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Patina is the key to joy and the deeper meaning of old cars. It can be difficult to fully encompass and understand the concept which covers everything from innocent scratches to major defects.

It is an often debated subject whenever the topic turns to originality. Patina is part of the originality equation, but patina is also a completely independent topic, which can be difficult to define. Is patina an absolute size? And are there unwritten rules which cannot merely be left to individual taste?

We recently received at our editorial office a letter from one of our ViaRETRO readers. The author of the letter questioned the boundary between patina and scrap. He seemed a definition of this, as it might help him move on with his Jaguar project and eventually get the car on the road earlier than otherwise expected. The following excerpt from the letter launched me straight into deep and complex considerations regarding the many aspects of patina:

“Patina has been dealt with as a topic from time to time, but where lies the border between patina and a scrap car? Perhaps it could shorten the time I need to invest in my project, if I could settle with focusing only on the engine and safety aspects which are required for a MOT, even though I dream of returning the car to top-notch condition so it again presents like a factory-fresh example. What is your opinion? ”

We no doubt all have an opinion of what patina is, and not least how important it is. Fundamentally, it has to do with owning and using an old object – or for us, an older car. Patina is evidence of aging and that degradation of all material relentlessly goes hand in hand with the passage of time. Patina is completely natural – or it at least ought to be, though we now know it can also be forced or artificially created. But nothing beats the beauty of natural patina and herein lies a significant part of the enjoyment of patina. We know that the green colour of copper results from its contact with the oxygen in the atmosphere over a long period of time, just as we associate the yellowish-brown ting of wood, paper and paintings with a certain age. Some materials grow old more graceful than others. Other materials such as stainless steel or concrete hardly grow old at all – as such, they don’t display patina in the same way, which is of course entirely justified as we also need things which are NOT easily degradable.

However, patina does not exist forever. As mentioned, it is a process and there comes a time when the degradation is deemed too advanced and the object can no longer be used for its intended purpose. Now it is instead in disrepair as patination has become too violent. Thus, patination must be kept in check if both beauty and function are to be retained. When we talk about classic cars, the subject is inexhaustible because the boundary between patina and what we can call decay is fluid and based on personal taste. A rusty windscreen frame IS patina, but it’s also a defect and for most of us, it’s well beyond the extent of patina we want on our classics.

For some people, patina may be nice to look at, but totally unbearable to live with. There are people who find great joy in driving to the skip with even the smallest load of random stuff which has been discarded from the home. It’s like squeezing an acne pimple, or popping the bubbles from a piece of bubblewrap one by one. It gives them a special sense of freedom and peace of mind as everything seems to have been put right. Nothing is out of place. On an old car, patina can seem terribly disorderly. Matte or even peeling clearcoat, imperfections everywhere with scratches and even small dents to the bodywork, an undercarriage with a spot of surface rust here and there, or leather seats with creases or even cracks. I know what it’s like, because I can suffer from these symptoms myself. I have previously revealed my almost fascist and certainly quite anal approach to how a car ought to present. However, it is fortunately not a static state state of mind, and with age its grasp on me has loosened significantly. I have learnt to relax my obsession and instead value that an old car has history and shows it with pride.

It seems to me that I have thus managed moved with the general consensus of the classic car scene. In recent years there has been less and less of the – in my eyes at least – intolerable and provocative tendency to over-restore classic cars. Even at the very upscale and finest exhibitions like Pebble Beach or Villa d’Este, there has been a move towards rewarding patina and preservation, thus distancing (at least to some extent) the classics which now present better, cleaner and straighter than they ever where when new. But changes like this obviously take time. So far it is perhaps just a trend, and it certainly hasn’t sifted through everywhere yet.

I have noticed that the word “restoration” is still an important part of the majority of classic car adverts, while “preservation” is not – yet. In contrast, the world of art is the home of preservation and conservators and has no restoration to any significant degree. In most other interests which revolve around objects of a certain age, expressions such as “Everything is changed to new” is a sin which is unforgivable. I often hear my co-enthusiasts elevating the replacement of old parts to new ones as an unambiguous quality. Also, professional traders use it – not because they are worse than others, but they usually reflect a market tendency and certainly the buyers’ wishes.

Patina is many years underway. Needless to say, it requires time and it requires the owner’s care – a care to preserve. Yet it can be destroyed in mere minutes. An insensitive classic car owner faced with an enticing and diverse selection of online spare parts; and a quick charge to the credit card and it can quickly cost a pair of patinated door handles their life. Unfortunately, not all spare parts are NOS (New Old Stock). All too often, they are instead cheap Chinese reproduction parts manufactured in a horribly poor quality. So not only is year-old patina – history, even – sacrificed on the altar, but ultimately the quality is equally sacrificed.

In your opinion, is this Alfa Romeo door handle patinated or defective?

Patina provides us with a charming display of history – of a life lived – and should therefore be protected, almost at all costs. It can however be difficult to value an object’s patina as historic and essential for conservation. Let me draw a little parallel to the world of music – mostly because it’s a little easier for me to explain that way. The bassist in a band or orchestra often lives somewhat anonymously and mostly out in the darkness of all the other tones. However, if you remove the bass from the ensemble, the rest does not matter, no matter how meaningful it may be. The bass binds together all the elements and is therefore of utmost importance for the context. The bass corresponds to the patina’s importance for the ability of a classic vehicle to tell its story and thereby excite us and stimulate dreams. Without it, the car is just a shell, a weak echo of its origin. You might think that all sounds a bit far-fetched and exaggerated, but try to notice your own reaction whenever you encounter old objects with emotional value. Without history, it’s just a dead thing. But with visible signs of history, it holds and portrays important stories which we can sympathise with.

Of course, there is no harm in coming to the conclusion that a car has exceeded the patina stage and instead passed to being scrap which may or may not be worthy of restoration. If that’s the case, then you might well be in a situation where you have no choice other than starting over with a car and not least its history. It’s a loss that it will no longer be able to share its stories with us, but rather a new start than letting it erode and disintegrate into the earth.

A rumour circulated in our classic car environment some years ago about the sale of Steve McQueen’s famous Slate grey Porsche 911 which he drove during the intro to the Le Mans movie. Not unexpected, it was sold for a rather high amount at an international collector’s auction. The rumour said that the new owner supposedly sent the iconic 911 to a restoration specialist. According to those rumors, all the signs of the car’s history were subsequently erased. Stickers in the windows were removed and a number of other minor features dissolved and deleted. At the time, it spread quite some despair. If all you wanted was an old Porsche which looked like a brand new car, there were of course so many other 911’s on the market which could have been prime candidates for such a restoration – without erasing such provinence. Was it really necessary to expose a car which we all so admired to such insensitivity? Now, the rumour can be untrue – I can’t be sure. But regardless, the story nevertheless serves as a prime example in a debate on principles.

Steve McQueen and his slate grey Porsche 911 during the filming of the movie Le Mans.

If you perform a Google search on “patina car”, the result is more than just a little disappointing. For you are immediately presented with a massive number of pictures of rusty old cars with overly large and highly polished modern alloy wheels. Oh, and usually “slammed” to the ground as well, with suspensions so low rendering them virtually undriveable. Especially in the United States, a trend has flared up where bodywork attacked by surface rust is deemed to be cool. The rust process is stopped (or at least largely stopped) by covering the exposed bodywork with a clearcoat, and the poor car is now another attempt to stand out in the crowd and prove that the owner is indeed a daring individual (apparently, by following a trend which everyone else is also following). It’s all just a bit of fun and I’m really OK with the whole concept, but don’t kid yourself – it has nothing to do with “real” patina. We live in a world with many peculiarities and even patina can be – and is – created artificially.

Patina or fun?

So what is the right answer to our ViaRETRO reader’s letter? He wishes to spend less time on the restoration and more time driving. That I can understand as it goes hand in hand with everything that ViaRETRO stands for.

Yet, if it’s planned to be a short-term affair and he wishes to participate in the inflated classic car prices in the near future, then a thorough cosmetic restoration is probably still the way forward. There is no denying that it’s still the concours restorations which attract the big money. But if that’s not a factor, then there are certainly other options. Though no matter what, he really must ensure that the mechanical components are up to spec. If the car is to be enjoyed out on the road, then it’s an absolute MUST! I’m not convinced that upgrades are so important, but brakes, steering and suspension should perform as the factory intended them to. The purely cosmetic aspects are indeed a matter of taste and as discussed, some will value signs of a previous life while others have a desire to make everything shiny. Yet there’s no denying that rust is annoying – just as it spreads and erodes in the cars’ bodywork, it also spreads in the owner’s soul. Even if patina is to be preserved, serious rust should always be rectified properly to ensure the car will still be here in years to come.

Old cars require love. They will consume your money and they will test your patience. So make sure that you maximise the enjoyment you get from owning your classic of choice. Make friends with patina and the history that lies within – that is after all an intricate part of owning anything old…


5 Responses

  1. Dave Leadbetter

    It’s an interesting topic; that of real patina and not the chemically induced hipster variant. The reality of running an old car means it will inevitably show it’s age and you shouldn’t expect to be able to hold back the tide completely unless you have an unlimited magic money tree. I couldn’t live with a car I knew to be compromised by rust, but on the flip side my nerves couldn’t stand owning anything concours. God, the responsibility…

    It’s not hard to see where my car has been repaired and repurposed over the years but it’s all part of its story. I could idly have thoughts of buying a “better” one but it wouldn’t be the same somehow.

  2. Tony Wawryk

    I detest the “chemically induced hipster variant”, as @dave-leadbetter eloquently puts it. They seem to be present in increasing numbers at every show I go to. And whoever did that to the Porsche 911 at the top of the article should be banned from ever owning a car again.

  3. Anders Bilidt

    Whooooaar… patina – that’s a HUGE subject. And a complicated one at that.
    There are just so many aspects and variations to the theme, and it’s not just black or white either. The two extremes of the subject will probably be fairly easy for most people to establish a clear and well-defined opinion about. Me personally, I don’t like either of them.

    Encouraging and deliberately speeding up the patination process of your classic car is just a poor excuse for not caring for it and ensuring that it will be preserved for future generations to value and enjoy. When we take on ownership of a classic car, we also accept responsibility for a little piece of automotive history.
    On the flipside, open-chequebook concours restorations which result in a classic car which is significantly better than it ever was when new, is equally not about preserving history. It’s in fact skewing history. If a certain model is infamous for having horrible shutlines from factory, then its really no good restoring the same model with millimeter perfect shutlines throughout. And I can guarantee you that no TR3 ever left the factory with ten coats of mirror-surfaced paint further glorified with three layers of clearcoat. And don’t get me started on engine bays where every little fitting has been chromed or highly polished to within an inch of its life…

    However, within those extremes is a vast grey mass of slight variations, and we will all have slightly different opinions upon where the perfect balance is struck. Like Søren, I struggle to accept rust issues. To me, that’s letting patina transition over to deterioration. But brightwork which has lost a little of its shine, some stonechips on the nose of the car, a carpet with a little wear around the accelerator and a wooden gear knob that’s been worn through the lacquer in a few places where the hand would rest; that’s all just charming signs of a full life. It’s history and it’s soul….

  4. yrhmblhst

    Gonna concur with Mr Bilidt [mostly] here ; a little ageing is fine as long as it shows maintenance. The door handle example above is ‘patina’ , as long as / especially if, the part is original to the car. Nothing to be ashamed of in a little age and mileage…if so, I better hide!!!
    This rust bucket crap tho is ridiculous, as is the ‘chemically induced’ age. Really?
    However…99 point concours restorations are fine too. No, no car save possibly – but not probably – certain coachbuilt ‘exotics’ ever came from the maker that nice, but thats ok…striving for perfection is admirable in all walks of life, including restoration of vehicles.
    Now, having said that… I would definitely ‘poo poo’ the thought of taking a beautiful, gently aged car and subjecting it to the 100 point thing; not only is there no need, but the costs are the same – start with a ratbox!


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