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Classic cars: Land one that 'just feel right'

A 1963 Aston Martin DB4 is pictured as

A 1963 Aston Martin DB4 is pictured as luxury vintage cars are displayed at an auction at the Grand Palais in Paris. (Feb. 6, 2013) Credit: Getty Images / AFP

I get to drive a lot of classic cars, and one of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how few of them “just feel right.” There is absolutely no relationship to how much money may have been spent on a restoration—or how little, for that matter.

I’ll occasionally have a conversation about this subject with colleagues or friends, and they know what I’m talking about. But most people simply don’t understand.

This most often happens when I’m inspecting a car for a prospective buyer. I’ll give the client a written report extolling the virtues of the subject car. Pages and pages of how the car was taken off of the frame and every single suspension part replaced, whether it needed to be or not. The acres of flawless leather upholstery, and the paint that is literally flawless. I’ll usually continue with a description of all the documents and receipts for the parts and labor, which will often exceed the cost of a new home.

Ultimately I get to the part where I give my opinion as to how the car feels when you drive it, which is something very subjective indeed. And very often I have to end my report by stating that this expensive masterpiece of a restoration, something that is cosmetically and mechanically far better than new, “just does not feel right.” Naturally when my customer receives the report, the first response is “How can this be?” And the truth is, I have no answer. I explain that I don’t mean to imply that the car doesn’t drive well, or handle well, or steer well, or stop well. In most cases it does. But still, it just does not feel right. I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that it does not feel the way that it did when it was new.

This brings me to my next point. How do I know what it felt like when it was new? I came of age during the time that many cars that are now considered collectible were new or nearly so. I also seek out and collect “survivors.”

Although this term is bandied about to include just about anything that is not restored, including junk, my definition is a bit more discerning. I believe that a survivor must be in excellent, unrestored, original condition, including drive train, paint and interior. But I go one step further. It must have very low mileage, usually not more than 20,000. This last criterion is what makes it possible for the car to not only look right, but also feel right. In effect, what I look for is what would have been advertised as a “low mileage used car in excellent condition” 40, or 50 or 60 years ago.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who appreciates this virtue. Survivors are one of the hottest segments of the collector car market. When you ask someone why they collect survivors, the number one answer is “they just feel right.” The number two answer is usually something along the lines of “they’re only original once.”

Survivors are in tremendous demand, sometimes with equally tremendous premiums. I find it interesting that the attribute that makes them so desirable is virtually unquantifiable. How do you define “just feels right”? I think it means that the car feels the way that it did when it was new. No better. No worse.

Worse is very easy to achieve. It can be accomplished by ham-fisted mechanics, ordinary wear and tear, and the use of improper or inferior parts.

Better is also easy to achieve, thanks to talented mechanics as well as parts and materials that are superior to those that were available when the car was new. It is very difficult to achieve that “just right” feeling, and that is why collectors are willing to pay a premium for a survivor.

That is not to say that “it just feels right” can’t be achieved.. There are restoration shops across the country, and around the world - usually marque specialists that have spent decades learning how to make cars “just feel right.”

The wait to get a car into one of these shops will often be measured in years, and you should be prepared to have an open checkbook. You would be surprised how many cars that “just feel right” were restored in a collectors’ garage. The amount of time and love that these experts have lavished on cars cannot be translated into dollars, but they can sometimes be translated into the way driving a car feels.

Occasionally I’ll see a collector walk away from purchasing a concours-quality restoration. I’ll ask why, and the collector will respond “it just didn’t feel right.” That impresses me.  

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