New Parts for Old Cars May Keep Them Running, but Sink Their Value

Need a part for a 1964 Mustang? Online catalogs offer a heater knob, a complete unibody or anything in between. With easily found replica components, you could effectively build a new ’64 from the tires up.

But what if you had a 1917 Hupmobile? Or a Willys-Overland? Or a Peerless? For decades, a loose network of machinists and tradesmen would supply collectors and museums with cast bearings, a one-off radiator cap or a custom-milled crank, as needed.

Now those ranks are thinning, replaced by technology, so a scan of a single part can become a digital blueprint that anyone with a special machining tool or 3-D printer can use to churn out a replacement.

This shift is convenient if you need a semi-rare part to get your old car back on the road, but for collectors, it’s a headache.

The value of a car is based largely on scarcity. The ability to inexpensively make formerly hard-to-find parts diminishes the scarcity and can drop the value of a collectible car — sometimes by hundreds of thousands of dollars and, in extreme cases, millions.

While technology like 3-D printing makes car collecting less expensive and more accessible, it has also made it easier for counterfeiters to pass off “replicars” as more valuable originals, helped drive the price of unrestored “survivor cars” to astronomical heights and cleared the way for car manufacturers to remake parts that are questionably deemed “factory original.”

How much difference does an incorrect aftermarket part make? It varies greatly depending on the rarity of the car, but on average a car found to have an ersatz part instantly loses about 15 percent of its value, said Steve Linden, a collectible car consultant.

That may not matter much for a $10,000 1960s Volkswagen Beetle, but take the case of a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 that Mr. Linden appraised for a lawsuit. The car changed hands for $2.5 million. But after the sale, when the engine’s heads were removed for restoration, the wrong numbers were found on the engine block — it wasn’t original.

“That has a huge impact on the value of that car,” Mr. Linden said. In this case, $400,000 worth.

Some kinds of replacement parts preserve value better than others. First are “new old stock” replacement parts from the original manufacturer that had not been used. Then come used original parts, like what you might find in a junkyard. Then come newly made replacement parts, which are not all created equal.

The optimum replica part is made with the original manufacturing techniques, whether that means hand-forming body panels or pouring bearings. Next come parts made with more modern materials and methods, including 3-D printing.

The lines begin to blur when it comes to printed parts. They can be made relatively cheaply and — except under very careful examination — are often indistinguishable from original parts.

Paul Vorbach of HV3DWorks in Sewickley, Pa., uses a 3-D scanner to recreate broken parts that are otherwise unavailable, then produces them with a 3-D metal printer.

This is where it gets tricky, Mr. Vorbach said. For instance, he was asked to create a metal replacement Mercedes 300SL trunk emblem. “They are pretty hard to come by,” he said, and using original manufacturing methods would cost “several thousand.”

Mr. Vorbach printed one in a steel and bronze mix, then chromed it for about $500. But the originals are made of pot metal. If judges at a car show discovered that difference, they might deduct points. And points off means dollars off the car’s value, especially in an elite competition like the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where a 100-point score ensures top dollar.

In fact, Mr. Vorbach said, two cars with his 3-D-printed parts were in the Pebble Beach Concours this year, although he was hesitant to say which ones before the event, for fear the judges would object. “You never know with judging,” he said.

Even more complicated is when the 3-D parts are made by the original manufacturer from the original plans. Many venerable car companies have their own factory-supported restoration businesses, including Aston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche.

Most share the philosophy of Porsche. “The overall mission of Porsche Classic is to keep the cars of our customers on the roads,” said Alexander Fabig, director of Porsche Classic.

But many Porsche parts came from subcontractors that are gone or no longer have the tooling they used 70 years ago. Sometimes Porsche has to turn to 3-D printing. “Reality doesn’t give us any alternative,” Mr. Fabig said.

The bias against 3-D parts isn’t due to quality. “If you look at it from technology, safety or quality, the 3-D part is often the better part,” Mr. Fabig said. “You can argue it is too good.”

It raises the question, then, is a part made from the original blueprints in the original factory an original part? Scrupulous restorers like Porsche mark the new parts as new, but not all restorers may be as forthcoming.

The difficulty of authenticating parts may help account for the soaring prices of survivor cars, classics that have been maintained but not restored. “If you buy a car that is a true survivor, you don’t have to be an expert,” said Mr. Linden, the appraiser. Their patina-covered parts reassure that they are original.

In an extreme example, one of two 1935 Duesenberg SSJs was auctioned at Pebble Beach in August. “It was the hot rod of the day, biggest engine in the smallest body,” said Christopher Bock, chief judge at Pebble Beach.

One belonged to Clark Gable and one to Gary Cooper. In 2012, the fully restored Gable Duesenberg brought a bid of $6.4 million, below the reserve. The unrestored Cooper Duesenberg brought a record $22 million last year.

Some people may find reproduction parts a plus.

“People have become less concerned with originality and more interested in drivability,” said Tom Scarpello, founder of Revology, which builds copies of early Mustangs with new bodies grafted to modern suspensions and drivetrains. “Reliability is the main reason people come to us.”

Revology’s least expensive model, a replica 1966 convertible, comes with a modern 460-horsepower Ford V-8 at a base price of $179,000. The line tops out with the replica ’67 Shelby GT500 with a 600-horsepower supercharged engine and a base price of $239,000. Mr. Scarpello estimated that his company would build 30 cars this year, about twice last year’s number.

Museums and collectors that want historically accurate parts are finding it a bit more difficult to find craftspeople who hand-form body panels or wind magnetos.

“Age is catching up with a lot of us,” said Mike Grebing, workshop and facilities manager at the Revs Institute, a museum with a fanatical devotion to authenticity. (In restoring a 1919 Ballot Indy car, it used only period-correct rivet tools from Europe, although there would be scant visible difference from repairs made with modern tools.)

After a thorough search, the institute was able infuse new blood into the shop, Mr. Grebing said. “I hired a painter and a body man who is very talented,” he said. “We consider him young. He is 57 years old.”

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