After our story about the 1967 Mustang Fastback body shells that are available now, there was a little controversy in the comments about how those shells could be used to fake an original Mustang. I added my own comment to the discussion:
These body shells simply respond to the demand for clean cars that are almost impossible to find and allow you to modify to your heart’s content without chopping up an original if you find a nice one. The issue of “new” old cars passed off as originals didn’t begin with these body shells, crooks are, and will always be, everywhere.
The idea, though, touches on a larger issue that I've always had a difficult time getting my own head around, and that is, when do you cross the line? In many over-restored cars, there has been so much replacement of original parts and sheet metal that you no longer have anything that was there when the car was new. This may be an accurate reproduction but is it really a restoration? Couldn't you just start from scratch and get to the same place? If you tack on a plate with an old VIN, is it now "original?" Is it really any different than one of the clones we see of almost every desirable car ever produced?
Autoweek has a story about the Henry Ford Museum and the question of conserving or restoring the cars they get for their collection. Maybe the word conserve is closer to what some of us think of when the word restore is used, hard to say, but the subject can be the fuel for endless debate.
If you live around any port city, as I do, there is always some sailing ship with local history down on the waterfront. It's a perfect ship in every way and it carries the name of the original, but except for a token splinter of wood somewhere, it's a new ship from stem to stern. That same method of restoration is often carried out with cars, new frame, new sheet metal, new suspension, glass, interior, everything is replaced until you have a perfect car, but you'll be looking a long time before you find the original car in there.
In the world of airplanes, there is a percentage rule that says if you build over 50 or 51 percent of the plane, it's considered homebuilt. Kits are built that supposedly require you to do over 50 percent of the work so the plane qualifies, but how the heck is that percentage actually determined? It has to be an inexact estimate at best. But maybe a percentage rule could apply in auto restoration, if over 50 percent, or some other percentage, of the parts are new, then the car is no longer original. Maybe there's even the need for a new word to define a car with a high percentage of new parts and materials, how about "resto-riginal?" Hmm ... has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?
This may not make a lot of difference for most of us except for the collectors who pay exorbitant sums of money for that original. "Yes sir, this car is the first Belchfire V8 built back in 1967," or 1957 or '37 or whenever. When someone starts to value the originality of what's in front of them more than the accuracy the less than honest begin to smell money and opportunity. The old joke that says, "They built 2500 of those and there's only 3500 left" leaves you smiling but there's some truth to it and someone is getting taken when they write their check.
There has been increasing use of the word "survivor" when referring to old cars that actually look old and have not been made all pretty and new by some restoration shop. That might be the key. Unless someone set an old car aside is some hermetically sealed environment the day it was produced, it is bound to look old. If the car in front of you has that patina of normal but well cared for use you at least have a chance that you're looking at an original and you're less likely to be spending too much money for some dream of ownership of a perfect specimen of automotive history.
If you avoid "collector fever" looking for the one that got away you can buy an old car and enjoy it, even if the numbers don't match. If you enjoy cars you're in a lot less danger than if you're "investing" in cars, and if enjoyment is what matters, the question of restoration or reproduction matters a whole lot less.