When should protecting something’s authenticity outweigh our entertainment?
Malcolm Collum has a dream job. He’s the chief conservator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. That means he gets to play (in the serious sense) with historic aircraft and spacecraft every day.
Before that, he was a senior conservator at The Henry Ford, where he was the last lucky person to drive Old 16 — the first American car to win America’s first great international auto race in 1908.
But long before Collum put on his official conservator’s hat, he was a collector. The proud owner of a 1967 MG MGB GT since 1984 — that still resides in his garage — he happily remembers taking it to car shows, often one among many polished and preserved beauties waiting to be admired. Collum’s car, however, was different.
“In high school and college, I always saw the value of the authentic, even if it meant showing a little age,” said Collum. As a result of that conservator- style mindset, Collum never restored his MG to a state of imperfect perfection, as he sees it, preferring to appreciate and preserve the car’s patina and slight blemishes.
Surprisingly, or maybe not, other people were drawn to the car’s authenticity, too. “In these car shows, you would have a line of MGs beautifully restored. They all looked the same,” he said. “People would just seem to gravitate toward me and my MG. They appreciated the subtle details that are often lost when you start replacing parts.”
The phenomenon witnessed by Collum at car shows with his MG isn’t necessarily new news. This trend toward seeing greater value in dings and dents versus shiny and new has been growing exponentially in car collector clubs and car show circuits over the past decade or so. The Concours d’Elegance shows, for example, have long had a Preservation Class as part of their awards, honoring unrestored, historically significant entries with intriguing stories attached to them. At Pebble Beach last year, it was a rare 1961 Ferrari 400 Superamerica Coupe that made one of the biggest splashes among the judges, car aficionados and media. Unrestored and as original as the day it left an Italian dealership, the car is one of the only untouched and remaining such Ferraris built with an aluminum-alloy body.
This public pull toward the rare object that shows its age with grace is trickling over to other collectible communities, too, from toys and watches to antique tower clocks. “It’s the beauty of the survivor,” explained Collum. “It gets people’s attention and opens up discussion of their story.”
ANTIQUES ROADSHOW EFFECT Collum’s recollections of his MG allude to bigger questions that fall far outside the realm of collectibles. Questions that conservators such as Mary Fahey, chief conservator at The Henry Ford, and Clara Deck, senior conservator, think about every day. Is it better to restore or conserve? Just because we can fix something — or make it look better — does that mean we should?
Watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS, noted Deck, and you’ll quickly understand the heated debate and the marked difference between the two methodologies and mindsets. So often on the show, appraisers tell hopeful object owners that if only they hadn’t refurbished that chair or made that repair it would be worth thousands more.
“It’s called the Antiques Roadshow Effect,” said Deck. “People are starting to rethink notions about historic objects. Yes, anything can be restored if you throw enough money at it, but do you really want to?
Not to say that the conservator doesn’t appreciate the art or skill behind restoration or understand its place. At The Henry Ford, restoration is a daily practice in Greenfield Village’s T Shed and roundhouse, where talented machinists, mechanics, engineers and expert hobbyists do whatever it takes to maintain the historical integrity of the institution’s Ford Model T’s and steam locomotives, while keeping them operational so they can provide a moving visitor experience. If a part breaks or fails, it must be repaired or replaced so the machine can run. Sometimes historical methods of repair and replacement such as pouring castings make sense, sometimes they don’t.
Where things can get gray between restoration and conservation, said Collum, is when you’re dealing with that rare, special item and what you should do with it. “I understand the innate joy people get in restoring things. When you take something tattered and worn and make it look new again. But what if you took an artifact like Old 16 — original paint, glorious varnish on the wheels — and restored it? It would ruin it. Make it a bad replica of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
BEHIND THE SCENES The Henry Ford recently faced its own conservation conundrum when one of its prized artifacts, a 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV, was damaged in transit for an event in England. This was the U.S.-built race car/engine driven by American auto racing legends Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt that won the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. An all-American feat yet to be repeated.
While The Henry Ford does most of its conservation, restoration and repair work in-house in its Conservation Lab, a team of curators and conservators decided to send the vehicle to Dan Gurney’s All American Racers in Santa Ana, California, for careful inspection and treatment. “The project was the perfect merging of car restoration and conservator ethics,” said Fahey.
The ‘67 Ford GT40 was in Gurney’s shop for nine months. The directive was not to repaint or replace, only to disassemble and catalog damage, and make approved repairs where absolutely necessary.
“If this would have been a restoration, we would have taken parts off the car, replated, repolished, replaced. Made it look better than new,” said Justin Gurney, All American Racers’ CEO and racing icon Dan Gurney’s son. “Conservation is way different. We needed to leave the car just as it was when it came off the track.”
That meant green potted-plantlike foam found under the lower rocker panels was left as is because it was related to modifications made on the fly by the Ford team for better aerodynamics. Panels that had notes on the back — written in black marker by Ford team member Phil Remington — also remain. Cracks in the windshield, fiberglass and paint weren’t repaired either because they occurred during the historic race.
“One specialist at the 1967 Le Mans race had told us they remembered the crack in the windshield,” said Fahey. “It was important to us to keep it as part of the car’s race story.” According to Le Mans racing lore, the crack most likely occurred as the crew jumped on and rode atop the car in celebration after the big win.
Fahey said Gurney’s team went so far as to send her bags of paint chips, which popped off as the team disassembled and repaired the car. In-painting to repair damage to the car’s surface was later painstakingly completed in The Henry Ford’s Conservation Lab by senior conservator Deck.
The one thing Justin Gurney would have loved to do that certainly didn’t fall into the conservation column: Start the engine. He didn’t, of course. “We really wanted to get the motor running. Would have loved to hear that thing fire up,” he said. That would have required extensive restoration and replacement of parts that weren’t part of The Henry Ford’s conservation plan for the car.
“I see both sides of the story now,” said Gurney, who had never participated in a conservation effort of this scale before. “A lot of cars that sit in our museum are better than new. Sometimes it’s better to leave things alone. You can over-restore something.”
RESPONSIBLE UTILIZATION Gurney’s revelation speaks to every museum’s ethical responsibility to its collections and its visitors, and how it determines when an artifact should be preserved and when it should be utilized in some state to entertain or educate.
Conservators would cringe at the idea of restoring the engine of the ‘67 GT40, turning the ignition key and taking it for a 200-mile-per-hour spin on a racetrack purely to entertain a crowd. Then the car quickly becomes more of a replica than an authentic artifact with a compelling history of use worth preserving. “As tempting as it might be to put the pedal to the metal and show off, an artifact is not there for our personal gratification or to massage our egos,” said Collum.
“I call it consumptive adoration. There is lots of pressure to operate mechanical artifacts in the museum communities, but it comes to a point where we can love something to death, where we consume it by using it and the artifact deteriorates and is lost.”
Circling back to Collum’s story of his unrestored MG or the rare Ferrari, it seems that more people might be joining this conservator’s camp. That there is this societal shift happening, where both collectors and observers are beginning to see the value in leaving things alone, keeping them in an original state rather than making them appear better than new.
And, as Collum explained, you know an idea is starting to go mainstream when a rogue group bubbles to the surface and tries to take advantage of what’s popular without actually understanding why it’s popular. “You’ve got people at car shows now that are trying to fake it up or Disney it up,” he said. “They are ‘unrestoring’ what they have already restored because they think it’s more glamorous and likely to win — latching on to an idea without fully understanding its meaning.” By Jennifer LaForce
SAVING A SURFACE Envision a car fender, bumped and bruised, with deep scratches in its paint. Most collision and body shops wouldn’t even bother trying to patch or cover, opting instead to just strip the paint, repair the damage and repaint the entire panel with sophisticated power spray guns for the best results.
Now, imagine those bumps, tears and missing areas of paint on a historic race car that belongs to The Henry Ford. While Dan Gurney’s All American Racers made careful repairs to the body of the 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV after it was damaged in transit, the painting was left to Clara Deck, senior conservator at The Henry Ford. Using a technique called in-painting, which is the same technique art conservators would use to repair a famous painting or print, Deck spent hours color-matching pigments, creating her own custom blend of wax/resin paste. She then applied it over repaired tears, in between cracks, around rivets and in areas missing paint — all by hand with small brushes, heated spatulas, irons and a hot-air tool.
All the work done by Deck is reversible and can be easily removed if required — a statement to the conservator’s pledge to maintain an artifact’s authenticity. Maybe even more interesting, Deck only filled in the cracks and blemishes caused by the transit damage. Cracks known to exist on the car’s surface as collateral damage from its hard-fought win were left as is, each representing its own small chapter in the story of the all-American win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.