THE SECRET KINGDOM OF ‘OILY RAG’

This original-paint Harley Davidson racer from 1921 was offered for a cool $230k at the recent Las Vegas motorcycle auctions…

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.

A tale of two Pierces: the left original, the right beautifully restored. Shiny machine unsold at $43k, oily original sold for $120k… prick up your ears!

‘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.

This 1923 racing Douglas in running condition was an incredible relic of the Brooklands age, one of two surviving of 750cc, and in fantastic Oily Rag condition

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.

- Paul d’Orléans 

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