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"Rules ... in a knife fight ... no rules"

from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Rebuilding old cars can really do your head in at times. I don't think I suffer overly from any form of OCD but the boundaries between restoring, preserving and modifying have always been a bit fuzzy to me, and it would just make me feel better if I had a better handle on the whole thing and where it sits with my current project.

There are those who are completely locked into restoration. Take the original 1936 Mercedes 540K that was discovered in a warehouse in the States with a huge amount of history. The original owner, Baroness Gisela Josephine von Krieger, had left her lipstick on the cigarette butts that were found in the ashtray, so the story goes. The car was however considered unpreservable and underwent a major restoration to concourse standard, heaven knows at what cost. Was this the right thing to do? Of course, it's beautifully done, a real gem, but I have three problems, (well a few more really but that's not important now).

Firstly I consider anyone with a reasonable degree of mechanical knowledge can get a car back to concourse, given enough time and money. It does not demand creativity of thought or one persons skilled hand as frequently much the work is outsourced.

Secondly, and I think this is a growing trend, this type of restoration is reducing the car to a financial asset and raping it's history for a buck.

Lastly, was the beauty of the originality, the patina and the history embodied in every mark and imperfection way more valuable. Don't you just love it when someone shows a car as found or, as has been done, straight from the track in all its grubby glory. If you dug up an ancient treasure would you restore it to its original condition, I doubt it.

So preservation has its place, but it has to be relevant to the car and its particular history.

Modification - tricky little bugger this one as it covers everything from minor improvements during run of the mill maintenance to major engineering.

So where does that leave us that enjoy doing stuff with old cars, what are the rules? Are there any rules? Well the Baroness's Mercedes is not really relevant to us mere mortals. It was a one off and demanded to be treated as such, whilst the cars we mostly deal with are more common fare. Even so I believe the answer is yes. Unfortunately (or possibly not) the specifics are not easy to nail down. But just for fun let's try.

You can't use fashion. "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months" (Oscar Wilde).

How about 'restoring to preserve the character of the original whilst modifying to improve the dynamics'.

Allow me to explain. It all started courtesy of my current project. What I have is a ratty 1974 Alfa Romeo GT and what I am doing is rebuilding it with a works competition look and feel in mind. These were known as the GTAms. All Alfa race cars were built for them by AutoDelta in Milan. They only built about forty of these (numbers are inevitably argued about) but they were so successful that many privateers had their cars modified to a similar specification. I am not trying to create a replica, copy, look-a-like or whatever but I simply think they look great and I know they handle and perform brilliantly. (Google GTAm images and tell me I'm wrong). Unfortunately a lot of Alfa purists believe this is a sinful act. Rebuilt cars should be to original specification and therefore I am a pretender. 'Stuff that' is my thinking. These cars, whilst not common, are neither rare enough to preserve as is, or to return to originality in any way. They don't like my type.

No, I think concurs d'elegance is boring, it lacks imagination. The car becomes static in time, stuck forever as it fell off the production line. Original old cars with history and patina to back it up are always great, but the danger is they then become stuck themselves at a point in time, their owner not daring to use them for their intended purpose.

Where does all this leave me. Well using the above rule is insufficient, I need to add a little something more to keep it dynamic in time whilst not making this in itself an artificial construct.

Picture this.

Forty years ago or thereabouts, some young gun fancied turning his Alfa into something track worthy. If he was a sharp suited Italian with a whiff of Aramis about him he would simply have taken it to Auto Delta, but our hero is a hard up Brit, probably with dodgy flairs a moustache, who ponged of Brut. He couldn't afford a lot, maybe fancy wheels and exhaust. But as times and fashions change more stuff gets done, whatever is considered OK in the day. It slowly morphs into something else, it'll get dings, a bit of bodging here a, little major investment there, a bit of Auto Delta thinking and a touch of British pragmatism.

Now don't get me wrong I'm not advocating artificial aging here, more of a mind set. Lets look at an example or two.

Time has taken its inevitable toll on the iffy steel Alfa shipped in from Russia. The door bottoms suffering doubly by also being butchered at the hands of someone with a crap home welding kit all conspiring to give an unlikely shut line. I can't imagine anyone being bothered filling grinding and re-spraying to correct this or lose the small dings it has gathered here and there, so long as the door shuts well. Perfect gapping would not be worth the effort and frustration this sort of job brings with it; it's a track car. Then we have the dashboard, the original is pretty much shot with hacked out holes all over it. As it happens my sheet metal bashing mate is well up for a fabricated one, most unoriginal but so long as it is done with some sympathy to the period and/or Alfa design well within our criteria.

I guess most of us do this stuff instinctively, the 'if it looks right it is right' rule. Specifics are down to each of us to determine but the above works for me and this build. The big thing, I believe, is to avoid overbuilding it's all too easy to get carried away. I'm sure you have seen examples of this, the kit car game is rife with them. So long as I don't end up creating something I think would piss off the guys at AutoDelta or Mr Giugiaro too much; now that's not a bad rule.


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