Sometimes we collectors should just leave well enough alone.
A recent article in the New York Times about American cars in Cuba, written in part to preview a PBS program entitled "Classic American Cars of Cuba," extolled the creativity of the owner/mechanics there. Since the embargo in 1959, no American cars or parts have been allowed onto the island.
The result has been an automotive time warp with a Latin twist. American cars from the '40s and '50s are seen in great numbers. The article, written by Mireya Navarro, quoted Rick Shnitzler, the lead organizer of a group called "TailLight Diplomacy," which fosters relationships between American and Cuban car lovers. "How these cars survived is like, how did they build the pyramids?" said Shnitzler. "They're just magicians and wizards, pure and simple. They just take stuff from Russian vehicles and adapt parts, but the quality of the work is outstanding."
We forgive Shnitzler for the comparison between the Great Pyramid of Giza and a 1958 Buick rebuilt with pistons from a Russian Lada, for we understand his enthusiasm. But Shnitzler isn't content to simply admire this Galapagos of vintage cars. He advocates, according to the article, shipping containers full of authentic, original parts-from door handles to carburetors-to Cuba, along with "repair manuals, paint specifications and other information that would ensure that they are restored to internationally accepted standards."
Powerful words, indeed.
Those of us in the hobby might wonder just where this repository of "internationally accepted standards" of restoration resides. Over the years, our hobby has developed its own informal definitions of restorations. For example, an American restoration generally includes a chromed gas tank and a car that breaks down 50 feet into the Mille Miglia. A Japanese restoration will feature stunning paint, a perfect interior and a highly detailed engine that's missing its crankshaft. An English restoration is a pile of rusty bits, slathered with Bondo, painted with a broad brush and topped off with a British Heritage Trust Certificate. And an Italian restoration begins with a scrap of metal found in a hidden Swiss junkyard, often containing the chassis number of a missing Ferrari or Alfa competition car of the '50s and '60s. After a liberal sprinkling of large-denomination Euros, suddenly a complete car appears, which is then smeared with instant patina.
But internationally accepted standards? We have e-mailed the Times and asked for a set.
There's a larger issue at hand here. The real value of these Cuban cars is not in the underlying vehicles, but in the ways they have been adapted and maintained over the years.
We're not talking about a host of 1958 fuel-injected Bel Air convertibles cruising the streets of Havana. The survivors in Cuba generally started life as base-level four-door sedans, of which even today there is no shortage in the US. What a time-wasting historical tragedy to take these near-Darwinian examples of automotive adaptation and restore them to any uniform standard, let alone some nebulous "internationally accepted" ones.
Preeminent automotive connoisseur Miles Collier, in his seminars on collecting, consistently maintains that the most important decision a collector can make about a car is which period of its life to restore it to.
With these Cuban cars, "restoring" them to as-new standards would simply create a mass of identical, unexceptional cars. How interested would you be in viewing a fleet of perfect 1954 Ford Fairlanes?
We at SCM maintain that these Cuban cars should never be restored. They have earned their battle scars, and are only of interest to us so long as they retain them.
Carrying this argument one step further, SCM advocates a provenance-weighted approach to any restoration. Using current technology, we have shown we can restore, or recreate, any car to a standard far beyond that possible when it was originally built. This is not dissimilar to having a computer repaint the Mona Lisa and, in the process, "get rid of those awful flaws."
In our opinion, restorers today should view themselves as paleontologists, wielding their brushes of discovery delicately as they decide whether to sympathetically freshen a car with a light cosmetic and mechanical visitation, or to order up a brutally invasive and historically destructive full restoration.
GABBING IN MONTEREY
In response to numerous subscriber requests, we are offering a one-day, three-hour Insider's Seminar on Collecting in conjunction with the RM Monterey Sports Car Auction. RM Auctions CEO David Gooding graciously extended the invitation to us, saying, "We believe that informed bidders are good bidders, and the more reasoned they are in their buying process, the more likely they are to be happy with the cars they purchase. And we think the SCM seminars are a great help in this process."
I will have an all-new presentation, entitled "Ten Ways to Get a Good Buy at Auction; the Ten Most Common Mistakes to Avoid." There will also be a hands-on examination of the cars being auctioned, in the company of the SCM analysts (the field walk). Our traditional freewheeling question-and-answer session will wind up the seminar. Space is limited; our seminars at Barrett-Jackson were completely sold out. For more information, please see page 57, or contact David Slama at 503/261-0555 ext. 206, David.Slama@sportscarmarket.com.
ON THE COVER
Nicola Wood's painting, entitled "Delahaye in Death Valley," depicts a 1939 Delahaye Type 165 said to have been built for the 1939 World's Fair in New York.
"I think it has the most beautiful lines of any car I've ever seen," the artist said of its Figoni et Falaschi body. The car was restored by collector Peter Mullin, who also owns the original painting. (The leopard and the leopard print material are part of a theme that Wood likes to work into her paintings.)
Wood climbed 700 feet to the top of a sand dune at 6:30 in the morning to take snapshots of the Delahaye. "It had to be in a surrounding conducive to it, not overpowering it, but helping it along," she explained. "The sand dunes had curves similar to the lines of the car."
Wood's art last appeared on the cover of SCM in October 2000, with a depiction of a '66 Corvette convertible. Born in England, north of Liverpool, she studied art at the Parsons School of Design in New York and now lives in Los Angeles, where she maintains a '62 Cadillac convertible.
A member of the Automotive Fine Arts Society (AFAS) since 1988, Wood was the featured artist at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in 1993 and 1997. She is presently at work on the 2002 Pebble Beach poster.
SCM readers who would like a print of the Delahaye can contact the artist directly at 310/839-1027 or by e-mail at Nicola@NicolaWood.com. Several sizes are available, including a 19 x 22-inch version for $290, and a 33 x 46-inch print for $390, plus shipping.