Original Versus Neglect: Perceiving The Real Holy Grail

One of the collector car world’s most bizarre trends of the past decade-plus has been how dust and dilapidation drove the price of a car into the stratosphere. It literally left a number of market insiders shaking their heads with what was occurring.

Arizona’s auction week will be in full swing in the next few days, and it will be enlightening to see what type of car is pushed as this year’s “in thing.” Recently Group B cars and the modern hypercars have fit that bill, and even dominated the headlines. Hopefully one trend we won’t see is tattered, dust-covered or mud-encrusted barn finds passed off as “original,” for there is a huge difference between a true survivor, and a car that has been seriously neglected. For years various dealers and auction houses have presented some derelict found in a field or dingy garage, shown it covered in dust or worse, and proclaimed the vehicle or collection as some sort of Holy Grail.

The theater of “crap condition is good” likely reached its height when this Ferrari 250 Spyder California was auctioned off for $18 million in 2014. (Evan Klein photo)

That such tattered, forlorn machines are touted this way and worshipped as such is absolute absurdity, and the trend likely reached its peak several years ago when a Ferrari 250 Spyder California literally had people lining up to view it in a mausoleum-type setting. And what did they get to see? A frame-off restoration candidate with dilapidated, non-original paint, pitted chrome, an interior covered in grit, and a rear decklid with a huge dent in it because the previous owner had little regard for the car and piled magazines on it, until it finally buckled under the weight.

The Ferrari’s engine compartment was an absolute mess, for there is nothing here that can teach us about how the car was originally made. (Evan Klein photo)

Once Again Roadworthy

Of course, that theatrical presentation was done for one reason: to sell the car at auction for the highest price possible. Thankfully, after the new owner purchased the forlorn Ferrari, it wasn’t going to just sit so he sent it to master restorer Paul Russell to make it roadworthy. Once Paul & Company had done their magic, I was blessed to drive it on a sunny and unusually warm day during the Pebble Beach week for Octane magazine. Two memories from that adventure stand out: the car’s handler telling me to be careful where I rested my elbow on the door, lest it disturb some of the dust from years of sitting; and the afternoon sunlight hitting said dust on the windshield at just the right angle while driving so the windscreen instantly became opaque, and I literally couldn’t see where I was going!

When the road becomes obliterated from a layer of dirt in a machine someone recently ponied up $18 million for, you have to wonder, what really is the point of all this? Particularly when those layers of grime didn’t come from sitting in the Ferrari factory or Scaglietti’s coachbuilding works, for then I might get it. Rather, it was there because the previous owner didn’t care that much—as that caved-in trunk lid can testify.

What is it Worth?

Several months after the Ferrari was bought by its new owner, the dust seen in earlier photos still covered everything, including the windshield. That made for a hair-raising moment behind the wheel, when the sunlight hit the windscreen and dust at a certain angle, and caused the glass to become opaque. For a few seconds, I could not see where I was going! (Evan Klein photo)

Prior to this “crap condition is good” trend, the general formula for purchasing such rundown machines was figuring out what the best example would be worth, and then subtracting an approximate amount for a restoration or mechanical re-commissioning. Somehow numerous decades of that logic got thrown out the top floor window, for people were paying huge premiums over a “best example” price.

Things became worse when concours bought into the whole thing, and abused cars started appearing in Preservation classes. The last thing they are is “preserved,” and that diluted the whole concept of the word, let alone the class. Plus it took attention away from the truly original cars that should have been there in the first place.

Neglect vs. Original

To get an idea of the Ferrari’s neglected condition, this type of grit (and worse) was found everywhere. Why people were venerating this at the time of its sale makes no sense…(Evan Klein photo)

To grasp the difference between “neglected” and a true time capsule, Exhibits A & B are the 1961 Corvette and 1966 Shelby GT350 seen in the photos. The owner of the former is a good friend who is one of the world’s great collectors, and has a number of great Ferraris in his garages. He doesn’t get caught up in the hype surrounding the latest trend, and bought the Corvette at auction because in it he saw real substance, and thus value. It was untouched with original interior, paint, chrome, and more—and not a spec of dust, grime or artifice anywhere. It had been in the loving care of a single family since new, and there were several binders of receipts and pictures to substantiate everything.

Exhibit B’s story is even tastier. The GT350 is a rare 1966 “Carryover” version, and was with its original owner until 2017. Shelby made just 252 Carryovers, and what makes them quite desirable is they have most of the mechanical goodies from the 1965 GT350s, in the 1966 body trim.

Properly Preserved

…Especially when the trunk lid caved in years ago from the weight of things stacked on it by its previous owner. For years this car was abused, so why was that being celebrated as a great thing? Thankfully the car went to the right owner, who is now having it fully restored. (Evan Klein photo)

With just 77,000 miles on the odometer this Carryover is also untouched, with original body, paint, trim, interior, and an engine compartment filled with “I’ve never seen an original one of those” pieces. The disc wheels are also original to the car and worth a pretty penny today, because back in the day people didn’t like the way they looked so they were frequently discarded.

Shortly after the original owner drove it off the dealer’s lot he successfully raced it, and that caught Shelby American’s attention so they ended up doing slight modifications to make the car faster, and better balanced. It’s still in its “as raced” configuration, and amazingly, it was never hit. And there are no signs of rust, neglect or abuse anywhere.

When a couple of friends bought it from the original owner, it too came with binders of documentation to back up everything—including a very cool picture in Road & Track while it blasted up Pikes Peak with a trail of real, actual road dust kicking up behind it (and no, that dust is not on the car today ☺).

If you wish to celebrate a car because of its amazing preserved condition, here is an excellent example. This 1966 Shelby GT350 “Carryover” had one caring owner until 2017, and everything you are looking at (save the tires) is original.

The True Holy Grail

These two time capsules are so well preserved that one could easily assume they were simply very nice, straight American icons with older restorations. But when you go poking around in the doorjambs, inside the engine compartment or trunk, you’ll find original paint, stickers and trim, a bit of primer or metal peaking through, while the interior has original trim, carpets and seat belts and such. This and much more makes these and other automotive archeological artifacts the real Holy Grail, and why many of the world’s greatest collectors such as Fred Simeone of the Simeone Museum actively seek them out.

For unlike ratty neglected barn finds and even glistening concours winners, the Shelby and Corvette are those rare master classes on originality, what the materials were like when new, and how well or sloppily they were put together. “A properly preserved car is like a road map,” restorer Paul Russell observed when we were talking about how such time capsule cars are different from the Ferrari Cal Spyder. “They influence us, and show us the way things are supposed to be. We should study them closely, those cars that have something to say.”

In Conclusion

The interior of the Shelby is also remains in fantastic, untouched condition. While there is a crack in the top of the dash that isn’t seen in the photo, I wouldn’t fix it. That crack shows the dash hasn’t been replaced, and is one of many things that validates the car’s originality.

Should you be in Arizona next week and see something with ripped upholstery, tatty paint covered in dust, and/or an engine compartment that defines the term “a mess,” don’t get caught up in the fading hype. Give it a pass, unless it’s priced really right. In today’s fickle market, you want something that transcends the years, and time capsule cars are it. Their story needs no explaining, or a seller’s imaginative tale to understand exactly why (and what) you are buying.


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