Opinion: Give me a car with patina every time

by James Mills
14 August 2022 5 min read
Opinion: Give me a car with patina every time
Photos: James Mills

What is patina? The Cambridge English dictionary describes it as ‘a thin surface layer that develops on something because of use, age or chemical action’.

Our last family home had patina. It was a coach house, built in 1903 as the quarters for horses and their carriages, just across the way from the servants’ house which, in turn, was a short tunnel walk (different times…) from the main manor house. The horses had long since bolted, servants no longer checked to see which room’s bell was being rung and the main house had been divided up. Our current home was rebuilt in 2016, and – unless you count the scratches on the glass of the bifold doors, left by a previous owner’s over-enthusiastic Dobermans – patina is nowhere to be seen.

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Our 12-year old Labrador has a certain patina. You can see it in his face, in the way he now walks, unhurried, without a care in the world, and in his blonde coat that sheds fur more than ever. Paul Newman and Robert Redford had patina in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the sort you’ll never find in today’s airbrushed world of Marvel perfection.

With cars, the best example I have seen recently was a 1950 Jaguar XK120 Open Two Seater that rocked up to the Hagerty Hillclimb looking for all the world as though it had been dragged backwards from under a collapsed barn, lost for 50 years and worn and weathered by the elements and time.

Only, it hadn’t. It had been in continuous use since the day it left the Holbrook Lane factory, in Coventry. Every battle scar and repair over time remained intact, free from the magic wand of a restorer – even if, underneath, it was in A1 condition. Taking in that XK120 was like revelling in a fireside audience with David Attenborourgh, its stories and secrets shared in fascinating detail, from its hundreds of original event paddock passes to the visible sections of bodywork that had been cut out and made good in the sort of Franken-car fashion that might make some classic car collectors look away in horror.

A significant amount of attention is paid to concours events and mind-blowing restorations of significant cars. Hagerty is involved at all levels, from the UK-based Festival of the Unexceptional to New York’s Greenwich Concours d’Elegance. Yet often the one car you’ll hear visitors talk about is the ‘survivor’, the car that has remained unchanged, unrestored and just the same as the day it left the factory. Only, it’s gathered a patina that wouldn’t look out of place in a pharaoh’s tomb.

That patina was everywhere I looked at the inaugural, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Patina, a car show for cars that, I humbly suggest, are rather like mine or yours.

Held at Lullingstone Castle, which is a hop from Junction 4 of the M25, I arrived in my 2003 BMW M3, an original, unmolested E46 complete with stone chips, a scrape ahead of one front wheel and a subtle but significant dent in the driver’s door – significant because it’s where Mrs Mills reversed the family car into it. (Reader, I may have employed some sweary language.)

BMW M3 E46

Nobody seemed entirely sure where to put me, or the car, despite paying for an exhibitor ticket and taking along my eight-year old son so he could experience a car show for himself. We parked up behind a Hillman Avenger and 2CV Fourgonnette, but had to dash back to the entrance to get a picture of an MGA that was more weathered than the 11th century castle (which is mentioned in the Doomsday book).

That MGA belonged to organiser, Darren Sullivan Vince, from Kennington, London. The former software developer is part of the team from Waterloo Classics and SVH Events which came up with the concept behind Patina.

MGA owned by Darren Sullivan Vince
This weather-worn MGA is owned by founder of Patina, Darren Sullivan Vince

“I have learned [from past concours shows] that there are people who say ‘My car’s not nice enough’ and feel awkward about attending an event and I felt that was just downright silly. I wanted to organise something for these cars that people love, that people want to drive around but don’t want to restore it for whatever reason.”

Is originality and the story of a car becoming increasingly popular with car enthusiasts, I ask Vince? “When people restore a car it erases the history of that car. It becomes a new car, which is beautiful and nice, but a concours classic car has no visual history to it any more. Patina to me shows a car’s history.”

James Green and Matthew Long
James Green and Matthew Long like to show their highly original Bluebird and 340 as much as possible.

The first visitors I bump into, by chance, happen to be known to Hagerty. James Green and Matthew Long had organised to meet at Patina, in their 1989 Nissan Bluebird and 1986 Volvo 340 DL respectively – cars that are remarkable for being original, unrestored and presented in outstanding condition. The pair attended the Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional, in 2021.

Both praise the concept of Patina, which sees a 1981 Aston Martin Lagonda Series II in black (my son’s favourite – “It looks like Knight Rider!”) squeezed in between a 1946 MG TC that’s been driven from day one and is claimed to be the only unrestored TC still in daily use, and a 1938 BMW 327 which is aptly described by its owner as being in ‘splendid oily-rag condition’. The contrast between the TC and a Dino, parked next to it, raises smiles from onlookers – as does the juxtaposition of a Trojan microcar and adjacent Aston Martin DB5, both equally original and storied.

Adam Florio, from Ham near Richmond, London, perhaps best sums up the spirit of the event. As he walks me around his 1969 Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3, which is in immaculate mechanical condition but gracefully wears every one of its 53 years on the surface, he points to a largish piece of flaking paint and steel that’s at the bottom of the nearside doors. “You see this lump here – you can see it’s still tacky [it moves as he pushes a finger against it] – I knew it was falling off so in the back of the car I keep some windscreen sealer which I find is the toughest stuff, so I was sticking that back on this morning.

“My philosophy is I have friends who have classic cars and they polish them and they’re absolutely mint, and they breakdown on the way back from a car show. I’m the opposite, I want the mechanics and the driving experience to be spot-on.” I look under the car at the back axle area and it really is tidy under there.

All around us are gently aging Heralds, XKs, Beetles, Volvos, Triumphs, MGs, Fords and even a Porsche or two. The back of an MGA’s hood looks like it has just encountered a category 5 hurricane, its plastic missing and sections fluttering in the breeze. Yet the roof still provides shade over the two seats – important on a day like today – so waste not want not and all that.

Patina served as a good reminder that it’s the stories behind the cars and the custodians that these machines are entrusted to that make for the most memorable day out. Oh, and that an original car can tell a story just as well as any history file.

I don’t think I’ll get my M3’s modest parking prang repaired after all.

Read more

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Brit blockbusters: 22 British cars from this year’s Festival of the Unexceptional concours
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  • Matt Long says:

    Great article and brilliant to see you again, James. (Matt. Volvo 340)

  • Richard Linnell says:

    An interesting article. The problem is that most cars with patina are actually rotten as a pear and that is why they need restoring. There’s not many cars that have been driven for decades and I have not got significant corrosion which is why so many cars get restored.

  • David Bell says:

    Patina every time for me, you can see some of the history of the car, our Land Rover has a little story to tell and as it’s over 50 years old. Assembled in South Africa from CKD kit in 1971, driven back to the U.K. arriving in 1987, bought by us in 2008 having survived 10 owners over here before arriving in Northumberland, both grandsons want her but hopefully they will have to wait along time to inherit her.

  • Graham Tongue says:

    I do prefer a nice restore,as I see it why not get the car/bike/truck back to looking as good as it can. Most are investments for the future and once restored with products available now the finish can be maintained forever.

  • Ray Ledwith says:

    I have a 1949 Lea Francis I am the fourth owner it has not been restored and has Patina everywhere. I enjoy driving it but there are times that the bodywork imperfections annoy me but it will stay like that because as they say it is only original once!!!

  • Stephen+Pye says:

    Something imbetween for me, clean presentable but a bit of character showing

  • Ian Hunt says:

    We have an original low mileage Mini Cooper never been restored and just as it left the factory. Took it to the MCR day and entered it in the concourse to be told that although clean and tidy it wasn’t shiny enough and had marks on it. Originality doesn’t count it seems and time to have a class at shows for “original cars” that wear the marks of use with pride

  • Mike Cole says:

    Great article and of much interest as I attended “Patina” at Lullingstone Castle last Sunday –
    please see link to my pictures here.

    Having been to the show and read this article I now feel a lot better about the wear n’ tear of my 1959 Daimler Dart with it’s micro blistering paintwork, pitted chrome and lack of carpets, (due to an infestation of moths) !!

    Mike Cole

  • gordon downie says:

    Nope shiny wins for me

  • Roger+Blaxall says:

    Made me feel a lot better over my tatty P reg. Cinquecento! Thanks for another great read.

  • Garry says:

    Patina is great but restoration has its place. The raging tinworm is the issue, it must be stopped and once it’s eating from the inside out, I’ve learnt to my cost, replacement becomes the only option

  • kenneth clarke says:

    There is a distinct difference between patina and neglect, a car that is used obviously gets the odd knock etc, but neglect is just bone idleness to even clean the car like “in my opinion” the MGA s depicted there is no place for dirt!

  • Chris Marsden says:

    Can’t agree with this. Patina is for idiots. It’s only skin deep. Cars wear out just like us and items need replacing and repairing otherwise they become dangerous. Its either laziness or people can’t afford to have the necessary work done. I’m all for having my cars look slightly used, ie a bit worn around the edges but if you are into Classic cars then in my view you have to make the effort to keep them roadworthy. If everything underneath is replaced in order to to do so then they are no longer “original”.

    Keep patina for antiques lovers, not Classic cars

  • Andy Gill says:

    I’m the same as Stephen Pye : I like to see pristine cars straight out of the paintshop, but prefer to see a nicely presented, clean and used car with a few scars as given during their life. Much like my 72 Hillman Imp.

  • Lawrie says:

    Patina yes and mechanically tip top, the best combination.

  • Jem+Bowkett says:

    My 1935 Ford V8 has 23,000 miles on it and still has the dents original owner Zoe (who I knew) put on the front wings, but it is mechanically A1.

    I have put 50,000 miles on my 1909 Model T and it came to me in distressed high mileage condition. Again it is mechanically A1.

    Original cars for me.

  • David Cole says:

    Old, scruffy and not how the manufacturer intended( Patina).
    Not for me.These old cars are history, keeping them in as new condition to me is to my taste .

  • Stuart Rossi says:

    A 50 year old car with nice patina is very good to look at but is rare as most need the rust tackling underneath, which will result in a restoration of some sort. A fully restored car using modern rust protection is going to last another 50 years and probably will generate its own patina over time without falling to pieces

  • Mike Ridley says:

    Conserve not restore. Original is best.

  • Chris Strakosch says:

    Patina = history, but best when clean and with A1 mechanicals – this is my choice every time. There is too much over-restoration these days.

  • Terry says:

    Agree with those that say – yes a car I am not afraid of driving, but not a rolling barn find, thanks! A concours car can be admired though, especially if it is rare and worthy of restoration, using original parts, not just building a replica (a dirty word for some!).

  • Roger_G says:

    If you are lucky enough to find your dream car that has been well maintained mechanically and is not rotting away, patina is great. if you don’t know the history, the rats have got into the upholstery and there are bits hanging off, you are going to have to strip most of the car so there is not much point putting the corroded bits back together when you have made sure it’s OK to drive.
    Equally, I am not in favour of having a pristine restored car and not using it. Just accept that it will not stay pristine and will acquire its own patina over time.

  • curly says:

    collection of 55 Ariels and one 57 Imperial Southampton unfortunately only the car and a sidecar outfit are patina

  • Tetley says:

    The nicest of all is an old car, still in as-left-the-showroom condition. Not restored but without patina.

  • Chris Pollard says:

    No doubt in my mind. Patina, every time. I’m fed up with glittering, over shiny trailer queens. I’m pleased to see that Pebble Beach, in recent years, have started to recognise the value of originality. Previously, and I’ve been going there for decades, the hyper-restored cars have been attracting all the attention, but they are now recognising that too many cars are Washington’s axes (all original, just three new heads and four new handles). None of my collection is concours, or even close to it, but they are all driven regularly, and some of them I’ve had for 50-odd years. I also reckon that cars with patina are driven and owned by enthusiasts, whereas the over-restored cars are just the purview of investors and speculators.

  • Mike Appleyard says:

    Like most things in life it is a question of degree or proportion. Some patinated cars look diabolical and should be upgraded. Some restored cars look far too good to be true and actually spoil the experience of looking at them (E.G. absolutely perfect paint jobs clearly buffed for hours for a mirror finish). I have a 23 years old and a 50 years old car both of which I am happy to drive around in and quite like the minor blemishes/ageing that they have picked up. Far more realistic in my opinion.

  • Paul says:

    Motorists who prefer a fully restored car are not necessarily classic car enthusiasts. They actually want a new, reliable car but one that they can enjoy driving, with less of the gadgets that they’ll never choose to use anyway and more of the classic curves that you don’t find with the modern car. Hence they look for an older, stylish car – one that has been fully restored. This is the category that I fall into. I love to see the old classics with its unrestored patina. But the car I buy will be carefully restored so that I can enjoy the driving experience as if it were new again.

  • Pierre+Noir says:

    The reason I generally prefer restored cars is that I’m usually too young to know how they originally looked.

    It’s often nice to imagine that that’s how they looked when presented in their showroom.

  • John Lawson says:

    Without question, the most interesting cars are unrestored, you can read their whole life story by the patina. Restored cars look beautiful, but have no evidence of a life lived.

  • Clive Westmacott says:

    Unfortunately my TVR 3000S was badly resprayed by the previous owner – I’d have wanted patina. And underneath all the bits that needed replacing replaced. I’m keeping it as original as possible!

  • John Clayton says:

    Patina and originality are to be cherished. Shiny bling restorations have their place, but the original history should be preserved and conserved wherever possible.

  • Anselmo says:

    I just can’t quite get this thing about ‘patina’ and the ‘Oily Rag’ movement. I know how some collectors like to have a ‘warts and all’ old car … maybe a ‘30s sports model with the dried mud still splattered across the wings; never to be washed (or Heaven forbid, polished). But I do wonder when car magazines enthuse about a car having “a wonderful patina”; using terms like “unmolested”, or being “a survivor”.
    Earlier this year, in his article on the ethics of historic car restoration, Dr. Marcel Schoch, Conservator at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, refers to the current ‘patina hype’ and says that one should be careful if ‘patina’ or ‘original condition’ is used as a sales argument for a high value. He quotes German motor vehicle and historic vehicle expert Wolfgang Droschzak, who put it this way in an interview with a classic car magazine: “Patina has become a buzzword. It is not uncommon for it to be used for historic vehicles in need of restoration … to bring in a lot of money under the cloak of the patina hype. In reality, there is often just a bunch of junk underneath.”
    Let’s face it: anyone who buys a new car inevitably strives to keep it in ‘as new’ condition for as long as possible. Right? And so it’s a minor disaster when it suffers a ding from a shopping trolley in the Tesco car park. Then, some few years later, when it has acquired a collection of dings, bumps and scrapes, this once pristine new car obviously becomes just another aging family car. So why, decades later, should we actually start to venerate and celebrate all those bumps and scrapes? Are people really interested in the “history” of your car, with its various bumps, scrapes and faded paintwork, “wearing its years with pride” – just because it has reached the ‘classic’ age category?
    Or to put it another way: when exactly should one’s displeasure at a car’s deterioration end – and its veneration begin?

  • Chris+Boll says:

    We are trying to recapture our youth with old cars, I remember pre war cars in every day use in the 1950s, often with rusty mudguards perhaps held in place with wire, and still having traces of white paint on the bumpers from the days of black outs in the war.
    I don’t want to see cars in this state, but a bit of surface rust and orange undercoat showing where the paint has rubbed through by years of cleaning is ok.

  • Andy Hayes says:

    The orange Skoda S110 used to belong to me, I lowered the suspension, albeit slight, Porsche Gas Burner replica alloys and plenty coats of wax. Was a cracking car.

    Previous owners pulled it from a garage when it was stored from the early 80’s with 30,000 original miles. I miss it!!!

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