To Restore or Not Restore?


“I just pulled a Jeep out of a barn where it sat since 1945 and want to restore it, what should I do?”

This is a question that I hear about once a year. Each time, I know the answer the caller wants to hear has something to do with restoring the Jeep to its “former glory,” but that isn’t the advice I am likely to give.

What’s the Goal?

Often, a person who finds an untouched relic, whether it’s a jeep, a Civil War musket or anything between, hasn’t really set out to collect that particular item. They haven’t really considered the scarcity of an unrestored, unmolested example until it is too late.

The “rush to restore” has affected many hobbies: Classic cars, vintage tractors, antique furniture, and yes, historic military vehicles and militaria. The motives are simple and quite understandable. The new caretaker of the particular object of history thinks it would be desirable to restore the item to how it looked when it was manufactured.

This practice has generally served to produce interest in the hobbies. Publicly displaying a shiny car, freshly painted tractor, factory-condition Jeep or a brightly polished Civil War musket are great ways to introduce people to the particular hobby. The like-new historic objects set a benchmark for other collectors in their own efforts to find vintage relics. Restoring to “like new” quickly replaces “preserving history” as the objective.

Whereas these restorations are nice to look at and give the owner a warm sense of satisfaction, they are, in a way, destroying history. Before you get all worked up and start banging off a nasty letter to me, please read on... That letter might still be warranted, but at least you will have a clearer understanding how I could write such a strong statement.

I first started thinking about the effects of restoration about 10 years ago when I was deeply involved in the classic sports car market. I worked with several authors, dealers and restoration specialists to develop a sense of where the market was going. The economic boom of the 1990s was seriously changing the face of the market. Regardless of auction floor bravado, the cars that fetched the highest prices were the unrestored, “barn finds.” Similarly, the cars that received the most ink in the press were these same, never-touched-by-modern-hands vehicles.

When I was writing the Standard Catalog of Civil War Firearms, I found the exact same pattern: Unrestored, unaltered Springfields, Mississippi Rifles and Spencer repeaters commanded the highest prices. Polished, refinished, reconverted or “parts replaced” weapons plummeted in value as bidders and buyers avoided them as if they were as bad as reproductions in terms of investments.

The vintage tractor market, however, is just on the cusp of that phenomena. Why is that? Well, I think it all has to do with the relative age of the hobby. There are still plenty of unrestored, “original condition” tractors waiting for someone to discover. While the non-steam tractor hobby is relatively recent, having emerged in the 1980s and really gathering momentum during the economically strong 1990s, people have been collecting sports cars for several decades... reaching back to the late 1960s. Initially, “shiny and bright” commanded the highest price so everyone raced to restore their cars factory fresh before pushing the car across the auction block. This was the norm for nearly 30 years while people bought the cars for small amounts of money, restored them and then sold them for large amounts of money.

Simply supply and demand took over. As the supply of unmolested vehicles diminished, the prices rose. At a certain point, the supply of unrestored Jaguar D-Types, Shelby Cobras and Birdcage Maseratis became so low, the price paid for an unrestored example was more than the cost of a restored car. The supply of restored cars was high while the number of unrestored, original configuration cars was very, very low.

The same thing happened with U.S. martial arms. For example, the prices paid for Model 1816 Muskets in original flint with all original parts in “attic find” (that is, uncleaned or polished) condition, far outpaces an example that “looks great” but has been reconverted to flintlock, polished bright and stock refinished.

So, as we look at the histories of these other relic-based hobbies, it becomes apparent the same trend will occur — or already has begun — in the field of historic military vehicles. In the last few years, the vehicles that have commanded the majority of attention at shows and sales are the oddballs: The GPW in the same condition as when it was bought as surplus in 1946, the Sherman that still has the original paint as when it rolled through France or the FT17 that still exhibits the scars of battle inflicted in the Meuse-Argonne in 1918. They command the attention because of they are last of their kind. Even though there are many, many GPWs in existence, dozens of Shermans still pleasing audiences, and even a large handful of FT17s in existence in the U.S. and Europe, there are very few that are in the same condition as when the Army discharged the vehicles from active duty.

The effects of supply and demand are catching up to the historic military vehicle (HMV) hobby. The supply of surplus WWII vehicles used to be high, collectors could buy a Jeep, CCKW or WC for relatively small amount of money. After the investment of restoration, they could still expect to sell their vehicle for at least the sum of the initial purchase price and the cost of restoration, if not for a little bit more. That, alone, was motive to restore vehicles. But that day has passed. Now the number of restored vehicles is far more than unmolested, “as discharged” vehicles. The real blue chips in the HMV hobby are those few vehicles that were tucked away in 1945 or 1946 and haven’t gone through years of use as hunting vehicles, mud-boggers or even one or more restorations.

We will see the same thing occur with M-series vehicles. The supply of unrestored examples of these will begin to dry up as well. Does that mean you should quit your restoration of an M37 or M35A2? Of course not... that is for no one to say except for you. No matter what the cost to history another restored M38 or M151 will be, the important thing to consider is what you want your vehicle to be. Your goal might be to take it to shows where awards are given for the straightest metal, smoothest paint and cleanest tires. Well, a non-restored HMV isn’t going to claim that honor! Maybe your goal is to have a vehicle that looks the way it looked when it rolled off the Willys factory line. Outside of a corporate collection, that type of vehicle probably doesn’t exist, so restoring one is the only way to accomplish that particular goal. Perhaps, you want to have a vehicle like your dad or uncle once drove. The only realistic way to do that, is to restore a vehicle to that particular appearance.

Does this imply that one should not restore a historic military vehicle? Of course not! Even though there are still barn finds to be discovered, most HMVs are not found in “original, as-issued condition.” Through the years, most surplus vehicles have undergone several modifications as they were adapted for various purposes such as hunting, agricultural, commercial or industrial. With each new owner, the vehicles were adapted to new uses. So, when someone discovers the vehicle today, it represents the last time it was adapted for post-military use — probably quite different from its original configuration. Its value as historic military vehicle can only be realized by returning it to its original configuration. Preserving it as it was found will only serve the goal of interpreting how the particular HMV had been used after it was discharged from service.

There is not a thing wrong with any reason a person might have to restore a vehicle. As I said, the vehicle belongs to you and you don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself. Bear in mind, though, the supply of unrestored historic military vehicles is rapidly decreasing as the number of restored examples grows. If you are one of those lucky few who discovers a vehicle in original condition that retains the majority of its original paint, markings and accessories, take time to seriously consider the historic value of the unrestored vehicle as opposed to creating another factory fresh vehicle to join the ranks of restored historic MVs.

Preserve the history,
John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader