by Doug Pirrone
Now that you have decided that your car is worthy of a restoration, you must address the following three questions:
1) Do I need a total restoration? If so, what does that mean exactly?
2) Do I use the identical materials that were used when my car was originally manufactured, or do I use more modern and superior products.
3) When I restore the car, do I take the level of finish and fit on the bodywork, paint, chassis, upholstery, chromework, etc. to the same level as when it left the factory; or do I make it better? What about materials used in the engine? Old metals that were used to make valves, seats, and rings do not last long as newer, more durable materials.
These are very sensitive issues. I don't think that anyone will ever come up with only one correct answer. I suppose it's like many other things in life. You must decide what is correct" for you.
How extensive a restoration should I do? You must now ask yourself How original do I want the car to be?" This has become the big issue at Ferrari Concours these days. The National Advisory Council for the Preservation of the Ferrari Automobile (NAC/PFA) stated that originality is the most important consideration. I agree that originality is very, very high up on the list. But, if originality is the most important aspect of the Concours then I say perhaps it shouldn't be called a Concours d'Elegance. Maybe it should be called an originality show. My point being: if you want to keep everything as original as possible, and if the car has never been restored, then don't touch it. Don't do a restoration. Just clean it as best you can. When a great painting is restored, it is not repainted It is taken down to the original layer that was applied when the artist painted it. So, again I would say that if originality is of the utmost concern then don't restore- just clean it.
Okay, so we have decided that we just can't stand to look at the old grand lady sitting there in her faded, cracking paint and her tattered interior with split seams and worn corners. So we embark on the journey. If you decide that you can't stand the paint but the interior looks pretty good, then just do the paint. If the engine compartment is rusty and its paint is chipped and hardware is rusty, then by all means do it. If it looks pretty good and very original, then leave it if originality is more important than aesthetic and cosmetic beauty Again, it's what is correct for you that ultimately matters. It's always hard for me to give advice on this point of total originality vs. cosmetic appearances to someone who asks me, "What do I have to do to win?' It has been my experience that a totally redone car - one that is done to perfection - usually ends up beating everything else. Why is this? Well, after all it is a contest of elegance, is it not? I don't think that anyone would want to see a worn and tattered car, or one which has had a mediocre restoration done on it, win a first place or a best in show award if it is not elegant. So, again we are back to what is correct for you. You have to live with it. How do you envision your pride and joy?
Let's start with question number one. If originality is of utmost importance, then restore as little as possible. If you want it to look like new (or maybe better than new - we will discuss this further), do a total restoration. Total means just what it says, total. In our shop we generally do total restorations, especially on older cars. We find that it is usually impossible to do only one area of the car to perfection and not the rest. The areas that do not get done usually end up looking terrible compared to the parts that have been done.
Total restoration means paint, engine, engine compartment, suspension, wheels, exhaust system, interior, trunk, transmission, rear axle, window mechanisms, lights, accessories, etc! Some items may need to be replaced (if available) while others may only need to be cleaned. Some may have to be fabricated from scratch. Be prepared!
Should I use original materials? If your car was manufactured prior to 1980, it most likely has some materials that date back to the early 1900's. Especially the paint and primers. It is probable that the engine also has some antique materials used in the valve seats and piston rings.
The older paints and primers were usually nitrocellulose lacquer base, or synthetic enamels. Nothing looks better than lacquer, especially nitrocellulose, when properly block sanded and compounded to a high luster. The brilliance is incomparable. Modern urethane enamels can come very close but they can never equal lacquer. That's because lacquer becomes a very hard, brittle surface when it dries. The microscopic image of its surface therefore can become very, very level with proper finishing and compounding. This is why it reflects more perfectly and will subsequently appear deeper, just like a real mirror. Urethane enamel is very soft compared to lacquer. Thus, it does not produce a hard mirror-like surface. However, this is why urethane enamel is far more durable and less susceptible to cracking than the harder, more brittle lacquer. The original primer on your car is probably a nitrocellulose lacquer type. This means that it is brittle and that it probably has a lot of cracking in it. Lacquer also has to be recompounded every six months or so because it is continually shrinking. This shrinking occurs because the drying process in lacquer lasts up to five years or more. It's a good bet that the same type of paint and primers that were used on the exterior of your car were also used in the engine compartment and interior. For a show car I prefer to use modern urethane enamel primers for the undercoats, and lacquer paint for the color topcoats because of its superior brilliance. What do you want, durability or originality?
The same question comes up for the materials used in the engine. For example, the original valve seats in your engine are either steel or bronze. They are relatively soft materials and will wear rapidly compared to a modern stellite valve seat. A valve seat made of stellite is hard, and valve adjustments will not need to be done as often. If it is a V-12 Ferrari engine that you are rebuilding, that could be an importaut point since a valve adjustment on a 12 cylinder engine can be a very time consuming affair! The same goes for valve guides. Old bronze ones wear out fast and start letting oil by, which results in your exhaust pipes billowing big clouds of blue smoke. It's original, but not very elegant.
I save this question for last since it is the most sensitive and controversial issue, at least in the Ferrari Club of America.
As the value and importance of older cars becomes greater and greater, the issue of over restoration comes more to the forefront. Judges are confronted with the car whose paint finish and panel fit is better than it ever was when it left the factory. I find it very difficult or even impossible to strip and repaint a car to the same poor standard to which it was originally done. Some of the original finishes on some cars are atrocious. How do you bring yourself to refinish a car's paint with orange peel or make panels purposely fit poorly when doing a thorough, high quality, expensive restoration; just to make it look as poorly as it originally did? I cannot convince myself or the owner that this is what should be done. Especially since on the scoring card of the Ferrari Club judging sheets points are taken off for poor panel fit or paint finish.
Points are taken off for 'over restoration' A perfect finish and panel fit can be considered by the judges to be not original and therefore points must be taken off for 'over restoration' There seems to be a contradiction here that must be addressed soon. I for one am in favor of performing a job to the highest level that I can. The only reason that the factory didn't do this is because they could not afford to, both in terms of dollars and time. I don't think that Enzo Ferrari or Ferdinand Porsche, given the opportunity to choose between mediocre paint and panel finish to superior fit and finish would choose the former. I am sure that, when conceived in the mind of the designer, the automobile was envisioned with a perfect mirror finish and precise panel fit. These are how the cars were presented by the manufacturer at the unveiling of a new model at the auto shows. A model example - a show car.
I also believe that when we show these cars we are putting them up on a platform for admiration by the visitors and for critiques by the judges. After all, a judge's job is to criticize and point out the aspects of a car that are inferior. We want these cars to be admired because we feel that they are important and different and, therefore, we want them to be exceptional in appearance. This can mean, "better than when they left the factory' I feel that it is impossible to "restore" a car to how it originally was. It can never be the same as it once was. Do you put dirty undercoating and cosmolene overspray on the chassis and engine to make it "as it left the factory"? It is a very difficult point. Of course originality is very, very important. Yet, I feel that this need not be sacrificed in terms of original equipment, original color schemes, original types of plating and hard ware, original type of leather, vinyl, carpet, etc.
As the owner of a car undergoing a restoration, you must ask yourself these questions.
We will be getting more specific in future issues. Stay tuned.
This article courtesy of Doug Pirrone and Berlinetta Motorcars. Doug Pirrone attended the University of Michigan, and then worked as an engineer for Grumman Aerospace Corporation. He is now the President of Berlinetta Motor cars, Ltd. in New York and a Chief Team Judge for the Ferrari Club of America. His restorations have been recognized nationally and internationally, including a First in Class at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and Best in Show at the Ferrari Club of America Annual Meet.