Condition & Character

A Note on Condition and Character

Condition’ is sometimes a contentious term.

‘Condition’ relates to the physical presentation of a car, not the accuracy of its restoration or presentation. ‘Condition’ in this sense is not a synonym for the points awarded by Bloomington Gold, JCNA or other specialist organizations for the accuracy of casting dates, radiator caps and brake hoses. It doesn’t attempt to differentiate between correct totally original cars, street rods and race modified cars.

‘Condition’ ranks from 1 to 5 – with a plus sign to indicate better than the standard and a minus to indicate worse – the car’s appearance and mechanical condition, as it is observed in a walkaround. That’s a scale that was developed years ago by my colleague Dave Brownell, has stood the test of time and remains in general use today, at least in the U.S.

The starting point is a new factory fresh car, as it was delivered. While logic would describe that car as ‘perfect’, the collector car world hasn’t adopted that way of thinking, creating Pebble Beach caliber restorations that are better than ‘perfect’.

‘1’ condition cars are those beyond-perfect restorations.

2’ condition cars are meticulous showroom quality restorations … or virtually new cars, like 1,000 km Carrera GTs. By many collectors’ standards a ‘2’ or ‘2+’ is ideal because its factory presentation hasn’t been destroyed.

3’ condition means normally used highly original low mile cars or restorations that have seen some miles but been well kept and maintained. A ‘3’ would go in your garage and be driven on tours or regularly on weekends without feeling embarrassed or endangered in doing so. Most collector cars are ‘3’s.

4’ condition goes to cars that have serious, and even life-threatening, defects or have seen hard use not ameliorated by good and consistent maintenance. You wouldn’t take a ‘4’ to a local marque rally without being a bit self-conscious, and maybe a little concerned about finishing the event under your own power.

5’s are seriously threatened hulks: battered, rusty, misused and neglected. It’s a very bad car that gets a ‘5’, even though these days ‘5’ condition barn-finds are all the rage.


In these descriptions you’ll also see repetitive qualitative descriptions of cars’ overall character like ‘Older restoration’ and ‘Visually maintained, largely original’. They attempt to characterize in a limited number of phrases the larger qualitative impressions of the kind of treatment the car has received.

In the context of potential owners’ evaluations and aspirations, there’s a vast difference between cars described as an ‘Unrestored original 3 condition’ and an ‘Older restored 3 condition’, a qualitative mental picture we hope the combination of the two ratings conveys.

A car described as ‘restored’ is a car that’s been apart, maybe not to the last nut and body panel, but sufficiently that every area on it can be and has been addressed to a facsimile of the way it came from the factory.

If it hasn’t been apart and redone to that extent it is a ‘cosmetic restoration.’ That’s not necessarily a knock on the car’s condition when its preservation is such that it wasn’t necessary to replace the upholstery, redo the paint or disassemble the engine compartment.

In a [very] few cases there are beautifully preserved original cars that have been so meticulously and thoroughly detailed that they are functionally and visually the equivalent of a full restoration. They don’t show up very often, but when they do they’re wonderful.

While these are largely subjective qualifications over many years of doing this I’ve been gratified (and sometimes surprised) to see how many times I’ve seen the same car years apart, scribbled down the field notes, rated character and condition, then checked the earlier report and found them to be essentially the same. There also is remarkable consistency among experienced observers.

Finally, this is a constant learning process. Inevitably there will be mistakes, oversights and misinterpretations. Comments, observations, education and corrections of both owners and others better informed (and there is always someone better informed) are gratefully accepted.

The various character terms are described in the following table.

Report Term Description
Modified for competition A street car which has been prepared or modified to use in competition during its life or during restoration.
Competition car, original as-raced A racing car built for competition and presented in nearly original condition. The term ‘run hard and put away wet’ is frequently used with this character term.
Competition restoration Competition cars have different standards, including extensive crack-checking, updated safety systems, etc. which are implied by this term.
Detailed Restoration A largely original car which has been so carefully and meticulously detailed to nearly like new condition that it rises to the caliber of carefully restored; a term not lightly applied.
Enthusiast restoration Not up to the mechanical, appearance or configuration standards of professional restorers or experienced amateurs; corners cut and details overlooked.
Facsimile Restoration Nice car, but it isn’t real. This is where the ‘clones’ go along with COPO and Thunderbolt replicas and Mopars that didn’t have a Hemi when they were new. Values are such that a Facsimile Restoration may be as well restored as, or even better than, the real thing … they’re just not real … but they arose from a real car, making them different in DNA from a rebody or non-factory replica.
Incomplete restoration In some form of partial assembly, may be missing important components, possibly contained in cardboard boxes and purloined milk cartons.
Original, with non-original appearance items It’s had appearance modifications in period (customized), and hasn’t been touched since.
Customized restoration Modified for appearance and/or performance; likely to be fairly new — a restored authentic ’50s street rod would probably be described by a regular ‘restored’ term since it’s been returned to its ‘original’ (in this case street rod) condition.
Original, period modified for competition or performance Modified in-period for competition or better performance, but not an all-out competition car and probably drivable on the street both then and now.
Modified restoration Modified in some significant way (maybe a fresh LT1 Chevy drivetrain) but in outward appearance largely restored to original configuration.
Not Evaluated I can’t look at all the cars but sometimes a car or transaction is so important that it begs inclusion.
Non-factory replica A fake car or re-creation on non-original underpinnings; a kit-car Cobra or Stratos.
Older restoration A restored car that’s seen some miles, years or been transported to several too many shows; maybe getting shaky and definitely showing age.
Restricted Access Unable to view the cars closely due to an auctions’ limitations.
Rebodied or re-created Maybe completely made up, maybe a careful re-creation of something wonderful that’s lost forever, maybe a car that’s been so hacked up over its life (old Silver Ghosts have been converted to tow trucks) that it deserves a new body in the old style just to be usable.
Factory rebody Rebodied by the factory or equivalent, usually pretty authentic and in character for its period.
Original, with major mechanical repairs An old car that’s been kept running, without reaching the standard of a mechanical restoration.
Recent restoration Fresh out of the oven; usually less than 5 years old.
Competition car street version, original, The typical example would be an older SCCA MG A or drag racing car that’s been a race car all its life; not likely usable on the street.
Concours restoration Restored to, and still ready for, the top car shows and concours; every nut and bolt has been off, cleaned, painted or plated and sparkles like it never did when new; these are the cars that have been rolled carefully out of their trailers fresh from the restoration shop onto the lawn at Pebble Beach.
Truck Restoration Trucks are frequently restored to somewhat lower standards than cars, with less attention to detail and finish. They’re ‘trucks’ and have utility value. The frame may have been stripped and painted, but the rust pits weren’t filled, that sort of thing. When that happens a sound but not ‘like new’ truck is called a ‘Truck Restoration.’
Unrestored original Virtually untouched from new; occasionally a car that’s had some cosmetic attention but so long ago its present condition is best characterized as ‘original’.
Visually maintained, largely original A car that’s had attention paid to its cosmetics, probably so it could remain a useful driver; could be anything from a Ferrari with a 15-year old repaint by Junior to a Checker with stitched up seats and a different color Yellow on every panel.
Cosmetic restoration Can be good, can be bad; depends upon how it’s done; generally means it’s had paint, interior and an underhood detailing all in one session at the shop(s) but hasn’t addressed aspects apparent only by looking closely and deeply into and under it; sometimes earns a ‘20-20’ in the description (looks good from 20 feet away while it’s traveling 20mph).