Say you have bought your first classic car – or your third, or your tenth – and you think it may be time to enter the concours d’elegance scene. What should your first concern be? Making sure your car is truly elegant? Wrong. Your sole focus should be that your car undergo the best possible restoration, which my ancient copy of the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the action or process of restoring to original form or perfect condition.” This is the very definition the eagle-eyed judges at the world’s top concours d’elegance stick to doggedly, and the reason owners of the best cars, which are sometimes purchased in the worst condition, frequently turn to RM Auto Restoration.
A 1937 BUGATTI TYPE 57 IN THE PROCESS OF A PRECISION ASSEMBLY AT RM AUTO RESTORATIONS. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY RM AUTO RESTORATIONS.
As a business, RM started out exactly 40 years ago as founder Rob Myers’s one-man restoration shop in a garage in Chatham, Ontario. And while the company has grown to include classic car auctions and an association with Sotheby’s that has led to its being recognised as the leader in its field, the renovation aspect continues to thrive under the separate banner of RM Auto Restorations. Now based in Blenheim, Ontario, the firm employs 30 highly skilled staff at its One Classic Car Drive facility, a most apposite address. As an indisputable accolade to the excellence of its work over the decades, RM Auto Restorations counts no fewer than six Best of Show awards at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for cars it has restored, as well as dozens of prizes for other cars at similar events.
RM AUTO RESTORATIONS’ MOST EXTENSIVE PROJECTS INVOLVE EVERY DETAIL, FROM CHASSIS
TO UPHOLSTERY. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY RM AUTO RESTORATIONS.
His career intimately linked to RM Auto Restorations’ development, Don McLellan joined 25 years ago as a restorer of parts such as gauges and electrical components. Having since worked across all departments, he now heads the business’s quality-control team and is responsible for tuning, testing and “shaking down” cars (typically, taking them on a trial run) once they emerge from the rebuilding process. “There are many levels of restoration, from a simple tune-up to a retrimmed interior to a full-scale rebuild,” McLellan explains. “Sometimes cars arrive as nothing more than collections of parts. A 1938 Horch 853A cabriolet came to us like that, but after a two-year restoration, it won Best of Show at Pebble Beach in 2004,” he adds proudly. A full reconstruction generally takes around a year, McLellan says, and in the case of an especially rare or neglected car, the cost can run in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But the results are always worth it, he insists. “Many of our restorations have emerged as so-called 100-point cars,” he notes, referring to the fact that concours judges deduct points from a theoretically perfect 100 for any aspect of a car that is not just as it was when originally built. “Points can be subtracted for having the wrong markings on a bolt head, for chroming something that should not be chromed, or for painting a part that was never painted in the factory – even if it should have been,” he explains. “The judges look really hard for total authenticity.”
WORKING ON UPHOLSTERY. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY RM AUTO RESTORATIONS.
An essential standard to meet in any serious collecting activity, authenticity – or rather, the quest for it – has been helped by the burgeoning “preservation” class at concours. The preservation category rates true originality – or the fact that the car has been untouched since it came off the assembly line – above cosmetic appearance. Preservation class cars are vital to the historic (restored to authenticity) movement because they often serve as points of reference for the correct restoration of other examples. Unsurprisingly, RM Auto Restorations and McLellan are big fans. “We are often asked to restore cars that might have already been rebuilt two, three, even ten times in their lives, and each time a bit of authenticity is lost,” he explains. “But we have a magnificent photographic archive and a vast restoration database, which enable us to go back and see how the car looked when it was new and, therefore, how it should be restored.” All of which goes to show that, paradoxically, there is no better reference for restoring your own classic car than a bona fide authentic preservation vehicle.
London-based writer Simon de Burton covers old and new cars for the Financial Times, Country Life, EVO and Octane.