The case against patina: Perfect cars sure are pretty

by Dave Kinney
20 October 2023 3 min read
The case against patina: Perfect cars sure are pretty
Image: Porsche

The latest issue of our US-based Hagerty Drivers Club magazine, in which this article first appeared, explored the delight found in imperfect cars. This opinion piece offered a countering view. – ED

Why the obsession with patina? What’s wrong with fresh and new? My real issue with patina is that I find the general understanding of what actually qualifies as such to be a bit, shall we say, slippery.

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A story: While at an auction in the 1990s writing up cars for a magazine, I found a friend’s Porsche that was about to go under the hammer. It was a 356 ragtop, and it’s important that you know my friend was extremely parsimonious. Which is a nice way of saying he was cheap. So cheap that when it came time in the late 1970s to paint his car, he balked at paying $2,500 for a professional job, taking it to one of those “any car, any color, $69.99” places. The paint lasted a little over a weekend and then it started to fade. And there were flaws, too, like bugs in the paint that you could see from five feet away. His solution? First, he ignored it. Then, after a year or so, he started sanding the finish, but, because sandpaper costs money, he used kitchen and industrial cleaners that he “borrowed” from businesses he frequented: Comet, Bon Ami, Scrubbing Bubbles, whatever.

After a few weeks, his Porsche showed a very mellow red, and, in all fairness, he had done a good job both masking and “sanding,” so one could imagine it was a paint job from the 1960s that had faded. He also had the seats retrimmed in the very cheapest vinyl he could find. The floor coverings were trash, so when another friend had his car’s carpets re-done, he asked for the used carpets for his car.

At auction, the punters were, to say the least, excited. “Look at that, my gosh, it’s almost untouched!” I heard another potential bidder wax poetic about the seat vinyl. Another, assuming the paint was original, speculated that “if the Porsche factory knew of the car, they would surely buy it back!” My friend, who was present at the auction, sat back, said nothing, and watched as his car sold at near a record price for the model.

I have seen a respected restoration shop use what’s called trompe l’oeil, or “deceive the eye” painting, on brand-new, out-of-the-box suspension components, which is intended to give the viewer a “convincing illusion of reality.” It would have fooled me, at least from a distance, had I not been forewarned. The car in question went on to win first in its class – the survivor class, that is.

Here is my takeaway with patina: Trust, but verify. Actually, forget the trust, and double down on the verification. Just like all the other idols we car collectors tend to fall over backward for (“low miles,” “matching numbers,” celebrity ownership, and “clean” Carfaxes), these issues are only as important as they are to us, the potential buyer.

Fresh and new is how virtually all cars enter this world. And that’s how they looked when most of us fell in love with them. When I was a kid, I dreamed of walking into the Datsun showroom and buying a new 1972 240Z. Buying one today with sagging seats and dirt on the carpets from 50 years of other people’s tushes and feet might not scratch the itch. Aside from the ick factor, the wear and tear is a constant reminder that I’m driving someone else’s dream. I want to fulfill my dream – the one from 1972. The classic car industry has that power: It’s called a restoration.

Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily my feelings, but that clearly is the way many people feel about their old cars. So, as we celebrate patina, let’s not dismiss the enduring appeal of a pristine car or the enthusiasts who spend the money to turn back time.

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