A woman inspects a classic Karmann Ghia car.

A woman inspects a classic Karmann Ghia car. Credit: AP

I’ve been collecting and restoring cars for over thirty years, and up until the past few years I kept making the same mistake over and over again. I would buy a car that was perfect for me exactly the way it was… and then change it. Now mind you, the operative words in the previous sentence were “perfect for me.” Not “perfect.”

I’m at the point in my life where driving my cars and enjoying them are more important than taking them to shows and winning trophies. But driving a perfect collector car for pleasure has certain inherent risks. These risks range from the relatively benign trip through a puddle to the catastrophic, life altering parking lot ding. The thought of an actual traffic accident is just too unbearable to even contemplate. 

I would always keep my eyes open for cars with great intrinsic value.

Maybe it would be a “survivor” with a few nicks and scratches. Or a “muscle car” that had seen a few too many trips to the track, but had lots of original documentation. It might be something rare that was mechanically perfect but somewhat cosmetically challenged, or something that was cosmetically perfect but needed a little tending to mechanically. With little or no work these cars would look great and they could all be driven and enjoyed with a high degree of dependability.

But they wouldn’t be perfect. So, invariably, I would decide to restore the car to perfection. As anyone who has restored a car will tell you, there is absolutely no way to financially justify a full restoration. It is less expensive to buy a restored car than it is to restore it. Not to mention the year or two that the restoration will take. Since I could not justify the restoration from a financial perspective, I was forced to find a less quantifiable justification. I found that justification in five simple words. “Because the car deserves it.”

In retrospect I realize that I’ve suffered with this disassociation from reality for a long time. Decades ago when I was dating the woman who would become my wife, she mentioned that she liked Karmann Ghia convertibles.

I told her to keep her eyes open for one and I would do the same. Fate, Karma, happenstance. Whatever you want to call it, the very next day she stumbled across one. It belonged to a college bound student who could not take it with her, so we bought it on the spot. It didn’t even have a FOR SALE sign. The car looked great and drove just as well. It was perfect. Exactly what she wanted. So naturally I immediately began a full cosmetic and mechanical restoration. The car came out so nice that she was afraid to drive it.

Fast forward two decades and I’m finally starting to “get it.” “Perfect” does not have to mean absolute cosmetic and mechanical perfection as in “Pebble Beach Concours Quality.” And believe me, even those cars are not perfect, although the imperfections are usually known only to the owners. Perfect for one person may be completely different for another.

For me a perfect classic car is beautiful and dependable. At least from five feet away. Copious amounts of plastic filler are not acceptable, but a stone chip here and there is. An engine with a bearing knock, or a clunky ball joint will find its way to the shop immediately, but air-conditioning that doesn’t blow cold air…well, that can wait until the winter to fix. Or maybe even next year. Maybe.

When I sell one of my cars and a potential buyer asks me for an honest description I answer this way. “My cars are beautiful, and capable of winning just about any local car show. But if you enter it in a show in which it will be judged against the best of its type…it will lose.” But to me, and to the people who compliment my cars at stoplights, gas stations, and the occasional cruise-night, they are perfect.

A few nights ago I was heading out to dinner with my wife. She said “Why don’t we take the Cougar?” It’s a red 1972 convertible that I’ve owned for about forty years. The top hasn’t been up in about half that time. It was painted once in 1980, so it has a few chips here and there. It’s still a beautiful car, but not perfect. The weather was great for a ride in a convertible and I had no worries as I parked the car in the public parking lot, leaving the top down. As we walked away from the car I jokingly asked “Did you lock it?” When we returned home from dinner her car was blocking the garage door, and I didn’t feel like moving it so I left the Cougar outside overnight with the top still down. The next day when I put it in the garage I came a little too close to an antique gas pump which traded a little paint with the Cougar. A little polishing compound removed most of it, but it really didn’t bother me. Now that’s my idea of a perfect car. 

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