Skip to main content

To Restore or Not to Restore

The age old question on whether to restore a classic car or keep it original.
Image placeholder title

Players are in place! The TV camera is rolling! Music begins…and the announcer shouts: “Let’s play ‘Old Cars!’”

The pretend TV show gets in full swing after contestants are introduced. Then comes the first question from the show’s host: “What’s better: To buy a collector car that is restored, or find one in unrestored condition?”

 It’s not necessary to draft a young man to guard your old car at a car show. If your car is all original and unrestored, like this 1949 Cadillac, you don’t need to worry about nicks and scratches. You can enjoy the outing instead!

It’s not necessary to draft a young man to guard your old car at a car show. If your car is all original and unrestored, like this 1949 Cadillac, you don’t need to worry about nicks and scratches. You can enjoy the outing instead!

The panel ponders. Contestant No. 1 says, “I think the benefits of a restored car are evident: it can travel long miles, grabs the attention of onlookers and ranges in the top level of value for a particular year, make and model.”

“Aaakkk!,” the buzzer sounds after a wrong answer. “A restored car is not always able to drive reliably, may grab the attention of John Q. Public for a very short time and may not be alone in the top range of value for its type,” says the host.

He moves to the second contestant.

“Which car is appreciated more: Restored or unrestored?”

Contestant No. 2 does not hesitate: “It’s always the restored car!”

“Aaakkk!,” sounds the buzzer.

“Sorry, that’s not the best answer,” says the host. He turns to the final contestant.

“Contestant No. 3, here is your question. If you get it right, you will win the round. Think carefully,” he says, while a pause settles the audience. “For overall enjoyment, should you own a restored car or one that is in fine, unrestored condition?”

The third contestant ponders her reply, her mind quickly wandering as she assesses the options.

How would you answer the question? Consider the first contestant’s answer. Not all cars are created equal, between makes and models, over all the years of production. Some years were simply better than others. Some were lemons from first light at the end of the assembly line. Others were superb cars, but had a strike against them before the first bolt was tightened due to shifts in buyer confidence, fickle demand or untried engineering and design.

Mechanically, it may not be difficult to discover which of those troubled cars can be cautiously avoided. Just study a bit in old car articles and consumer assessments. Ask fellow collectors. Quiz an old-style mechanic from the golden past. But remember one thing: A survivor may have had its “bugs” worked out. That’s how it became a survivor. Or, on the down side, maybe it is a fine, low-mileage car, because it never ran consistently, so it spent long periods in the dark of a garage, awaiting you.

Case in point: the bad press (even in hobby circles) concerning the 1955 Packards suffering from a new factory setup with shortened “final prep” line.

Swing back to the late 1970s. Sue owned a 1955 Packard Clipper since new. It was a gift from her father. Not a high-mileage car, it made a nice appearance, but had been relegated to its own quiet section of a large garage where it sat. When she finally decided to sell the car, she asked a collector for advice. He studied the vehicle and had access to its original delivery papers from the defunct dealership.

Surprise! That 1955 Clipper had more repairs and adjustments than any other of the approximately 100 new Packards handled by the dealer that model year. However, when quizzed about the car’s performance over the years, Sue had no complaint worth recalling. Here was an original car with the bugs worked out, but still suffering from an image problem due to bad press. It proves that surviving examples of a troubled model run may be OK for collectors today. Of course, it is on a case-by-case basis.

Back to the game show. Not all restored cars can travel long, carefree miles. Why? If the engine is rebuilt, it may be tight and need breaking in. Connections may be loose or a host of tiny adjustments may be required for long drives. However, if the owner simply babies the car and engages only short trips to local shows, he may suddenly have a breakdown the first time he jaunts 200 miles to a big event. No guarantee there will be a problem, but no assurance there won’t be, either. A restored car does not always come trouble-free.

The same can be said of an unrestored original. However, it probably carries factory adjustments, is mechanically broken in and may easily operate. It does not have replaced gears in the differential or manual transmission, and while it may not operate perfectly, it seems to be a synchronized system. All this points to reliability.

Reconsidering the first question, a restored car is in perfect condition. Well, hopefully. But it’s not always the case. Close examination will reveal how “perfect” the work really is. And heaven forbid that a scratch should be inflicted. Once done, the car no longer seems perfect to the owner. It’s the old “one-black-spot-on-a-white-sheet” syndrome. A tiny scratch in an obvious place can droop the heart of the car owner. Some even go so far as to repaint an entire body panel just to reclaim perfection.

OK, to each his own. But the owner of an original, unrestored car knows how to live with a little nick or scratch, even inflicted recently. The wound does not make the owner happy, but it becomes one more element of “patina,” one more segment in the car’s history. In fact, some car owners have no difficulty seeing imperfections due to driving, since these prove the car is fulfilling its purpose in providing transportation.

More than a few restored cars are over-restored. They appear newer than when new, no over spray of paint, everything aligned as a dream and not one speck of dust settling on chromed engine pipes or a shiny manifold. It’s wonderful to see such gems, but not all collectors want to own one. If authenticity is paramount, then a car is greatly appreciated when it approaches its original state of manufacture.

Unrestored cars do, indeed, grab the attention of the general public in ways a restored car may not. Perfection is expected when a completely renovated car rolls onto a show field. But when an unrestored survivor pulls up with a few nicks here and there, but in marvelous overall condition, jaws drop in admiration.

That same admiration carries over to values. An unrestored survivor in near-pristine condition may bring near top-dollar of a restored car of the same caliber. But caution must be employed. Just because a 1930 Pierce-Arrow or 1957 Chevrolet Corvette have low mileage and original paint plus trim doesn’t mean these are top-dollar examples. A thorough inspection from top to bottom, stem to stern, is necessary, along with tests of operating systems, before a car can be judged in the top bracket.

Enough pondering. The game show continues. “Contestant No. 3 – are you ready to answer the question?”

She nods yes.

“I’ll ask it again: ‘For overall enjoyment, should you own a restored car or one that is in fine, unrestored condition?’”

She replies: “The choice is left to the collector. As for me, I would rather enjoy the car on the road than own a dowager trailer queen. I’d take an unrestored car.”

Ding-ding-ding…Bells ring, horns sound — “That’s the best answer…for you!”


Old Cars Divider
Old Cars FREE ISSUE Promo

*As an Amazon Associate, Old Cars earns from qualifying purchases.  

Where to Bid

Car Auciton

Check out the Old Cars Auction Calendar

The Old Cars Auction Calendar has the when and where you are looking for when it comes to classic car auctions.