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.