The roaring revival of historic cars

03 July 2023

Please note: Barclays Private Bank does not endorse any of the companies or individuals referenced in this article.

Enthusiasts steeped in vintage and classic cars tend to understand the restoration process intuitively. They might be sniffy about an ‘over-restored’ showpiece, or in reverie over the holy grail that is the dusty ‘barn find’, but they get what it’s all about. The rest of us, perhaps, need a little elaboration.

Because, quite unlike an historic building, an old master painting or a piece of fine antique furniture, a restored old car needs to regain a level of energetic functionality far beyond gleaming chrome and expertly reupholstered seats. For many owners it’s not just about visual perfection; it all clicks when they’re dashing around Italy over the 1,000 miles of the Mille Miglia in their cars, or playing Stirling Moss in a Silverstone Classic race, and every single part of the car is working in symphony.

At the very least, a revitalisation project costing tens of thousands of pounds must produce a rasping roadster or elegant limo that’s capable (and forgive the Londoncentric-ness here) of a trip up to Scotland, or down to the South of France – you don’t want the engine to drown in St Andrews, or the radiator to boil in St Tropez.

Restoration is needed because even the most expensive cars weren’t really built to last. When famous coachbuilders of the 1930s fabricated elaborate car bodies, they had no long-term way to protect them against metal corrosion or wood frame rot. Competition cars, meanwhile, taking shape in small workshops or manufacturers’ racing departments, were usually destined to contest a single season, sometimes even just one specific race, and probably to be junked afterwards. Immortality was a long way from their minds.

An industry of un-pickers

Amateur restorations began in the 1950s as early Alfa Romeos, Bentleys, Bugattis and Rolls-Royces were appreciated anew. These first-gen rescue attempts are now often viewed with pity and regret by the restoration industry that arose from those early days. Tackling one of them today is as much about correcting past bodges as reinstating absolute authenticity.

But forget amateurs-in-sheds. Car restoration is a business now so important that a survey by JDA Research conducted in 2019 conservatively valued the sector in Europe at €5.1 billion1. In 2014 (the latest figures available from historic car governing body FIVA, the Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens) it employed up to 140,000 skilled technicians, engineers and craftspeople2.

And an explosion in values has made all this viable. In 1987, a Bugatti Royale caused uproar at an auction when it fetched a world-record £5.5 million3, and yet when a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé changed hands last year for £114.5 million4, eyelids barely batted.

Jaguar insights

Britain’s Jaguar finds itself in the middle of this fascinating world of reappraisal. By comparison with some makes, its records are modest, with its most valuable racing car being a certified £16.4 million 1956 Le Mans-winning D-type5.

Yet its commitment to restoring and, indeed, recreating its milestone models is an outstanding example of how heritage has become important to evocative car brands.

Jaguar Land Rover Classic Works was established in 2016 (both marques are owned by India’s Tata), and among its first ventures was the E-type Reborn, a series of the world-famous sports cars brought lovingly back to life.

“When we launched there was the target that these cars must be exactly as they left the factory in the 1960s,” explains spokesman Alistair Sommerville. “As well as our in-house restorers we benefit from a huge network of suppliers, but it’s our in-house engineering geeks who really make the difference. They’ll be up all night scouring eBay for new old-stock parts needed for total authenticity, whether it’s a Lucas fusebox cover or period-correct wing mirrors. It really is a treasure hunt – a weird mix of the Jurassic Park of cars with an Indiana Jones of quests!”

Jaguar Classic E-Type ZP Collection

Jaguar Classic E-Type ZP Collection

The real thing, just a bit better

But while naturally the detail-freak’s work is crucial, the Classic division, reacting to customer wishes, developed a lucrative line in subtle improvements to make a six-decade old sports car much better to drive.

“We found there’s an increasing demand for usability and so, for example, we developed a five-speed gearbox that doesn’t involve any damage to the car’s structure. We also produced electronic ignition, better engine cooling, and an in-car ‘classic entertainment system’ with discreet sat-nav screen, Bluetooth connectivity and a USB port. However, we decided early on that any updates had to be easily reversible. In fact, with some of our restored E-types, the old four-speed gearbox is cleaned, painted and crated for each customer, just in case they want to reinstate it – you just never know!”

In 2021 the philosophy was extended to six pairs of rejuvenated E-types, roadsters and coupés, to mark its 60th birthday and its legendary launch at the Geneva motor show in March 1961. The two debut cars were driven overnight from the Coventry factory to the Swiss city by Jaguar chief test driver Norman Dewis and PR manager Bob Berry. The commemorative restorations had engraved centre consoles depicting each route created by artist Johnny ‘King Nerd’ Dowell, whose work famously adorns Purdey shotguns.

“We searched long and hard for honest original cars to work on, and most came from North America,” says Sommerville. “Typically, we retain about 60% of the original vehicle, or as much as we can, and that’s mainly in its metal components.”

Mention of the artisanal touch from outsiders points to the gifting possibilities in the presentation of a restored car to a customer, and Jaguar Classic has collaborated with such luxury names as Tods, Fortnum and Mason, Bennett Winch luggage, and Richard George tailors. As Sommerville explains: “It can be a lovely part of the story-telling of both brands, weaving elements together. For our ZP restoration series, each car will come with an individual Everoak race helmet with its own leather bag made from offcuts of from the car’s upholstery itself, done by the same inhouse trimmers.”

Original parts or continuous history?

In his recent book The Past And The Spurious, collector and former lawyer Paul Griffin analyses what defines important cars. He writes: “Questions of a historic car’s identity, originality and authenticity appear closely linked to a preference for one or other of the original component principle and the continuous history principle6.” What he alludes to in the original component principle is the presence of all, most or some of its original parts such as engine, transmission and chassis, the latter usually – but not always – carrying the ID number the manufacturer gave it when it was manufactured. His continuous history principle, meanwhile, proposes all these items (even the chassis) could have been replaced at least once but, because the car’s been a documented known quantity throughout its existence, it remains manifestly genuine.

‘It will be a rare car that has survived the required passage of time to become historic without having changed in many ways,’ he says.

‘In some cases, these changes arise from simple use and enjoyment. In others, they may have been more substantial, and represent changing views of safety, comfort or personal taste, or the result of accident or catastrophe.’

Authentic in every detail

The key message new collectors can take away is to fully investigate the provenance of any vintage or classic car you plan to buy, seeking specialist expertise when needed. Yet for certain super-desirable cars, there are very limited numbers to go round. And although honest (and murky) replicas of high-octane machines such as the AC Cobra have been around for decades, only the real thing is truly coveted.

This has led manufacturers to build series of ‘continuation’ cars as true to the original specification as possible without any hint of passing-off. Begetter of this micro-trend was Aston Martin in 1988 when four extra ‘Sanction II’ examples of its DB4 GT Zagato (19 originally made) were created with full factory certification7. More recently, Bentley has taken apart its own 1929 4.5-litre Blower to scan digitally its constituent parts so 12 more cars can be made through complex reverse-engineering. In the emotionally charged world of old car fanaticism, some people don’t approve.

But it allows wealthy collectors to experience remade cars that would otherwise be almost totally out of reach.

Jaguar Classic has gone its own way in this respect since it announced it would build six new examples of the famed Lightweight E-type. This would complete the batch of 18 as originally intended but curtailed to 12 in 1964. Next came a similar project to add nine brand new Jaguar XKSS roadsters to the 16 originals for an envisaged run of 25. Then came a series of 25 follow-on Jaguar D-types and now it’s the turn of the C-type – on the 70th anniversary of the 1953 Le Mans 24-Hours race which it won at a record-breaking average speed of 105mph8. The race itself is marking its centenary this year too.

Losing ourselves in the past

“For our engineers, the challenges begin with a two-year deep dive into the archives,” Sommerville explains. “For the C-type, 2,000 items on the parts ledger needed to be digitised, and they got huge satisfaction from fully understanding how something evolved from point A to point B – especially when there had been gaps in the archive material.

“Now we’re making the C-type using exactly the same, in-period production techniques, and each one takes 3,000 hours to complete9.” Like everything that emerges from Jaguar Land Rover Classic, it’s everything an historic car could possibly be, apart from ancient. As Alistair Sommerville says: “It’s full of our passion for our past.”


Inspired magazine

Featuring incredible insights and experiences of inspirational people from around the world, we explore some of the ultra-high net worth interests and passions that are thrilling and fascinating in equal measure. 

This communication is general in nature and provided for information/educational purposes only. It does not take into account any specific investment objectives, the financial situation or particular needs of any particular person. It not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful for them to access.

This communication has been prepared by Barclays Private Bank (Barclays) and references to Barclays includes any entity within the Barclays group of companies.

This communication:

(I) is not research nor a product of the Barclays Research department. Any views expressed in these materials may differ from those of the Barclays Research department. All opinions and estimates are given as of the date of the materials and are subject to change. Barclays is not obliged to inform recipients of these materials of any change to such opinions or estimates;

(ii) is not an offer, an invitation or a recommendation to enter into any product or service and does not constitute a solicitation to buy or sell securities, investment advice or a personal recommendation;

(iii) is confidential and no part may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted without the prior written permission of Barclays; and

(iv) has not been reviewed or approved by any regulatory authority.

Any past or simulated past performance including back-testing, modelling or scenario analysis, or future projections contained in this communication is no indication as to future performance. No representation is made as to the accuracy of the assumptions made in this communication, or completeness of, any modelling, scenario analysis or back-testing. The value of any investment may also fluctuate as a result of market changes.

Where information in this communication has been obtained from third party sources, we believe those sources to be reliable but we do not guarantee the information’s accuracy and you should note that it may be incomplete or condensed.

Neither Barclays nor any of its directors, officers, employees, representatives or agents, accepts any liability whatsoever for any direct, indirect or consequential losses (in contract, tort or otherwise) arising from the use of this communication or its contents or reliance on the information contained herein, except to the extent this would be prohibited by law or regulation.