Perfectly imperfect: patina, the oily rag & preservation vs restoration

Updated: Jan 29

While thumbing through the September edition of The Automobile , a particularly entertaining article about an incredibly original 1924 Humber 8/18, prompted me to consider the changing way in which we approach the reconditioning of old vehicles.

Not so long ago, the aim of a good restoration was more or less to return a vehicle to a state as close as possible to how it left the factory. However, more recently it has become the ambition of many to preserve not only a vehicle's originality, but its individual history as well.

The 3 year (thus far) rolling restoration of my 1983 Series 3 Land Rover, has been such a project. While I don't have an extensive history file with the car, I know that it spent the first thirty or so year of its life on a Gloucestershire dairy farm. Therefore commensurate with this it doesn't have a straight panel on it - even the roof bears scars. Seriously, I think my Land Rover was solely responsible for keeping Cotswold dry stone wallers in business over the past few decades...

So why did this particularly wonky Land Rover win me over? Well it had never had paint and while it had never been cherished, it had never been abused either. As a long-term working vehicle, the "let's off-road" community were never given the opportunity to rivet tread plate to it, or swap a Defender engine in.

Off the road for some time, the car had reached a crossroads. It could have been a candidate for a full cosmetic restoration, but I instead chose to preserve the character and focus on the mechanicals instead. Any rust was eradicated, with welding being carried out where necessary (although there wasn't much). The chassis I painstakingly rubbed down, painted and wax protected. Below the waterline, the car is effectively restored, but topside I like to think that it looks like a workhorse that has been cared for but never renovated. The engine has been rebuilt to original spec, but I never painted the block so it looks like it has never been apart. In fact, there are few nuts and bolts I haven't touched on the Land Rover, but I don't want it to look that way.

The interior was fresh from the farmyard and while the evidence of an excitable farmer's dog is still visible on the scratched interior glass and the chewed passenger vent knob, I have renewed the interior more than any other part of the car.

This may come as a surprise to many, but the preservation of original paint is considerably harder than repainting a car. I've actually added paint in a few choice areas, but by skirting around historic dings and scratches, it's hard to tell that it has been altered. An advantage of an aluminium bodied car is that areas where bare aluminium is showing won't rust.

The oily rag approach to restoring a classic car, also makes it more useable. I don't worry about resting spanners or a mug of tea on the wing tops. It is so easy to over-restore a car to a standard that makes one afraid to drive it, which, after all is what they are for.

My Land Rover was never built to last as long as it has and its patinated condition illustrates that (in my opinion) very well. A small defect or blemish on an otherwise perfect car is (I'm sure you'll agree), absolutely infuriating. Yet, since my Land Rover has innumerable imperfections, I can for some reason I don't even myself understand, see past any imperfections and appreciate the car holistically.

So how far should the preservation of so-called 'patina' go?

If something is rotten, that's not character, it needs repairing. Similarly if something breaks, I'll fix it or if necessary, replace it. There's a fine line between patinated and just plain ratty, which the 'sympathetic restorer' has to gingerly tread. Every restoration of a car is different, undoing past bodgery of so-called 'enthusiasts' can be the most taxing but also now some of the most common remedial work on classic cars. In many cases a car will suit returning to shiny showroom spec rather than an appointment with the oily rag. Yet with original, unmolested examples of numerous marques becoming increasingly scarce, it is great to see cars that celebrate the very fact they have survived without having undergone extensive renovation.


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