Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
Having missed the inaugural event last year, yesterday afternoon I turned up the opening of the London Classic Car Show at the ExCel Centre. As you might expect there was a wide and interesting range of mostly old metal on show and for many the £23 ticket price will be worth it for the rare opportunity to get very close to no fewer than six road and racing McLaren F1s. I’m not sure I’d pay twice as much for ‘premium ticket’ allowing access to a special viewing area with a glass of something fizzy in your hand, but as a freeloading journalist who tries very hard never to pay for anything related to work, I am perhaps not the best man to judge. But I enjoyed the event and if you’re wondering what to do with a dull and damp weekend and can’t wait until September to see a rather wider and more disparate range of machinery in the tax free car park at the Revival (or a month for the 74th Members’ Meeting, ed), it’s well worth a look.
But what I want to write about is the sheer shine of the vast majority of cars displayed. Of course this should not surprise at all, as almost all the stands had been booked by dealers, all of whom had cars to sell and none of whom had got where they are in the world without knowing that dirty cars don’t sell. But there’s clean, there’s spotless and there’s pass-me-the-welding-goggles, and almost everything at the ExCel was in the last of these categories.
And while I know why they have to be this way, it still saddens me that they are, and for a few reasons. First, these old cars now look more new than when they were new. That is to say that thanks to modern paints, waxes and polishes, they appear now as they would never have in their day. In their quest to makes these cars seem not as good, but better than new, those that make them that way are actually taking away more than they are adding with every stroke of their lint free cloths. They look less original, not more. As a result, they also look slightly unreal and in this era, where it is well known that brand new replicas of very valuable classic cars are being built all the time, a sense of authenticity has gone too.
Also, cars in this condition are unusable. There were cars there last night so spotlessly, perfectly, clinically clean you’d be more likely to use them for performing heart and lung transplants than piling full of kids and roaring up the road. And while I’d never dream of telling anyone how they should or should not enjoy their possessions, I would point out that, unlike fine art, no road or racing car was ever built just to be looked at.
What really brought this all to mind was that, just occasionally amid all the dazzle, was a properly scruffy machine, usually brought in to perform the ignominious ‘before’ role parked next to an immaculately primped and coiffed beauty queen which could probably hardly bear to be parked next to something that had let itself go to such an extent. These are the cars I love.
There is a distinction to be made here. I don’t love cars that have been neglected, that have spent the last 40 years sitting in a damp shed being used as little as will their newly restored and transformed selves over the next 40 years. But cars in whose creased flanks you can see every crunch, scrape, scuff, graze, nick and ding of a lifetime’s hard use on road or track, those are the cars I covet most. These are cars that have been loved. In my collection of childhood toys, I don’t need to remember which I cherished the most as a small boy, I just look at which has been most damaged by high speed interactions with skirting boards and I know at once. It is the same with great old cars.
There is a C-type Jaguar that occasionally I get to compete against and a more bruised and battered example of the breed you will not find. It is without doubt the least immaculate C-type I have ever seen and, save the car it has been my blessing to race, far and away my favourite. It also happens to go like hell.
And that’s how I like these cars to be: ratty on the outside, and in mechanically original, but apple-pie order beneath. Do you feel the same way, or is there something in glossy, pristine newer than newness that I’ve missed?
Photography courtesy of Andrew Frankel and Jochen Van Cauwenberge