Restore or Restomod?

During the 2018 North American Auto Show held in Detroit, one of the largest stories besides the debut of the 2019 Bullitt Mustang, was the news that one of the original 1968 Bullitt Mustang movie cars had been “discovered.” It turns out the most famous Mustang on the planet had changed hands several times from the movie executive who bought it, to a New York cop, then then to a South Carolina car guy looking for a daily driver for his wife, and finally to his son, Sean Kiernan. As the legend of McQueen grew over the years, the responsibility of being the caretaker of this iconic car weighed heavily on him.

Original 1968 Mustang from movie Bullitt in Sean’s secret barn in Nashville | Photos from Ford Motor Company

“I knew I had to do it right, because it was such an important car, and for my Dad. But when Dad was gone, the Bullitt was in bits, and I didn’t know where to start” Sean Kiernan said.

Of course, most cars don’t carry the same weight of American heritage as this particular Mustang, but the dilemma is one all muscle car enthusiasts face: what am I going to do with this cool, but non-functional car, and how am I going to do it?

The Considerations

For those of us acquiring less historically-significant cars, we usually harbor dreams of what we might do with them when they run. Those dreams influence how we build them. On one hand, you can rebuild the car to its original factory specs, just as it left the factory (or as close as possible) — restored. Or you can choose to retain the original look of the car, but upgrade the mechanics with aftermarket products, effectively creating a restored-modified vehicle — “restomod.”

Close up details of the 1968 Bullitt Mustang

For those of us acquiring less historically-significant cars, we usually harbor dreams of what we might do with them when they run. Those dreams influence how we build them. On one hand, you can rebuild the car to its original factory specs, just as it left the factory (or as close as possible) — restored. Or you can choose to retain the original look of the car, but upgrade the mechanics with aftermarket products, effectively creating a restored-modified vehicle — “restomod.”

Most cars are going to fall somewhere in between, but as an owner, you need to be clear on what your goal is, because it will influence almost every decision you make about the car. These decisions range from tire choices to what events the car is to be used for, how you drive it, what kind of spare parts you need to buy, and most crucially — how much the whole thing is ultimately going to cost.

At first, it seems restored and restomod are exact opposites. “Restore” means: make it look as good (if not better than) new, but with a laser focus on how the car left the factory. For example, many muscle restorations look to duplicate original factory chalk marks and accidental overspray. “Restomod” is to create your own flavor of monster. Take your favorite body style from the muscle period, add the latest suspension, wheel, engine and interior features. In the first scenario, small displacement motors are rebuilt, their two-barrel carburetors and two-speed transmissions saved. In the second, everything is replaced by whatever is state of the art at the time of the build.

However, it’s not always that cut and dry. There is a large gray area which can make the differences between the two approaches less clear. Especially when it comes to muscle cars. Things in this grey area are (for all intents and purposes) considered upgrades, but there are reasons that they may pass the eye of the scrutinizer, whether it be for safety or it’s just become commonly accepted.

The Grey Area

In the “dark-grey” area, for example, many Ford Model Ts have been fitted with two-speed rear axles. Owners will tell you this modification improves driveability so much the car can be driven to a “Cars and Coffee” gathering without being run over. Does this make it a restomod? Many cars with single-reservoir brake master cylinders have been upgraded to dual reservoirs to prevent the loss of one wheel cylinder from leaving you with no brakes whatsoever. Does that kick it out of the restored category? Many shows will overlook the substitution of the original-style bias-ply tires with radial tires, which are obviously safer and more predictable on the road. Should that kick it into restomod territory?

Original 1968 Mustang engine bay from Bullitt movie.

But you get into fuzzier, light-grey areas, like many post-war British sports cars came to America with weak six-volt electrics. Restoration experts often convert the cars to 12 volts which improves the reliability and damp starting. It’s not directly a safety issue, so Is this a restomod? Let’s say you have a 1969 Nova with a date-correct 1969 396ci engine that was put in the car by a Chevy dealer in 1973. Is that a restomod? In these cases, most would probably agree these improvements do not constitute a restomod.

After those you get into the really white areas in the differences. What do you consider a car that is restored to the style of a period? Where does a period-correct restoration fit? Smack dab in the middle of the quagmire. Consider this: my buddy built a 1956 Chevy between 2005 and 2010. He built it the way he would have in 1970, when he graduated high school — using only period-correct, used parts — as if he had gotten the parts from a junkyard in 1970. In 1970, this for sure was a restomod. In 2018, is it something different?

Original 1968 Bullitt Mustang camera mounts

Digging deeper into this, the vintage Mustangs and Camaros dicing with Ferraris and Jaguars at historic race meetings, such as the Goodwood Revival, are much faster today than they were in the ‘60s. Even though they are supposed to be exactly the same as they were, they have changed in thousands of tiny ways — from the precision of their piston bores, the quality of the piston rings and the engine oil, to the rubber compounds of the tires and bushings. Yet, they still pass as restored cars in their realm, as long as they have “the look.”

The point here is that any changes (even small ones) reduce originality and make your car a “modified car.” In fact, some might say that any changes you make which improve performance and quality beyond the original factory standard is restomodding.

Build It Your Way

The decision to restore or restomod is be dependent on the situation and the builder. I want to keep my 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix as original as possible because that’s how I want it to be, partly because it forces me to learn new skills. So, rather than replace the original Quadrajet carburetor with a new one from Edelbrock, I bought a kit and rebuilt the Quadrajet. But I have to use non-factory, original transmission fluid, since the original blend included whale oil, which is (unsurprisingly) not available in 2018.

Original interior of the original Bullitt Mustang

Not everyone will have the time or patience to go the long-way round as I have with the carb. With the transmission fluid, originality was obviously not an option. The ethical responsibility you have to other hotrodders, now and in the future, is to build something cool and different, whether restomod or factory-correct. Have a vision, and remember the vision everytime you make a decision about the car.

But what do you do when the car takes on a historical significance bigger than you, like the Bullitt Mustang or the other cars on the Historic Vehicle Association registry?

Rarity

It’s important to be clear on exactly what makes the car significant in the first place. Rarity is the obvious place to start. If there are hardly any examples left, most collectors feel it is better to keep the car original or to restore it to factory conditions, but if there are plenty of examples left, a good restomod could increase the value. To judge rarity by initial production numbers can be tricky however, there is not set rule. For Wayne Carini of Chasing Classic Cars, the 1980s Ferrari Testarossa — with 1,400 built — represents a high production car, but is it?

It is also worth considering the numbers of surviving cars. For most muscle-car models, many were built, but most led hard lives as they were modified, abused, and crashed. They may have built thousands of Mercury Marauder S-55s, but very few survived, making this a car worthy of restoration as opposed to restomodding.

Significance (Prominence)

Another way to decide whether to restore or restomod is to look at any association with a significant person or event with one specific car. In some cases, the glow of these attachments is initially weak (think Ricardo Montalban’s 1978 Chrysler Cordoba) or fades rapidly (Clara Bow’s 1927 La Salle). When the La Salle was first auctioned, her name enhanced its value. Today, no one cares it was owned by the Julia Roberts of the ‘20s. The person fades or the event associated with them (and their car) is no longer significant.

Additionally, for the La Salle, a full restoration best shows why Clara Bow bought the car in the first place. To restomod it, would lose that unique history and throw away the provenance.

In rare cases, neither restoration nor restomodding is the best solution and pure preservation is the best way. The 1963 Presidential Lincoln limousine in which JFK was assassinated and the Rosa Parks bus are extreme examples of when preserving vehicles — especially their interiors — is critical.

Starting Point

The current condition of the car should also influence the decision whether to restomod or restore. A fairly original, complete car represents a good candidate for restoration. A car that has already been modified, is wrecked, or is in very poor condition would be a suitable candidate for restomodding.

Original 1968 Mustang from movie Bullitt – Warner Bros window sticker

The overarching trend is that the gap in value is growing ever wider between excellent, good, and poor examples of the same type of car. With this growing value difference, enthusiasts should not feel guilty modifying and restomodding poor examples of non-associative car models.

With increasing numbers of Preservation Classes at high end Concours events such as Amelia Island and Pebble Beach, you can see a growing interest in preserved cars over those with better than new, inauthentic restorations – the restomods of the concours lawn if you will. The change has gone hand in hand with increased values for preserved cars in comparison with those considered to have been “over-restored”.

Currently, in the muscle world, restomods often outstrip even original cars in terms of financial value, but consider how those trends will age. What’s hot now, may not be 15-20 years down the line. Think about the vans with murals from the ‘70s, the Pro-Street era, or the pastel-colored, tweed-interiored Street Rods of the ‘90s — trends come and go and some cars get left in limbo, because they are neither what they were when they were new, or what is the current trend in hot-rodding. These are still cool cars, but their stories are more complicated, and that makes it harder for future generations to understand and be enthusiastic about them. It also reduces what they are worth financially.

The issue here is that it is rare for individuals to have better ideas about what is cool than the company building the original cars, leaving most people not liking most modifications. When those ideas are cool, often they are copied so often they become boring and unoriginal. For example, RS noses on ‘70-’73 Camaros and ‘67 “Eleanor” Mustangs, like in the movie Gone in 60 Seconds. In other words, the problem with many restomods is that other people don’t like the modifications you thought were cool.

Sean Kiernan driving his original 1968 Mustang that starred in movie Bullitt

The issue here is that it is rare for individuals to have better ideas about what is cool than the company building the original cars, leaving most people not liking most modifications. When those ideas are cool, often they are copied so often they become boring and unoriginal. For example, RS noses on ‘70-’73 Camaros and ‘67 “Eleanor” Mustangs, like in the movie Gone in 60 Seconds. In other words, the problem with many restomods is that other people don’t like the modifications you thought were cool.

The Future

The thing with dreams is that if you set about making them a reality, they rarely turn out quite as you expect. The drive to create the perfect factory-correct restoration often stems from memories associated with when the cars were new, and looked that way. You want a red ‘67 Mustang fastback because that’s what was in the dealership window in your town when your 15-year-old self fell in love with it as you rode past it on your bike.

When you have the car built, what can you do with it? The 15-year-old would have used it up. But, you’re too old, too wise, and too financially invested in it to do that. So it sits in the garage, occasionally visiting a show and getting a polish. Built this way, the car can be very hard to enjoy since any little ding causes anguish. Worse, your own family either don’t understand your connection or don’t care about the car.

Ford Mustang in HVA glass box | HVA photos

If your children and spouse don’t care that you have exactly the right color spark plug wires, then when this current “car generation” has gone, there will be no one who does care. That can make the perfect restoration not just impractical to maintain, but it can feel pointless too. By contrast, that car, restomodded, can be driven and enjoyed by you now, and who cares about what people in 100 years think about it’s originality or otherwise.

These ideas are part of a new and developing field spearheaded by leading car collectors and the Historic Vehicle Association. The recent HVA conference brought diverse people together, with people who looked after 1,000-year-old manuscripts, advising the curator of the Mack truck museum on how to better look after his archive of pictures, documents, and technical diagrams.

New 2019 Mustang Bullitt with original Bullitt Mustang

Coming out of these conversations is a decision-making framework that allows a collector to better decide whether to preserve, restore, or restomod his cars.

Today, the place where Enzo Ferrari was born is a museum to him and his machines. The places where the first Shelbys were built have either been lost completely, or survive only as an office building, with nothing to mark its significance. The difference is that Europeans are experienced in the processes and systems to protect historical buildings and machines for many years.

With more academic discussions and recognition, cars are becoming our heritage, a part of American History. If you own a historic home, typically you are legally banned from making changes to it. No one wants similar laws for old cars. Instead, cars are treated like paintings: as owners — custodians for future generations — we must recognize that if we stumble upon a lost Rembrandt, we are duty bound to look after the painting properly.

The Bullitt Mustang is that lost Rembrandt. We are lucky that the present owner was wise enough to see what he had, and to properly think through what to do with it.

Original 1968 Ford Mustang GT on display at the National Mall in celebration of Mustang’s 54th birthday and the 50th anniversary of “Bullitt.” | HVA Photo

If you have not heard of the HVA before, it is worth paying attention to the work they are doing turning our hobby into heritage. This is a fresh, exciting take on American History, with lots of room for debate, with the automobile’s place in our history at stake.

For us in the muscle-car culture, we should remember that it was not the high end Pebble Beach Concours who began this process, but the diligent work of the National Corvette Restorers Society which led the way. To restore or restomod? For most cars, the answer is simply to build the car the way you want to and drive it the way you want, but for others you need to think about the significance before being selfish.

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About the author

Jon Summers

I’m an Englishman living in California working as an Automotive Historian and Freelance Consultant.
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