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.
The former factory show car was covered with dirt and dust that it had accumulated since being stored away in 1964. The patina that coated the bumper was able to be polished off and the bumper was then sealed with wax.
Some of the paint on the fenders was gently sanded to get down to different layers without cutting through several layers. That rust on the radiator slats and the patina on the radiator were polished away by the detailer.
The wheels were demounted and blasted, then refinished. New tires were purchased and mounted on the cleaned-up wheels. The running boards had a lot of surface rust that negatively affected their appearance.
Bortz relies on a talented detailer in his area to help him spruce up cars like the Pierce-Arrow. "He can sandpaper the bad spots very lightly and do touch-up," Bortz explained. "The wheels were in bad shape, so he took the tires off, blasted the wheels and got new tires." The green tint on the chrome was a worry, but the bright metal parts cleaned up well. The interior was mostly left alone.
Big Pierce-Arrow 12 coupe dwarfs the detailer who helped Bortz gently bring the car's finish back. It takes oodles of time and patience to detail a Classic car and upgrade it from a "barn find" to a "Survivor©.
Washing the car was the first step in bringing back what Joe Bortz calls its "intrinsic sex appeal." He says, "It's a very fine line whether a hobbyist can do this himself or turn to professional help."
According to Bortz, a car like the Pierce-Arrow can hold its own at a car show and doesn't need to be restored to have good market value. "We cab park it next to a freshly restored Duesenberg and the crowd will be about equally divided on which car they like the most," he noted. "A great looking Survivor© car can embarrass a lot of people who took their cars to a restoration shop."
Every Survivor© car has a different character and history. Debbie's 1936 Chrysler Imperial Airflow Coupe is not a V-12 powered Pierce-Arrow factory show car, but when she found it, the car was not running and it was filthy with dirt and dust. She got the car home and got it running and then had the detail man come out to gently bring the car's looks and condition up a few notches.
"The detailer knows how to take existing paint and test it for thickness," Bortz explained. "Then he takes this blue paper of just the right grit and rubs gently until he finds another brand new layer of paint. He can cut paint with this paper without cutting through it. He roughs the paint up. This makes it look like it has a satin finish. Then he polishes it and seals it with wax."
When found, the '36 Chrysler Airflow had a lot of little flaws in its shiny black paint. Many bad spots in the paint could be seen on the fenders and the chrome trim on the sides of the hood showed signs of deterioration.
Note the nicks in the paint on the front fenders and side panels, as well as the scratches on the front fender. The bottom side of the front fender seems to have a lot of dried mud. Note the dirt and grime on the Airflow's runningboards.
Debbie poses with the detailed car, which is one of her favorites. Most (but not all) of the small issues the car had when it came out of storage have been solved.
As with the Pierce-Arrow, the detailer put in a lot of time and effort to make the wheels and tires look good. "We believe you should redo the wheels and buy new tires," Bortz stressed. "When you do this, it really turns the car around (makes it look better than it did) right away."
"Another trick is to take little details only and restore them. Just that will make the looks of a car pop. Little pieces of trim really brighten up a car with extra eye-catching appeal."
According to Bortz, you should also want to make sure that the car's mechanical systems are up to snuff. "If you take a car like Debbie's Chrysler Airflow and turn it into a car that's 90 percent Survivor© and 10 percent fixed-up in spots, you'll have a vehicle that you can bring to market and do well with."
Cleaning and touching up wheels, adding wheel trim rings and white sidewall tires and finding factory/dealer accessories like rear fender shields can added greatly to a collector car's overall value.
The more of the small bright metal parts that you detail, restore or add, the better the car will present. Small items like the chrome exhaust extension add to the Chrysler Airflow's eye appeal.
Polishing a sealing the car's black paint really highlights the sexy feature lines of the big Chrysler Imperial Airflow coupe. It can be pretty amazing to see original paint that's 80 years old come back to life with only polishing.
Bortz points out that some of the advanced detailing tricks you can do include taking the engine out of the car to paint it, resilvering headlight reflectors, making sure the parking brake is working and rebuilding the instrument panel to brighten the interior "Collectors are weavers of baskets," says Bortz. "Each little detail they weave into the car's overall impact makes it pop more in the market."