1937 Bugatti Type 57S Atalante coupe

Dave Kinney
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When a garage-find Bugatti Type 57S Atalante coupe sold at Bonham's Paris auction recently for $4.4 million, the surprising thing wasn't its faded paint, rusty trim, and worn interior - it's that the car's condition likely bolstered its selling price.

Ten years ago, the buyer probably would have sent this Bugatti in for a megabuck restoration. According to Rob Sass, a vintage-car expert whose writing has appeared in the New York Times and Sports Car Market magazine, a sympathetic mechanicals-only restoration is where it's at today. "Under the circumstances, restoring the car might well be cause for regret," notes Sass.

At concours events around the country, the fastest-growing category is known as the preservation class. Its devotees prize originality over the bright and shiny, better-than-new restorations that for years have been the mainstay of top vintage-car events.

Part of this trend might be the effect of seeing the coolness of battered transports in the original Star Wars movies. Part might be the influence of PBS's Antiques Roadshow, where objects unearthed from attics and basements are brought to experts who routinely admonish owners for cleaning their finds - and potentially polishing off thousands of dollars.

Whatever the cause, car collectors have increasingly grown to appreciate original finishes and the tools and craftsmanship needed to apply them. This is something the art world has known for years - don't try to make the old look new.

Does that mean every worn-out hulk is now a preservation-class classic? Not at all, despite the hopeful spin of some sellers. Although the rules of the preservation class are still being written, suffice it to say that an old Volkswagen Beetle pulled from a farmer's field isn't eligible. It's the cars that were rare, valuable, and important to begin with that are most prized, cars whose histories are worth preserving in their unaltered - if imperfect - as-found, original states.

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