Restoration Or Replica?

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There are many traditions about the Month of May. Many are shared by all of us, while others are limited to the traditions of families or groups of friends. One tradition that I’ve treasured for the last couple of decades is our trip to the IMS Museum on the day before the race every year. It’s hot and packed with people that don’t smell very good, but it’s still one of my favorite rituals.

Every year at least one of my brothers goes to the race, while sometimes both go. Our spouses don’t get much of a charge out of it, but all three of us cherish that annual trip to the museum.

We are all interested in different things when we get there, accounting for the fact that we immediately split up as soon as we walk in. My oldest brother will read every plaque studiously. He is an engineer and will stoop down to study the intricacies of the front suspension of a 1928 Miller or the brake ducts of a Kurtis Kraft from the fifties. The middle brother is usually locked in on cars from the sixties, since those races were the ones he mostly went to.

Me, I like pretty much all of the eras represented so long as they were cars that actually ran at IMS. There are race cars from Europe that never ran at the Speedway in the museum. They don’t really hold my interest much.

What I catch myself doing is staring at a particular car or even a part of that car and think about the driver(s) that drove it. I’ll stand there and gawk at the large steering wheel of the Boyle Maserati and let my mind wander to 1939 and 1940, when Wilbur Shaw drove that magnificent machine to consecutive victories. I stare at that wheel and think how Shaw grabbed that very wheel as he steered it to Victory Lane. I look at the upholstery and think that that is the very seat that Shaw sat in.

The same thoughts go through my mind when I’m transfixed in front of the Fuel Injection Special of Bill Vukovich or Ol’ Calhoun, the beautiful 1963 winning car driven by Parnelli Jones.

I remember in 2012 paying particularly close attention to the 1960 winner driven by Jim Rathmann, after he passed away the previous November; just as I paid respects to Rodger Ward’s 1962 winning car in 2005 after we lost him the previous summer. I’m sure I’ll pay even more attention than I normally do to the No.60 Lotus 56 turbine from 1968 that was driven by Joe Leonard, who passed away less than two weeks ago.

Yes, there are a lot of memories on display at the museum. If only those cars could talk. But there is something I’ve been wondering for a while, even more so after I saw a documentary on television a couple of months ago. Please don’t take this as negative or casting doubt on one of my favorite institutions at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I just want to know.

Just how original are the cars in the museum?

The reason I ask that is that the documentary I saw was about restoring the Brawner Hawk that Mario Andretti drove in his rookie year at the 1965 Indianapolis 500. I always considered restoring something to mean cleaning it up, making it presentable and getting it in running condition. I did not know that meant to replace every piece of tubing and fabricating parts and pieces that are far different from the original, but look better. I looked at their finished product. To me, that was more of a replica that was copied from the original – but not the original.

I didn’t look at the finished product of that car and think that Mario Andretti drove that car to a third place finish in his first “500” and won Rookie of the Year. Instead I thought, that car looks just like Mario’s 1965 car, but there is nothing on that car that Mario Andretti ever touched.

If you remember when I visited the car up on the roof in April of 2012 – the Jones & Maley Special; the car that Sam Hanks drove to second place in 1956 – it was in shambles. The original car was so pretty that I named my dog, Maley, after that historic artifact. But the Jones & Maley Special sat on the roof exposed to the elements from the early sixties until fall of 2012. When we saw it about six months before it came down, it was nothing but a shell sitting on a tube frame.

It came down because it had been sold for restoration. That was almost five years ago and I’ve heard no progress reports since. But whatever the final product looks like; very little, if anything will be original. They will all be brand new pieces made to look just like the car that ran sixty years ago.

I guess it’s sort of like Grandpa’s hammer. It’s had two replaced heads and three replaced handles, but it’s still Grandpa’s hammer.

I do know of some truly original cars in the museum. For one, the Marmon Wasp is pretty much the same car that won the inaugural Indianapolis 500 in 1911. AJ Foyt’s 1964 winner was not even cleaned up after its last race at Milwaukee. The pot marks from it’s last race are still embedded into the nose of the car and there are genuine oil stains on it – almost fifty-three years after it last raced.

Although it’s been changed back to its 1953 color, the 1953 & 1954 winning car of Bill Vukovich gives off an air of authenticity. Perhaps I’m being misled, but the car just seems to be pretty much the same car that Vuky drove. This is not the car he lost his life in in 1955. Hopefully that car has been destroyed.

Ol’ Calhoun seems pretty much original too, as do practically all of AJ Foyt’s winning cars (although I’ve heard whispers that even AJ isn’t sure if the car representing his 1977 win is the exact same car). But how many of these restored cars were really built with new parts replacing a rusted out shell. I know sometimes there was no choice, but I feel like the extent of the restoration process should be made available. In short, don’t pass it off for what it’s not.

When I stare at a car in reverence, I want to know that I’m looking at the real thing. I want to know that the steering wheel I’m looking at was actually grasped by Ralph DePalma, rather than a newer version that looks just like the wheel I think I’m looking at. Maybe I’m just naive to think that a car from a hundred years ago should have all of its original pieces.

If I’m off base, tell me. I’d love to think that I am. Nothing would please me more that have someone tell me I’m wrong and why I’m wrong. I love going to the museum and seeing these priceless artifacts.

At the end of this month, I’ll be going to pay my respects to the cars that ran in and many times won the Indianapolis 500. I just hope I’m paying my respects to the real thing.

George Phillips

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28 Responses to “Restoration Or Replica?”

  1. What the cars represent is a memory and memories are not perfect.

    We expect different levels of originality in different museum items. I hope the Mona Lisa on display is the original but how would I know if it is not .

    Most racing vehicles change from event to event so unless its parked immediately after the event and never touched again its not ever going to be original . So what percentage of original is acceptable to be considered original?

  2. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I think you’ll find on the ’69 Brawner Hawk plaque in the IMS Museum that it notes it is a replica. If I recall, the original was destroyed/dismantled later that season following a crash.

    • No, the original is in The Smithsonian. You may be thinking about the Lotus that Mario destroyed earlier in the month, which led to the old Brawner Hawk being drug out. – GP

      • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

        Yes, I know of his original Lotus but there is another Hawk that has been to the museum that isn’t the original either. I’m looking up photos to see if I have the plaque in the picture.

    • I think if you read George’s article correctly he was talking about the 1965 Hawk Andretti qualified for his first Indianapolis 500, NOT the 1969 car.

      • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

        I did read it correctly. I was referring tot he ’69 Race-winning Hawk that appears from time to time in the IMS museum.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    Yikes! It must be a slow news day at the Nashville Daily Minutiae.
    I sincerely hope that your race day original tenderloin will not be a restoration. As for me, I am happy that the IMS museum display manager is not Red Green.

    • billytheskink Says:

      “Today on Handyman Corner we’re going to make an unlimited hydroplane racer out of this 1972 Antares using the Wheeler-Schebler Trophy, some gently-used Chevy aerokit sidepods left over from 2015 qualifying, and of course, the handyman’s secret weapon… duct tape. The best thing about this old Antares is that you don’t have to go out find yourself a marine engine, it’s got an Offenhauser already right in the back.”

  4. You know what really bothers me about our fair Museum is that the Marmon Wasp does not have the correct tires on it, for back in those days the tire rubber was WHITE, not black. In fact, there were still cars with white tires as late as the 1920s! The tires became black sometime around 1915-16 after an additive was discovered that made the tires last longer but made the rubber black in color.

    AJ Foyt’s 1977 car has come and gone and come and gone over the years. I have video from the early ’90s which has the actual 1977 car in it with all of the correct decals, etc., but then sometime in the 2000s it was switched to one with Ingersoll Rand stickers where the Coyote stickers should be! I asked Donald Davidson about why the real one wasn’t there and he said “You mean the one with the nitrous hose hole in the seat?” with a snicker. I was at the preview for AJ’s new exhibit at the Museum this past April 13 and noticed the “1977” car is there but appears to be a backup with the correct Coyote stickers but none of the correct sponsor stickers on the sidepods, so who knows what happened to the real one. I’ve always heard it was in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the lobby of the headquarters of Gilmore Broadcasting Corp., Jim and Di Gilmore’s company and AJ’s longtime sponsor.

    • One more thing about the white tires: the Museum staff are mostly clueless about them and don’t even know that the tires were white for the first three or four Indianapolis 500s. When I asked people there why they don’t have white tires on the Wasp (or Joe Dawson’s National from 1912, for that matter) some said they were very expensive to produce. Expensive? For the IMS Museum? Hell, I was at a Wal-Mart Sunday and saw a girl’s bicycle for sale with white rubber tires! How much can they really cost? I don’t get it, and never have….

  5. Bob F. Says:

    Unfortunately time destroys everything. I am a big fan of the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton Ohio. One of their specialties is restoring military aircraft and it takes years. Many of these aircraft come there in bad shape and require a lot of work. But like some of these Indy cars, they are one of a kind so in a sense priceless. For example, they are currently working on restoring the one and only Memphis Belle. They are also restoring the only surviving B-17 D, which is also the only surviving aircraft that survived the battle of the Philippines in 1941-42.

    I agree it is important to know how much of the museum piece is original, however the ability to save any of these artifacts makes whatever it takes to restore them worthwhile.

    As for the Mona Lisa, I have to admit to being a bit disconcerted when I heard it had been restored, I.e. repainted, several times.

    • Paul Wheeler Says:

      Don’t be worried about the Mona Lisa. She has recently been “cleaned” by a digital process Which removed a nice layer of varnish which made the painting a bit darker. There was a few touch ups with water color painting but just to various places that had become cracked or damaged. The digital process, from what I have been told, has brought the brightness of the colors Di Vinci used which was mind blowing to people back in the early 1500s.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    While it is not quite as hard to swallow as a great band with only one or no original members, it would be nice to know how much of a restored car is original or replaced. A well-restored car full of replaced parts can, nevertheless, be an impressive thing. Especially if the replaced parts are fabricated as if they were original.

  7. Jim Gallo Says:

    As with any classic car, whether they be old vintage street or race cars, or newer versions of rare or exotic breeds, there are the
    “survivors” and the “restorations”. I am definitely not one to know every detail of even one vehicle, but can appreciate the efforts that so many go through to display such works of art we all love. Yes, it would be nice to know what extent of originality exist is each machine, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    When I visit the IMS museum I don’t clutter my mind with questions such as those that occupy George’s mind. What I always do instead is imagine myself wheeling ol’ #99 or #14 around the track myself and I freely admit that I am a bit of a restoration myself.

  9. Mark Wick Says:

    Back in my days working on the Indianapolis 500 yearbooks in the mid 70s I interviewed Baney and Bill, who were the two men responsible for the restoration and maintenance of the cars in the museum collection. That story and photos are in one of the yearbooks, possibly 1978.
    Two things they told me that stick with me are that the Vukovitch winning car was restored before being given to the museum and, at that time, was the only car in the collection that would not run because there are no valve lifters in the engine.
    Also, Mark Donohue’s winning McLaren does appear a bit differently than it did in the race because no engine like the original was available so they had to use the closest to it that they could get.
    They were master fabricators and made parts when necessary to compete a job.

  10. I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this publicly, but here goes….

    One of the great things Daytona does that I wish Indianapolis would do is take the winning car right out of victory lane at the Daytona 500 and put it in their museum. There is no clean up and no restoration. They don’t even wipe the Gatorade and confetti off of it. It’s just in the absolute same condition it was when it was in victory lane. I realize it’s a completely different animal in IndyCar and there aren’t enough tubs generally available to pull one out of rotation for an entire year. BUT I think several of the teams could actually afford to do it. I’ve heard that Penske always immediately pulls 500-winning cars out of rotation to go into his own museum anyway. He could probably sacrifice it for a year to let it sit at IMS. Ditto with Ganassi and probably Andretti. (After that, I admit, it might get a bitch tougher for the small-budgeted teams.)

    One of my favorite cars in the IMS Museum is AJ’s 1964 winner for the exact reason you mentioned above… it’s still in its last race condition. Sure, these cars are beautiful to look at on the grid pre-race, but I want the car to tell its story of going 500 miles in a battle. I want to see the scars of that battle. Please, let’s let the cars talk.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      A car that should be in a museum is the dirt track car that A.J. brought to the Milwaukee Mile direct from Springfield in 1965. He put that dirt track car on the pole ahead of Jim Clark and a field of all rear engine cars. Foyt’s rear engine car did not arrive in time. A.J. finished second in that race in that dirt track roadster.
      On second thought, perhaps we should just put A.J. in the museum someday if he is agreeable.

    • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

      Yes! This!

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