposed to visual indication or word of mouth – nothing is certain.
The tendency nowadays for long term owners to dispose of their treasures at auction, with buyers increasingly content to bid on the internet unviewed, does not help the situation. As the book points out, by the careful use in catalogues of terms such as “attributed to”, “purporting to be” and “said to have”, auctioneers seem to absolve themselves of responsibility for the kind of misdescription that can lead to expensive litigation. Some of them, of course, try to work the trade within these limits in search of higher hammer prices. We ourselves can provide a recent example of this. At one prestigious sale this year an exotic French routier of ravishing if decayed appearance, evidently untouched externally, was offered, or so it appeared, with its missing engine and gearbox dumped casually in the cockpit, giving the lot the appearance of an unfinished restoration. Nothing was said in the catalogue about this but, according to respected and very knowledgeable English dealer we spoke to afterwards,who had been allowed to examine the car for a client, the engine and gearbox offered were the wrong type and did not belong to the car, or even to each other. Worse still, the entire chassis appeared to him to be of recent, rather crude construction, suggesting, to him at any rate, that what was actually on offer was a very pretty, unrestored cabriolet body and nothing else. As far as he knew, the resultant concoction found a buyer “but pity help him when he discovers what he was acquired.”
Simeone sums up his attitude in one particularly neat passage: “An important automobile which has undergone an older or even a recent restoration is still important. It maintains many of the characteristics which make it important but as a historical document it has lost much of its relevance to the past.”
Even more telling is a note by Michael Furman. He is a well known American photographer who for 25 years has specialised in studio images, beautifully posed and lit,or freshly restored concours contenders. “Then why” he asks, “Would I be attracted to an original, unrestored car? I have come to learn that what makes a car important is its relationship to people. The people who designed it, built it, maybe raced it and possibly even died behind its wheel. The softness of worn leather, the tarnish of undisturbed metals, the patination of untouched painted surfaces all come together to tell the story of its experiences – its connections with the past and with the people whose lives were enriched by the interaction.”
This is an important but expensive book of relatively limited appeal. It would be more likely to have an influence on collecting trends that Fred Simeone clearly anticipates if it were more carefully edited. Countless typos do not suggest scholarly input at quite the right level….
The other work we are considering here, Vitesse-Élégance, is not a compilation of essays but a beautifully produced, carefully edited and very detailed examination by Serge Bellu, the well known French journalist, author, lecturer and editor for 20 years of our respected contemporary Automobiles Classiques, of some 43 choice exhibits from the extraordinary Mullin Collection in Oxnard, California.
It is the third in a series of such tomes focussing this time on French cars ranging in date from 1911 to 1960, and is illustrated throughout by carefully lit, wonderfully detailed, mostly full page studio photographs by Furman, whose mature views on his specialism (quoted earlier) may well have been influenced by the fact that, for this assignment, his brief was not to present in their best light bit to scrutinise through his lens in strict order (front, back, sides, rear) a portfolio of largely untouched, original subjects with such intensity as to bring out all the subtle textures, faded colours, chips, dents and scratches that give them their irreplaceable historic validity.
Of the vehicles illustrated, only 10 or 11, including three cyclecars and a motorcycle, are in what we would call Oily Rag condition – mostly just about capable of self-propulsion, but otherwise untouched. Most of the other are tasteful restorations, but a few are recent recreations labelled as such and perhaps justifiable on the grounds that they represent lost originals of such significance that the collection would be poorer without them. Marques represented in some numbers, nearly all French of course, are Voisin (14 examples and clearly a favourite marque, as it is with us), Hispano-Suiza (five), Renault (three), Panhard et Levassor (two) and Peugeot and Citroen (two each, plus a Peugeot motorcycle). Among the many single exhibits, we particularly loved the Sizaire-Frères fabric laundalet by Weymann, somehow extracted from the Schlumpf reserve collection and displayed exactly as found. Others in the same state include a marvellous Darl ‘Mat Peugeot cabriolet, complete apart from its boot lids but still rotten in places, and a Panhard X63 saloon at which many a vintage enthusiast would have turned up his nose nose only a generation ago but that we, certainly, would jump at for our Oily Rag collection were it to turn up in one of the French provincial auctions David Howard haunts on our behalf.
This, of course, is the great virtue of a collection that looks beyond fashion and superficiality to character, texture and truth to trend. Mullin himself is a successful investor whose name is as familiar on Wall Street as it is at Pebble Beach or Amelia Island. But, Clearly, he is a curator at heart, and his vast museum a serious enterprise rather than just a dodge. Apart from its catalogue raisonée aspect, this book sets out to examine the factors which drove such visionaries as Voisin, Le Corbusier, Gregoire, Paulin, Ledwinka and the other futurist designers and engineers of the Art Déco period to look beyond the ordinary, deriving inspiration principally from aviation in the same way their present day counterparts look to the computer and its endless manifestations as a driving force in their own search for the next step forward.
There’s plenty to tickle the visual taste buds at East Sussex’s preserved Bluebell Railway, one of Britain’s oldest restored railway lines. While closed for 3 years after the savage ‘Beeching Cuts’ of the 1950s and 60s, where the nation’s rural lines were decimated in the pursuit of efficiency and ‘progress’, the battle to keep open the rail line between Lewes and East Grinstead raged in the courts and in the press. The Bluebell Railway Preservation Society was formed to buy the rail line properties and renovate the tracks; public ‘preservation’ train lines opened in 1960 – the first in the world.
How short sighted to have torn up the trackbed and sold the land. Never again would it be possible to build such an infrastructure. Our current pursuits of ‘green’ transport solutions always stumble when it comes to serving the rural communities; the fact is that these areas were well provided for at the turn of the 19th century, long before the motor car. Our interest here is in the oily rag nature of such an enterprise as The Bluebell. Oily rags are seen everywhere but particularly in the hands of drivers and firemen conducting the huge steam locomotives as they go about their business. They lovingly wipe the brass work and bare metal almost instinctively. It is seldom you see one of these men or women fail to give a rub to some part of the machinery as they pass it by. And they’re all volunteers – nurses, doctors, factory workers, airline pilots, computer geeks – a complete cross section.
As well as the locomotives and rolling stock (30 steam engines, the second largest in the world), The Bluebell has a wonderfully preserved infrastructure too – from the stations themselves to the ephemera of a working Victorian railway line, all is perfectly done. The semaphore signalling system works perfectly and warrants at least ten minutes study should you choose to visit. Sheffield Park, at the southernmost end of the line, houses the railway’s engineering works where mind-bogglingly complex heavy engineering overhauls take place. It is here too you will find some fine oily rag examples of the line’s steam locomotives – to be fair ALL locomotives receive the touch of the oily rag and thrive on it.
Easter 2013 marks a major development for The Bluebell Railway as the final link to the mainline British Rail network at East Grinstead will be re-opened, many years after work was started on its restoration. The benefits will be huge and visitors will be able to travel all the way to the Bluebell by rail, simply changing trains at East Grinstead. Equally exciting will be the loaning and transfer by rail of locomotives from other preserved lines throughout the British Isles.
The Bluebell line is the very incarnation of the oily rag principle. It’s fun to visit and if you half close your eyes you’re in a living version of ‘The Railway Children’ although you could really be there by visiting the Keighley and Worth Vally railway in Yorkshire which operates on similar lines (no pun intended). Next time you are in the sunny South of England, detour to the Bluebell for the full oily rag experience.
You are about to change your mind forever about ‘rusty old junk’. It’s a mystery why vehicle collectors are so late to a party begun a century ago, but the door is still open to us, so here’s your invitation. Guarding the entry of the grand manse of Preservation Hall stand white-gloved Conservators, fussing over the furniture and barking ‘don’t touch!’ These tight-arsed, white-glove museum boys aren’t Cerberus at the gates, they’re just yapping lapdogs, intent on proving they’re the only real guardians of History. They are the worst possible greeters, but they’ve volunteered, so we ignore them. On entering the Hall, you’ll get a mixed message for actually driving your slightly rusty Aston DB2 or period-bobbed ‘30s Harley; the general feeling of unwelcome must be endured; it’s just a rite of passage.
Who’s already inside Preservation Hall is everyone who ever paid real money for a physical object; a book, a painting, a sculpture, a chair, jewelry, religious relics, cultural treasures; in fact, every kind of collector, other than those who prefer wheels on their artwork. We are the last to enter the building. A few of our brethren brazenly demanded entry decades ago, but they are lone and wild, the Baptismal Johns of our nascent movement; their solitary, eccentric stance to ‘leave well enough alone’, and insist on driving a funky old coupé every day, with its oxidized paint, spotty nickel, and tatty upholstery, was a pioneering cry in the wilderness in what will shortly be agreed was an act of great wisdom. These oddballs, the ones with a rope belt and a time-warp Rolls in the barn during the 1950s/60s/70s, these are our pioneers, and someday their hirsute visages should be painted on the walls of the shrine to Our Lady of Wheels, for they Knew, and were right.
‘Noli Mi Tangere’ is already tattooed on the arms of furniture collectors and art dealers, they were among the first to understand that the only defense against fakery and simulacra is to leave the damn thing alone. While not proof against clever forgers, their century-old credo against Restoration (or worse, re-invention) had a strictly commercial origin; too many restored-to-new 18th century Boulle credenzas were, in fact, simply brand new. Once burned, twice shy, and lovers of fine objects soon retreated to the near-safe haven of Untouched Stuff, where they discovered; 1.patina is a lovely thing, and 2.restorations never look quite right. As time progresses and objects from the Industrial Era grow in stature, it’s not simply Fra Angelico’s squirrel-hair brushstrokes which fascinate the astute, it’s also the pinstriping technique of a half-drunk Bavarian who finished Art Deco BMW petrol tanks. Both are a record from an era passed, an irreplaceable moment of aesthetic endeavor, both are worthy of preservation. As surely as a piece of Marie Antoinette’s jewelry is welcome in the same museum which holds a Renoir or an Yves St Laurent ‘Le Smoking’, so is an unrestored Lancia Zagato. As surely as no collector wants a dimestore tiara, or a repainted Van Gogh, or a Zara runway knockoff, there’s no reason for a restored vehicle to hold a higher place in the moto-Pantheon than an original-paint beauty. It makes no sense at all in fact, unless we’re celebrating talented restoration shops. But we don’t; we are in theory lauding the creations of a particular factory and era, why on earth do we award Concours prizes to vehicles which might well be made of plastic under their shiny paint jobs? As collectors in every other field know well, shiny hides the lie.
Which is not to say that a perfectly restored-from-a-wreck ’72 Porsche Targa isn’t a good thing; in fact, it’s a wonderful thing, as you can hammer that pup till the connecting rods come up for air, then replace the motor with a new one, and it won’t matter a bit, because it’s not original anyway. Play hard with the ones which can’t ever be original again, I encourage you, I beg you in fact. ‘Use them as the maker intended’ is my motto, and I live by it. But if you’re a lucky sod with a low-mileage, lovely ‘56 Triumph TR6B Trophybird, yes ride it and maintain it, but try not to throw it down the road; it could buy your daughter a house someday, and better, could show some 23rd century engineer what England in the 1950s was really all about.
‘Oily Rag’ is a magazine dedicated to the unrestored, and more importantly, the original which needs no improvement, the utilitarian (or simply joyous) which planned obsolescence didn’t plan for. It’s home base for those who’ve discovered that an 1850s photographic technique makes amazing images, a 1930s car is incredibly stylish, and your dad’s old tools are much better than ‘good enough’. Oily Rag is written for anyone who understands that disposability isn’t a virtue in our finite world, that we might need a rethink on throwing out slightly used stuff, and that ‘restoring’ perfectly good old utilitarian objects may someday be seen as much a crime as overpainting an 19th century Italian fresco. At the core, Oily Rag is a state of mind, and we invite you to drink deep from our Kool-aid punchbowl.
The arrival of the second world war saw him signed up as a mechanic for the RAF in North Africa, working on whatever needed fixing, from Spitfires and Hurricanes to transport planes. In order to give the men some constructive R’ n’ R the armed services had initiated an inter-services speedway league which followed the allies through Sicily and into mainland Italy. Machinery was very much of the home-brewed variety. There was no shortage of engineering know-how and equipment in the REME, RAF and RN workshops, and as you can see from the shots, rough approximations were made as to the look of the speedway machines back in blighty…the old man specialised in the tiny petrol tank variety! The speedway irons started life as trashed dispatch riders bikes. All parts were scrounged and they were generally run on ‘liberated’ aviation spirit. The ultimate tool required an ohv engine of course, but with so many sidevalve hacks knocking about this called for much creativity. Accounts of Wermacht ohv BMW heads being grafted onto Brit crankcases via the expedient of a barrel turned from the bronze of a salvaged ship’s propellor were recorded. Both wheels often carried brake drums but with no internals. Competition was fierce and it wasn’t unknown for teams to recruit ‘ringers’ like speedway professional, Split Waterman to boost their chances of success.
- Jon Dudley
I’ve visited Yellowstone National Park 5 times in my life (including the team Oily Rag/Vintagent Cannonball Rally), and until last week, every time had been on a vintage motorcycle. Wyoming winter weather precludes two-wheel transport, so if you’d like to see Yellowstone in all it’s snowy magnificence, you’ll arrive snug inside some kind of tracked vehicle. The best option by far -from Oily Rag’s point of view- is to enter via Jackson, WY, as the few visitors who brave winter’s chill are herded from the southern park entrance to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge in magnificent vintage yellow Bombardier B12 Snowcats.
In continuous use by Yellowstone Park since new, their fleet of 21 Snowcats is the world’s largest, and their drivers a dedicated and enthusiastic lot. They love their machines, which are still about the swiftest people-carriers on snow, and the grooviest by a long shot. The earliest Snowcat in their fleet is believed late 1950s, with most built between 1965 and 1974. They use a Chevrolet 350cu” motor, with dual high-rise exhaust stacks, giving a ‘hotrod’ sound which, while not especially loud, gives a thrill to anyone with a touch of Gearhead in the soul. Fuel mileage is thirsty at ~3mpg, but the little yellow bugs are darned fast over the unplowed roads of Yellowstone, even when speed-governed to 35mph…they are clearly capable of more!
While in the wilds of the Park, the primary goal is seeking wildlife (wolves, coyotes, foxes, river otters, trumpeter swans, elk, and bison were spotted at close range on my visit), enjoying the thermal features which pump steam columns skyward, and the many icy waterfalls and snowy vistas; still, catching sight of a Snowcat flying past is also a thrill! Better yet, catching a ride via Snowcat to view distant geysers or to a remote spot for cross-country skiing adds a certain panache to the experience; everyone loves them.
Joseph-Armand Bombardier, born in 1907, was obsessed with making winter travel as easy as summertime, and while he had no engineering training, invented and built his first snowmobile (propeller powered!) in the early 1920s. By 1937, the first Snowcat was built, the B7 half-track with room for 6 passengers and a driver; this type of Snowcat was their first commercial proposition, introduced just before WW2, as a way to get children to school, and to keep essential services mobile in the far north of Canada. Prior to tracked snow vehicles, horses and sleighs were the vehicle of choice, well into the 1940s. In 1942, Bombardier’s business was incorporated as L’Auto-Neige Bombardier Limitée, which began producing a larger Snowcat, the B12, as seen in these photos.
The postwar world brought modernization to the world’s roads, and a commitment from most Northern cities and towns to plow the roads free of snow in winters. While this impacted Bombardier’s business, there were still obviously many areas which were too remote for frequent plowing, and the Snowcats were produced until the mid-1970s; around 3000 were built.
If you’re interested in visiting Yellowstone Park in Winter, you’ll have to make all the arrangements beforehand, as there’s only one hotel, with 102 rooms, and access is via a once-daily Snowcat ride from the South entrance. Plan on two days to get to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge from wherever you are; one day to get to Jackson Wyoming, and another day to catch the Snowcat. My stay was 4nights, which seemed about perfect; we fit in a full day of snowshoeing independently, a half day showshoe tour of wildlife spots, a 105-mile snowmobile tour (amazing!), and some night-time stargazing and geyser-visiting. This was an ‘always wanted to’ holiday for me, and it fulfilled my expectations 100%. The landscape is breathtaking in any season, but Winter is the only time you’re ever going to watch Old Faithful with your sweetie, some bison…and nobody else!
- Paul d’Orléans