While the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance -and the universe of shows, auctions, parties, and racing which revolve around it- is best known for fastidious, better-than-new re-creations of exotic automobiles and motorcycles, a new and still small movement is creeping under le tapez rouge. With small ‘preservation’ classes in most shows (often sponsored by FIVA), the nooks and corners of very expensive golf courses reveal a few gems which have escaped the clutches of the shine-mad magpies dominating the historic vehicle scene.
The term ‘restoration’ applies to no vehicle I saw at Pebble; no automobile was ‘restored’ to resemble ex-factory condition. To qualify for Concours admission, it seems a car or motorcycle must be magically re-imagined as some über version of themselves…perhaps the spiritual essence of perfection which manufacturers would have liked to provide customers, but which market realities prohibit. While admirable, such un-driven wheeled demi-gods are a breed apart, statements of the Possible, but not necessarily the Real…and certainly not the Useful.
So, like good historians, we turn to what is indisputably ‘real’; examples which retain their maker’s finish, even when time and the elements have exacted their toll. And here’s the charming thing; amidst a blinding sea of reflective polish, the drab bird sings. Given the appreciative smiles of admirers lingering with a gloriously rusty old Packard, Stutz, or Maserati, the edifice of Restoration At All Costs seems to be cracking at the big shows. Collectors are getting the message that the Rare Vehicle isn’t the one which has been tarted up, but the one which hasn’t.
In this, the old vehicle world lags decades behind the antique furniture and art worlds, where the market draws a sharp line between the Original and the Questionable, primarily by doubling or trebling the sale price. Only a fool would re-finish a late 18th Century Louis XV credenza; why has this message not got through to the ‘car people’?
Motorcycle collectors, in this regard, are well in advance of their four-wheel kin, and values of ‘original paint’ bikes are well above an identical, restored version, for several reasons. First is the historic truth of an original machine, but a second, more sinister trend is pushing prices of well-documented yet rusty Centenarians through the roof; it’s very easy to install replica parts on a shiny machine, and not much more difficult to make an entirely new one. While few outright crooks pass these off as the genuine article, passage of such machines through successive hands is like the game of ‘telephone’; the message changes in every iteration, and eventually, like the Velveteen Rabbit, the simulacra becomes Real. As a result, a shiny old motorcycle is utterly untrustworthy, an object of suspicion and not celebration, guilty until proved innocent of fraud.
This is an area in which the Car and Motorbike worlds diverge; a Bugatti Type 35 built up from only an original gearbox, or nothing at all in the case of a Pur Sang replica, will still fetch 8 figures, whereas no replica ‘teens Henderson 4-cylinder or Indian Board Track Racer is considered anything but office sculpture by collectors, and rarely breaks $45,000 – not a great profit for the replicators, while the Real Things are deep in six-figure territory, and climbing.
There may yet be a day in Pebble’s future where genuine, original condition machines numerically balance the shiny, questionable re-creations on the golf course lawn; at the moment, they’re about 1/8th of the total. The mere fact of their inclusion is a positive sign. I predict the future of car collecting to be increasingly split; rising values for excellent original paint vehicles – eventually exceeding their shiny brethren, as it should be – with a still-strong market for shiny, ego boosting dream machines, perfect for deep-pocket magpies.
- Paul d’Orléans