Column: Why Are Unrestored Cars Often Worth More Than Restored Ones?

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Not too long ago, an “original,” “barn-find” 1965 Shelby Mustang with lovely “patina” sold at auction for $385,000—about $100,000 more than a restored Shelby would cost.

That means if were you to spend the $100,000 needed to restore this Shelby, you would end up with a car worth only about $285,000.

Before I go any further, I did look over this car in person, and it was a very nice, very original example that I would love to have in my garage. Even so, folks, this markup is just nuts. Yes, “it’s only original once” and “people are tired of overrestored cars,” but come on, this trend has gone far enough.

We decided to leave the original patina intact on our Shelby Mustang project. This intrigued Ford Racing and led them to borrow our car for their PRI Trade Show booth. Then the Charlotte Auto Fair has asked if they can transport our car to their event this April and put it in their “barn-find” display.

This display is being organized by the guy who can probably be blamed for the current “barn-find” mania. That guy is Tom Cotter, who wrote the book “The Cobra in the Barn” and its follow-up, “The Hemi in the Barn.”

Don’t get me wrong. I loved both of Tom’s books and even wrote a chapter in one of them, but I don’t think any of us expected things to get so crazy that people would pay more for an unrestored car than a nicely restored one. These days, repairing the harsh effects of time is seen as a sin.

Take our Shelby, for instance. Whenever we bring it to an event, attendees literally beg us not to change a thing. “You must leave that amazing patina exactly the way it is,” they say. 

I understand where these people are coming from, but I also believe they’re mistakenly romanticizing this wear and tear. Our Shelby didn’t gain its patina through years of peaceful slumber in a pleasantly dilapidated, sun-warmed barn. Instead, it was ridden hard, poorly maintained, and then unceremoniously dumped somewhere to become a home for a family of rats. 

If these people would take off their rose-colored glasses, they might learn that the previous owner, a Shelby collector, picked up our “amazing barn find” at the Charlotte Auto Fair a couple of years ago. Sure, it might have sat in a barn at some point before that—or at least driven by a barn once—but our Shelby is a worn-out piece of junk that needs to be restored. 

As you’ll read in this issue, we’ve just about finished the mechanical restoration and are now trying to decide what to do with the exterior. We’re leaning toward improving the car a grade or two without losing all of its character. Remember, folks, it’s important to distinguish between patina and outright damage and filth. Rats’ nests and rust holes are not patina, so eliminate them. A dirty windshield and gravel all over your carpet is not patina, so wash and vacuum your car.

Believe me, I like gently faded paint and a little wear and tear on a famous old race car as much, or maybe even more, than the next guy. I don’t really like overrestored cars either. I’d rather not see paint that’s so shiny I can barely look at it. I’m just getting tired of the way human nature encourages us to jump on the bandwagon and start making silly purchases.

There’s another issue growing out of this trend: faking patina. Don’t think for a minute that all of this “barn-find patina” is authentic. There is huge money in the collector car hobby and, as we’re finding out, a lot of the patina out there has taken days rather than decades to appear. Cars are actually being dirtied up before they go to events and auctions in an attempt to cash in on the current “barn-find” craze. It may sound like fun and games now, but someone will certainly get hurt when the frenzy ends.

However, faking patina can also be a positive thing. There are some real experts in this field, many of them from the ratrod scene, who can blend primer and paint to give pieces an antiqued look. If you are one of those guys, I need to talk to you. As I mentioned, we’ll soon try to upgrade, but not restore, our Shelby. Can we fix a small rust hole without then having to paint an entire door? 

I don’t see this as cheating, since we’re going to let people know exactly how we achieve the final look. I see this as a cool new aspect of our hobby—as long as it’s not being done to deceive. It could even make for some interesting articles in the magazine.

Okay, enough of this rant. Yes, I like restored cars. Yes, I like original cars a lot, too. What I don’t like is misguidedness and deceit, and I’m starting to see a lot of it in this area. Be careful out there. Buy the best cars—original or restored—you can get. Don’t make insensitive modifications unless you want to live with that car for a long, long time. And, most importantly, don’t get caught up in all this hoopla and buy a “barn find” car that isn’t.

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stuart in mn
stuart in mn MegaDork
2/2/21 6:27 a.m.

A 1980 Ford F-250 pickup with only 76 miles on the odometer just sold for $97,000 on Bring A Trailer:  It's pretty cool, but maybe not $100k cool.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
4/1/21 8:24 a.m.

In reply to stuart in mn :

It all depends on who wants what and how much discretionary income they have.

darkbuddha HalfDork
10/31/21 10:28 a.m.

This article is 9 years old now, and the patina thing is bigger than ever it seems.  But I think there's A LOT more to it than "only original once" and "tired of over-restored" mentalities.  Certainly those are a significant part of the mystique of patina cars, especially collector and performance cars, but it's really just the surface of the psychology of appreciation for such cars.  There's the romance of "it's not the age, it's the miles," and people seeing themselves in an object they often anthropomorphize. There's an appreciation for things that have survived and found to still be useable, if not useful.  You'll see the same thing in people searching out old tools and old appliances and old electronics.  Again, a romanticization of older things having more to them, more care, more pride, more metal, more substance, more durability, more longevity.

But I also think people rather unconsciously recognize that there's something about patina'd and worn objects as having a beauty of their own.  The Japanese have a word for an aesthetic that appreciates the imperfect, the incomplete, and impermanence, called wabi-sabi.  I think we've seen it grow more and more in all the "revival" YouTube channels and shows like Roadkill.  I've certainly seen it at work at the GRM $2k Challenge.  It's in RWB Porsches and ratrods and rally cars and well-used race cars.  It's in the growing popularity of vintage wheels and less traditionally popular cars (and car brands).  Isn't it strange how the offputting design of Edsels now has an appeal that more popular cars of the era just don't.  And there's that whole "dare to be different" movement.  You'll also notice renewed cultural interest and popularity of old '80s new wave and synth rock, a genre that doesn't hold a candle to the perfection of today's technology, but holds a deeply venerated appreciation to the point of seeking to make its imperfections part of current music(s).  And that's a good example of what I think partially motivates this kind of appreciation for imperfection: a resentment of technology and the ever-perpetual, constant newness without meaningfully perceived improvement.  New does not always equal better, while old sometimes does.  I'm reminded of lyrics from a Whitesnake song:

"I don't know where I'm goin'
But I sure know where I've been
Hanging on the promises in songs of yesterday
An' I've made up my mind, I ain't wasting no more time
Here I go again, here I go again"

You can try to hang onto the promises of the past trying to fully restore a car, but really, it's a waste of time, and it might just be better to get on with enjoying it.

bmw327 New Reader
11/1/21 12:54 p.m.

Dad's (very) ancient BMW is structurally sound now with fresh wood and metal in place as needed, but it's not pretty. Ancient brazed repairs show yet and I am tempted to leave them because they're holding well.

I'm honestly tempted to start getting it back together mechanically so I can drive it before I'm too much older, nevermind the last few thousandths of an inch. I'd like a nice interior and top, but won't refinish ANY mechanical parts. They'll certainly be rebuilt to function properly, but there will be no repaints, polish or anything of the sort. They're >80 years old and will look it.

About a year ago I took my great grandfather's (ca 1881) Springfield model 1873 trapdoor rifle out to the range after performing a minor repair and major cleaning and the attention that scruffy old cannon got from others who were playing with much more modern toys was an eye opener.  People  seem to love old machines that still do what they were built to do.  

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