By on July 9, 2013


A survivor car is a pretty narrow category in my opinion. It means that a vehicle has come through the years with all of the originality that made it highly desirable in car guy world. Lately, the definition of a survivor car has been diluted down to a wishy-washy. I watched a TV program that featured survivor cars and tried to include a repainted car in the collection as a survivor model.

So let’s re-establish a set of basic ground rules about what makes the grade as a survivor car.AIMGP2674

The first rule of survivor cars is their original paint job. You cannot paint a collector car and still call it a survivor anymore than you can castrate a horse and still call it a stallion. Something is fundamentally different in both cases, although the horse has better reasons to be a lot sadder about the changes in his life.

The paint job has to be the original finish, complete with orange peel and a thin layer of actual paint in many cases from the factories of the past. The car will be measured by its ability to have survived decades with nothing more than a wax job on its paint surface.


The survivor vehicle will usually have enjoyed a pampered life inside a garage, or it was owned by a quirky guy with a few bucks who decided to park it early and buy another vehicle. The car was stored for a long time under dry and ideal conditions by the quirky guy.

The old car was then be discovered by the next of kin when they do an estate inventory on the now-dead quirky guy and find the survivor vehicle parked in a garage. We have talked to people who bought estate vehicles that were parked in the 50s and discovered in the 21st century by the relatives.

The cars were frozen in time by storage, and probably had their tube radios dialed into stations that last played then-current hits by Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore and Nat King Cole. These are survivor cars with survivor paint that had not battled traffic, parking lots and the sun, snow and rain since Baby Boomers were really babies. Plus, the survivors got pulled out of the game early in life.


The interior also has to be original to qualify as a survivor car. This presents a problem when mice get involved in the vehicles because they can wreak unholy hell on an interior.

We know one guy who bought a late 40s Dodge that had been infested with mice during a long storage, but survived with no damage to the vehicle’s fabric other than an unbelievable stench in the material. The vehicle was eventually cured from its odor issue, but, as our friend Walter at Diablo Detail cautions us, the process is long and difficult to properly solve the problem. But it can indeed be solved by a qualified professional.

It is well worth the effort to professionally clean the interior to hold onto the survivor tag. The net result is that your car will still be a charter member of the elite survivor club.

The rest of the survivor car rules are pretty simple: it should have its factory power-train front to back and it should have all of its original equipment like spare tire (some guys even claim these have their original air in the tires), jack and lug wrench. Some cars even have their original tires, but who really wants to put a lot of faith in degenerated rubber at highway speeds?

This is a basic look at what it takes to be survivor car. Don’t let some guy on a TV show tell you that a car with a pretty new paint job is a survivor car because the rules are pretty simple and very rigid in my humble opinion.

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62 Comments on “Car Collector’s Corner: Survivor Car, Or Not...”

  • avatar

    Concur. There’s something special about a vehicle that’s never had a nut removed (other than tire or oil changes) and is 100% original. It’s a time capsule.

  • avatar

    I want to run through the photos with my guesstimates:

    76 Grand Marquis Brougham
    73 Cougar?
    79 Toronado (XS with 3-sided window!?)
    66 Polara?

  • avatar

    Unless you store your vehicles in a hermetically sealed garage I don’t see how you can possibly keep a car without replacing anything or repainting it.

    I’d say just the opposite: a car that can survive while being driven and used daily which still looks excellent after the years have passed is a better car.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not all that difficult. Back in 1968, my first car was a ‘survivor car’. An original (with a little bit of shabby to it) 1937 Buick Special luggage back two door sedan. The only option in the car was a 1937 Borg-Warner gasoline heater, installed shortly after the car was bought.

      Yeah, there were a few thin spots in the paint from polishing, one fender corner had developed a square inch or so of paint bubbling, and the ignition switch was changed (the original steering column mounted one had gone bad, and replacement parts were no longer available). Everything else was near perfect, stock and original.

      As it remained so, with just the necessary parts replacements due to wear, until I sold it in 1985. At no time was it stored anything resembling hermetic. The original garage was a typical 1930’s garage off the alley, behind the house. From there it went to my parents 1948 stone house, two car garage.

  • avatar

    For what it’s worth, the term “survivor car” is a trademarked term by the folks who put on Bloomington Gold and are very strict judges of Corvettes:

    Their standards are tough but not as tough as those you propose. I think I like their rules better as it values cars that have been used, driven and maintained properly. For example, they maintain that the bodywork and paint must be at least 50% original. This allows for cars that were used but had dings and rock chips repaired… Or, say a minor fender bender fixed.

    What about period repairs… Say if the original engine blew up but records show it was replaced under warranty? I think that should still count even if it isn’t the original it was born with… At least it’s not a Chevy small block in a Ford.

    • 0 avatar

      their rules are a bit vague though. My 1977 Chevelle still wears the paint that the Arlington GM plant put on it, but its hue has changed from a bright metallic green (similar to today’s Toyota green) to a silver with a slight green tint to it. I know its never been repainted, as there is paint worn off a corner of the hood, the roof has spots where the paints failed from water dripping on it from a leaky carport, and it has an incredibly thin layer of paint on it.

      The interior, well the front lower cushion has been recovered, the front-seat back is in shreds, and the backseat looks like its never been sat in, the headliner has some holes cut in it, and the carpet is done.

      Then engine, its factory GM save for new gaskets on the valve covers, oil pan and timing cover, new crank seals, the heads have never been off, and the intake has never been off. When it replaced the leaky valve cover gaskets, I saw evidence that they had never been off the car.

      So I guess its a true survivor, but id consider it borderline restoration candidate in reality.

  • avatar

    The first car is a T-Bird, probably a 77-79
    The second car is a 69-70 Mercury Marquis or perhaps Marauder (but doesnt seem to have the roofline for an X-100)

    Some Ford folks can probably pinpoint further on specific model year indicators

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    What would you consider a period custom that still looks as it did when the customizer built it?
    Let’s gloss over obvious popular ones, like Barris. But say a 1940s/50s hot rod built by someone unknown and left entirely as it was built; with scallops and lake pipes, wide whites, and an original go-fast flathead. Could you consider something a survivor hot rod?

  • avatar

    Completely agree! Once it is repainted, it is not a survivor. Redone the interior? Not a survivor. For example I saw a “survivor” car at the Greenwood Car Show. A 28 Bentley (IIRC – I know it was a 28). The chrome was pitted with rust spots, the paint was faded, the original interior was serviceable but “rough.” But this was a true survivor (no not original rubber). I have more respect for that car then someone pretending.

    …The rest of the survivor car rules are pretty simple: it should have its factory power-train front to back and it should have all of its original equipment like spare tire (some guys even claim these have their original air in the tires), jack and lug wrench. Some cars even have their original tires, but who really wants to put a lot of faith in degenerated rubber at highway speeds?…

    Again, completely agreed. Documentation like original bill of sale, factory order form, service manuals, owner’s manual, dealer letter of thanks, only add to the value in my book.

  • avatar

    I think there’s a difference between a survivor and a car in original condition. I see original condition cars as time capsules whereas survivors have been used.

    Is it not a survivor if it’s 99% original but had an alternator or starter replaced?

    If a car has it’s original numbers matching drivetrain, the original interior but had a fender repainted after a collision, I still consider it a survivor. Yes, it’s nice if it has the original jack and spare, and it’s cool to see that old houndstooth patterned trunk liners, but let’s not get too orthodox about the hobby.

    As long as the car hasn’t been restored, I’d consider it some kind of a survivor if it’s still in good condition.

    • 0 avatar

      A car is only original once. After it has been restored it is not original anymore. Not sure that this answers your question, though.

    • 0 avatar

      I think the article is discussing a barn find car.
      The term survivor implies that it’s still around and running after years of being used (and maybe abused) rather than years of being forgotten or hidden away.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree Ronnie, I have owned my 1958 Oldsmobile Super 88 Convertible since purchased while in highschool back in 1967, it had 19,000 miles then, and now only advanced to 79,000 miles. When I purchased it from my cousin, who purchased it new, well he had an accident in 1966 damaging the passenger side rear quarter, so he had it repaired and repainted. I’ve owned it ever since, it still has the original interior, convertible top, and drivetrain. I pretty much consider it a true surviver because it could have gone to the crusher instead of being repaired back in 1966, as most would have… I really don’t care to much about what anyone else considers whether or not it is a survivor, but in all reality it surely survived a long life and recently I pulled it out of almost 40 years of storage and am getting it road worthy, so to start enjoying cruising her around again. My plans are to replace the top, repair the tattered front seat, do whatever is needed to the suspension and drivetrain to make it safe and reliable.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    74-76 Ford Torino Elite with 66 Ford Galaxie,Mercury Comet, or Mercury Cyclone
    71-72 Mercury Grand Marquis with white 80 Chevy Monte Carlo
    78 Oldsmobile Toronado
    65 Dodge Monaco or Polara

    • 0 avatar

      ’66 Galaxie 500XL or LTD – look at the front fender trim.

      The car next to the GM is the Toronado.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        Looks like the LTD since it has the vinyl roof with the emblem.

        • 0 avatar

          Which would make it one of the few LTDs before LTDs were completely separate models and a rare bird. Also has a passenger-side mirror – wonder what other options it has.

          In other words, worth many times more than that crap “T-Bird.”

          • 0 avatar


            Only car there that caught my eye. Biased ’cause I had one but a plainer Jane than that.

          • 0 avatar
            MRF 95 T-Bird

            This was the competitor to the Chevy Caprice. Back in 65 GM created an upscale Impala with the Caprice. Vinyl roof, broadcloth seats, nicer trim etc. Ford countered with the LTD. I take it this was a way of keeping folks in the Chevy or Ford fold instead of them moving up to another division most likely Pontiac or Mercury.

  • avatar

    I think the problem is the word “survivor.” In any other context, it would imply that something imposing had been survived; Auschwitz, breast cancer, etc. In these cars, what has been survived is simply time, usually without much in the way of use or outside exposure. In other words, these cars have survived coddling. Good for them.

    We need a new word that expresses that more clearly. I propose “veal cars.” I am sure someone can do better, though.

    • 0 avatar

      I like the term veal cars, it takes a certain way of thinking for it to make sense.

      Calling a coddled car a survivor belittles the dilligent owner of a three hundred thousand mile (and still going strong) work truck or the obsessive compulsive owner of a half million mile W123 with stacks of notebooks detailing every fluid change since 1979.

  • avatar

    “It means that a vehicle has come through the years with all of the originality that made it highly desirable in car guy world.”

    A couple questions:
    Does a survivor need to be desirable, by definition?
    Do you mean ‘made’ as in the originality it had when it was new or “make’ as in the originality it still has now?

    I think I adhere to Ronnie’s assessment above, but want to thank you for posting this. The article and comments have been very helpful…I’ve been calling my ’74 Benz a survivor for some years now and am reassured I’m vindicated in doing so.

  • avatar

    The car in the top picture is a 79 T-Bird. 77-79 all used the same body style. I had a 77 T-bird when I was in high school. 77 was the year the T-birds started using the “intermediate” size body.

    The 77-79 T-Bird was a big hit for Ford, they sold like peanut butter and banana sandwiches at an Elvis impersonator convention. My car was black with grey interior. Engine was 302-2V, I think it produced all of 135hp. To go around corners at speeds of greater than 15mph, you needed to bolt training wheels to the door handles. On the plus side, the car was relatively reliable by the low standards of the 70s, the ride was comfortable/quiet, and the AC was ice cold.

    Not a bad car in it’s day, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want one today…..survivor or not.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I take that back on the Torino Elite, looking at the back end it is a 77-79 Thunderbird. Front is similiar to the Torino Elite but the Torino Elite had fixed single headlights and the Thunderbird had concealed single headlights.

  • avatar

    This post makes me think about how little overlap there is between the terms “survivor car” and “curbside classic”. A CC might still have its original paint but will almost certainly have some replacement parts/upgrades made over the years to increase its function (points replaced by electronic ignition as an example). I can understand that originality matters to a collector but to someone who is actually using an older car, I don’t think matching engine numbers are all that important.

    • 0 avatar

      “Survivor” versus “barn find” versus “original condition” versus “new old stock” versus “mint condition” versus “un-restored” versus “curbside classic” versus etc,etc,etc.

      Is an unrestored, rust-free, stored for 37 years 1977 four cylinder autotransmission Mustang II a better survivor than a restored down to the correct wax pencil marks, documented 1970 Plymouth Superbird 440 Sixpack?

      Which is more desirable and who cares?

      • 0 avatar

        I’d take photos of both of them, though the survivor Mustang II is a better story. You can see Superbird clones at plenty of car shows. Speaking of Superbirds, at the Packard Proving Grounds Cars R Stars show this year there was Ramo Stott’s Superbird that raced in NASCAR, ARCA and USAC and won an ARCA championship. It’s the only Superbird race car that’s still in as-raced in the 1970s condition. They’ve repainted it, but, heck, they repaint race cars in between races. Other than that, it’s a time capsule about racing in the early 1970s.

        I’m okay with clones, they’re all factory built goods anyhow. Real, however, is as good as it gets.

        Pics here:

        “Is it real baby seal?” I find a more or less original 6 cylinder or low option Mustang in nice condition more interesting than a Boss 302 clone.

      • 0 avatar

        What you said.

        This had me thinking. Wouldn’t the moment one drags it out of storage and starts driving it wouldn’t it go from being a “survivor” to just another old car? Also how much value would it lose compared to a completely untouched vehicle?

  • avatar

    The most amazing example of a survivor car was a 1951 Ford we featured a few months ago on our site. The back story on the Ford was its original owner and the fact that he parked the very low mileage car in a shed back in the 50s where it remained until his death. They had to cut down the trees in front of the shed in order to get the car out of storage and it came out with little evidence of damage from its long storage-not even a mice or rat problem. This car blew me away-and I have seen many survivors.

  • avatar
    Mr Imperial

    One of the coolest survivor stories I’ve ever seen:

    Man finds a completely original 1967 Hemi powerered Plymouth Belvedere-which wasn’t supposed to be built.

    The webpage has none of the backstory, but it effectively goes: Evan Davies special orders his Hemi Belvedere from the factory back in 1966. Sadly, Evan and his entire family die in a car crash (in another car). Hemi Belvedere goes to Evan’s brother, who drives it a little, and then stashes it in barn.

    Chad Moscoe (the one who “found” it) caught word at a gas station of an “old man up the road” who never comes out, who probably has some kind of valuable car. Chad investigates, and finds the Belvedere.

    He makes an offer, but Old Man Davies refuses to sell, since the car has sentimental value and is planned on being given to a family member of Davies once he turns 16.

    Chad sees that Davies is into Cub Cadet mowers. Chad goes out and purchases an old, rare Cub Cadet. Chad just gives the rare Cub Cadet to Davies, under the agreement that if the Belvedere is to go, Chad gets the first call.

    Years pass, many phone calls made, nothing happens. Chad decides to go back to the barn where the Belvedere was stored, to see if its still there-but Chad gets a very uneasy feeling.

    Some of the old cars on the property are gone. The property itself is in disarray. Davies ended up having a stroke, and isn’t who he used to be.

    Chad decides to talk up about the Cub Cadet mowers. Davies is still into Cub Cadets, still has the one that Chad gave him. Chad smooothly works the Belvedere into the conversation-

    It’s still there.

    Chad makes an offer, and ends up getting it.

    It has all of the original documentation in the glove box-bill of sale, window sticker, dealer certicard, notes from the dealership Evan Davies ordered from, original title, etc…..

    Some minor tune up work, fluid changes were needed to get the Hemi restarted, but it turns and starts, going into a beautiful lumpy Hemi idle…and a hand wash and wax was all that was needed.

    I dream of barnfinds like this one. :)

  • avatar

    I don’t mind if an old car is repainted, as long as they try to match the original color as best as possible.

    I’ve found a ’76 Cutlass that was clearly repainted at one point, but it was repainted in the original Innsbruck Blue (well, okay, the Olds version was just Light Metallic Blue) rather than some random color pulled out of a catalogue.

  • avatar

    Now you’re making me feel bad about plans to repaint my ’76 F100 in the next few years. It’s still rust free but some of the paint is getting rather thin and powdery. The only thing I’m missing are the bed rails that were on the build sheet.

    Maybe if it were a more special vehicle I’d worry about keeping everything completely original but I think I’ll make it shiny again and enjoy it. The jury is still out on whether to keep the disco-riffic Explorer stripes.

  • avatar

    The term means nothing to me, really.

    But I revolt at the idea that original spare/running tires are anything but an unholy negative – a 40 year old spare is a cruel joke masquerading as safety equipment.

  • avatar

    AACA has re-emphasized their original class “HPOF” (Historical Preservation of Original Features” to encourage preservation and to give a living guide of cars for people that could be soon restoring one. Each car is evaluated and must score a minimum to receive the award. A complete repaint does disqualify for the award. My 73 Sedan DeVille has received both levels of the award, “HPOF” and “AACA Original”.

  • avatar

    I attended a car meet in Southern California in 2000. The most impressive car was a “survivor” Ford Model T roadster. The year wasn’t displayed or discussed, but you know it had to be very old as they stopped making them in the mid-20’s. It was as described, original paint, upholstery, and convertible top. The paint was a mixture of rust and paint. The upholstery and top were in shreds. The grey bearded owner drove it to the meet. It was his daily driver. I submit this as a true survivor. Barn/garage finds don’t count. They haven’t survived, they have been preserved.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree entirely; to me the term “survivor” connotes a good unrestored car that has been used and maintained regularly and has remained roadable its entire life. As distinguished from, for example, the Lambrecht Chevrolet cars, which might have only 5 or 10 miles but will require extensive work to be usable again.

  • avatar

    I see the young uns are re writing the language again as ” original ” means one thing , a ” survivor ” means it’s still out on the roads where it belongs , not necessarily original .

    This has been a fun thread to read , lots of good info ion the cars pictured but don’t try to raise the $ by changing the meaning of a word , that is wrong and bad for the industry and hobby .


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