It was a true barn find. The 1921 Stutz Bearcat sat on blocks, hidden in a weathered barn for more than 80 years.
It was all original, right down to maps from the owner’s move from New England to Maryland at some point in the ’20s. After a second long haul – this time to a farm outside of Statesboro, Georgia, in 1931, the owner decided to work on the sputtering engine.
That was the last time the coveted sports car saw the road until 2015, when Wayne Carini of television’s Chasing Classic Cars learned of its existence through a tip, bought it for a price rumored to be around $30,000 and had experts get the classic in working order.
What Carini didn’t do was important. He did not restore the car – no fresh lick of paint, no polished metal bumpers, no more than a few period-correct patches to the seat. The result was a dull, frumpy car battered by time. It collected almost $600,000 at Bonham’s Quail Lodge auction during Car Week in 2016.
It’s called preservation. And it is a trend that has evolved and grown over the past 20 years – so much so that all-original classic cars with normal dings and scratches can bring in 20, 50 or 100 percent more at auction than beautifully restored versions.
“Wayne was one of the early proponents,” says McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty, an insurance firm that specializes in classic cars. He explains that preservation class cars are verbs – active, used by their owners however infrequently and retaining all the little dings and scratches that come with life on the road.
“It’s about the story and the people as much as the car,” Hagerty adds. “It’s an active preservation of the car.”
Preservation differs from restoration in more ways than just the shine. Collectors – and judges – say a car can only be original once, so a premium is put on factory paint in reasonable condition with only small touch-ups, the leather or fabric seating that came with the car (minor patches with period correct material is allowed), numbers matching on the engine and so on.
Judging in the preservation class at Concours d’Elegance and other events can be subjective. Every vehicle has “consumable material,” meaning hoses, belts, tires, mufflers and other parts that wear through use and must be replaced. But are the replacements proper for the vehicle’s era? How about other work done to keep the car running?
In his book The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles, Dr. Frederick Simeone – yes, he’s both a physician and an avid car collector – brings up what he calls “material truth.” Preservation, according to this concept, is a means of telling history through the actual materials and paint colors, the untouched design, the scars that come from real-world use – even the smell of a car. Restore it to new or better than new, and you just have a replica.
Hagerty recalls judging one of Jay Leno’s Duesenbergs. It was all original except for the engine, which had seized and was inoperable. “They made the decision the engine had to be fully restored,” he says.
When judges opened the hood, they found – to their disappointment – “there was a brightly painted engine inside.
“There are parts of the car that are literally consumable,” Hagerty continues. “The idea is those replacements happen – that’s fine. What we don’t want to see is fake patina.”
Yes, people have tried to artificially weather new parts. They also enter cars with few signs of wear where there should be thinned carpeting or dulled paint. “If those areas are too perfect, it’s like ‘huh,’” Hagerty says. “We like to see a general sense of wear and a general sense of usage.”
Judging is guided by an outline for preservation established by Bloomington Gold (for Corvettes and Camaros) and the Federation Internationale des Vehicules Anciens, or FIVA, for all vehicles. The highest marks go toward cars so original the consumables are still in place. At the bottom? Cars restored to the point where fabric, paint and body materials have been replaced, often to suit the car’s owner.
The judges sometimes get into heated arguments over such matters, to the point they start to sweat: “My deodorant has failed,” Hagerty says with a laugh.