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  • Old Cars: More Reliable Now Than Ever +

    I was giving a talk at the local MG club meeting last Friday evening. We were discussing road trips, and the SCM “Road to Reno” adventure came up. In 2011, we bought three 1972-73 MGBs (two convertibles and a GT), refurbished them and drove to Reno for the All-MG Register Read More
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Collector Car News

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Without evidence of time, what does a real object offer the collector that a perfect replica does not as well?





Oldsmobile made its name with the tiny single-cylinder "curve dash" buckboard in the early years of the 20th century, but went on to produce one of the most significant and largest early American cars.

Based on the earlier Model Z, the 1910 Limited rode on the same 130-inch wheelbase with massive 42-inch wheels. The following year the wheelbase was stretched to 138 inches and the engine was expanded from the Z's 505-ci 6-cylinder to a massive 707-ci unit. A roadster, a touring car, a four-passenger "tourabout," and a limousine were offered, at prices from $5,600-$7,500, competing with Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow.

Oldsmobile built only 159 7-passenger touring cars in 1911, so finding one in any condition is unlikely. This Oldsmobile Limited 7-passenger Touring was bought new by the president of the Brewyn-White Coal Company in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. It is one of three known and the only one never restored.

The car was discovered by collector William Swigart in the 1950s and he resisted urges to restore it, though he did find a set of new tires. It presently carries incorrect headlights, though the right Solarclipse 950 units are available with a bit of hunting. The Olds also lacks a top or top bows, though they were optional. Oldsmobile sold only 140 Limiteds in 1912, the last year for the model.

{analysis}{auto}1026{/auto} This 1911 Oldsmobile Limited 7-passenger Touring sold for $1.65 million at RM's Hershey, Pennsylvania, sale on October 12, 2007. There are a number of interesting issues to which this transaction gives rise.

The Limited 7-passenger Touring is a passably preserved barn find. It is complete in most respects, but shows signs of distress and deterioration and has largely unplumbed mechanical systems to boot.

I examined the 1912 Limited that sold at the Otis Chandler estate sale a year ago and felt it lived up to its "finest and most desirable in existence" billing. When the hammer fell, that car sold for $1.25 million. So why did our barn find do so much better?

We are beginning to see the emergence of a trend among collectors wherein wholly unmolested cars-with all the wear, tear, and shabbiness that implies-command significant premiums over beautifully restored examples.

Are these signs the collector car world is starting to fall in line with other areas of antiquarian collecting-some varieties of furniture, silver, porcelain, firearms, clocks, scientific instruments, and so on-where originality is everything?

Diametrically opposing demands



Yes and no. Let's take a look at the two diametrically opposing demands on collectible cars-perfect operating capability versus historical integrity.

Unlike other antique objects, save for perhaps musical instruments, collectible cars are required to operate at, and sometimes beyond, their original design limits. In the past, this operating ethos has been so pervasive that the vehicle's integrity as a "historical document" was customarily subordinated to the demand for perfect operation.

Hence we are used to the ubiquity of the "total restoration," which erases any evidence of historical age in order to create the simulacrum of newness. Two factors contributed to the drive to restore-the collector's personal relationship to the car and the recent nature of the automobile collecting movement.

The collector's personal relationship to his car is often based on its ability to connect him to his own specific past. Nostalgia causes him to see the car not as a historic object, but, like the collector himself, as an inhabitant of the present with the right to be reinvented according to whim, even if that be restoration at the expense of erasing the object's historical nature.

The second factor that contributes to the "perfect operation at all costs" philosophy is the immaturity of the field. Collecting cars started as an activity for enthusiasts to own some valueless old crocks that represented a piece of history they cared about.

Experiencing the cars as they were



As the cars were essentially valueless, much of the focus of these ur-collectors was on the salvaging and rehabilitation of these objects by the collectors themselves in order to experience the cars as they were when the hobbyist remembered them.

Indeed, that was the point of the hobby. Today, however, at one end of the collecting continuum lie automobiles that by virtue of their exceptional qualities and historical significance command prices on a par with rarefied objects in other fields.

In this arena, minor differences in condition (of which originality is by far the most important), provenance, original specification, etc. have enormous repercussions on value. So this is no longer a hobby, it is connoisseurship.

The two opposing factors, use versus history, conspire to create a major disconnect in our field: We desire (and price) these objects as masterpieces of the past, yet we treat them as modern artifacts without regard to history. With total restoration, we erase patina, the historic evidence of the object's travel through time to the present day.

By erasing the evidence of history, the car loses its identity as a historical object, which is the only real value in the first place. Without evidence of time, what does a real object offer the collector that a perfect replica does not?

A replica would serve better



Indeed, for many uses to which collectible automobiles are being put, a perfectly executed replica would serve better. We truly could experience our car as it was when new. The conventional response to this statement is that people don't want modern copies; they want "real" cars.

This response raises a major epistemological question, however. If an antiquarian object manifests no signs of history, how do we KNOW it's real? Indeed, what makes it real? We need only consider the countless examples of fraudulent works from our own as well as other fields that have fooled experts.

So returning to our Limited 7-passenger Touring, I would suggest that the Olds's primary property is that its historical reality is absolutely verifiable. The very bones of its legitimacy are there for all to see. Some insightful collectors have realized that, like collectors in other fields, history should trump function.

The unrestored historic automobile offers us a direct connection to the people and times of a past era, whether distant or recent. We can sit on the same leather, touch the same finish, and operate the same vehicle despite its quirks of age and decay. Such surviving cars are the rarest and purest of all collectible automobiles redolent with the fascination of historical reality. Collectors who share that appreciation will pay accordingly.

However, limited, if not marginal operation has drawbacks, because unrestored cars are remarkably fragile, deteriorating to nothing if subjected to significant use or exposure. That's why there will always be a demand for restored "good drivers," no matter where this original car trend goes. Clearly, based on price, the buyer of this Limited 7-passenger Touring plans neither to restore nor use this car extensively once the mechanical conservation and rehabilitation is performed.

The buyer's risk in this deal lies in the revelations of a detailed exploratory examination-whether the body's wood frame, its body skins, its major mechanical components have sufficient integrity to allow conservation of the visual elements and the successful resuscitation of its original mechanicals.

Barn-find prices allow no room for error



Barn-find price premiums allow no room for error. And this is the major difference between the barn-find purchase-a piñata of potential unpleasant surprises-and the purchase of a known, original car that aged gracefully in the public eye. Because of the unknowns, the barn find should be priced below a comparably original car that has demonstrated its structural integrity over years of use and exposure.

How did our buyer do in this deal? Assuming the Limited 7-passenger Touring has sufficient integrity to permit conservation alone, I think he's okay. I would guess that in today's market, the Chandler car would be worth the same as this one. So, pricing equal to the best restored example for the only untouched, reference-quality, original Oldsmobile Limited may well prove to be a deal as this trend develops. Fairly bought.

(Introductory description courtesy of RM.) {/analysis}

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