"You say tomato, I say tomahto... you say potato, I say potahto." At least that's the way the song (Let's Call the Whole Thing Off) goes, and it illustrates how differently people see or say things. This applies to collector cars, as well. For example, in the last few years we've seen a trend to classes for survivor cars at major concours d'elegance, including Pebble Beach.
The proponents argue that cars showing their age are more realistic and consequently more interesting than those that have been restored to perfection, often to the point where they look better than the day they rolled out of the factory. Those folks certainly have a point, especially when you consider the vast amounts of money spent on restorations, making the cars absurdly expensive to buy and therefore totally inaccessable to all but the wealthy.
One unfortunate by-product of survivor classes is the rapidly increasing value of such cars, now beginning to approach that of the restored examples. Which makes the upcoming Gooding auction at Scottsdale on January 17-18 especially interesting. Two black-with-red-leather-interior 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupes will go on the block, one an unrestored survivor, the other restored to as-new condition. How much will these cars attract and if the survivor wins, will it upset the status quo in classic car values?
The unrestored 300 SL, chassis number 198.040.6500299, seen in the top photo and above, is rich with patina and in need of attention after years of storage. Inside, the red leather interior shows its age, says Gooding, with seats that are both stained and cracked from use and long-term storage. Some will see it as only needing a sympathetic mechanical refurbishing to be perfect while others look on the car as a candidate for body-off restoration.
The restored black-with-red-leather 1956 300 SL, chassis number 198.040.6500214, is a three-owner car in possession of a single Toronto family from 1957-2006. It was treated to a frame-off restoration in 2007 under the care of its second owner, and reportedly no detail was overlooked in the car's refurbishing.
The car made its show debut at the 2012 San Marino Concours d’Elegance in California, where the 300 SL took Best in Class honors. Driven a mere 150 miles by its second owner and a little more than 1,000 miles by its current owner, it has seen only 57,000 total miles since new.
So which 300 SL will attract the bigger bucks? Gooding anticipates a selling price between $1.1 and $1.4 million for the survivor, $1.37 and $1.7 million for the restored example.
I must confess to having my own prejudices in this matter. Concours d-Elegance began as beauty contests for manufacturers and coachmakers and through the decades have remained much the same. Obviously the automobile manufacturers and designers would have wanted their products to be displayed in the best possible way, which means shined, polished, and tuned to perfection. What we now call a "survivor" would have been considered a "used" car and thus have no place on the lawns of concours d'elegance in earlier eras.
As an enthusiast, I take great delight in seeing these rare automobiles in "as new" condition. Faded paint, dirty engine bays, and torn leather have no appeal to me. Let me see the cars as the designer saw them. What's more, I think the idea of giving awards to survivor cars is absurd and makes a mockery of their very existence. By all means invite them to the shows but in a separate category with no awards.
Mind you, my feelings are influenced by a personal reaction to man-made objects in general. As one with fairly strong design instincts I like to see them new or perfectly preserved. One reason, I guess, why I'd much prefer spending time in the Museum of Modern Art than a museum where antiquity is the objective. But hey... that's just me. As I said in the beginning, we're all different and we all have unique tastes. I'll be curious to see the numbers when the hammer falls in Scottsdale.
Update January 21: Well, now we know. The restored Gullwing sold for $1.4 million and the un-restored for $1.9 million! Go figure...
Photos of the unrestored car by Brian Henniker, courtesy Gooding & Company
Photos of the restored car by Mathieu Heurtault, courtesy Gooding & Company