When attendees at the Concours d’Elegance in Greenwich, Conn. walked past the five rare Cunningham cars on display from the Revs Institute earlier this month, they probably were not focused on how the cars got there. However, for the workshop team at Revs, the event was the result of months of work and preparation.
With 115 cars in the museum to care for, the shop at the Revs Institute maintains a detailed long-term schedule to ensure that every car in the collection is exercised on the street or track at least once a year (with the exception of a few vehicles deemed too original and irreplaceable to leave the building). This is in addition to the roughly 15 to 20 vehicles per year that are prepared and shipped to the sacred show-sites of rare, collectible cars: Goodwood in England, the Laguna Seca track in California and the annual Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach and others. Prepping them for their journeys can be a painstaking task.
When the Greenwich Concours announced in mid-January that the show would feature an unprecedented reunion of cars built by the late sportsman Briggs S. Cunningham, planning in the Revs shop began the next day.
One car destined for the Greenwich show, the C-1, completed a previously scheduled rebuild of its Cadillac V8 engine just in time for the show. The unrestored and very original C-1 had normal age-related engine issues and Revs engine pro Mike Ellis held an educational session with Revs volunteers, who were challenged with completing the entire rebuild of the engine without damaging the remaining original paint finishes on the components. Once assembled, the engine was broken in on a test stand and reinstalled in the C-1, with the car’s original engine and engine bay looking as if they had never been disturbed.
The remaining four Cunninghams were scheduled for shop work a month before the transporter was scheduled to arrive. Events such as a Concours allow the shop team an opportunity to dig deeper into a car’s overall condition. Once in the shop, the mechanics can spend anywhere from 16 to 24 hours per car, if not more, examining the vehicle’s components in exhaustive detail, studying the thick binders containing documentation of all past work done on the car and performing any required maintenance. The mechanics utilize standardized pre-checklists to prepare the cars for the event, and post-checklists after the cars return to the museum. Once each car has gone through the preparation process, it is exercised for a full 40 miles on the streets of Naples, unless it is a racing car that can only be tested on the track.
Even routine oil changes are a far cry from the quick in-and-out you get at Jiffy Lube. A small sample of used oil from every car is sent out to a laboratory for analysis, much like what a hospital might do with the blood drawn from a patient’s arm. Although typically each car gets its oil changed only once every several years, dependent on its use regimen, the Cunningham C-4R, C-5R and C-6R all had theirs changed and sent to a lab prior to Greenwich. Trace elements found in the test oil inform the mechanics on how the engine is wearing and if there is anything of concern going on inside the block.
While on the transporter, or at events, the cars are subject to heat, humidity and conditions not found in their museum habitat that, without any form of protection, would damage the cars. To minimize this, all bare-metal parts get a special coating of oil or spray wax before transport, and a protective layer of museum grade wax is applied to metal trim and paint as required.
With unrestored cars such as the Cunninghams, the preparations take place around original paint finishes, mechanicals, wiring, and other areas, which necessitates extra time and care. Throughout the process, the shop carefully considers how best to preserve the originality of the vehicle while maintaining its proper functionality.
To that end, some cars also have two sets of wheels and tires which must be swapped. “The display sets are the ones that you see in the museum gallery, often with original or older period correct tires and wheels, and the road or race sets are the ones we drive on,” mechanic John Arsenault explains. The available replacement tires often use a more modern design or tread pattern that does not create an accurate representation of how the car left the factory; however, just like the cars, Revs strives to conserve the remaining life of any original tires and use them for museum display only.
Although not necessarily intuitive, a show where the only driving is on and off a trailer (and occasionally up to an awards podium) is actually tougher on a vehicle than the shop’s normal exercise run around Naples. A longer drive allows the engine and drivetrain to reach full operating temperature, which burns away the moisture and byproducts that accrete when a car is first started or driven minimally. In contrast, the stop and go driving at a concours does not allow the engine and operating systems to get up to full temperature.
“We do our best to minimize this short run stress on the engine itself by cranking engines for oil pressure before start up, fogging cylinders with light oil when shutting down to prevent rust in cylinders, etc.” Scott George, vice president of Revs, explained. “But car shows are harder on cars than most people realize, especially racing cars which were not meant for such.”
Even with five cars to prepare, contrary to the manufactured drama of auto shop reality television where the work is completed moments before the transporter arrives, the Revs shop team finished preparing the cars well in advance – a testament to the many decades of combined experience that the seven members of the shop have in working on the cars in the Miles Collier Collection.
The cars in the collection have participated in hundreds of shows over the years with little or no issues, yet George remarked that he still rests easier after the vehicles make it back to the institute unharmed. After all, once the Intercity transporter was loaded, it was essentially carrying the bulk of the sizeable Cunningham racing legacy. One suspects that the other drivers on the highway had no idea of the treasures being transported in the trailer right next to them.
Once in Greenwich, Dave Klym and Pedro Vela of the Revs shop met the transporter the night beforehand to determine where best to park to ensure that the unloading of the cars on Saturday morning was quick and safe. Due to Greenwich’s proximity to New York City, there is little available parking for a fleet of 18-wheeled transporters, so most of the trucks spent the night on the off/on ramps of I-95, which runs through the city.
Thankfully, although not unexpectedly, all of the Cunninghams fired right up and performed admirably over the course of the weekend. Still, with only two members of the shop on hand, the process of unloading and driving the five cars into the show took two and a half hours.
The show itself was a big success, and by Sunday evening, the five cars were loaded back in the transporter and already on their way to the Revs Institute. Before they return to the museum floor, the cars are cleaned and gone through one last time, with mechanics spending eight to 12 hours with each car to ensure that they are ready for short-term hibernation until the next exercise or event.
Although the cars are already on display for the public at Revs, for George, the hours of hard work prepping a car for concours are worth it.
“We pride ourselves on maintaining the collection in excellent running condition, and while shows are tough on cars in one aspect, we enjoy participation and sharing them with new audiences,” George said. “While we do our best to preserve and care for our cars, we understand that its part of our responsibility to share, maintain, and rebuild components when necessary to allow the cars to be seen, heard and more fully experienced.”
Knowing the full extent of what goes into preparing for a show, and then seeing the Revs cars on display in Greenwich next to hundreds of other immaculate collector cars, gives any admirer a deeper appreciation for the thousands of hours that go into presenting a field of special vehicles for concours attendees. It is no small feat, but the growth in the number and quality of concours events across the United States is a testament to the powerful effect this behind-the-scenes work has on all who attend.