The Adviser

Why do we care so much about originality?

by Dave Kinney
19 July 2021 5 min read
Photo by Evan Klein

Coke or Pepsi?

Cat or Dog?

Cash or Credit?

Love or Money?

Original or Modified?

So many choices! Thank goodness we are only going to deal with one of those questions, and in the car world it has become more controversial than ever.

We’re talking cat or… Oh, wait, original or modified, of course.

I’m happy to report that there is no right answer to this question, it all comes down to a matter of personal preference. However, it might make sense to look into the long-term ramifications of your potential choice.

Perhaps you have been around old cars for a few years and noticed some changes in how people talk about their treasured automobiles. “History” has become “provenance” to some, and the supporting paperwork with many cars is easily worth its weight in gold. The collector car “steak”—stuff like condition, options, and mileage—is now enhanced by the collector car sizzle—paperwork and history, err, provenance. It often takes the combination of the two to make a growing number of collectors interested in pursuing their next purchase.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early days of car collecting, when it truly was a hobby, even top-tier collectors cared relatively little about originality. The best restoration shops aimed to make cars better than new, replacing parts as they saw fit.

Especially at the high end of the market, the car world is adapting many of the sensibilities and language of the fine arts world. Restored is OK, but original is better, and sometimes way better.

In recent decades, however, there’s been a sea change. Especially at the high end of the market, the car world is adapting many of the sensibilities and language of the fine arts world. Is your Packard becoming a Picasso? Well, no, but just as you wouldn’t dare clean a valuable old painting without consulting a specialist, so today it’s becoming less and less acceptable to replace parts on an old car without first considering the value of that part and even whether the wear and tear on it is part of the car’s story. Restored is OK, but original is better, and sometimes way better. Survivors have been an attraction to some for over fifteen years, and these trends are bound to continue as expensive and treasured old cars become, well, more expensive, and more treasured.

Of course, the cars remain different from art in one key regard: cars are driven. And whereas no one would seriously suggest a Da Vinci painting would look better if traced over with twenty-first century pigments, even the most ardent automotive traditionalist has to admit that modern technologies make cars safer, easier, and sometimes flat-out better to drive. So, what to make of “improvements” to classic cars?

The Pebble Beach Concours established a prewar preservation class in 2001, signaling a change in how top-tier collectors regard unrestored classics. This 1923 Locomobile Model 48 Series VIII Sportif by Bridgeport Body Company won the class in 2002. (Photo courtesy Darin Schnabel/RM Sotheby’s)

First up comes modifications for safety reasons. This question has been around since at least 1937 with the adoption of safety glass in automobiles.  Other equipment like seat belts, LED lights and dual master cylinders come to mind, but there can be more. “In judging, safety modifications are often addressed on a case-by-case basis,” says Phil Neff, the Chief Judge of the Greenbriar Concours in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. “Sometimes it can come down to the use of the car. If it’s driven regularly, Judges are almost certain to show leniency, but in the end, everything done discreetly should be okay.” So noted, remember, it’s best not to put flamethrower headlights on your show car Bugatti, or disc brakes from a Lexus on your Duesenberg. LED taillights and a dual master cylinder on an early Mustang, though, should be okay.

Far murkier are “modernizations” that reflect changing preferences rather than improving technology. Remember at the end of the 1980s, when it seemed a good portion of 1960s and ’70s Porsche 911s had a whale-tail and a super-hot exhaust?  So do I. By now, someone has likely spent an even greater amount peeling off those now-dated looking updates. And, generally, that’s money well spent: The undisturbed or re-restored correctly 911s bring a good bit more than the “updated” ones, and tend to sell quicker as well.

Remember, with most any noticeable modifications, you are dealing with your taste and current trends. Things change over time, and even though a 1997 is more modern in many ways than a 1967, most buyers would prefer their 911 as it left the factory.

Ready to have your head spin? There is also the thought that modifications done “in period”—generally agreed as within a few years of manufacture—carry more historical weight going forward. These so-called “day two” cars, in the muscle car parlance, carry popular mods of the day, such as American Racing wheels or lace paint, or a non-factory hood scoop and a 8-track player under the dash. Again, rule, meet exception. Did I mention there is no right or wrong here?

The elephant in the room, however, is the restomod. We’re seeing more and more fully updated Broncos, muscle cars, Corvettes, and the like selling for more than examples in original or restored-to-original condition. There’s a line of logic that says demand for restomods will only increase as Baby Boomers seeking more comfort converge in the marketplace with younger enthusiasts who never experienced the “good old days” of bias-ply tires and unassisted brakes.

Still, we’d be cautious. There is probably little harm in taking a 1970 Chevy Chevelle that has a six-banger, no history, few options and a hot-ton of needs and turning it into the restomod of your dreams, with maybe SS trim, a modern drivetrain, air conditioning that blows actual cold air and brakes that will stop the car without making an advanced reservation. You are effectively giving a new life to the body shell, the design, and the “look” that speaks to you and others. The math might not work in your favor if you start with a V-8 car with a good, known history, good options and popular (or oddball) colors. And be aware that building your car with everything up to date in 2021 might not say “fresh” to a potential buyer ten years from now. What’s true for restomods is often true for hot rods as well.

The choice is ultimately yours, it’s your car and your money. But keep your eyes open before you commit to modifying an original car. If your car is one of just a handful, it might make sense to keep it stock, or as close to stock as you feel comfortable with. If a comprehensive (read “expensive”) restoration is needed because the car is in a deteriorated state, choose your options. If it is a replaceable production car, you might wish to modify to your taste, or sell the project and move on to something else.

Again, there’s still no right or wrong answer. Our hobby is great, with room for every car and every taste.

Comments

  • Brian Hart says:

    Great summary. A balanced review of the situation. I have strong feelings on both the originality and period modification steams of enthusiasm, with cars firmly in both camps.

  • eddie simpson says:

    I have a 1969 Z/28 Camaro that I have owned since 1985. The car is so original that it still has the original smog pump on it, still hooked up and working. The car runs well and drives as it always has. The body has some minor damage, it still has its original paint and interior.
    When I bought the car I got all new GM sheet metal for it thinking I would “restore” it. Since I have two other first gen cars this one will remain “original” for as long as I own it.

  • David says:

    First, one has to decide how they are going to enjoy their car. Perhaps it’s to be an investment or an ego thing, to be coveted and perhaps displayed. Or perhaps one might want to really enjoy it for what it is and to drive it. Some might want to restore their car and/or modify it to suit their taste. For those who want to just drive and enjoy a car for its unique qualities, one must decide if there are things they can do to make it better in some ways and yet retain its character. The thing is, lots of folks are realistic and are not concerned about appreciation. We all just love our cars for whatever the reason.

  • Ronda Rice says:

    We have a 1957 BelAir fuel injection model. Everything is original down to the plastic seat covers. We debate this question daily, but in the end, it’s only original once.

  • Patrice says:

    I have a 66 Mustang that’s a mild resto mod. It used to be my daily driver back in the mid 90’s when I bought it. It was all original. As far as driving goes, IMO all original is way overrated. I’ve kept the original look but added better brakes, electronic ignition, Shelby sway bar, Koni shocks and a few other additions that make the car a lot more fun to drive. I enjoy it a lot more now. I think some of it depends on what you are doing with the car. If you don’t really drive it, it probably wouldn’t matter but I like to drive mine so I enjoy it being easier and more fun to drive.

  • Charlie Stringfellow says:

    I agree with Dave’s assessment. Car, condition, current value ,planned use, and market are all important. But, at the end of the day, it is your ride.

  • Al Sr. Kensek says:

    I agree that original far outweighs modifications. As a collector of various memorabilia, original is worth more.

  • Ken Sousa says:

    I have a ’69 Mustang convertible that I have consciously modified to look as “stock” as possible. The car, as built, is an F code 302 2V and still had that combination when I bought it 23 years ago. One of it’s previous owners had repainted it to silver at a local mass production paint shop and it had faded to look like the whole car was in light primer. The black standard interior was intact for the most part but the seams were beginning to rot and open up. Same with the top. These were replaced. It was still equipped with four wheel non-power drum brakes. It had the original full wheel covers and “band aid” whitewalls as per the era. I immediately replaced the carpet, which had turned brown, and discovered the shiny Meadowlark Yellow floor pans. Zero rust! I replaced the cam with something more aggressive (218 duration/.478 lift) and converted to an Edelbrock RPM manifold with a Holley 600 cfm carb. I purposely painted the manifold Ford Blue to avoid the aluminum screaming “I’m modified”. Topped that with a high performance chrome air cleaner setup. I replaced the single rusty chrome mirror with a pair of correct Ford racing mirrors. The stock rockers were replaced by roller tip type. I changed out the factory 2.79 rear end for a 3.55 unit. I went over to correct chrome rallye wheels with the non-GT center caps. I also tracked down a luggage rack (I like ’em on verts) and had it rechromed. The car was repainted to the original Meadowlark Yellow except that it was two stage instead of the acrylic lacquer that Ford had probably used. As I drove the car I realized that it was not going to survive with the manual brakes. I bought a set of used ’72 Mustang disc brakes with the larger spindles and installed them. Unfortunately the cam didn’t make enough vacuum to convert to power brakes. When I got to 99K miles my oil pressure gauge was telling me that there was something wrong with my engine. The resulting rebuild punched it out to 308 c.i. with KB flat top pistons. I replaced the cam again with something more aggressive for a 351W (224 duration/.500 lift), changed out the Holley for a 625 cfm Street Demon and bought a top end kit that included the cam, a pair of GT40P heads (which I painted Ford Blue), a set of Ford Motorsport 1.6 full roller rockers, a custom set of tri-Y headers and appropriate lifters and push rods. When I bought the car in 1998 I took it to a local drag strip and it ran solidly in the 17’s. I would take it back every time I made a modification to assess the results. As of that engine rebuild my best pass was a 14.308 @ 99.1 mph. I’m too old now to be going to the drag strip but I’m betting it could still run in the mid 14’s. The car has won 32 awards and trophies at local and regional car shows since I refurbished it and has actually done well in “stock” classes because, besides at the stoplight, it still presents as your maiden aunt’s car. I recently installed electric cutouts behind my collectors with a remote in the cockpit. What a rush when I pop them open next to some guy who thinks he has a really bad ass car! Those cutouts let you hear every lobe on that cam. Not saying that they couldn’t beat me with their “muscle car” that they just bought down at the dealer, but it sure gives some of them pause.

  • Jerry says:

    I used to love going to car shows in the 70’s, to look at vehicles customized by their owners, to make them unique. Accessories, murals, psychadelic paint jobs, body modifications, each car wilder than the last. Today, I still gravitate to the hot rods that keep self expression alive. Factory correct is all the rage, but lets face it, if you’ve soon one factory correct 69 Camaro, you’ve seen them all. Nice, but boring.

  • Dr. Douglas Johnson says:

    Keeping a collector vehicle absolutely stock brings the most resale value. I own the 1st 1967 HEMI GTX made. The car still has its original redline tires (8 examples known) its original MOPAR plastic fuel filters (4 known examples) and original belts and filters. This is what makes a number 1 car. I see way too many individuals with Year One specials, or modified vehicles with aftermarket parts trying to sale vehicles at premium prices. The real-value comes from having original parts and date coded parts if applicable that are in pristine (non-restored) condition. I have seen very few aftermarket, reproduced, or restored parts that match the functionality, appearance, reliability, or performance of the original parts. If you want top-dollar for your classic vehicle, keep it as stock as possible. In the case of the GTX, a Year One special may bring $150K were a GTX like mine is worth $250K or more.

  • Johnny D. says:

    I have a 1956 Chevy Nomad that I bought about 10 years ago. The guy I bought it from told me it was all original including the drive train, 265 ci engine and power glide trans. I wanted to make some changes but I thought I should not change an original
    Nomad. I didn’t know what to do. Then I noticed the block had drilled and threaded holes for side motor mounts. The block was using front motor mounts when it came. I remembered reading that the 265 engine did not have the provision for side mounts.
    So I checked the suffix code stamped on the front of the block. Then I checked it out on line and found out the engine was not a 265 but a 283 from from about 1960. Which means of course that it was not the original engine. The 283 didn’t come out till 1957. I was very happy to find this out. Now Wouldn’t feel guilty about making changes. And I have made a lot over the years.

  • Thom says:

    Stock never goes out of style. Even “restomods” will fall out of fashion some day.
    Pick up an old car magazine from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Look at the cars that the authors gushed over back then; you’ll snicker, but wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole today.
    Remember: you don’t actually “own” a car – you’re just its guardian for a few years.

  • chrlsful says:

    & I’m just the opposite (a la the name of the article).
    I like lookin at the mechanical breaks, cloth wrapped wires, etc. “How’s they do it back then. What was the engineering.” etc. Same up thru the early/late ’70s. As one of those bronk owners mentioned above, all those ‘bolt ons’ look garish and tacky. One on your auction site hada chromed up steering wheel & 1 other update and for me it just threw all the rest off. Were seeing some of them come into “the classic car” territory. At that point we get into the ‘survivor’ controverseries as well. Lots to talk about and quite the variation depending on specific market, era of vehicle, its original use, particular condition, price point in the original market, etc, etc.

  • skip Atkins says:

    I have one restored and three original cars sitting in my garage. Probably the funkiest is a 1951 Porsche split window. I am reportedly the third owner but no real documentation. I had a shop and was going to restore it. My wife had a fit so it is still unrestored and she was totally correct. There is also a 1966 427 Cobra with documented third owner 21,000 original miles and a 1970 Mercedes Cabriolet, 2nd owner with 85,000 miles. I am a firm believer that original is best. To may rusted hulks with all new metal and drive train around now days.

  • Robert Jenson says:

    In 1960, my father and I purchased a 1929 Model A Ford for $100. Not being of age yet, I dreamed of being on the road with it, and worked on it to make sure that it was safe to drive. As I was removing the running boards, I had many bolts that were corroded or not wanting to come apart from their nuts. I found that using a bit of strength, the bolts would shear off, leaving me with the necessity of replacement to eventually reinstall said running boards. In talking to my dad, (an old farm boy), I was educated about metal fatigue, and having the experience with it, lesson completed. Later in life, I’ve learned about metal stretch, and the reason for torquing bolts in important areas, ie: head bolts. Seems to me that if a car is to be driven and not be just a static display, that these two lessons should be taken into consideration when bringing a car back to running condition. How many times have the original bolts in an older car been tightened, especially in critical areas? I agree that “original” is a wonderful concept, but if a person is going to “enjoy it” by driving it on the roadways, many newer metal parts should be installed instead of the suspect original metal parts. Otherwise it should be a beautiful showcar that never gets dirt on the tires or bugs on the windscreen.

  • Bill says:

    I enjoy all of them! I won’t hesitate to do a few comfort and convenience changes to my pickup or the family SUV. However I plan to pass on my 2001 MR2 Spyder as an “All Original Unmolested Survivor with documentation and maintenance records”.

  • Pat Mauer says:

    I have a 1928 RR. Restored, but mostly original parts – numbers all match. The main modifications are for safety – turn indicators, second set of taillights (originally only on one side), seat belts, safety glass, and recently a backup camera, LED headlights. All of these are easily reversible – other than the holes for the seat belts. Modern valve seats for unleaded gas, sealed wheel bearings. The servo assisted mechanical brakes (4 wheel) are excellent. I’ve had the car since 1968.

  • John Mayhead says:

    Completely agree, Dave. My biggest regret in all my years of restoring over fifty cars is the paint job I gave to a tired-looking 1965 Alfa 2600 Sprint. Tired-looking, but with only 5,000 miles from new and totally original, dry stored since just after it was made and still with service tags hanging on the mirror. It never looked right afterwards; I should have just cleaned it, made it work again, and driven it. You can only take away the originality once and it has gone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More on this topic

Hagerty Insider Newsletter

Your weekly dose of auction reports, market analysis, and more.

Thank You!
Your request will be handled as soon as possible
Hagerty Insider Newsletter
Your weekly dose of auction reports, market analysis, and more.
Share