Crowned with 40 Best of Show honors since the early 1980ies and appointed as a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, Paul Russell is one of the leading restoration experts for exclusive classic cars in the United States. In the interview he tells us how he got into classic car restoration and comments on some of the actual trends in the market of fine automobiles.
Q: The cars that leave your workshop are often awarded at the biggest Concours d’Elegances like Villa d’Este, Pebble Beach, … How did you get into this very special business?
My interest started early with personal work on small affordable English sports cars. A passion for the practice of high level skills and craftsmanship naturally led me to research the construction techniques of the great European cars. And the car owners thought they were worth investing in, making for a viable business.
Q: Your first winner car was a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing. It seems that you focused on European Cars right from the beginning?
The quality of the original builders inspired the restoration work to equal the original standards.
Q: The 300SL of the 50ies has been a very popular car in the US. German 300SL expert Klaus Kienle said earlier on this blog, it would be worthwhile to bring back every 300SL to life – no matter in which condition it is. Can you affirm?
The 300SL was never a “throw-away” car, even at its lowest point. There is an intrinsic quality to its construction that makes the car worth saving, not to mention its iconic design.
They certainly do have their own DNA, but certain “best practices” apply to any car you are working on. The Ferrari coachwork is more individual and “emotional”, while the German cars are more “engineered” and consistently precise.
Q: You’ve been appointed as a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. What was it like – being the judge in contrast to being judged?
Being a judge is an honor and a great responsibility. The owners and restorers have gone to great effort and expense to compete in the “Classic Car World Series” and you are about to pass judgement on how they have done. Also, it is a great opportunity to inspect these cars very closely and discuss them with a fellow team of experts.
Q: What do you especially have to focus on as a judge, given that the quality standard of the car restorations at such an event are extremely high nowadays?
Authenticity – in detail and components, but also in historically appropriate build quality standards. Overdoing the restoration and erasing the original character of the era and builder is potentially just as critical a mistake as ignoring the authenticity details.
Q: Leaving Concours aside – what makes a good restoration of a classic car from your point of view?A car should perform and function as it did in its period, not just look good. “As good as new” – not better than new. The finished project should retain the character as originally produced.
Q: Lately, prices for barn finds and other classic cars in an original, unrestored condition have been skyrocketing. Some collectors seem to be very much attracted by originality? How do you evaluate the market right now?
As with many trends, there is a “bandwagon” effect where buyers without a depth of knowledge or good advice mistake dirt and 50 years of deferred maintenance for originality. I do love truly original and exceptional cars – they are the ultimate reference for restorers, and their small numbers and uniqueness justify top prices.
Q: With such a difficult market, it really seems hard (or impossible) to say, how restoration will affect the monetary value of a car?
We don’t sell the investment return. However, we have always preached quality. If a restoration is properly done with correct materials, it will always lead the market in price at any given range. This simple philosophy has been proven over and over in the last decade of rising prices.
Q: But on the other hand, a faulty restoration may have a quite negative effect? I could imagine that Russell and Company often have to fix what others did wrong before?
Yes, that is the most challenging and unsatisfying type of work. One that has had inexperienced hand prints all over it is much more difficult than restoring a nice but tired example.
Q: 1928 Mercedes-Benz 680S Saoutchik Torpedo Roadster, 1938 Bugatti T57SC Atlantic Coupe, 1953 Ferrari 375 MM Spyder, 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster, 1950 Ferrari 166 MM/195 S Berlinetta Le Mans, 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Mille Miglia Spider, 1959 Porsche RSK, 1962 Ferrari GTO – you’ve had all of these icons of automobile history in your workshop. After more than 35 years in business – Are there still cars (models or specific cars) that you haven’t worked on that you would like to?
We have been blessed with some truly great assignments and we have more underway today – 1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rosa, 1938 Delahaye 135 M Figoni et Falaschi Roadster, and a 1952 Ferrari 212 Vignale coupe, which was the Turin show car. From the beginning we have always wanted to do the right thing for the car, as well as treat our clients as customers for life. Seems to be working so far.