By John Gunnell
Sometimes you come across a well-preserved car that doesn't need a restoration. Some people call these "Rip Van Winkle" cars, some call them "Survivor" cars and some — whether correctly or incorrectly — call them "Barn Finds" The first and last terms both refer to cars that have "slept" for a long time, but not to the condition they are in. A stored away car can be darned near perfect or it can be a disaster. Sleeping for 20 years or spending time in a barn is better than outside storage, but long-term storage can also cause a lot of deterioration.
The term "Survivor©" has a very specific meaning when used correctly. In 1990, the folks behind the Bloomington Gold Corvette show introduced their Survivor© award for original, unrestored Corvettes and trademarked the term.
Survivor© cars had to be at least 20 years old, complete a 10-mile road test, be at least 50 percent unrestored, unrefinished or unaltered in three of four categories: exterior, interior, underhood and chassis. The cars also had to retain finishes good enough to be used as a guide for others restoring similar cars.
By Bloomington Gold standards, Survivor© cars are those that have remained largely original since new. As the Survivor mantra goes, they're "Worn in, but not worn out. They are historically significant and shouldn't be restored."
Well-known dream car collector Joe Bortz, of Chicago, Ill., recently had experiences with two true Survivor© cars, a 1932 Pierce-Arrow and a 1936 Chrysler Airflow owned by his assistant Debbie. Bortz believes that cars like these draw attention. He says that William F. Harrah taught him that having a car that somehow stands out in a crowd counts a lot towards that car's value.
"Harrah had 8-12 Duesenburgs in his Reno, Nev. museum," Bortz pointed out. "They were lined up in a row. I spent a half hour looking at them. I realized that part of their impact was the fact that they stood out as being different. I began to realize that a standout car can be one of high value or a rare model like those Dusenburgs in the Harrah Collection. However, at a show where every car is shiny, a Survivor© car with some wear and tear is the one that stands out."
Bortz emphasized that Survivor© cars are even more popular today. "Everybody used to want bright and shiny cars and now, all of a sudden, you see Survivor© cars at shows because they're different. And if you get a Survivor© version of a very significant car, then you're really starting to push some buttons."
Bortz and Debbie run Take Your Car to Auction. It's an old-car hobby business set up to help collectors sell their cars and automobilia. "I'm 75 and I've been doing this for years." said Bortz. "The idea is to help collectors market their cars if they decide to sell them. Without a marketing plan, they are not going to get the best for them."
Marketing a car involves a knowledge of automotive history, an understanding of the market and an ability to present a car for sale in its best light. When Bortz is marketing a Survivor© car, he does not recommend restoring the car. As in the case of his Pierce-Arrow and Debbie's Chrysler Airflow, he favors the idea of gently detailing a car to make it look the best it can look without giving the vehicle any true restoration work.
As a byproduct of his business, collectors contact Bortz. "About a year ago I got a call from a gentleman who had a Pierce-Arrow," Bortz revealed. "He said the car had a V-12 and was a one-off show car built for the 1932 New York Auto Show." The car turned out to be a coupe with a LeBaron custom body.
"The man had a full-page black and white photo of the car in front of a fancy estate," Bortz continued. "He said, 'I don't just want to sell the car — I want you to buy it.'" Bortz said that he was surprised because he hadn't bought true Classic car since 1991 because he had been focusing on dream cars.
"This 1932 Pierce-Arrow is quite extraordinary and I think it will be a fascinating story," Bortz noted. "Even long time collectors marvel that there are still Survivor© cars like this one hiding in barns, waiting to be found!"
The man who had the Pierce-Arrow stored away had owned the car since 1964. "It was beautiful, but the tires were flat," Bortz recalled. "It was covered with dust and the chrome had developed a green patina, but it was a one of one factory show car. I started to plan what I wanted to do with this fabulous car."
The Pierce-Arrow was covered with dirt and dust. After a good washing, it began to "clean up good," Bortz said. "But, it still had problems like paint lift on the hood. We came to the conclusion that it was a long way from being a show car, but it made a great Survivor©, even though it was rough around the edges."
The 1932 Pierce-Arrow was both a barn find and a Survivor©. The first term merely refers to location, not condition. The second term covers condition, which didn't look great at first, but turned out to be better than first expected.