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Sacrificing History Image

Labeling a fake as a “replica” may be an amusing oxymoron, but it’s also another example of the deterioration of language as an accurate method of communication. In a world where the trite is often “awesome,” can the use of the term “original” to describe a race car be taken seriously?

Strictly speaking, unless it was hermetically sealed in a container immediately upon its completion, there is simply no such thing as an original race car. The very moment a race car embarks on its intended purpose, it begins a journey away from originality. And the longer a car is raced, the further it travels from its original state.

Although the most original race cars are those that were raced the least, the marketplace places a higher value on those cars that accomplished the most. It is common practice to return a car to the specification it had when scoring its most significant achievement.

During the process of these “historical restorations” it is also common practice to completely erase the scars of competition. Would the Liberty Bell have the same historical value if its crack was filled–in and a flawless new finish applied?

Unfortunately, race cars are not like antique furniture where the removal of natural patina and wear greatly reduces value. Unlike the classics from the era of conspicuous consumption, race cars were never meant to adorn the perfectly manicured greens of some exclusive golf course. Nevertheless, the majority of significant race cars have suffered the indignity of being restored to Pebble Beach standards, a state of presentation wildly exceeding their condition when they first emerged from the factory. Perhaps in their owner's eye, these cars have been restored to their original configuration. In reality, these over–restored cars now occupy a point in history that never existed.

Although too late for the myriad of vintage and historic race cars lost to over–restoration, there is a growing swell of sensitivity and appreciation for historical accuracy. In recent years several race cars have received a sympathetic restoration instead of the previously favored full–blown, ground-up renewal. Also known as preservation, the sympathetic approach strives to retain as much originality as possible, in some cases including exterior paint. This awakening of sensitivity has even affected Pebble Beach which now provides a separate class for preserved vehicles.

Over-restoring in a misguided quest for originality is one thing, but modifying a vintage race car to modern specification for the sole purpose of winning is the absolute antithesis of vintage racing, and reverence of history. In period it was a race car's natural fate to undergo constant modification, but the primary purpose of vintage racing is providing an opportunity to exercise obsolete race cars in a relaxed and proper environment. Although the practice of modifying a race car to gain a competitive edge is as old as racing itself, to do so in vintage racing is to blatantly thumb your nose at very foundation of the sport. Other than satisfying the misplaced priorities of its owner, what purpose is served by a highly–modified, 140mph, 1275cc Bugeye Sprite? Again, a car built to a nonexistent point in history.

Even cars properly prepared for vintage racing are further removed from their originality by the fitting of modern safety equipment. While no one should object to incorporating safety measures for an inherently dangerous sport, they do constitute a departure from the original specifications of older cars. A purist may well lament the replacement of a Maserati 200 SI’s exquisitely riveted gas tank with an artless fuel cell, but it’s the price to be paid for returning the car to the track. All enthusiasts have to admit any such compromises are well worth the sacrifice of some originality in order to keep the cars truly alive. This is especially true when the preservation of originality may well mean being entombed in a museum, wheels stilled, cries of anger silenced.

So what about those genuine replicas? Ignoring the cartoon–like, VW–based Bugattis and MG TDs and the legions of Cobra knockoffs, a replica faithfully echoing the original does play an important role in the world’s kinetic displays of motorsport history. In the case of a nonexistent original, a static museum exhibit or a car deemed unusable because of its rarity or value, an exacting replica is the only resource we have to fully appreciate the sight and sound of such a car at speed. Several of the more stringent vintage and historic racing clubs openly welcome accurate replicas to fill a void that would otherwise forever remain vacant.

Instead of turning one’s nose up over all replicas, the more enlightened enthusiast applauds the painstaking efforts of those people dedicated to filling these voids. Were it not for the late Bob Sutherland’s passion to faithfully recreate a Bugatti T–32 (affectionately known as the “Tank”) and Phillip Moch’s similar obsession to built a Voisin GP, we would be deprived the pleasure of seeing a pair of delightfully bizarre racers built for the 1923 Grand Prix season. In the absence of the originals, these two cars are more than welcome on any stage where the history of motorsport is celebrated. The term “genuine replica” may be a oxymoron, but, in certain rare cases, it can also be taken seriously.

Consequently, describing almost any car, especially a race car, as being original is a fallacy. Granted, some cars are more original than others, but only by degree. The most heinous crime is the wanton sacrifice of historical accuracy in the pursuit of competitive superiority. This practice is fueled by the more liberal sanctioning bodies of vintage racing, where blatant modifications are tolerated and outright competition encouraged.

In the end, personal values determine the fate of vintage and historic cars. For the sake of maintaining a reasonably accurate and clear view to the past, enthusiasts can only hope the majority of the caretakers of motorsport heritage will act responsibly.

Photo: Genuine replicas of the first order: Phillip Moch’s Voisin GP and Bob Sutherland’s Bugatti T–32–Monterey Historic Automobile Races, August 1995. Copyright ©Art Eastman.