I think that cars at auction are going for unheard-of prices primarily because of the talent of the people that restored them, and that such quality of restoration is increasingly hard to find now. Many of these cars were restored in the late ’80s or early ’90s and the guys are not passing on the skills of their trade, at least not in enough numbers.
It’s amazing that this is not something we encourage more in America and in England. England is the birthplace of craftsmen and a lot of them seem to be dying off. So many people become art historians and they want to restore paintings. If a Monet can be worth million, I would rather have a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. You can actually use it instead of just looking at it. Still, it’s not a trade that’s looked upon as truly artisanal. A sculptor or a painter gets more respect. I’d like to see restorers recognised at events like Pebble Beach. Some, like archaeologists, research the age of metals used and the make-up of the paints.
I had a group of students come through my garage not long ago and they looked at a box of jets for Weber carburetors. And they said ‘Man, those things are so complicated, I don’t know how anyone can work on those.’ I said ‘You know, I look at you guys using laptops to analyse faults and it seems so much harder.’ The response was ‘No, that’s really easy!’
One of the fun things about driving a steam car is that even mechanics who are in the business have no idea how it works. I remember some engineers from Mercedes came to my garage and they saw my Doble steam car. I told them that this was the only steam car where you turn the key and within a minute you can pull away. They said ‘No. No! Is not possible!’ So I showed them. They were astounded. They had never heard of it. And I realised that this is lost technology. It’s just not being passed on.
I enjoyed the Fred Dibnah TV series. England led the world in steam technology and was the home of the industrial revolution. But for some reason the thinking is that, because your grandfather worked with his hands, you shouldn’t have to.
I have a scholarship program that I set up at McPherson College in Kansas. They do a four-year degree in automobile restoration. When those students graduate many of them go to Germany to the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center, some have gone to Ferrari, some to Lamborghini, some to Detroit.
These are guys with a certificate saying they have earned their skills. They don’t have to work as apprentices for minimum wage. They have a degree. I don’t know any other school that does a four-year degree in automobile restoration.
I always used the Bentley Drivers Club as the supreme example of people who are doing it right. All the Bentleys are still on the road because there are still people who make parts, and when they break they provide work for people who can fix them.
The worst example is here in America, and it’s Duesenberg. They are never driven so parts are never needed, and the knowledge of how to fix them is never required. I’ve had quite a number of Duesenbergs and every one of the engines I’ve had to totally redo. They were not built to be driven regularly, just to move around a little parade field or whatever it might be.
There was a guy here who built Duesenberg cylinder heads. He put tens of thousands of his own dollars into them. I needed one so I bought it and was grateful. I called other Duesenberg owners to let them know and they all said, well, I don’t really drive mine so I don’t really need one. This guy went to all this trouble and no-one wants them. If it was the Bentley Drivers Club, everyone would buy one because they’d want a spare.
Talking of Duesenbergs, on mine the rear-end ratio was limiting top speed. The car was revving way too high at 60mph so I wanted to change the gear ratio. I found one old boy in Chicago and he made me a set and then he died and I needed another. I had to go overseas. To India.
I’ve been in this game a long time and most of the guys who were in it when I started have either died or closed up shop. If we can study the way they painted things in the past or made films, why are we not saving and handing down this technology?
What happens is, eventually, you get to the point where there is almost nobody that can do these things. That will mean cars can no longer run and, at worst, will deteriorate. Keeping the knowledge passed on to younger generations is crucial if we are to preserve our automotive past.