Concours Queen or Oily Rag

“A thing worth having is worth dusting”


The above quote from Sir Hugh Casson, architect and Festival of Britain director, caused me some amusement in my youth. I’ve never been a decent curator of nice things. I was always bemused by magazine ads for companies such as The Franklin Mint, showing an attractive woman in an attractive home, with a rictus, Stepford Wife type of grin, admiring one of her limited number collection of miniature porcelain bells, all provided in a hand-carved, Genuine English Oak, wall-mounted presentation case. Possibly, of course, I was conforming to a sad stereotype and you might suggest that, though unable to understand girly enthusiasms, I’d still happily sit in a smug, testosterone-filled fug in my hypothetical motor house, master of a collection of finely-fettled classic motors and a bulk dispenser of Swissvax.

But I’m not sure that’s the case. At times I have bought objects that appealed to me then, years later found them still in the original box – as I write there is a nice scale model of an Alfa Giulia Berlina bought on Ebay in 2013, more-or-less forgotten, somewhere deep in the drawer of my desk. For a while I thought this inability to value and savour such things was a positive, non-materialist attribute, hence my sniggering at Hugh Casson and The Franklin Mint, but I’m not sure any more. On first reading, his quote is rather prim, but it is really just a well-mannered way of saying “if you’re fortunate enough to own something nice, look after it and value it because other people aren’t so lucky, and you show contempt for them if you don’t respect your own good fortune”

However much you care for a car, wear and tear will take their toll and, when you try to keep it pristine, you are fighting a battle you are doomed to lose. Things have certainly improved radically since the days before galvanised bodywork, but rust can still appear in shocking places, and a whole load of other components can age prematurely through neglect or bad design. The only way to keep your car pristine is not to drive it, and there are certainly people in the world of who subscribe to this principle.

Dirty FF

Now, I admit that I’m the sort of person who, if I put on a white suit, will get tomato ketchup in the crotch of the trousers within 5 minutes, even though I haven’t been anywhere near the sauce rack. Some of us are just magnets for scruffiness, though don’t confuse this with messiness. Messiness is a car carpet littered with crushed, seeping Starbucks cups and unpaid parking tickets – something I abhor. But my view of those people who can wear white clothes all day without attracting the least smut, and those people whose cars are always pristine inside and out is an uncomfortable mix of admiration and suspicion.

The world of Pebble Beach shows us what happens in extremis. This annual Californian concours d’elegance is far from a bunch of enthusiasts meeting in a muddy field. Naturally, many of the participants are committed and passionate, but it is undoubtedly a social gathering for the wealthy, featuring immaculately restored vehicles of the highest pedigree displayed on the trim lawns of an exclusive golf course. Unless a car is of a degree of finish better than when it left the factory, it is unlikely be in the running for Best of Show. Cars are brought along in sealed trailers, then fettled for hours before being presented. Everything must be immaculate but, as with most concours, although the cars must be driveable, no-one judging actually drives the cars. The judges check that there are no scuffs or grease on the nuts holding the highly polished rocker cover, but if beneath it the valves are worn in their guides no-one knows or cares. They clamber underneath and admire the oiled leather gaiters over the perfectly painted leaf springs but, if the ride is as hard as a board rather than as supple as it was intended to be, with half a turn of play in the steering, no matter. And at the end, the car is often wheeled onto a transporter and goes back to its home where it will sit, admired but undriven until another show. Naturally there are exceptions, and none of the above criticises the high level of craftsmanship that goes into the cars, but it is an aspect of motoring that leaves me cold. I’m very pleased that people put the necessary time and money into rescuing historical vehicles from oblivion though, in the end, to misquote Hugh Casson, a car worth having is worth driving.

Pedbble Beach Polishing

The Pebble Beach mindset can be seen, on various scales, in many shows around the world. Somewhere, someone will be working hard bringing a Morris Marina up to a standard of finish that would have given Lord Stokes apoplexy. Are concours judges admirable enthusiasts, demonstrating both their connoisseurship and devotion, or are they deranged nit-pickers, the regimental sergeant-majors of the motoring world, terrifying exhibitors with their white gloves and mirrors on sticks? And why do people submit themselves to such trials?

Alfa 1750 – Never Restored – Loving Owners

On the opposite side of the metaphorical bay from Pebble Beach, the excellent magazine “The Automobile” is a particularly fervent supporter of the ‘Oily Rag’ concept. A vehicle that goes through its life being well-maintained mechanically, but which shows the passing of time in its bodywork and upholstery. The term of course just comes from the idea that all the care it gets is the occasional wipe over with the eponymous piece of fabric. This is probably more feasible on pre-War machinery where bodywork, although not galvanised, does not consist of a multitude of welded sections that can trap water and promote rust and the structure is mounted onto a substantial, yet simple, chassis.

It Runs!
So What – It Runs!

The problem with the modern motor car (by which I mean virtually anything built in the last 50 or more years) is that it is, essentially, a disposable item. Economics and marketing dictate that a manufacturer will only feel responsibility to ensure that a car lasts for a number of years. There are various thresholds they might bear in mind. There is the warranty period. There is the model life cycle. There is the legal obligation for manufacturers to make spare parts available (currently 10 years from ceasing production). Other than that, except when a car maker needs to borrow an old model for a spurious launch link or significant anniversary, they view those people who keep, cherish and fettle their old products as a bunch of tightwad anoraks who should fork out for the latest model from the brand they pretend to admire.

There are few, if any, old cars that are wholly original. Modifications get made in period, accessories get added, parts get replaced after accidents or breakdowns. Most older cars have been through various hands and the work done on them is often uncatalogued. But an unrestored car does have a continuity that a restored one often lacks. In extreme cases, with valuable cars, ‘restoration’ has been virtually building a new car from re-fabricated and salvaged parts around a chassis plate whose number on a works register assures its provenance and financial worth. Most restoration is less radical than that, but something can get lost. Although top specialists might understand a particular model intimately, just putting the bits back together in the reverse order that they were taken apart, and checking everything with a gauge, even when carried out with the best intentions by fully competent professionals or amateurs, does not guarantee that the car will feel anything like it did when it left the factory.

Barn Find Aston
Potential Gold Mine?

The idea of the car as an investment was, more or less, unknown until thirty years ago. Before then, you could be sure that collectors were real enthusiasts. Of course, enthusiasm doesn’t guarantee that you have the money or skill to look after your vehicle and many cars suffered neglect, ending up being scrapped. The view of a car as a commodity, like property or gold, that will appreciate with time has meant that many vehicles have been irreversibly priced out of most people’s aspirations, and some now belong to people who have no real interest in them at all. On the other hand, it has justified the spending of large quantities of cash to maintain these cars in good condition. But, being relatively new, the car restoration business has belatedly been learning those lessons that, say, the art restoration world learned ages ago.

Just as most of today’s art curators would cringe at the works of ‘restorers’ from previous generations who would scour off layers of the original varnish of oil paintings and repaint colours they considered had faded, so is the ‘Oily Rag’ concept gaining acceptance with people asking whether an historical car should actually be restored at all and, indeed, Pebble Beach has had a Preservation Class since the late 1990s. And when restorations are done, they will now often be done more sympathetically, trying to emulate the original finish rather than using a two-pack gloss and an anachronistic grain of leather. More controversial perhaps is the concept of ‘distressing’, long ago acceptable in the antique furniture trade, where the wear and tear of ages is re-created artificially.

Car Wash

You may, of course, never clean your car. The problem with that is, depending on where you live, the accumulated coatings do far more than form a protective covering. Resins, acids, salt and a host of other ingredients damage paintwork and get to work on what’s underneath. Car cleaning is a satisfying chore and it gives you the opportunity to give your vehicle a close inspection, but you need the time to do it properly. The downside is that, once done, the grime starts reappearing, and anyway you might have better things to do with your time. You can pay someone else to do it – your offspring maybe, or Boy Scouts (do they still exist?) or, of course, your local car wash. Car washes are best chosen carefully, some are conscientious, whilst others are staffed by people who, if they drop their sponge in some grit, just pick it up and keep scrubbing. In all cases though, they share an inclination with embalmers to try to give your car an impression of freshness that is not entirely convincing. Suspiciously black tyres and a strange smelling and shiny dashboard don’t appeal to me.

You can look at alternatives to warm water, detergent and wax. Alain De Cadenet once wrote that the only care the outside of his much loved 8C Alfa Romeo received was from WD40 sprayed onto the bodywork and wiped off, leaving a slight misty film. This gets rid of major dirt but leaves a patina over the bodywork, which also provides some protection. I tried this on my motorcycle once and found it effective, but disarmingly slippery – maybe I shouldn’t have done the tyres.

Alfa 8Cs
Pebble Beach Superwax v Paddock WD40 – No Contest.

Then what do you do with the engine? In the world of US Custom and Hot Rods, many vehicles will be fitted with, say, a 750hp quad turbo Chevrolet V8. This will look outrageous and shiny, and you might long to hear it start. Except it never will, since the moment those exhaust pipes get warm, they will discolour and that means that it will lose points at the next show. What is the sense? On the other hand, I consider the engine compartment of my car a disgrace. I have many excuses why I don’t go to work on it – it’s a big job and time is scarce, parts of the wiring are getting old with only the grease for insulation, I have a bad back. blah, blah. But I don’t accept them. I don’t want a shiny display, but I know that the engine looks under-maintained. It isn’t, but that is how it seems to my eyes. I want the look of use, but neatness – think ship’s engine room. I really should find a nice weekend and get to work with Gunk and a toothbrush and the ubiquitous WD40.

First Love
Beautiful work but not intended to run, even if they bring the wheels back.

In the end, people can do what they please with cars. Maybe a few have historical importance reflecting our civilisation’s heritage, but that’s a handful. The rest are just throwaway items that happened to survive. For myself, I am pleased that there are car enthusiasts of all types, and find myself torn between all their philosophies. My own Citroen had a bare metal respray four years ago, to prevent it from rotting away. Last year it was dented on one side by another car, and repaired. Two months later an idiot with a cycle gave it another small dent on that side. I don’t fancy another trip to the bodyshop and logic tells me that the dent is now part of its history – a car that gets used frequently on London streets builds up such marks. Yet, I keep noticing it and it irritates me. Should I think of the car’s flaws as underlining the fact that nothing in life is perfect, or should it be a peerless illustration of what I should aspire to, if never achieve, in the rest of my life?

I knew I left it somewhere.

6 thoughts on “Concours Queen or Oily Rag”

  1. I regret the day I had my car resprayed. Up until that time it was nicely worn and I wasn´t so bothered about its sheen. I kept it tidy though. The moment I resprayed the car it took on a garage queen hauteur and I found myself peering intensely at the bodywork for dents. What motivates people to go even futher and to polish away all the effects of time? I think it´s a fear of mortality in some cases. It might also be a way to sublimate the wish for control over the world to something within our reach. And then there is status: that one can lock up up so much money is an object and never use it. In this instance the car is the equivalent of banknotes in a display case.

  2. I was in a car showroom today, which displayed an almost pristine Saab 9000. This car was in terrifically good condition, yet I couldn’t help noticing the rough-looking exhaust tailpipe, which had clearly been painted over. Put that car out in the open and it would be very difficult to realistically find fault, but stick it indoors and it takes on an different hue entirely. It made me realise cars need to be viewed in context. A showroom creates an unrealistic impression that can never actually be attained – and even if it could, would be impossible to maintain.

    What has this got to do with the article above you may well ask. Perhaps not that much, but the whole subject of how much is too much when it comes to caring for and maintaining a car is a tricky one. I try to keep my 19-year old Saab looking as presentable as possible, given its excellent paintwork and the fact that, a couple of minor parking scuffs aside, it is an original unmolested example of an increasingly rare car. But I don’t lose my mind if it gets another dent as I might were it a cherished classic – which it patently is not.

    So while I agree with the slant of Sean’s argument, I also have some sympathy for those who lovingly polish and preen their pride and joy of a Sunday. I also suspect, given my own obsessions, I would be probably be amongst their number.

  3. I polish my car about three times a year, usually in the spring, summer and late summer. Doing this mostly involves being engaged in a mindless activity. It´s like tennis, or darts or golf. When the process is finished I then spend quite a while studying the car very intently. Quite possibly its the object I have used most time staring at. I can be quite obsessive about the level of cleanliness I can enforce but then in the meantime I don´t bother with cleaning the car at all other than to ensure the interior has nothing left lying about in it. That´s more like an instinct for tidiness. The people who really push the business of cleaning to its maximum are engaged in something different. I suspect that it´s a sublimation of the desire to avoid death. I can say that as I think there was a point some sense of mortality drove my wish to keep my car in top notch condition. I got over this; I suppose the people with “ordinary” cars are pursuing some unwinnable victory over the passage of time. The people who can pay others to maintain their valuable cars at museum-level of perfection are merely engaged in asserting their status.
    So, cleaning can be: a mindless pass-time, a quest to defeat death or a way of asserting status. It can also be a combination of these.

  4. Or we just like things tidy and in good working order . I have found myself drawn to the oily rag movement ! There is just something very satisfying about a worn vehicle which is in excellent mechanical shape ! i am in between vehicles right now and finding it hard to find unrestored vehicles at the right price . Have lots of fun .

  5. Hi Arthur, thanks for stopping by.
    My neighbour has a tidy but tatty Opel Omega which has the advantage of needing no cleaning at all. I quite like that approach though I am glad some people look after their cars carefully so we can enjoy looking at them from time to time. What sort of a car are you hunting for?

  6. A vehicle that has received constant use, regular maintenance, and reasonable preservation over it’s lifetime is a great find. Unfortunately most cars end up receiving less of each of those things as they age, and go to owner’s that cannot afford proper service or see little need to preserve a highly depreciated vehicle.

    When it comes to vintage cars, many have been abandoned to a barn or garage or worse to a yard or field where they sit for many years. Deterioration sets in and accelerates over the years before it is rescued by a sympathetic enthusiast. Some of these cars are treated to a complete restoration, which has been seen as the gold standard for collectors. Of course many bucks down hobbyists just repaired the mechanism so that it would run and be driven reliably. The body, paintwork and interior were just cleaned up, polished up and patched up. A home garage or budget respray helped the appearance and also helped protect the sheet metal from further corrosion.

    Unfortunately this was followed by the “rat rod” phenomenon where decay became valued as patina. This has lead to the current “barn find” mania, where a “found vehicle” is devalued by washing off the dirt and pigeon crap.

    I took a look at the “oily rag” link and found that I agreed that a vehicle should remain original and maintain the evidence of it’s use. The problem arises when one of those “abandoned” cars is recommissioned to daily service. Some restoration work has to be done. Surface rust has to be treated and the areas repainted. The upholstery needs to be cleaned up, re stuffed, and recovered. I don’t find it acceptable to sand and clear coat surface rusted areas. I don’t want to sit on exposed rusty seat cushion springs, and look at worn, mouldy carpeting. I do believe in preserving what I can. Sometimes a partial respray will do. This is also an economical way to run a vintage car.

    It seems to me that a completely restored car will never see much driving time. I can’t fault the owner for wanting to preserve his investment. Most of the restored muscle car guys I know hardly ever drive their cars. Which is kind of a shame.

    My own choice is to buy an older car in fairly good condition, maintain it, and over time improve it’s condition a little at a time. My enjoyment comes from actually using the car.

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