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Patina, Provenance, Originality

It should be obvious to us that automobiles do not just represent a mode of transportation, a simple way to get from one place to another. They are tools, yes, but they can also be a means of expression, showcases of innovation, even works of art. It is no wonder, then, that certain cars have become highly collectible as their importance in the wider story of the car has gained recognition over these past decades.  Some of these cars are influential for their technological contributions, and some are celebrated for their cultural significance. Some are famous because of the people who owned them, and some are memorable for their exploits on the world’s race tracks. However they attained their fame, such cars are desirable to any people who appreciate automotive history. And for those who are able to, the urge to own them is only human nature.

The collecting of culturally significant objects is a concept that goes back many centuries, and car collecting is only a more recent variety of that institution. It is because the automobile is such a recent invention that car collecting is necessarily such a young hobby, and one that only arose after the motorcar itself had attained its own cultural significance. In fact, many of today’s most coveted cars were in relatively recent memory just inexpensive second-hand items or at best toys for people with some disposable income. Since vintage cars are, much like historic architecture, functional objects that are exposed to the elements, many have seen a significant degree of deterioration. After time provided some perspective and after certain old cars started getting attention again, that deterioration was, for many, alarming. A prevailing convention has therefore been to try and turn back the clock, to restore these cars to how they looked when they were new, how they looked during their glory days.

A Growing Awareness

This tradition of restoring older cars became the norm, and almost a necessity for those wishing to show their machines in concours events. To conserve certain historic automobiles, with their complex construction and their usable parts, it might seem like the best and often only way. Often times it is the best and only way. At the same time, however, could there be another, more honest one? Some would argue that the role of the collectible automobile is changing, that it is gaining more value as a historical object, moving more toward an identity as fine art and less as a casual hobby. The car is in many ways quite different from other articles of fine art, but many are starting to feel that in other ways it is quite similar. This “emerging ethos” as Miles Collier has called it, also stresses preservation of certain automobiles, when possible, as being pivotal to their value as historical and educational tools in addition to their desirability as collectors’ pieces. In part, this is because cars are becoming some of the last tangible connections to the specific periods that produced them, and it is their imperfections and their originality that can play a major part in informing us of those pasts.

Patina could simply be defined as an appearance attained by age, but it can also be more than that. The patina of a well-preserved car is its most visible proof of history, as well as the most direct link to its distinguished record of ownership and related stories that make it interesting, otherwise known as provenance. Provenance, of course, has more or less always been important for a car. It determines significance and defines the value of a car. Now, though, a car’s originality is starting to be more highly valued as an indicator of provenance, and a gracefully aged appearance is starting to gain respect among enthusiasts and collectors alike. This attitude has led to buzzwords like “barn find”, which refers to an original car stowed away in-period and forgotten until a recent rediscovery, making for a sort of time warp into a bygone era. Highly original cars arguably also bring more vibrancy to themselves and to a collection. They can tell a story, and can retain some of the essence of an event long past or even a person long dead. Preservation is a different approach to be sure, but as the role of significant automobiles changes, it is one worth considering.