Arguing For Patina

By Simon de Burton

In our first edition of guest editorial posts, Simon de Burton, author and lover of cars and watches of all ages, argues the case for patina. Showing their age through buttery yellow lume or pitted side panels, de Burton believes our most treasured items are often enhanced by their flaws and imperfections. Looking at an extremely rare and well-loved Land Rover as well as watches that have already lived a full life yet have so much more still to give.

“Things are only original once," opines Julian Shoolheifer, gazing at an ancient Land Rover with bodywork that's scuffed, dented, pockmarked and largely devoid of paint.

But this particular vehicle already represents more than two years worth of long days and even longer nights in the workshop, during which Shoolheifer has stripped down and painstakingly set about rebuilding what the 'experts' said was beyond repair having sat in an open Northumbrian barn for the best part of 50 years.

The reason it is taking so long is that 49-year-old Shoolheifer, who has been immersed in the world of old cars, motorcycles and Land Rovers (in particular) since he was a teenager, is determined to preserve as much of chassis number 860001 as possible - because it is the very first production model to have rolled off the Solihull line back in July 1948.

Ironically, rebuilding such a vehicle by keeping as many of its original parts as practicable is considerably more time-consuming, difficult and expensive than simply chucking-out all the bad bits and replacing them with new.

 

Grana WWW British Military watch, Omega Speedmaster, Patek Philippe Nautilus and Rolex GMT Master 1675 showing patina for A Collected Man London

Patina four different ways here with a dials from a Grana WWW British Military watch, an Omega Speedmaster, a Patek Philippe Nautilus and a Rolex GMT Master 1675. 

 

Fortunately, Shoolheifer's understanding of the importance of keeping such a significant vehicle absolutely correct is shared by his client (and 860001's official owner) the giant Ineos chemical group - the chairman of which is Land Rover-loving Jim Ratcliffe, Britain's richest man.

Through Ineos, Ratcliffe - who is so Land Rover mad that he's planning to produce an all-new, no nonsense utility vehicle called the Ineos Grenadier - has given Shoolheifer free rein to do whatever is needed to maintain the authenticity of the landmark vehicle during its restoration, with the result that a genuine piece of automobile history will be properly preserved.

"The ethos has been to save every scrap of every possible part that might ordinarily have been discarded," explains Shoolheifer.

"One third of the battery carrier, for example, had completely disintegrated. Usually, a restorer would simply replace it with a new one - but we fabricated the missing third and attached it seamlessly to the remainder, meaning as much as possible of the original part has been preserved."

 

Julian Shoolheifer in his workshop with a Land Rover he has been restoring

Julian Shoolheifer in his workshop with another Land Rover he has been working on. Credit: Martin Port

 

It sounds agonising, but that is the only way to go about things if the true genetics of the very first production Land Rover are to be retained.

 

"Let's imagine that, in 100 years time, it will be possible to put this vehicle through a scanner capable of dating the age of every component - our aim is that the absolute maximum number of parts will show-up as dating from 1948."

 

In the old car world, 'preservation' is now spoken of as often as 'restoration' when it comes to maintaining or rebuilding classics, with many pundits now decrying the once-common practice - especially in America - of restoring an automobile to a state in which it is far shinier, far more tightly trimmed and far newer-looking than it ever was when it was, actually, new.

In fact, such is the enthusiasm for 'patina' that it has become commonplace at blue chip international events such as the Pebble beach Concours and Villa d'Este's Concorso d'Eleganza to give awards to vehicles in the 'preservation class' that have been sympathetically returned to the road without recourse to over-restoration.

 

Ferrari Spider and Maserati found as part of the Baillon Collection

The first glimpse of part of the Baillon Collection with this Ferrari and Maserati being in far better condition than some of the other 60 cars that were unearthed. Credit: Artcurial

 

Perhaps the most remarkable evidence of how much classic car buyers have come to appreciate originality was seen at the January 2015 auction by Artcurial Paris of the Baillon Collection of almost 100 vehicles dating from the 1930s to the 1970s, among which were legendary marques such as Bugatti, Hispano Suiza, Maserati, Ferrari, Delahaye and Delage.

The majority, however, were in a severe state of dereliction having been left for decades in open-sided sheds, beneath leaking roofs or, in some cases, entirely exposed to the elements - and among them was a Talbot Lago that originally belonged to King Farouk and, the jewel in the crown, a Ferrari California Spider once owned by French movie idol Alain Delon. 

 

Porsche 365 Speedster, part of the Baillon Collection

1949 Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport SWB by Saoutchik, Baillon Collection

Above: This Porsche 365 Speedster was listed as having "moderate rust damage" but was otherwise said to be complete.

Below: Found in a French barn, this Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport SWB wasn't as lucky as the Porsche when it came to rust damage although its engine was still salvageable. Credit: Dirk de Jager

 

The sad tale of the Baillon Collection dated back to the 1950s when transport company boss Roger Baillon bought the chateau in western France and began acquiring cars with the intention of creating an on-site museum. He soon amassed more than 200, but then Transports R. Baillon went bust and almost half of the collection had to be sold to raise cash.

The remainder were left where they stood in anticipation of better times - but they simply never came.

In Baillon's memory, each was presented at the auction in its own 'museum style' setting as a piece of decaying sculpture displayed exactly as it was found in the grounds of the chateau, complete with cobwebs, dust and rust - and, while the majority of the cars were in need of ground-up restorations, the huge premium attached to originality meant the sale realised a staggering $28.5m, with the Delon Ferrari alone making $18.5.

It was filmed a few months later being driven - purring nicely, but in just the same, gloriously patinated state in which it crossed the auction block. 

A similar appreciation of originality and a preference for preserving not restoring has also become an established feature of the vintage watch world, where faded lume is considered infinitely preferable to a re-painted dial, where a scratched and bashed case is more desirable than one rendered blunt by over-polishing and a dulled but proper Plexiglass is favoured over a pristine replacement. 

And as for identification - just as car and motorcycle collectors regard 'matching' engine and chassis / frame ID numbers as evidence of originality, so watch buyers increasingly demand case and movement numbers that correspond to those seen on the official archive certificates available from brands such as Longines, Patek Philippe, Omega and the like.

 

Three travel clocks showing signs of even and coveted patina

Three travel clocks with differing levels of patina that ranges from a light cream to a deep buttery ageing. 

 

In fact, horophiles don't simply appreciate a bit of patina, they would often rather own a watch that displays it than one that's in as-new condition and have developed affectionate terms to enhance the appeal of what is often the result of a manufacturing defect. 

So-called 'tropical' dials of models such as the Rolex Cosmograph or Omega Speedmaster - where black turns to a pleasant, chocolate brown over decades - are considered highly desirable, especially when the discolouration is entirely even. In reality, the change is a result of a degradation in the dial's pigment.

Likewise, the metamorphosis of luminous paint applied to hands and hour markers from the dazzling white of new to the buttery yellow of old is also appreciated - preferably if the tones have altered to an identical degree, while a nicely faded, aluminium 'Pepsi' bezel on a Rolex GMT-Master can add handsomely to desirability.

Even so-called 'burn marks' - where the hands of a long-stopped watch have scorched a pattern into a dial from being in the same position for too long - hold appeal to many collectors, as do watches that bear the scars of battle, adventure or exploits beneath the waves.

 

1954 Rolex Submariner with a cracked crystal and creamy lume plots sold at Phillips Game Changers auction

From the creamy lume to the crackling crystal, this 1954 Rolex Submariner demonstrates the appealing balance gained through original, patinated parts. It sold at Phillip's Game Changers auction last year for $162,500

 

At Phillips 'Game Changers' auction held in New York last December, for example, a pair of Benrus military watches worn in action by a noted operative from the CIA's 'special activities division' during the 16-year Laotian civil war changed hands for $30,000. The two - an aviation hack watch and a dive model - were issued to USAF Master Sergeant James Stanford who flew 218 combat missions during the war between the Communist Pathe Lao and the Royal Lao Government.

Both examples carried the patina of their adventures, but to 'restore' them would be a big mistake - after all, as Shoolheifer said at the beginning: "Things are only original once..."

 

Our thanks to Simon de Burton for writing our first piece of guest editorial. You can find all of Julian Shoolheifer's work here. We'd also like to thanks Phillips for suppling images of some watches showing beautiful patination. 



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