I’m now into the restoration of my 1965 Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider over $50,000. What I have to show for it is a completely stripped body shell, with all the rust removed and damaged panels repaired. It is ready for paint and reassembly.
As I wrote in my January “Shifting Gears” column, I have been wrestling with the competing paradigms of “don’t erase a car’s history” and “repair the damage and degradation resulting from a half-century of use.”
There is no shortage of opinions about my decision. On one side, collector Jerry Seinfeld and SCM contributor Steve Serio have declared that I have “Botoxed and liposuctioned my car” and that there’s “not a chance in hell” that I’ll be happy with the outcome.
On the other, subscriber Jordan Cohen wrote, “The Alfa doesn’t have memories, you do.” Others have pointed out that the restoration of this car is just another chapter in its life.
Physical vs. emotional patina
As we become more sophisticated in our collecting and the understanding of our cars as historically important artifacts, the nuances of their past lives become more important.
We have to learn to separate the care and feeding of the artifact — the car itself — from the memories it represents.
For example, my 1965 Giulia Spider was not an untouched virgin that had slowly slid into a state of disrepair. It had already had major body work done to the right rear, including a used fender welded on top of the original after some sort of impact.
The car had been completely repainted in a pleasing but not-quite-correct shade. (The original color, according to the Alfa factory records, was Grigio Mare, or Sea Gray.) The interior has been redone at least twice.
The original engine and gearbox have been rebuilt, and the suspension has been upgraded with Day Two modifications, including a larger sway bar, shorter springs and Koni shock absorbers.
The Spider was hardly a candidate for a preservation class at any concours. The artifact itself had a patina that came from being in service for 50 years. But the car retained very few original surfaces.
So by deciding to make the car right, what was I erasing? An incorrect, not-very-well-done paint job from several decades ago? Backyard body shop repairs? Is that such a loss to automotive history?
I think not.
Cars are one of the few collectibles that deteriorate slightly each time they are used. There are only a certain number of times a starter will spin — or a generator will produce current. Engine bearings wear thin, and valve guides wear out.
Suspension bushings degrade from use and age. Instrument cables lose their lubrication and start to squeal. Seat stuffing becomes compressed, and seams split. Simply put, cars physically wear out with use.
Turn the page
However, a car’s emotional patina, which has only a peripheral relationship to the physical condition, never wears out.
This Alfa has seen a long and productive life. It has taken my family and me on joyous trips throughout the western United States. Its scrapbook of memories is a full one, and there is another chapter about to be added.
As Alex, Bradley and I flip through the pages that reflect the history of this car and the place it has played in our lives, the newest pages will reflect the restoration it is currently undergoing.
“And here’s the rust we found in the floors, engine bay and trunk.” “Here’s where we replaced the incorrect brake master cylinder with an NOS unit.” “This is what the exhaust headers looked like after they were ceramic-coated.”
The event-driven history of the car and the story it has to tell transcend its second-rate paint job and oft-redone interior. Its current restoration is simply a phase in its life — a critical and necessary phase if we are to stop its slow destruction via the tin worm — and preserve its essence for future generations.
That essence is embodied in all the experiences we have had with the car — not in its surfaces.
I’ve told Bill Gillham, the restorer, that I don’t want a 100-point car when he is done. Of course, the car will be spectacular compared to the state it was in when I brought it to him. It will have properly fitted body panels. The paint will be the correct, as-delivered color — and properly applied.
The carpets and seating surfaces are already a decade old and have seen many miles. The instruments and bezels won’t be touched, and the steering wheel doesn’t need to be restored. So I expect that when I sit behind the wheel, my view won’t be so very different than it was when I brought the car to Bill.
I will have traded my dollars for the assurance that I have stopped the structural disintegration from rust — and given the car another 50 — perhaps even 100 — years on this planet.
Yet part of me is still sorry that I embarked on this restoration.
The timing was poor, as I continue to struggle with bringing the 1961 Alfa Romeo Sprint Speciale I bought last year back to life. The Giulia Spider Veloce was a running, driving car when I dropped it off at Bill’s, and I expected to spend $10,000 or so and drive it home with rockers repaired and trunk floor replaced.
But that wasn’t to be.
So while I am at peace with my decision to make this car right — and believe that I am serving the car and the automotive community well by my decision — it would have been okay if I hadn’t decided to take the car apart at this time. However, it would have needed to be taken down to bare metal at some point, and it just turned out that the time is now.
The Alfa Spider hasn’t lost anything — it’s gained a new lease on life.
It’s being prepared for another set of finishes, and, in a few months, it will be ready to make many more years of memories.
In this case, the emotional patina is what’s being preserved, while the physical artifact is being restored. ♦