preservation vs restoration
Building conservationist and broadcaster Kevin McCloud of Channel 4’s Grand Designs says there’s a lot of crossover into the classic car world: restore or preserve?
Kevin McCloud and readers debate the Baillon Ferrari
In the care-home world in which I work, the elderly tend to be damp, smelly and ungrateful. Their care costs are astronomical and yet the law requires that they’re looked after and allowed to age with dignity. Some of them live to be 300 or 400 years old.
My world is one of buildings. Cars are a different matter. Historic buildings are rooted to the spot and even define the character of a place; their decay can be slow and they’re subject to all kinds of labyrinthine legislation. Historic cars, meanwhile, zoom around in resolute defiance of a connection with anything. They rot alarmingly quickly and the oldest of them is late Victorian. In the architectural world they’d be whipper-snappers.
And yet their prices are approaching those of many listed buildings, even at the stratospheric levels of the market. For one Ferrari 250 GTO, at £24.5 million, you could probably buy an original 16th Century villa by Andrea Palladio, the greatest architect who ever lived, near Vicenza (and within striking distance of Modena). Ferrari built 39 GTOs; Palladio built fewer villas, around 35. In the 16th Century.
Neither villas nor GTOs make it onto the market very often but our love of old things does not wane. Thousands flock to events like the Goodwood Revival and the pages of this magazine have carried intricate discussions about whether to retain the historic dust on a barn-find 250. And here is the nub of why I’m writing: the term ‘historic dust’, which is in danger of being integrated into the lexicography of motoring heritage.
I have dealt with old buildings all my adult life, studying them and repairing them. I have made television programmes about Palladian architecture. I concern myself with the nerdiest of approaches to conserving the paint on door knockers as I do the engineering solutions for stopping 400-ton walls from falling over. But I have never fixated on historic dust. Nor has any academic I know, other than to get rid of it.
Building conservation grew up in the UK; it is a British discipline; and it has a 150-year head start on its motorised equivalent. I suspect, furthermore, that the historic car world can learn something from it, so I thought it might be useful to compare the no-nonsense world of old buildings with the approaching-nonsense world of old cars before it all gets too late and too silly. So please arm yourself against the gobbledegook of historic-dust collectors with the following list of clearly defined terms.
Preservation Like burying a 5th Century BC Iraqi ruin in sand, in the case of a car this means enveloping it in rustproofing and lacquer so that it’s probably undriveable but unreachable by the effects of atmosphere and insects. And humans too. It’s hard to understand the point of this unless you’re mothballing a project for years hence; I say this because the car has effectively been removed from circulation so that a current generation are denied ‘intellectual and cultural access’ (yes, a term used in Heritage circles). Buildings are meant to be seen, loved, understood and appreciated. Ditto old cars.
restoration This is generally frowned on as it usually means taking a building, ripping a lot of serviceble old stuff out and then making up a slightly faked history (no matter how wellmeaning) to tidy things up. Why is that bad? Because historical artefacts are just that and ought to be respected for what they can teach us. And the character and authenticity in most ancient buildings are often entirely composed of several thousand small details. Remove them one by one and you erode the authenticity.
Occasionally there’s an argument for restoring an ancient building because (given sufficient documentary evidence) it tells us how the place was when first constructed. The motoring equivalent is the concours-ready car every dealer sells and every buyer wants, with paint more flawless than when it left the factory and not a scrape of dirt on the wheelarches. Alan Clark would have disapproved of this fetishism. I do too. I’m not sure I want to buy a 1966 Aston Martin that was built in 2015. Where’s the heritage value in that? Where is the authenticity in a faked identity?
resto-mod Actually not an architectural term but one I like from the American vocabulary of automotive approaches, whereby a restoration is modified with further improvements (leather for PVC; upgraded brakes) – like fitting a Bulthaup kitchen and underfloor heating in a listed building to make it comfortable and glamorous in the 21st Century. Future generations may not forgive us.
hypothetical reconstruction/dramatic licence Great. Theatrical, fun, who-gives-a-fig approach that is absolutely of its time and just gives a passing nod to the past. Chrome my engine and fit a nitro tank to my derelict country cottage, please.
Leave it alone and do nothing Not a clever strategy. Why would you leave dust all over a car that has been stationary and unused for decades when the very act of sitting in all that filth and driving the car scratches the leather and paintwork more violently in one week than ever in its entire sedentary history? Dust also contains chemicals it has captured and may have a detrimental effect on paintwork and upholstery.
So what does dust teach us? It’s not authentic if it obscures the truth and has nothing valuable to communicate. It just tells us it’s dusty. It’s the same with buildings. Windows need washing and gutters clearing, otherwise the structure enters an accelerated phase of decay. Stupid, in other words.
Genteel decay Exactly the same as Leave it Alone and Do Nothing except maybe the dust is brushed off and paintwork washed now and again. The trouble is, this approach leads pretty rapidly to decay: a pile of rubble on one hand; a pile of rust on the other.
conservative repair This is the dull, worthy but essential approach that seems to be missing from the discussion about cars, and it’s the philosophy that was evolved first by John Ruskin in the 1840s and then William Morris when he started the Society of Protection for Ancient Buildings in the 1870s. It is founded in honesty, pragmatism
and in romance (and not least the desire not to bugger up the way we present the past). I have been a member of the SPAB almost since I was a child and passionately believe its principles are right in the way we deal with the historic built environment… and the way we could deal with cars.
Here are a few guiding principles.
Staving off decay is cheaper and more authentic than restoration after neglect (use an oily rag)
Building repairs ought to be reversible, honest and visible although harmonious, and effected with sympathetic materials
New work and additions, where necessary, should be modestly obvious, in the language of their time and not pastiche
Structural integrity is prime. The mechanics of a building should be addressed in order that the engineering is sound and correct; water kept out and the future of the structure safeguarded. This may justify new engineering and approaches
The effects of time on the building inside and out – the patina – should be respected and conserved wherever possible as a contribution to the building’s authenticity
The narrative of the building ought to be maintained, readable and not interfered with or faked. New, reversible and clearly differentiated narratives can be added but must be legible as such
The context, setting and landscape of a building should form part of its heritage value.
I reckon every one of these can be applied to a vehicle (except the seventh, maybe), but what happens when we try? If I take, just as an example, an imaginary very original if slightly battered and tired 1961 Maserati 3500 coupé and follow points 1 to 7 through, this is what will happen. The dust will be washed off and the body removed so that the structure and mechanics can be cleaned, repaired, rebuilt and replaced (where absolutely necessary). There might even be one or two clear 21st Century interventions if they safeguard the heritage value of the car and help stave off decay (zinc-electrocoated chassis? Dunno, but I seem to be giving myself carte blanche for that – see point 4).
Then, there’ll be new carpets because I can copy the almost disappeared existing ones with absolute faith, and to continue to use them would damage the car. Equally the asbestos exhaust insulation may have to go. Or I could replace the asbestos with a safer equivalent such as Aerogel matting.
The headlining has two holes, one behind each of the sunvisors, where a mouse had converted my car into his camper van. So the plan is to clean it and repair the holes with an obvious but sympathetic fabric in patches that follow the shape of the sunvisors (point 2). Leatherwork will be cleaned and rebacked to give it another 20 years of use but not replaced or faked to look as new. Bodywork to be resprayed here and there where necessary to look beautiful from six feet away, cherished from three and authentic from six inches.
You get the idea, I hope. This isn’t genteel decay. Or restoration. It’s a step-by-step process of analysing what is required in each specific context, keeping as much as possible of the original, allowing for future use and wear and tear, and maintaining the narrative of the car which, other than the pleasure of driving it, is where I believe its value lies. And the result ought to be a cherished vehicle of immense beauty, character and authenticity.
There will be some areas of ambiguity. And indecision. Because each building and each car will be judged on its own merits. And because a little vagueness is occasionally allowed. AR Powys, one of the great figures of building conservation, talked of the need to leave ‘gaps for the imagination’ that otherwise would be obliterated when people tidied buildings up too much. The imagination is an essential component of our understanding of history and it’s where our interest is ignited. It is also where authenticity interacts with our minds to help us make sense of the world and form the ever-important narratives that humans need.
The enemy of the imagination, of authenticity and the lively narrative is, of course, zeal. The over-zealous repair becomes a restoration. Alan Clark’s derided nutpolishers have their architectural equivalents.
So I’m not advocating one approach for everybody and every building or vehicle. I’m writing because, in the current conversation about different approaches, the conservative repair approach hasn’t had much of a look-in. And yet it seems to me to be very appropriate to the world of classic cars, where provenance, history, authenticity and character are so highly valued. It is the quiet, oily rag approach beloved of engineers who respect the originality of what they handle
You may think all this is tosh and that I’m forcing an inappropriate agenda. Not least because the conservation philosophy surrounding architecture places great weight on understanding, cultural value and place – the ‘context of the cultural asset’ being paramount. Whereas, a car has wheels; its context is variable, it was built in a factory and its history is sometimes well-documented and photographed. Context and setting are enshrined in a logbook, racing history and V5.
And cars, when restored, are often kept in private collections and rarely viewed or accessible. But put it this way: I wouldn’t be writing if I hadn’t seen that cover shot of the Baillon Ferrari being driven with historic dust all over it, grinding its abrasive way into the upholstery and bodywork crevices.
That wasn’t preservation, conservation or in any way genteel. That was destruction: the acceleration of decay with each and every blip of the throttle.
‘buildings are meant to be seen, loved, understood. Ditto old cars’
The car that kicked off the debate, and which coined the phrase ‘historic dust’: none other than the Baillon Ferrari California Spider. evanklein