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Paint vs. Patina: Pick a Side

5/3/2021
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For a long time, it seemed to be an unspoken rule that a hot rod, custom, or muscle car needed to be fully restored and covered in shiny paint to be considered “done.” Look at any car magazine from the 40’s through the 80’s and just about all the cars featured will be fully painted and upholstered.

This Ford truck is a great example of the patina look. Multiple colors show pieces from various donors, all with plenty of character and visible history.

But at some point, cars started to emerge that wore their patina like a badge of honor. Those owners started parking proudly and defiantly among the candy-colored show cars at the Friday night cruises and national car shows. And the magazines (and later digital media) started to cover them. Always quick to notice a trend, the media began to celebrate the outcasts, bringing them (willingly or not) out of the background and into the mainstream.

But, like just about everything when it comes to car building, everyone has an opinion about the “right” way to do it.

The Case for Patina

To be clear, there is good patina and bad patina. Good patina shows rubbed through paint that has aged gracefully. Maybe some surface rust, some dings, and scratches and cracks that tell the tale of a car’s journey through time. In general, giant rust holes and huge dents tell the story a bit too loudly. But when it’s right, there’s some grace and elegance in a patina car. Often, the paint the car left the factory with is still visible. Every scratch and dent represents a moment in time. There’s the little dent in the door where aunt Mildred unwittingly opened it into the shopping cart corral. There’s the scratch where an unknown character lost to history hit the bedside with his belt buckle while loading grain at some long-ago feed store. Multiply these by the hundreds and a patina car is like a choir of singing ghosts. To a patina fan, it would be a crime to erase that history and silence the chorus with Bondo and a D/A sander.

The Jive Five has just the right amount of funk to make it look genuine. And it can be driven anywhere without worrying about that high-dollar custom paint job.

As a bonus, these cars can be driven and enjoyed without fear of door dings and the errant shopping cart. It can add to the fun factor when the focus of a road trip is simply to enjoy the passing scenery from the seat of an old car. It’s less fun living in constant fear that every semi on the interstate is about to kick up a rock that’s going to chip your expensive paint job.

Believe it or not, this Willys is a fiberglass modern build. This is a great example of "faux-tina." It's not old, but it sure looks like it.
Perhaps the gold standard for real patina is the 50's custom lacquer job that has aged with grace.
The Case for Paint

But there are still those who feel that the unfinished patina cars are just that, unfinished. “If you’re going to do it, do it right,” they’ll say. These folks would have all the dents and dings hammered and body-filled into oblivion within a month of the car landing in their shop. It would come out the other end freshly painted and ready to tell some new and different stories. And there’s something to be said for a great paint job. Painting is an art, and the right paint job in the right color can make any car a knockout. The graceful and elegant shapes that we love about our old cars were designed to be covered in a reflective coating of shiny paint.

Painters are artists, and every car is a blank canvas. Lowriders are famous for wild, impeccable paint.
Dave Shuten's Iron Orchid wears a wild, 60's paint job. It's impossible to imagine this car finished any other way.

Appearance aside, there are also practical concerns here. Patina is a fragile ecosystem that is more or less in a constant state of decay. At some point, the exposed metal will rust and the car can be damaged. Paint will seal it all up and preserve the precious metal underneath.

So what side are you on? Do you like to see some rough edges that celebrate a car’s journey through time, or would you rather see it all ironed out and covered up with a great paint job? Tell us about it and share your rides on our Facebook and Instagram pages.

This clean Willys street rod makes a nice counterpoint to the patina'd gasser above. Which is your favorite?

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