Death by Sitting


 Dying cars come in all shapes, sizes and conditions. And sometimes they aren’t what you expect them to be.

I first became aware of the automotive mortality phenomenon decades ago early one morning, just before the Palo Alto Concours. At the time it was one of the two best shows in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the famed Blackhawk Museum (which wasn’t yet famous) was unloading from an enclosed trailer some glistening Delage or Delahaye with flamboyant custom coachwork. After it was winched down the ramp to the pavement, the car’s impeccable restoration instantly became a mirage when it fired up.

The Death of a Car

 Or should I say attempted to. It sputtered, backfired and eventually wheezed to life before popping and farting its way onto the concours field. While watching that art deco, four-wheeled ill-running Faberge egg slowly putter off, a phrase popped into my head: “The death of a car is to let it sit.”

 Subsequent decades have shown this to be so true, as an impeccably restored 327/340 horse Split Window Corvette illustrates (seen above and below). A prominent collector friend owned it, and it looked absolutely smashing in its original (and very desirable) silver/red color combination. A binder thicker than most telephone books housed page after page of two decades worth of NCRS score sheets, photos of the car at various events, and pictures of it with the trophies it garnered. There was also the original sales invoice and much more to prove the car’s provenance.

That Vette sounded fabulous when it fired up. I’ve always been a sucker for a smallblock with solid lifters, for that mechanical valvetrain gives the V8 a musicality that’s very close or on par with the best Ferraris and Maseratis of the day.

Which made that Split Window a marvelous thing indeed…until it started moving. The 4-speed gearbox was relatively crisp, but the ride made a skateboard seem more comfortable—thus negating one of the C2 Corvette’s strongpoints. The steering wheel vaguely moved the front end but didn’t do much else, and the first time I hit the brakes the car pulled so hard to the right I was lucky there wasn’t a fence by the road.

Yes, it looks glorious from behind but not from behind the wheel. Yes, the interior was just as nice as the exterior, but the lack of proper extended use made this car an awful experience on the road.

An "Italian Tune-up"

In retrospect, I should have figured that would happen. A proper solid lifter 327 loves to rev, and will rip right through its 6000-rpm power peak as easily as you can down a pint of gelato on a hot summer day. Yet on this incredibly decorated, fully restored multiple NCRS “Top Flight” award-winning car, when the tachometer crossed 4000 rpm it started running out of breath. I gritted my teeth and kept the pedal down, hoping this variation of an “Italian tune up” would clear out the carbon.

It didn’t. Properly running, this engine comes alive and truly thrives at 5000 rpm and higher, but there the power flattened out so fast it was as if someone had surreptitiously installed a rev limiter around 5100 rpm and not told anyone, just take make sure it wasn’t driven in the manner the car’s father Zora Arkus Duntov and his men had envisioned.

Be very leery when you see a binder like this that only touts a car's trophies—particularly when the odometer reading hardly changes over the years. All those NCRS "Top Flight" certificates can be impressive on paper (excuse the pun), but the lack of driving basically guarantees this Vette will need to be re-restored.

 In Comparison

This was the exact opposite of the ’65 Fuelie Corvette Roadster I had at the time. My car had only one NCRS “Top Flight” in comparison, and it was 25+ years old, but the whole car was so much better. Put your foot in it and that engine was as charismatic, rev-happy and musical as the best of what was coming out of Italy. The ride was supple, the steering nicely weighted and relatively communicative, and the sounds and minute vibrations you felt were utterly addicting. It really had me convinced properly documented 1965 Fuelie Corvettes were the collector car world’s best-kept secret, a rare A-list performance car of its day hiding in plain sight.

In marked contrast to the Split Window Corvette's on-road behavior was this real deal ’65 Fuelie. It was so well dialed in that I bought it, for it was 80-85% of a Ferrari 330 GTS at 1-3% the price.

I put 1,000 miles on the Fuelie during the year that I had it, and often thought how many Corvette/NCRS types would be apoplectic that I did that. That wonderful Vette simply begged to be driven, and regular exercise kept it alive, happy and ready to run hard or slow at any time.

That comparison is just one reason why I’m suspicious of cars that rack up awards over a prolonged period of time, and are only driven between a garage, flatbed trailer, and a concours lawn. Binders stuffed with repetitious high point judging sheets but not service records scream, “looks great, drives like crap.” No matter how well restored a car is, keep it dormant for too long, and it will eventually die—which then requires another restoration, and really defeats the whole purpose of everything.

How many of the other 770 ’65 Fuelies are seen like this, out being enjoyed on a sunny day for no other reason than relishing the driving experience. I put 1,000 miles on the Fuelie in the time I owned it, and many more thousands would have gone on it had I kept it. Driving is the best thing you can do to keep a car in top shape mechanically, and insure it will live a long and happy life.

Looks Great But…

The good thing is you can catch a car before it starts the downward slope to the restore-it-again deathbed. Several years ago a good friend was starting to transition away from the collector car world, and his prized Aston DB4 Zagato hadn’t been driven in a year. I was given the keys for the better part of a day, and it fired up easily and held idle well. But the instant it started moving it was like an athlete who hadn’t yet limbered up. The engine, brakes, steering, chassis and more functioned, but were stiff and not particularly talkative.

This Aston DB4 Zagato was much like the Split Window Corvette in that it too had been immaculately restored and sat for quite some time, in this case a year.

Then, after an hour of constant movement, the entire car transformed. The suspension became taut rather than wooden, the steering and gearbox responded precisely, and the engine was loose and begging me to run it hard. And when I did, it simply wanted to go even faster—which is exactly how a thoroughbred should feel.

After an hour on the road, the Aston DB4 GTZ had returned to form, and was begging to be driven hard. 

A Nice Track Record

I had a similar experience this summer with the Aston Zagato’s direct competitor. The Ferrari 250 SWB seen below defined “impeccable,” with a good number of concours trophies garnered over the past three years; this included a second in class at Pebble, and several of the highest awards at Florida’s annual Ferrari mecca—the Cavallino meet in January.

A blessed day indeed this past summer was spent tearing up the hills in this impeccable 250 SWB. That experience had me reflecting on how the death of a car is to let it sit…

Bonhams had contacted me to do a video on the car for their Monterey auction, and for several hours Jakob Greisen and his crew forced me to drive that luscious SWB through the hills of southern California. The first two hours was like lying on a bed with an old mattress and really snug-fitting sheets, for everything was as harsh as could be. Rev the engine within 1000-1500 rpm of its 7000 rpm redline, and that poor V12 was as tight as a balled up fist.

Then, after a couple of hours, the Ferrari’s first extended drive in probably three years paid off. The suspension became limber, the steering tactile and lighter, and the brakes now exhibited a progressive grab that matched the amount of effort pressing the pedal. That magnificent V12 was coming alive, pulling with more vigor, and revving that much easier. A proper tune up would have had it really singing, but the whole experience was enough to remind me of why Ferrari’s stupendous SWB remains one of my benchmark cars.

Several hours at this helm had the SWB loosening up, much like a trained athlete competing after proper stretching. Needless to say, there are worse places to spend that time than here…

Closing Thoughts

So what’s the takeaway from all this? The next time someone pulls out a binder and goes off on all the trophies their car has been awarded, ask these two questions: When was the last time you took it out for a good, long hard drive? How often do you do that?

For their reaction and answers will tell you everything you really need to know about the true state of the car.

If you have a real driver's car, and know of roads like this, don't take it to another concours if that's all you do. Much better for it will be introducing it to that sinuous stretch of tarmac, and discovering the real reason it was built in the first place...


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