It’s a sunny and seasonally perfect summer day in St. Charles, Illinois. The 16th hole at the Pheasant Run Resort was closed to golfers to make room for showcasing about fifty classic cars… and that’s where the similarities to most automotive concourses end. Usually concourses separate the field with groupings of similar makes, models, or at least eras. Instead, many enthusiasts attending this event may have been surprised to find a 1984 Pontiac Fiero parked next to a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, or a 1930 Auburn 8-95 Phaeton flanked by a 1946 Studebaker Avanti and 1976 Chrysler Cordoba.
The common thread in all these cars is that they are celebrating preservation over restoration. This oddity represents a growing movement in the collector car world: a vehicle can only be new once. “Worn in… but not worn out” is the motto for the first all-model Survivor car event during the Blooming Gold car show.
“Car shows give awards for making cars better then they came from the factory,” says Survivor’s creator David Burroughs, and he should know. Thirty-seven years ago Burroughs created the Bloomington Gold Corvette show, which has grown into a premiere event for judging all Corvettes. Then he started noticing that some Corvettes were being restored not out of necessity, but only to gain status. So, in 1990 Burroughs created a Corvette-only Survivor event to recognize original cars and combat the trend of unnecessary restoration. Now this is the first year that cars of all makes and models were invited to participate their own event.
Almost two decades of Survivor Corvette judging make Burroughs and his crew good candidates for reviewing the rest of the car world. Corvettes, especially the first generation, never came perfect from the factory. The day before the event, Burroughs demonstrated this by pointing out many fiberglass and paint imperfections while casually looking at a few certified Survivor examples of C1 Corvettes. He compared them to the smooth lines of a nearby heavily restored example. In this case, perfection means Survivor disqualification.
“Don’t restore them; preserve them,” is the idea Burroughs wants to get across for this new form of car collecting. This battle cry produces some interesting results. Rarely do car shows include examples with faded paint, worn interiors, missing emblems, or even a few rust spots. But the Survivor event is no junkyard. Each participant may show some wear from its multiple decades of life, but no one makes it onto the lawn at Pheasant Run without demonstrating that those years have been lived without serious abuse.
Survivor cars will often represent a personal passion. It’s a very narrow category of owners who will go decades without an upgrade, and that can cause great memories associated with the metal. Boomers were overheard swapping stories from their youth about how they dealt with their Corvair’s legendary handling problems. A fond memory for a 1970 Buick GSX owner included his high school years when he never had the gas tank more than a quarter filled at any time to discourage his father from borrowing his Buick for grocery runs.
Cars are eligible for Survivor distinction starting with at least one element (interior, exterior, chassis, etc.) that is at least 50% original. The recognition tops out at highest prize available, the aptly named Zenith award. To receive this honor, the vehicle must be forty years or older and be at least 90% original. Burroughs doesn’t see this as a “car show” because most shows are about competition, and the Survivor event is more about recognition. A standard car show looks to rank entries and crown an overall winner, but the Survivor event celebrates all cars that meet certain levels of factory-fresh.
Reaching the Zenith level is a not a well-paved road. Compared to other collecting hobbies such as art, stamps, or even baseball cards, automobile collecting is in its infancy. That should help the chances of finding pristine untouched examples, but there are many factors working against it.
By the end of WWI production had risen to levels that turned the automobile from an extravagant luxury into an everyday appliance. Just like a refrigerator, most cars get repaired, upgraded, and replaced as needed. Also, because automobiles are usually someone’s second largest purchase in life, people have gone to great lengths to individualize their cars. These disposable and customizable views of the automobile have worked against the idea of preservation and likely disqualify many cars for the Zenith award.
Even as survivor cars become a spreading trend in automotive collecting, Zenith cars will always be a rare sight. To be a top survivor will often mean an event, sometimes tragic, causes a car to get lost in time. A Zenith-winning 1966 Volkswagen Beetle was first owned by a Massachusetts VW dealer who passed away soon after the purchase. His wife tucked the Beetle away in a corner of the garage where it sat unused for decades. Another Zenith award went to a 1966 Jaguar E-Type that was owned by a man who got Alzheimer’s at an early age. He had enough of an affinity for the car that he still remembered to occasionally run the engine of his beloved Jaguar, but it didn’t hit the road again until it came under the care of the Hagerty collection.
Perhaps that is the moral of some of the pristine survivors. They didn’t get to take as many family trips, or spend every weekend on winding country roads. And their sacrifice gets celebrated as a reminder of the cars that did.