To Restore or Not to Restore

The question of whether to restore a historic vehicle or leave it alone can spark a thought-proving debate. Here, two long time veterans and experts offer some of their insights. 

The decisions surrounding restoring a vehicle or keeping it just as your grandfather left it in the barn are as personal as they are complex. This is a question and discussion that seems to be coming up more often these days.

Blame it on the economy or simply a new appreciation for vehicles preserved in a “roughly original” state. Either way, says Scott George, President and curator of The Collier Collection in Naples, Florida, determining whether a vehicle should be fully restored or basically left alone has classic car lovers asking new questions about how restoration work (or the lack thereof) might impact the value and enjoyment of their favorite vehicle.

No Going Back

“You should really think hard about any restoration work before you just go in and do it,” says George, “because once you restore you can never go back.”

George has seen the trend for “originality” grow in the last decade, a movement he traces to Europe where car enthusiasts have always believed that a car’s condition helps tell its story.

“In America, we are just catching up to this notion that cars can be beautiful without being perfectly clean,” he says. “There are even some cars in the Collier collection that we now regret restoring.”

George points out that it is unlikely that an un-restored car will ever win best of show at a major American car show. But to most classic vehicle owners, winning an award at a major show doesn’t factor into their decision making. However, if you would one day decide to have your car judged, most major shows now have a “preservation class.” George believes it is a great step in the right direction, not to mention the fact that it opens the door to many car enthusiasts who would otherwise never think to give car show competition a try.

Finding the Right Balance

George is one in the growing crowd of “original or survivor” proponents. But his new guiding philosophy is balanced with the reality that a car is not like other collectible items such as coins, furniture or fine art.

“Cars are mechanical,” he says. “Unless you just have a car to sit and look at, there comes a point where originality needs to be overridden in the interest of preserving the vehicle.”

On the subject of whether to restore or preserve, it’s not a “one-way-or-the-other” mentality. This change in attitude means that a historic vehicle owner can now enjoy the best of both worlds. George says the best way to do that is by carefully balancing a vehicle’s functionality and design features with a watchful eye for preserving original authenticity.

Giving a Car a Second Life

In the last decade, Jim Stranberg, owner of High Mountain Classics in Berthoud, Colorado, has also watched as a new trend toward “preservation and originality” emerged. But that doesn’t mean he likes it.

“A lot of people now seem to think that if you have a valuable car that looks like you just pulled it out of a barn that this is really the way to go,” he says. “I don’t generally agree with that.”

Stranberg says every car has “a half-life”. When a vehicle reaches a point of becoming worn out, that’s when it’s time to consider an inside and out restoration job that brings the car back to life.

But first, according to Stranberg, a person should ask themselves a few important questions:

What do you plan on doing with the car?

Stranberg and his partner Victor Holtorf are restorers who generally believe in doing everything necessary to make a car look new again. High Mountain Classics restoration jobs typically require at least 5,000 shop hours—a major commitment of time, resources, and money. It’s the sort of work demanded by people with an eye for car show competition. But even if a customer isn’t interested in having a car judged, to Stranberg’s way of thinking there’s always some degree of restoration work that needs to be done.

“When it comes to old cars, nothing is truly original,” he says. Strictly speaking, anything done to a vehicle inside and out over the course of its life—from changing an engine’s spark plugs to replacing a front fender—takes away from the originality of the car. Do you want the car to be able to compete in the show realm, or simply have a vehicle that presents and runs reliably at rallies and cruise-ins? Stranberg believes people must ask themselves how far are they willing to go—and for what purpose—in an effort to give the vehicle a second life.

How valuable is the car?

High Mountain Classics has never had a customer spend more on a restoration job than their vehicle was worth. But, admittedly, Stranberg and partner Holtorf work on coveted and exceedingly rare types of historic cars that only increase in book value when treated to topnotch restoration work.

A vehicle’s value, however, can’t always be measured in dollars and cents.

Take the hypothetical example of a dearly departed relative’s 1950 Ford F-100 half ton found under a tarp in the garage. Maybe it was used in a family business: a once reliable working truck that now sports a few dings, a crumpled fender, and an engine that spits and sputters but still runs. Such a truck would not pull much at an auction, but it may have deep sentimental value.

“If a person only wanted to occasionally drive the vehicle at a rally or a cruise-in—and the body, upholstery, and engine were in good shape—then, yes, I probably would not advise restoring it, except mechanically,” Stranberg says.

The Historic Vehicle Association would like to know what you think. Take the example above: That old 1950 Ford F-100 half ton truck that’s been in the family for years and earned its keep through hard work before it was put away to languish under cover in the garage. It’s battered and bruised, but still runs and has a lot of important memories attached to it. Would you restore it or leave it alone?  Head on over to the HVA’s Facebook page or comment below to tell us what you think and to see what other members are saying.

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