Preservation class judge Adolfo Orsi explains the importance of preservation and the difficult decisions it often throws up
Concours d’elegance wouldn’t be the same without preservation classes. In fact, for many they’re one of the highlights of a concours, but that wasn’t always the case. It was only 21 years ago that the first preservation class – the FIVA Award at Pebble Beach – was established, and it took several years to grow to its current size and status.
The greatest misunderstanding about the preservation classes is that they’re all about cars that haven’t been used. But that’s absolutely not the case; they’re about keeping cars as original as possible in order to preserve their factory specifications for the sake of history and posterity, while still driving and enjoying them.
Adolfo Orsi, grandson of the founder of Maserati, has championed the preservation cause ever since becoming a judge at Pebble Beach in 1997. He has strong views on the rights and wrongs of preservation.
“If we are judging a car that has been stored in a museum and one that has been used, for the FIVA standards we give preference to the one that has been used. Cars are made to be driven, not to be trailer-queened around,” explains Adolfo. “If we accept that the car has to be driven, we have to accept that you change the parts that become worn; so mechanical parts like the brakes, the shock absorbers, the exhausts… we accept that they’ll be replaced with original parts or parts that are as they were built originally. So not a more modern part, not electronic ignition, not a stainless-steel exhaust if the original was steel.
“But we like that the owner uses the car, so we also accept that if you use the car you might damage it. If you damage a bumper or a fender, I think what is important is to replace the part and partially paint the car, not to repaint the whole car. At the beginning you will have a difference between the painted part and the rest of the car, but after a few years it will start to fade and will become very nice-looking.
“Naturally, now there are a lot of barn finds. We have to decide whether a barn-find car is safe to be used or if it should be restored – it’s not always black or white, there is a lot of grey in between. It is down to the sensibility of the owner. Sometimes I see cars that are not properly preserved and you can see the corrosion – you have to make some repairs in order to preserve the original panels. It is difficult to draw a line and say that from here is preservation and one percent more it is to be restored.
“What I always suggest is not to decide from night to day to start a restoration, but to wait a while before you start. Most people who start to restore a car say, ‘OK, I’ll just restore the bodywork’, but then the upholstery looks old and so they make new upholstery, and so on. When I judge a car, if it has been repainted but it still has original upholstery, I don’t deduct any points for that; if possible I give extra points for the sensibility of the owner, who went against the normal thinking and kept the original upholstery, challenging all the critics who will say, ‘Ah, look the car is new outside but the interior is worn’, and so on. I think it’s very important for the judges at concours to reward the people who are trying to keep their cars as original as possible.”
“Every year I visit the Goodwood Revival and I feel very sad to see historic cars being ruined in order to make them competitive. If you want to race, and if the car is in perfect original condition, you should be proud to finish tenth instead of finishing first but ruining the originality of the car. If you want to race hard you have to buy a modern car. Classic cars should be raced bearing in mind that cars are part of our heritage and should be preserved. I also consider it unfair to race cars that are 90 percent original against cars that have been remanufactured, because the material is much better.
“If you have a car that is 60 years old, the chassis frame is much more flexible than a car that has been built yesterday using exactly the same kind of tubing, because the rigidity of the tubing is different and also the material for manufacturing new crankcase, pistons, rods etc is very different.
“So I consider it unfair to put together original cars and non-original cars. Yes, racing cars were meant to be raced, but against cars that were built six months before and six months after. It is unfair to race 1950s cars against cars that have been totally remanufactured.
“What isn’t clear to everyone is that we are not the only owners of the car, we are the custodians of it. We are keeping care of it for a period but then we pass it to other people, perhaps your son or your nephew. Our goal should be to preserve the originality of the car to pass to the future generations.”
“Preserving an old part is much more difficult or expensive than remanufacturing a new part. The good restorer should try to convince the owner of the car to try to preserve the part or try to replace only the small corroding part instead of making the new part. Especially when we are talking about racing cars or prototypes, the body is a kind of applied art. A body by Fantuzzi or Scaglietti is a one-off, each one is different – they were made with a hammer. You can still recognise the DNA of the worker who built the body.
“What happened unfortunately in the 1980s is that many bodies of Italian cars like Ferrari, Maserati and so on were replaced because the body panels not only had corrosion in them, they were a bit damaged, but they were built using a different kind of machine. There’s a very big difference between a car that has been hammered originally, and one that has been made with an English wheel. You are making something that looks the same but is different because the lines you can obtain with an English wheel are totally different. If we accept that the car is art in some way, then we are destroying the original artist’s work to make something that looks similar but is not the same.
“The good restorer should try to convince the owner to preserve the originality of the car as much as possible. We know that is going against the restorer’s interests in some ways because it’s much easier to make a new part and there’s not as much problem with corrosion, the paint will remain stable for years, and so on. But if you have an old house, if you are living in a 17th century palace, then naturally you will try to preserve the palace, you will not replace the original materials.”
“When I see a car in preserved condition, the importance of the car itself is not important. I appreciate the fact that if a car was €10,000 then the owner had the sensibility to keep it that way. There is a lot of history behind every car, and for me it is important that the collector has kept the car in original condition. The value of the car isn’t important.
“It is just as important to preserve a Fiat as it is a Maserati. I was recently in Australia for an event, and they gave me the opportunity to give a special prize. There were plenty of expensive sports cars, but I saw a Fiat 2300 sedan, which was in nice preserved condition and is a car that today in Italy is impossible to see. I decided to give a prize to it because I had a special memory connected with this kind of car – my grandfather used one as his daily transport. When I gave the prize to the old gentleman he was nearly crying, because he bought the car new in the early 1960s, he was there with his sons and his nephews, and he did not expect to get a prize. It’s a car that’s worth probably €15,000, but to me it’s a treasure because it’s impossible to find this model of car still in original condition.”
“I’m very happy to have had the idea to start the award at Pebble Beach – it’s one of the things of which I’m most proud.
It was important to modify the approach of the entire movement, starting with the States and spreading to Europe. For example, in France preserved cars are normal – in England they’re a bit less so – but I think America is the most important market for collector cars.
“Having started this award there, it was very important to change the approach of the whole collectors’ market. I didn’t think the movement would change so much, but I’m very proud that people are now discussing preservation, what to keep, what not to keep, what is the division line…
“I will try to organise a cluster of awards to promote preservation in the UK as well. It’s important that preserved cars are presented in any field of concours. That gives the people the chance to understand what preservation really means.”