What Makes a Survivor?

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Burroughs stands by—and on—his definition of “Survivor”

The classic car hobby can learn from collectors of coins, guns, and clocks—refinishing hurts the value

By Paul Duchene

The issue of originality—“George Washington’s axe”—has been around since cars were first judged for authenticity, perhaps back in the 1920s when the first bunch of pre-1904 vehicles assembled for the London-to-Brighton re-enactment.

To the enormous pleasure of Chief Judge Ed Gilbertson, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is expanding its preservation category this summer by adding a class for Post-WWII cars. “They ARE 50 years old,” he observes dryly. (In fact, most of us are Post-WWII as well.)

Pebble Beach is justly famous for its jewelry, but in this instance history is triumphing over jewelry in the classic car hobby. Million-dollar cars often resemble Fabergé eggs in their detail, so honoring the earnest, unrestored vision of the original artisans adds a charmingly flawed facet to the gem-like setting of the 18th fairway.

But the attempt to measure originality in a meaningful way got a real leg up in 1989, when the benchmark Bloomington Gold Corvette Rally added a “Survivor” certification for original, unrestored cars, to its anal-retentive (yes, it is hyphenated) Gold and Silver restoration categories.

ORIGINS

Riding point (and drawing fire) on the issue is David Burroughs, the articulate founder of Bloomington Gold back in 1978. Burroughs showed a Corvette at several shows in the 1970s but noticed the judging was subjective at best. It occurred to him that if he could get a board of experienced restorers together, they could judge Corvettes by the real-world standards to which they were originally made.

That way, anybody whose car passed muster got a Gold or Silver certificate rather than one Best of Show. “We could have ten winners instead of one,” says Burroughs. Cars with gold-plated engine kits received a rude surprise. “Guys who left things alone were recognized. People who didn’t like it never came back.”

But an unanticipated side effect troubled him. “People would bring unrestored cars not good enough to get a Gold certificate,” a score of 95 points on myriad details from correct engine paint to gas tank decals. “Somebody might bring a ’57 fuelie. How many of those do you see? They’d get a Silver certificate (90 points) and they’d take it home and restore it. That depressed me; we’d lost another original car.”

LEAVE THEM ALONE

So Burroughs created another system to measure original cars and encourage people to leave them alone. To win a Bloomington Gold Survivor certificate, a car is judged in four categories—exterior, interior, engine compartment, and chassis. It must be more than 50% original or unmodified in three of the four categories, and in good enough condition to use as a model for the restoration of a similar car. If it passes in all four categories, it’s deemed a Benchmark car.

Judges are blind tested—they face away from a very good original example and must correctly describe what each part of the vehicle should look like. If they pass, they can then train other judges, who must be tested too.

Burroughs thinks his system could apply to any marque, but Gilbertson at Pebble Beach is not so sure. “Some cars are as easy as ABCs, but others, like Voisin, simply can’t be judged that way. They’re all different and they’re all correct,” says Gilbertson, who loves original cars. He has judged at Pebble Beach for 24 years, been Chief Ferrari judge for 15 years, and Chief Judge overall for the past eight years. He’s also been Chief Judge for the Ferrari Club of America for 20 years.

“People come to Pebble Beach with a car that shows well, but doesn’t win anything. The guy will call me very upset. ‘I’ve won awards all over the place. I’ve got Best of Show and I get nothing here.’ I tell him the car scored well, but in the non-preservation classes, we focus on restoration to original standards and authenticity far more than most events do,” says Gilbertson, who attributes the value of a Pebble Beach award to the depth of the judges’ knowledge. For instance, a car painted in a non-original color, no matter how beautifully restored, is extremely unlikely to go home with any kind of ribbon from Pebble.

TRADEMARK BATTLES ANNOY HOBBY

So far, Burroughs reckons 1,000 Corvettes have qualified for the $250 Bloomington Gold Survivor certificate. He estimates 3,000 cars attend the show each year, with about 150 registered for Gold and Silver judging and 80 to 100 for Survivor certification.

Burroughs says the term “Survivor” entered the vernacular very quickly and he legally pursued people who were describing cars as “survivors” when they hadn’t passed the Bloomington Gold certification. “That’s our trademark,” he says. “I could sell a hamburger I called a Whopper, but I’d hear from Burger King.”

While aggressive efforts by Burroughs to trademark the term “Survivor” have annoyed the collector car hobby as much as a faulty car alarm that goes off when you don’t expect it, the certification itself remains a genuine attempt to define the qualities of a prize-winning original car.

Richard Lentinello is the Editor in Chief of Hemmings magazines and recalls the survivor trademark issue “being crazy and ugly for six months,” with legal threats bandied about, though nothing ever went to court.

“Some magazines use the word whenever they can just to piss him (Burroughs) off,” Lentinello says. “But I think using the term survivor for a car that’s only 40 percent correct is wrong. A survivor should be all original except for the tires and battery.”

(SCM’s policy is to use the complete phrase, Bloomington Gold Survivor, when referring to a car that has been certified by Bloomington. However, we will continue to allow our writers to use the generic term “survivor” to describe cars that, in their opinion, warrant that description, which refers to a car that is essentially in original, unrestored condition.—ED.)

LEARN FROM GUNS, COINS, CLOCKS

Burroughs says whatever its shortcomings, his effort is an attempt to develop a system to value and preserve original vehicles, and ought to be adaptable to anything from tractors to airplanes. He thinks the classic car hobby should learn from the collectors of coins, guns, and clocks. “Refinishing hurts the value. Why haven’t people figured this out?”

To that end, he bought an unrestored ’67 Corvette. “The frame is rusted, the paint sun-baked, the carpet in shreds—you couldn’t use it as a model.”

Burroughs’ favorite schtick when he’s explaining Bloomington Gold Survivor certification is to hop up on the Corvette’s cowling ahead of the windshield, with a can of spray paint in his hand.

“The crowd goes numb,” he says. “I’m eight feet in the air, standing on the car. I ask them, what’s the problem? I’m wearing soft shoes, the car is tremendously braced. I’ll tell you the problem: I can open the hood and touch up the engine compartment with a $3 spray can. I can do real damage to the historical value. And they get it.”

Europeans have long held unrestored original items—be they sculpture, paintings, buildings, or cars—in much higher esteem than those restored to “better than new” condition. It is a clear sign of the emerging maturity of the American collector that “just making things a little better here and there” is no longer automatically viewed as the right thing to do to a car. After all, as preservation expert Miles Collier is wont to say, “Cars are only original once.”

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