Imagine that when Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) sold at auction for $90.3 million in 2018, the buyer also received the phone number of its revered painter, David Hockney, in case the time came for a touch-up. After all, what better way to maintain the canvas’s pristine condition while still preserving its authenticity?
Although exceedingly rare in the world of fine art, this concept is very real in the sphere of collectible automobiles, where vehicles can sell for eight figures. It’s no wonder that premier automakers are increasingly offering in-house restoration instead of abdicating responsibility to a third party to tinker with their automotive DNA.
Mercedes-Benz was an early adopter, opening its Classic Center in Germany in 1993 and a Stateside version in 2006. “We define ‘classic’ as a car that is 15 years past the end of the model’s production. That’s where we pick it up and take over,” says Mike Kunz, who leads the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, Calif. Unlike some independent shops that are happy to modernize or personalize a classic, “we don’t make the car any better than it was and don’t pretend to know more than the incredible engineers that built them. If we’ve done our job right, it looks like we never did it at all.”
That intrinsic knowledge of exact specifications and the ability to match them flawlessly are where outside shops can’t compete. Take the late-1950s 300 SL recently brought to Kunz for a pre-purchase inspection (one sold unrestored for $3.7 million two years ago). While it appeared in fine condition, the finishes weren’t period-accurate, and the lower areas of the body had been given a texture coat never used at the factory, thereby lowering its value, Kunz says, noting: “That was a two-minute decision when someone else restored it, but extremely expensive to correct.”
Such expertise also drives BMW Group Classic, which began as the aptly named Mobile Tradition department in 1994. The Munich-based operation focuses on the marque up to the early 2000s, first determining which road the client wishes to follow. “There are those that want the result to be better than new, while others aim for the preservation of patina. We are able to do both,” says Thomas Tischler, head of the BMW Classic Center (a sub-department of Group Classic that includes the customer workshop). Tischler also cites the team’s supply of period- correct components as a major asset. “BMW Group Classic has over 60,000 different spare parts available. In case we run out of the original, we can establish reproductions, some with 3-D printing.”
Not to be outdone, Ferrari maintains the worth of its classic prancing horses through an official authentication program along with refurbishing services. “One of our main functions is to issue certificates of authenticity to road-going models at least 20 years old and competition cars—including Formula 1 single-seaters—regardless of when they were built,” says Luigino Barp, who oversees Ferrari Classiche, a 30-person division housed within the company’s factory in Maranello, Italy.
A favorite project of his was a 1950 Ferrari 166 Inter cabriolet with coachwork by Stabilimenti Farina. The example had been presented at that year’s Paris Motor Show but was given two different bodies over subsequent decades. According to Barp, restoring it took three years and involved mending the chassis, casting a new engine and making a 3-D model for aluminum panels.
But not every bygone stallion makes the grade. Before beginning any work, Ferrari establishes the legitimacy of each vehicle and its parts with the help of an exhaustive collection of records that date to 1947. And after the transformation, a committee steered by vice chairman Piero Ferrari himself administers the final inspection.
A relatively new powerhouse in the preservation department, Lamborghini’s Polo Storico has been active since 2015 and relies on its own library of more than 36,000 documents. With as many as 30 projects going at the same time, the atelier already has an impressive résumé, including the restoration of a Lambo once owned by singer Rod Stewart and another by famed Italian performer Little Tony that even put the archaic built-in tape recorder back in working order (for when inspiration strikes).
My own experience with Polo Storico’s obsession with detail came on a drive of its museum-quality Lamborghini LM002, the 1980s precursor to the Urus SUV. Operating the immaculate time capsule through the wintry streets of Livigno, in the Italian Alps, was a glimpse at what state-of-the-art motoring was like more than three decades ago. The machine was versatile and powerful, but the play in the steering wheel, temperamental manual transmission and lackadaisical responsiveness (compared to the benchmarks now) still had me on edge. It handled as it would have off the showroom floor in an era before virtually every aspect of driving was computerized—and that was the goal.
“I’m not a big fan of the ‘wow effect,’” admits Paolo Gabrielli, head of Polo Storico, referring to the new tech and amenities some indie shops install. “In my opinion, this is not the way to respect the brand or the car itself. We want to freeze it in time.”
But staying true to the period can add to the clock. One special edition Lamborghini Diablo required a specific shock absorber to be put into production, then tested for more than 12,400 miles on track before it was allowed on the customer’s car. That one shock absorber slowed delivery by a couple of months.
Expedience, or the lack thereof, is a principal reason that the decision to have a prized automobile reconditioned by its manufacturer is not cut and dry. Demand is one of the factors that may force an owner to wait four to eight months before a wrench is raised. Still, it’s refreshing to know that, in the automotive arts, the original masters can still add fresh brushstrokes.