On Car Restoration

The following is an excerpt from David N. Lucsko’s Junyards, Gearheads, and Rust: Salvaging the Automotive Past in honor of National Collector Car Appreciation Day.


From the 1890s through the 1920s, automobiles were seldom “re- stored.” At most they were “refurbished,” as those who owned or sought tosell older models worked to squeeze a few more years of service from them. Among owners, such refurbishing often entailed installing a newer ignition or lubrication system and perhaps repainting the car so that it would run and sparkle like new. Among dealers, who began to struggle with the so-called used-car problem during the 1910s, refurbishment sometimes involved more radical measures to help sell an otherwise undesirable car: installing a sportier body to turn an old sedan into a stylish speedster, converting an old touring car into a serviceable truck, and the like. “Restoration,” on the other hand, referred to the process of returning a worn-out car to showroom-new condition, not because it would otherwise be unattractive or unserviceable, but instead because of its intrinsic monetary, sentimental, or historic value. Restoration therefore differed from refurbishment less in process than in motivation. Unless one older car was modified extensively while being refurbished for continued use, that is, the process of restoring a second older model would have looked much the same: a thorough cleaning, a tune up, a repaint, and perhaps some new upholstery. But while the former would have been refurbished because its advanced age made it otherwise undesirable, the latter would have been restored precisely because its advanced age actually made it desirable.

 

At the dawn of the twentieth century, of course, “advanced age” meant something very different when applied to automobiles than it would a few decades later. During the 1900s the automotive press often ran short features on cars that were deemed to be “ancient,” “old-timers,” or “veterans,” but these were often as little as three model years old and rarely more than six. The reason they were viewed as relics in spite of their relative youth was that in the 1890s and 1900s, the automobile itself was still new, and the fundamentals of automotive technology were evolving very  rapidly. Thus a three-year-old car could indeed have been quite old, functionally and aesthetically. As a result, “ancient” cars were sometimes given new leases on life through mild or radical refurbishment by urban and sub- urban secondhand dealers, but more often they met different fates. A few were consigned to the scrap heap, although this was uncommon in the 1890s and early 1900s. Many found new owners in small towns and rural areas instead, where the obsession with up-to-the-minute styling common among urbanites held less sway. Others, especially those still owned by wealthy early adopters who had since moved on to more fashionable and technically sophisticated designs, were simply “tucked away in private stables” where they  languished in a  state of  disuse. Not until  the 1910s would any of these junked, rebuilt, resold, or otherwise forgotten old cars be restored, even on a limited basis, and not until the early 1930s would their recovery and restoration begin to develop into a recognizable hobby. Simply put, in the 1890s and 1900s, sufficient time had not yet passed for any of them to have become collectible, and thus restorable. As chapter 6 explores in greater depth, the passage of time alone—more precisely, an object’s age alone—is not the only factor of importance in establishing collectability. But at least in the 1890s and 1900s, their lack of age alone sufficed to keep most ancient cars from being seen by anyone as worth collecting.

During the 1910s, however, elites on both sides of the pond began to pay attention to these older relics. In England, Sir David L. Salomons and the Duke of Teck sponsored a research program in 1911, undertaken by a Mr. Edmund Dangerfield, to track down and document early examples of road locomotion with the aim of establishing a permanent museum “in or- der to prevent further regrettable losses of cars and cycles which daily be- come of greater interest.” The following year a temporary exhibit debuted, and two years later Dangerfield’s full museum opened its doors in London. In 1913, the organizers of a new-car exhibition in Pittsburgh offered a cash prize to the oldest car that could make it to the show under its own power. A 1900 Winton, “chug [ging] . . . with as much speed and almost as much power as she showed” when new, claimed the prize. Three years later, Elwood Haynes of the Haynes Automobile Company launched an effort to locate the oldest car bearing his name that was still in active service. Following an exhaustive search that turned up a number of contenders, the victor, James E. Howard of Jeffersonville, Indiana, was presented with a brand-new 1917 Haynes Twelve in exchange for his contest-winning 1897 two-cylinder model. For its part, the automotive press began to wax nostalgic about the early days of motoring in the 1910s and 1920s. Motor Age and The Automobile did so by printing retrospective looks at the 1890s through the lens of their long-running sister publication, Horseless Age. Motor, Motor Age, and The Automobile all ran celebratory features on surviving “old-timers” from the 1890s and early 1900s as well. These included an 1891 Panhard owned by a French clergyman since 1894, featured in both the 1910s and 1920s; a ten-year-old Cadillac that did well for itself at a Royal Automobile Club shakedown in the U.K. in 1913; a Parisian LéonBollée, built in 1897, which was used across South America before coming to the United States in 1900, featured in 1913; and a homemade car built by Achille Philion of Chicago in 1893, celebrated in 1920.

 

By the 1930s, antique restorations, while still less common than continuing-use refurbishments, had nevertheless become sufficiently widespread among middle-class Americans to support small-scale car shows and the founding of the Antique Automobile Club of America  (AACA, 1935) and the Horseless Carriage Club of America (HCCA, 1937). Members of the AACA and the HCCA were interested above all else in what they called “antiques,” typically vehicles from the 1890s–1910s (HCCA) or the 1890s–1920s (AACA). After World War II, the old-car restoration hobby broadened to include “classics,” defined as the luxurious and powerful makes of the 1920s–1930s: Duesenbergs, larger Packards, Auburns, and the like. The hobby continued to grow, and by the time it hit its stride as a broad- based activity in the late 1950s, a third class of cars had joined the avocation’s ranks. “Special-interest autos,” as this final class was known, included the mass-market cars of the 1920s–1930s (mostly Fords, Chevrolets, and Dodges). Later, during the 1970s and 1980s, the special-interest class would expand to incorporate the mass-market cars of the postwar years as well.

As the old-car restoration hobby broadened and matured in the 1950s, it began to receive regular coverage in broad-based periodicals like Car Life, Motorsport, Auto Life, and Motor Trend. It also spawned several new titles developed specifically for restoration enthusiasts, notably Hemmings Mo- tor News, first published in 1954, and Cars and Parts, which debuted in 1957. Some of the earliest postwar coverage focused on the emerging upper end of the old-car hobby: private individuals who could afford to spend good money on a classic—typically $1,000 to $5,000, at a time when median household income hovered around $3,900—and who could also afford to pay a shop to restore and maintain it. Furthermore, according to the 1952 Automotive Yearbook of the men’s magazine True, the average classic enthu- siast was “very contemptuous of Detroit’s stock cars today, a firm sub- scriber to the theory that ‘they don’t build them like that any more.’ . . . Other cars don’t move him. Antiques, hot rods, California customs, and his family car are beneath consideration.” There were exceptions, of course. Some, including the well-known racing driver Phil Hill, did their own work on their classics. Others restored antiques and classic cars, caring little for the class distinctions that ostensibly stood between a 1908 Buick and a 1934 Packard Twelve. Also, for every pretentious collector of high-end classics, there were many more who restored antiques.

Antique enthusiasts tended to be a bit lower on the income scale, and they also tended to do their own work. This was the case back in the 1920s and 1930s, when the old-car hobby centered on antiques first emerged, and it was no less true in the 1950s. As Frank Cetin of the general-interest mag- azine Cars explained in 1953, “Most people who start out restoring antique automobiles begin with any car they happen to get hold of.” Then, as they settled into the hobby, they tended to gravitate toward one or another make or one or another span of years. But what really mattered, Cetin con- tinued, wasn’t “how or why these citizens get interested in restoring old cars or what kind of antiques they prefer. . . . They are all in the hobby for the same reason—the pride and joy that comes from transforming a pile of junk into an authentic and usable automobile. Authentic to them, by the way, means authentic right down to the last lock-washer.”

Doing the work of accurately restoring an antique meant finding and procuring spare parts, and in the 1950s this was often quite a challenge. This was long before specialty firms would reproduce the sheet metal, trim, and mechanical parts required, and as Rod and Custom put it in an article describing the restoration of a 1910 Buick touring car in 1954, “You can’t [just] run down to the nearest wrecking yard and buy a fender or two.” In- stead, “You must hire an experienced craftsman who can duplicate exactly a missing fender from an old photograph or a smudgy sketch.”

Wrecking yards were often of limited use to antique enthusiasts in the 1950s for several reasons. Sometimes the car in question was never pro- duced in large numbers to begin with, making the survival of derelict examples in salvage yards unlikely at best. Sometimes wrecked examples with the parts one needed were indeed out there somewhere but had been exposed to the elements for so long by the 1950s that virtually all of their parts were useless. Sometimes their scarcity was more deliberate. As we have seen, manufacturers and dealers destroyed thousands of “old-timers” during the 1920s and 1930s in an effort to remove competing used cars from the market. And then there were the wars. Thousands of antiques were fed to the scrap-metal furnace during World War II and the Korean War, artificially magnifying an increasingly desperate shortage of antique cars and parts.

For the restoration enthusiast, this left three options: hiring a specialist to fabricate the needed parts, as Rod and Custom suggested; finding other hobbyists with similar cars and swapping for what was needed; or locating and purchasing a “duplicate car,” more commonly known as a “parts car”: a wrecked or otherwise hopelessly worn-out vehicle used as a rolling source of spares. The first of these options was out of the question for most budget-minded antique do-it-yourselfers, while the third grew less and less possible each year precisely because so many were joining the ranks of the hobby. This adversely affected not only the chances of locating a parts car for use as a donor, but also the odds of finding a suitable antique project to begin with. “Discouraging as it may be,” Car Life’s George A. Parks lamented in 1954, “most collectors feel that the chances of finding a pre- 1920 car not in the hands of an enthusiast are a thousand to one!” Conse- quently, for antique enthusiasts in particular but also for other old-car hobbyists, the second option gradually gained favor. By the 1970s, the re- sulting large-scale swap meet had become a vital seasonal tradition.

Other restoration enthusiasts had better luck finding complete parts cars for their projects, and they also found it easier to locate odds and ends in salvage yards. This was especially true among the special-interest hob- byists who joined the old-car fold in the 1950s. Because they focused on the newer, mass-produced cars of the 1920s and 1930s—Model A Fords, for example, as opposed to the high-end classics of the same period and the antiques of an earlier age—they had little trouble sourcing what they needed. “Ordinarily, the A’s are purchased in near junk condition; some are merely running on their nerve, while several have been lacking completely in the wheels department,” explained a 1954 Car Life feature on an early Model A Ford club and its members. The parts required to breathe new life into these machines were plentiful, the piece went on to clarify, with some still available new from Ford dealers. Motorsport detailed another option for Model A enthusiasts, also in 1954: “Replacement transmissions, rear ends, body parts and miscellaneous hardware” for the venerable Ford “can be picked up in any junk-yard, usually in better than good condition.” Re- storable examples and parts cars were available for a song, and the same was true for those who rebuilt Plymouths, Dodges, and Chevrolets from the same era.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the special-interest niche expanded to include everything from 1940s and 1950s Cadillacs and Chevrolets to 1960s Mustangs, GTOs, and even postwar imports like Volkswagens, MGs, Jaguars, and Porsches. As this happened, a robust aftermarket reproduction- parts business developed for many of these later cars, especially Mustangs, Volkswagens, and MGs. A bit later, several OEMs also established “classic” or “heritage” centers to support the preservation and continued use of their earlier models, as well as licensing programs to better regulate the reproduction-parts business. Though this was not entirely new— Aston Martin, for example, has long supported every model it has ever made through its Works Service Department, established in 1924—it did become a more widespread phenomenon in the 1990s and 2000s with the establishment, among others, of General Motors’ Service Parts Operations in 1991; Ford’s Restoration Parts Licensing Program in 1993; Mercedes- Benz’s Classic Center in Germany, also in 1993; Volkswagen’s Classic Parts Center in 1997; and Ferrari Classiche in 2006.

At the same time, salvage yards remained vital—indeed, for those who owned a newer special-interest car, they came to be an even more abundant source of restoration projects, parts cars, and individual parts and systems than they had been for the earlier special-interest enthusiasts of the immediate postwar years. This was due in part to the fact that latter- day special-interest cars like 1955 Eldorados, 1960 356s, and 1965 Malibu SSs were simply newer and thus more likely to have parts-car counterparts in salvage yards than any prewar car. In addition, very few of these post- war models had ever been subjected to forced destruction by new-car dealers or a scrap-hungry military. Finally, low scrap prices through the 1950s and 1960s meant that salvage inventories of postwar models remained bloated throughout the period. Thus it was easy, as Hot Rod would report in 1978, to find used parts for early Mustangs in wrecking yards. It was also easy, as Popular Hot Rodding would note a couple of years later, to find an inexpensive wrecked Camaro and rebuild it using salvaged parts. And, as regular readers of Cars and Parts would find over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, wrecking yards with salvageable machines from the 1950s and 1960s abounded coast to coast.75 Thus, although prewar cars continued to surface regularly during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, few benefited quite as readily from the postwar era of secondhand abundance as did latter-day special-interest enthusiasts.

 

David N. Lucsko is an associate professor of history at Auburn University. He is the author of The Business of Speed: The Hot Rod Industry in America, 1915–1990. For more on his latest project, Junyards, Gearheads, and Rust: Salvaging the Automotive Past, click here