Last week, I sold a client’s Lola T70. Nothing too remarkable in that, you may say, although in our troubled times, that alone seems quite an achievement. He telephoned me yesterday to tell me that the car had been picked up by the shipping company and was now on its way to England.
At the end of this progress report, he allowed that, as the transporter had rumbled off his driveway, he’d felt himself emotional as: “There went ten years of my life in racing. I’d bought it, spannered it, raced it, loved it,” (I paraphrase somewhat, so forgive me). He and I then had a conversation and I told him something that had been on my mind for some time now, well over a year in fact and which he encouraged me to write down so here goes.
I have trouble these days with historic/vintage racing. Not with the racing itself, you understand, which is excellent generally Worldwide, but with the assumptions and beliefs that underpin what we, in the historic car movement as a whole, are doing; sometimes I feel that my thoughts are heretical, or maybe I’m just a miserable old codger(!) but I’ll leave that for you to judge.
Simply put, I think that we are fooling ourselves when we come to talk about the provenance of old cars, particularly old racecars; here’s why.
Let’s take an example, although it could be any racecar over, say, twenty-five years old: In fact, let’s take my favorite car, a Lola T70 of 1965-69. When the cars were new, they were sold off to aspiring racers who then entered them in the races available to them at that time, such as the USRRC, Can Am, World Championship for Sportscars, in fact most of the professional series then running. Our featured car would then have had one, two, or at the most three years of frontline competition before it was made obsolete by more modern machinery. At that point it was certainly just an old racecar, worth no more than the sum of its parts.
Imagine that our Lola is one of the few that actually won races, say a car that was raced by John Surtees, a Mk. II Spyder with which he won several races. (By the way, this is just an example!)
There was a moment in that car’s career when it won a race, let’s say the last race of the 1966 season at Las Vegas; as Surtees was being awarded his trophy on the podium, the Lola was being wheeled away to be loaded onto its trailer. Its day was done, its race was run, and the season was over. My point is that right there, that car’s “life” was over. There would be a new one for the next season. It was worth very little.
Of course, the car was an old racer then; it would go through the next few years languishing in some barn or another until, with the advent of “vintage racing”, smart people realized that not only could they go and play with the cars they had been too young and broke to run, they could (probably!) turn a profit when the time came for them to sell the car. A new market sprang up.
But, no matter what, whoever owns the car, they’re not going to be John Surtees in 1966 when they slide down into that cockpit. And we can’t go back to Las Vegas in 1966, it’s a time that’s gone. This is true Walter Mitty land.
The same thing has happened with some streetcars too, such as 1960’s muscle cars. After going through the various stages of being new, bought from a dealer, driven down main street on Saturday nights, occasionally used on the drag strip, these cars also then languished in someone’s barn/workshop/garage until rising values saw them flushed out and “restored”. I use that word in parenthesis as it can mean anything from a good go-through and a re-paint to re-creating a car that has, effectively, rusted away.
The market, fueled by demand, has driven up the prices of old cars until only the rich can now afford them, particularly at the top end; there, you have to be very rich. The most desired cars are now traded in the manner of blue chip stocks, even with the World’s latest financial hiccup.
My point is, with the passage of time, very few of the desirable cars today are what they were when they were new. Of necessity (particularly where racecars are concerned), they’ve had lots of parts replaced due to age and wear. Would you want to race a Lola T70 today that still had its original monocoque chassis? I wouldn’t, particularly as I know how thin that sheet aluminum was and when there are very skilled people out there making new ones. Would you want to climb into a car capable of running at 170 mph on magnesium wheels made in the 1960s? I wouldn’t, far too dangerous. Would you want to drive a car with suspension made then at Daytona, flat out on the banking with the wall just two feet away? I wouldn’t!
So we are running cars that are, in some shape or form, new. It’s necessary but... was this the car that John Surtees drove in 1966? I don’t think so...
So what are we doing racing historic/vintage cars? Are we desperate to live out a fantasy? I think so. Personally, I’ve noticed that once a race has started, it doesn’t matter what car I’m driving, it could be a modern sportscar for all I care because I’m concentrating too hard on just racing. I can take time to admire other cars on the warm up/cool down laps but how many of them are real? How many are, effectively, replicas?
Or would you be happy with a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO that had been restored by the expedient of having an all-new body made for it as years of damage, bad repair and corrosion had made the old one unusable? That has had it’s engine rebuilt so many times that it now has new heads, carburetors, valves, pistons, conrods, crankshaft? I mean, what’s really left that links the old to the new? Not much is the answer.
I well remember Denis Jenkinson, that doyen of journalists who covered (modern) racing, wrote a book on historic racecars in, I think, the 1980s. In the introduction, he made an attempt to define the terms that we use today, such as: “original”, “replica”, “fake”. He wrote that an original car was one that was exactly as it had left the factory; even the spark plugs and tires were the originals. To change them would render the car unoriginal. A replica was a car built today by the factory which had first built the original; anyone else building it and it was a fake. Perhaps extreme views but you cannot argue with his definitions.
I drive a 1990’s (new to me!) Mercedes on the street. Last week I drove one from the 1970s. Oh sure, it drove just fine but which one would I pick for an everyday car? You guessed it, the more modern one. It’s just that much better, which is what progress achieves. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.