“Cars have a narrative that tells us of the time from which they came.” -Keith Martin
Day two of Revs exposed me to what it really means to perform forensic automotive research. I also learned how true professionals complete a historically authentic restoration on a vehicle. As a group, we gained an understanding of the stark difference between a weekend hobbyist and a fanatical connoisseur. The key to a proper restoration is “listening to the artifact” and “using what the car tells us.” One speaker nailed it, “Don’t let your platonic ideal ruin the artifact! The artifact tries to tell you not to mess around with it!” The key to performing a proper restoration is noticing factory overspray, studying blueprints, viewing period photographs, looking at all historical documentation, and carefully looking at old film footage. Restoring a racecar is particularly difficult because our human instinct is to make everything perfect. But real vintage racecars left the factory with paint and panel fit that were not to production car specifications. Paint added weight to the car and lightweight fenders were approximately fitted. Manufacturers have left us fingerprints on each car and these details should be respected and studied. As one speaker aptly put it, “a proper race car restoration is one that makes the car as big a piece of shit now as it was then.” In the case of rare racecars, this means that things are not symmetrical and the paint is generally poor in quality. While you can never get a car back to its originality, you cannot substitute modern paint for old paint. Patinaed racecars are preferable to perfect cars. For a restoration to work the forensics must be dead on and the poetics must be preserved.
With less valuable higher production cars you have certain license to do things that are reversible. If you are going to modify something find a sacrificial car and build a tribute car. Some questions to ask yourself when embarking on a restoration project: How important is the car? What’s your goal? Are the modifications reversible? What are your responsibilities to future generations with a legacy artifact? The two main modules today focused on these important questions.
The curator of the Revs Institute took us through the multi-year restoration of a Porsche 907 racecar. This car was acquired from a one-owner family in Switzerland. It had been lightly raced and then put away for forty years. It was a very original specimen save for one problem: At some point in time the owner tried to convert it to a street legal road car and in the process made several alternations that needed to be undone and forensically corrected. The most troublesome modification was done to the lightweight fiberglass body panels. It is still not exactly clear why, but the prior owner added layers of fiberglass on top of the original bodywork. These modifications may have been done to strengthen the body or they might have been trying to make a mold of the 907. Nobody knows for sure. The restoration group at the Collier Collection spent hundreds of painstaking hours carefully removing and correcting the fragile paper-thin body panels. The prior owner had also spray painted the entire engine bay and interior with heavy black paint. This non-factory paint was all painstakingly removed. The scariest thing about doing this restoration was preserving the original 5mm thick windscreen. Apparently, it was very difficult to restore and remove excess fiberglass without damaging the windscreen.
We finished the day with a tour of the Collier Automotive Library. This experience was totally overwhelming and the extensive artifacts almost eclipse the impact of the cars themselves. We got a lecture from the head librarian who oversees the volumes of historical archives that are housed at the museum. We donned white cloth gloves and handled rare race posters and car brochures from the 1920’s. There are two floors of rare books, manuals, posters, blueprints, and magazines. It would take years to even scratch the surface of all the contents. The Collier library has to be the most extensive and thoughtful automotive library in the world. It is available online and each month the team at Collier archives over 6,000 images and documents. The museum also is always engaged in acquiring more rare material. They are often on the hunt for entire collections that often take people a lifetime to create. Eventually, all of the major library contents will be available online via a searchable database.