Robb Read: The Rise Of Continuation Cars
Are these reproductions the stuff of collectors’ dreams or just an elaborate marketing ruse?
The letter, dated March 20, 2020, was addressed to Adrian Hallmark, chairman and CEO of British automaker Bentley. It began with a nostalgic recap of the marque’s storied triumphs in races a century ago, before getting, politely, to the point.
“Understandably, over many years, Bentley Motors’ marketing department has sought to maximise this remarkable heritage,” the letter reads. “Bentley Motors Ltd. has often had recourse to supportive private owners—such as ourselves—to provide one or more of our genuine period cars for various company promotions and events which we have willingly encouraged. Against such a supportive background, we are now writing to express our shared concern and dismay upon hearing of your company’s apparent plans to build and market a batch of 12 replica ‘Blower’ Bentleys for premium-price sale.”
What gave the correspondence unusual gravitas was that the 10 signatories are among the most prominent car collectors in the world, including fashion designer Ralph Lauren, JCB construction-equipment billionaire Lord Bamford, California real-estate developer John Mozart, Walmart heir Rob Walton and international classic-car consultant Simon Kidston. They described their group as “lifelong enthusiasts for the Bentley marque” and concluded, with commendable snark, “Marketing people—in their understandable enthusiasm—often fail to grasp matters not only of detail, but also of basic truth. We urge you to please not squander time, funding, energy and the Bentley brand’s reputation upon the recently announced batch of 12 facsimile cars, cars that would serve only to dilute that special admiration and awe that can only come from viewing and embracing the genuine article. To do otherwise would be
to pervert a glorious history.”
To understand what’s at stake here, let’s take a step back. Gearheads have been dabbling with kit cars and aftermarket replicas since the 1950s, when cheaper fibreglass bodies and inexpensive chassis flooded the market. But this new breed is on a different level entirely. Unlike those knock-offs, continuation cars are made, or officially licensed, by the original manufacturer and painstakingly constructed to the same period specifications as the initial models, save for certain contemporary safety and handling features. Notably, their chassis and engine numbers often follow their predecessors sequentially, effectively continuing a bygone model’s production.
The genesis for Bentley’s endeavour is the second of four machines built and raced by Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin at Le Mans early last century. Birkin’s “No. 2” Blower is owned by Bentley, though similar examples—50 production cars were made—can fetch anywhere from approx. $6.5 million to approx. $26 million.
Birkin was one of the celebrated Bentley Boys, gentlemen racers who piloted the marque to first-place finishes at the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1927 through 1930. The winning drive team that final year was Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston, Simon’s late uncle, which helps explain the nephew’s misgivings about tinkering with legacy.
“Brands that are doing well shouldn’t need to resort to raiding their back catalogues, and I don’t believe it reflects well on them,” says Kidston, steward to his family’s own impressive motoring assemblage and consultant for others in the arena. “It detracts from the rarity of the originals and effectively undermines the real heritage of the brand. We’re not singling out Bentley. I think the same is true of others who have jumped on the ‘authentic replica’ bandwagon.”
There are longer-term ramifications, too, he says. “It creates the potential for confusion in the future over what is real and what is not. Anything built purely to be a collector’s item rarely becomes one, long-term. There is no integrity of purpose to a new copy whose sole aim for the manufacturer is to make money. It has no intrinsic value. Only age, history and authenticity confer that magic.” Kidston compares continuation cars to “trying to replicate a vintage wine just by analysing its components and passing the resulting mix off as ‘new old vintage.’ ”
Others share his concern. Bruce Meyer, a director of the Petersen Automotive Museum and the owner of a large stable of noteworthy vehicles, recognises that continuations allow those who can’t afford the original to get in the game, but “if you’re a serious collector, you want to stay away from continuations. They will contaminate the authenticity of your entire collection.”
What fuels the worth of any collectible is scarcity, so clearly when a diminishing supply begins to replenish, alarm grows as perceived value dips. Take the Porsche 993, the fourth generation of the 911 model. As the last iteration to feature the marque’s air-cooled flat-six engine, it has become highly coveted by Porschephiles and aftermarket tuners, who have driven prices as high as seven figures in some cases. Hypothetically, if Porsche brought the air-cooled engine back into production, the 993 would become an asterisk instead of an exclamation point on a connoisseur’s wish list—the rarity bubble would burst.
Those in the pro camp see things a little differently. For the leader of Bentley’s project, Tim Hannig, the decision to revisit the Blower was a pragmatic response to increase a specific vehicle’s longevity. “The original car is used a lot”—for promotions, events, VIP rides and the like—“probably more than it should be according to its age and value,” he tells
Robb Report. “The idea was born to create a toolroom copy to do a lot of the work.” Once the word got out, there were requests from the Bentley faithful for a few more.
The process of building a period-correct facsimile from scratch involves what Hannig refers to as “industrial archaeology”: his team scoured the archives for outlines and documentation of materials, stripped major portions of the car, then completely scanned it to generate a digital model. One of the greatest challenges, he says, was the 4.9-metre sheet-metal chassis, which relied on old-fashioned hammer work and a machine dating to 1899.
“We’re using modern technologies to get to our target but traditional methods to create the actual assets that go on the car,” he says. “If we waited a bit longer, the craftsmanship skills would definitely be gone. It’s a fantastic way of not just storing the ashes of a period but really keeping the fire glowing, even on a small scale.”
A pioneer of the trend was Jaguar, which opened its restoration and heritage centre, Jaguar Classic, in 2014. Re-creating a benchmark car was the first order of operation, since it would best showcase the division’s capabilities. But the idea to resurrect the past was also based on a sense of unfinished business.
“For a number of different reasons, the planned production runs of some of our most iconic vehicles weren’t always completed in period,” says Dan Pink, director of Jaguar Classic. “Our continuation programs have allowed us to correct this. It’s also a valuable learning exercise for our team, cascading the knowledge and expertise from previous generations to get under the skin of our prized machines.”
The focus thus far has been on three models from the marque’s golden age in the 1950s and ’60s: the D-type, the XKSS and the E-type. In 1963, Jaguar planned to build 18 copies of a Special GT E-type, but only 12 were completed—that is, until 2016, when the final six examples were finished to such faithful reproduction that they qualified for historic-racing certification through the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile.
Jaguar then returned to the XKSS, a street version of its D-type racer. Only 16 of the initial 25 cars survived a factory fire in 1957; the last of the nine replacements was completed 61 years
later, in 2018. Jaguar also announced production of 25 “new” D-types, some of which are still in the works, though already pre-sold. (The XKSS and E-type continuations have all been delivered.)
One reason for the demand is that original concours-quality examples of the D-type command in the neighbourhood of approx. $11.5 million (although one fetched approx. $27 million at auction in 2016), while the contemporaries sell for roughly one-ninth that price. As Meyer noted earlier, continuation cars can be a gateway drug for those who don’t yet have the resources to invest in the real thing. Or for those who have nearly unlimited funds, they’re a way to protect a more valuable investment in an original: a niche position to be sure, but one that holds outsize sway in the most rarefied stratum of the car-collecting world.
“They provide collectors the freedom to enjoy their cars without the anxiety and cost of running the originals,” says Peter Mullin, another Petersen board member and founder of the Mullin Automotive Museum, also in Southern California. “The last thing we would want is to wreck a 70-year-old fender or scratch an original paint job. For daily or even weekend drives, continuation cars are the best option.”
Mullin’s perspective is backed by Paul Spires, president of Aston Martin Works, the marque’s restoration and preservation department. Spires readily admits that there were those in the Aston community worried about classics being revisited, but “when they came here and saw the quality, passion and dedication of the team involved, their fears were very quickly allayed,” he says. “Some owners of original cars went on to purchase one or more continuations themselves.”
After re-creating 25 examples of Aston’s famed 1959–63 DB4 GT in 2017 (priced at approx. $2.5 million apiece), Spires and co. have revisited the DB4 GT Zagato of the early 1960s, with a run of 19 new additions, and are currently focused on reviving one of the most famous cars in the world—the DB5 that the late Sir Sean Connery drove in the 1964 James Bond film, Goldfinger. The 25 DB5 Goldfinger Continuation cars will be equipped with the same embellishments used by 007, including a smoke-screen system, revolving license plates and bullet-resistant glass. But while the new release costs approx. $4.7 million, one of the actual coupes used to promote the film franchise in the mid-1960s sold for approx. $8.3 million at auction in August 2019, during Monterey Car Week in California. You can, it seems, put a price on provenance.
But for many brands and collectors alike, the philosophy behind continuation cars is about more than money. Mullin believes continuations “reignite a passion among younger enthusiasts and further the hobby,” and he’s right, at least according to Stateside constructor Lance Stander and his team at Superformance. It’s the only outside entity licensed to recreate benchmark 289 and 427 variants of the classic Shelby Cobra—developed by the late Carroll Shelby, who\subsequently endorsed their work—as well as the GT40s that Shelby helped develop for Ford. “We have buyers in their late 20s and early 30s,” Stander says. “One designs computer games and has bought two GT40s and a Cobra from us.”
If collectors can’t decide whether these cars are an abomination or highly desirable, then perhaps the market will.
“Nobody knew what was going to happen as the global economy changed back in March, but right now the market [for collectibles] is very strong,” says Brian Rabold, vice president of valuation services at Hagerty Classic Insurance, experts in high-end automotive coverage. According to Hagerty’s estimates, many of the aforementioned originals increased in price or remained static after the newbies’ appearance on the scene, notwithstanding the uncertainty of the past 12 months (see “Time Will Tell” opposite page).
So the value of the originals has remained strong. But so too has that of the newcomers. Auction house RM Sotheby’s had an example from each of the three Jaguar continuations cross the block in October 2020. The least expensive sold for approx. $1.71 million and the most for approx. $2.6 million—evidence, surely, of an audience willing to make room for these cars in the canon. “These [continuation] cars are part of their own distinct category—not replicas, but not a classic original,” says Alexander Weaver, car specialist at RM Sotheby’s. “Interestingly, some are even rarer than the initial model”—such as Jaguar’s D-type continuation, which saw just a third of the original’s 75-unit production—“making them that much more desirable.”
Could it be that continuation cars are just that: a way of maintaining a legacy that, without new impetus, would wither and die? Do we want a future where a priceless old Blower turns to rust under a cover because there are no longer technicians capable of maintaining it, even if that deterioration drives the car’s valuation up instead of down? Perhaps the basic truth is simpler. While this may not be the case forever—and while they may not care to admit it—could it be that right now everyone with interests in the continuation game gets to win . . . whatever they write in their letters?