HomeCar CultureWhen restorations lose touch with historic reality

When restorations lose touch with historic reality


Would you preserve or restore this Bugatti? | Larry Edsall photo
Would you preserve or restore this Bugatti? | Larry Edsall photo

What does the resurrection of the wooly mammoth, the passenger pigeon and other extinct animal species have to do with the restoration of classic cars, be they Duesenbergs , DeSotos or Datsuns? Maybe nothing. Or maybe something.

The New York Times Magazine recently published Nathaniel Rich’s 7,500-word article, “The New Origin of the Species,” about efforts to use modern science to bring back animals that no longer exist on their own. In the course of discussing the pros and cons of such efforts, he wrote about Theseus’ Paradox.

I’d never heard of Theseus or its (turns out it’s a his) paradox, so I’ll let Rich explain it, which he does by first talking about the restoration of da Vinci’s famed fresco, The Last Supper, and then by quoting Plutarch:

“If you visit ‘The Last Supper’ in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, you won’t see a single speck of paint from the brush of Leonardo da Vinci,” Rich writes. “You will see a mural with the same proportions and design as the original, and you may feel the same sense of awe as the refectory’s parishioners felt in 1498, but the original artwork disappeared centuries ago.

“Philosophers call this Theseus’ Paradox, a reference to the ship that Theseus sailed back to Athens from Crete after he had slain the Minotaur. The ship, Plutarch writes, was preserved by the Athenians, who ‘took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place.’ Theseus’ ship, therefore, ‘became a standing example among the philosophers… one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same’.”

So, is an animal produced by injecting the DNA from the wooly mammoth into the egg of an Indian elephant really anything more than a hairy elephant, albeit one that might tolerate cold weather?

Likewise, is a rusted, falling-apart 1938 Chevy body shell salvaged from a weedy salvage yard and rebuilt with newly shaped sheetmetal, a new interior and a period-correct powertrain really still a 1938 Chevy? Or, like Theseus’ ship or a painted-over da Vinci, is it something else?

How do we decide whether to preserve that old Chevy as an historic artifact or restore it so we can once again enjoy seeing it driving down the boulevard?


We see some fairly brutal restorations. The sense of historicity has been removed. The car loses its connection to history.”

— Miles Collier


[/pullquote]Even Miles Collier, champion of the preservation movement, has said that “A car is a machine for moving.”

Speaking at RM Auctions’ Art of the Automobile symposium late last year in New York City, Collier noted that the automobile “is a mechanical device that needs to move, needs to operate.”

That, he said, puts “a great deal of pressure on collectors to make sure automobiles are mechanically perfect, ready to go.” As a result, he said, “We see some fairly brutal restorations. The sense of historicity has been removed. The car loses its connection to history. Knowledgeable custodians want to respect that historicity.”

Perhaps it’s time to update the language of classic car restoration, adding to “rotisserie restoration” and “sympathetic restoration” what Collier might call an “archival restoration.”

Collier also explored this theme when he wrote the opening chapter to Fred Simeone’s book, The Stewardship of Historically Important Automobiles:


For an historical object to lose its history is to lose its reality, the only thing of any great value in the first place.”

— Miles Collier


[/pullquote]“What do we do when we erase patina, when we cover over the historic evidence of the object’s trail through time to the present day?” Collier asked. “What do we do when we eliminate the very fingerprints of the past by restoring cars to ‘original,’ or ‘improving’ them to make them better drivers or more successful racers?

“Once the evidence of an object’s travel through time disappears, history disappears. For an historical object to lose its history is to lose its reality, the only thing of any great value in the first place.”

So, by restoring a car, even at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, it may become not more but less valuable?

Collier suggests that perhaps that money might better be spent in producing what he calls a perfectly executed replica.

But, he adds, “The conventional response to his statement is that people, owners and spectators alike, don’t want to see modern copies, they want cars that are ‘real’.”

At the seminar in New York, Collier noted that most restorations are not “original” restorations, but “re-restorations of cars already restored once, twice, three times.”

What does that really produce other than a series of interns’ scrawlings over the master’s brush strokes or the automotive equivalent of a modern elephant with a hairy coat to keep it warm?


Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


  1. With all due respect to Theseus, we should all call the automotive version of this conundrum “Edsall’s Paradox.”

  2. Spare me from the historical purists, who imply we should never VALUE a fully restored vehicle, because it does not reflect its journey through time. Come on. That’s like condemning someone who figures out how to bring back the very soul and personality of Abraham Lincoln today through the body of an existing look-alike person. Sure, it ain’t Abe from 1865, but it’s as close as we might get to The Great Emancipator today — and wouldn’t that be exciting! (Okay, I’ve already written this movie.) My point is, I want to own the car my grandfather or father owned THE FIRST DAY HE BOUGHT IT, not as it rots in his barn now. Of course, it’s not exactly the same, but it is as close to the original as we’ll ever experience. And isn’t it awesome that I can relive that historic moment — now and for a long time to come!

  3. When Collier introduced the Revs Foundation at Stanford the Bentley that they choose to display outside the lecture hall looked like it was restored at the local high school. Miles has done some great things for the hobby but how did he become the guy with the flag of preservation? The book you reference is full of errors and while entertaining is not the last word in preservation. Restoration shops are paid to restore cars. How can a shop pay the bills preserving a car when so few Patina slowing techniques have the ability to preserve the process of time and not change the look of the finish.

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