Look at the picture above. That’s the dream. Your beautiful old car, out in some picturesque corner of the world, far from the rest of everything, idling perfectly, running great. I’m here to tell you that you don’t get that photo unless your car is dinged, scratched, and torn.
The spot that photo was taken was about halfway between middle and nowhere off of I-90 in North Dakota, not far from the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s not far down a dirt road, potholed and lumpy.
My co-driver Patrick George and I took the car down that road because we weren’t particularly worried about the paint and we weren’t worried about breaking down. At least, not right there.
That’s because, well, the paint had scratches and patches already and a stones wouldn’t do it any harm, and because we knew that the last owner had spent all of his time and effort making sure the car was mechanically sound, without worrying too much that there were at least three large holes in the headliner.
Those holes weren’t hurting anybody. Making sure the dual Weber carbs were sync’d was a priority, along with making sure the axles were in good shape, the suspension, the engine, everything.
The 1970 BMW 2500 we were driving got that treatment because it was what the classic car world calls “a driver.” A car that’s a little rough around the edges, but is kept in good mechanical condition. It’s meant to be driven, not just polished and stared at. “Drivers” get this kind of treatment because they’re affordable. They’re something that somebody with a lot of knowledge, a lot of passion can buy and maintain.
And the reason why Patrick and I were driving it across the country was because 1) it was still affordable for Patrick’s friend to buy it and 2) we prepared extensively but trusted that it would probably make the cross-country trip without breaking down. At least, not too badly if it did. (We ended up making it with no issues.)
Also, we weren’t worried about putting a lot of miles on it. Taking it on middle-of-nowhere turnoffs and highways. Passing 18-wheelers that might chuck up road debris at it. Had we been in some candy-coated, impeccable-condition, garage queen of a car, we’d have fretted the whole way about it, if the owner hadn’t just stuck it in a car hauler in the first place.
These are views you don’t get in something over-restored.
Put another way, there’s a right amount of duct tape to have on your car, somewhere maybe only you know where it is. Our 2500 had one headlight piece held on with vice grips. Was it going to win a judged car show? Hell no. Was it going to work perfectly on the road? Sure.
The front seats had been changed out for mid-1990s Acura buckets. You don’t do that to a perfectly restored car.
Our car had some electrical box put in where the radio used to be, letting us charge our phones and keep GPS going while we drove a nearly half-century old car. You don’t get that in a car that, uh, still has its old radio, one that you’re afraid of taking out as you’ll lose its originality.
You don’t see over-restored cars thrashed and run out and really used, used as they were meant to be.
It’s an achievement to completely fix up a car, inside and out, make it shine. It’s a point of pride, particularly if you’re starting with something in rough shape. But the cars that have been beautifully and perfectly restored are cars you appreciate, cars you respect. They are not cars that you make memories with out on the road, form bonds with as you cut through the night, engine humming with you, some piece of window trim flapping outside.
You want something that you’re not afraid to break and patch and fix and drive some more. And that’s something you only get with a car that’s tough where it counts and rough where everybody else is looking.