The College of Charleston, in Charleston, South Carolina, is home to a large and well-respected program in historic preservation. Most students in the major, which grants a two-year undergraduate certificate and a master’s degree, focus their studies on the traditional areas of fine art, architecture, and urban design. But starting this academic year, a new line of coursework is being developed by Barry Stiefel [pictured above], a 36-year-old Michigan native with family roots in the auto industry. Stiefel, with the cooperation of the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA) and the RPM Foundation, has instituted what he believes to be the world’s first academic program in the study of the automobile as historic artifact.
“There already is this industry teaching purist automotive preservation,” said Stiefel, who holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in historic preservation from Tulane University. “What we’re doing here is learning more about vehicles before we start doing interventions. Why is this particular vehicle important—down to the VIN? What is its historical significance? What does it mean to us?”
Stiefel’s first class project is a group analysis of a 1920 Anderson Six convertible roadster.
This is exactly the kind of investigative protocol that has been applied to notable buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods since at least the 1960s, when the idea of conserving historic structures first took hold in the United States. Instead of simply restoring things to make them look new, preservation aims to uncover the specifics that surround the life and utilization of objects of historical significance and to create a sound and respectful treatment plan for their maintenance.
A Fighting Cadillac
Stiefel cited as an example a car affiliated with the National Historic Vehicle Register, which is a project of the HVA, the Department of the Interior, and the Library of Congress intended to archive historically significant vehicles.
“Think about the 1918 Cadillac U.S. 1257X,” he said. “As far as we know, it’s the one surviving vehicle from the American Expeditionary Forces used in Europe during World War I. Of course, it’s a bit rough around the edges, so you investigate and find that it has a hole in the engine block. Well, that hole was caused by a bullet, and that bullet was there because the car was on the front lines. If you hadn’t gone to investigate that, you probably would have just repaired the hole,” Stiefel said. “We would argue that you should leave that hole because it’s a part of the history of that car.”
This type of conservation has been a difficult sell to judges at classic-car concours such as Pebble Beach or Amelia Island, among others. There, a premium often is placed on 110 percent restorations that strip a car of its originality and bring it up to a material standard that exceeds its condition when it left the factory. Pebble Beach and other concours now often feature a preservation class among their fields, but it’s hard to imagine one of those cars taking Best of Show honors. It also has been hard to integrate automobiles into the established world of historic preservation.
“The College of Charleston was not the first preservation program contacted by the Historic Vehicle Association,” Stiefel said. “The director remembered a quote from a very prestigious program he contacted before us, and their response was, ‘If it moves, we’re not interested.’ ”
Stiefel’s students are cataloging the Anderson Six and its individual history along with the history and legacy of the marque.
Stiefel explained that this attitude comes not only from a bias against the apparent mundanity of mass-produced consumer goods like automobiles but from an intrinsic preference within the preservation movement for objects that remain in situ. “Within the historic preservation of buildings, moving a building is considered a deadly sin,” Stiefel said. “And, in a certain sense, I agree with that. But we need to think about that more critically. No, buildings aren’t supposed to move. But cars are.”
Stiefel cited a relevant example. “You can compare Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., where Lincoln was assassinated, and the limousine in which Kennedy was assassinated. Both play very intriguing roles in history as the setting where a president was killed. Just because one was a car, that makes it ineligible?”
Preserving Local History
Stiefel’s first class project is a group analysis of a 1920 Anderson Six convertible roadster, one of the few survivors of a boutique brand produced near the college in South Carolina. Anderson is relevant in part as one of a limited number of automotive factories to have existed in the agrarian South. Stiefel’s students are cataloging the vehicle and its individual history along with the history and legacy of the marque, skills they applied recently as guest judges at the recent Hilton Head Island Concours d'Elegance, which is also local to South Carolina.
As an educator, Stiefel strongly believes that this type of rigorous analysis has universal professional applicability. “There’s a whole slew of interdisciplinary studies this could tap into: vocational studies, engineering, chemistry,” he said. Yet as someone with roots in the auto industry and in history, he also recognizes that the automobile is about to undergo a sea change as radical as any it has experienced—toward alternative powertrains, shared ownership, and autonomy. And he wants the next generation to be prepared to recognize the significance of this change in context.
“I think historic preservation can offer answers to some of these questions about autonomous cars and the like,” Stiefel said. “There’s one case study about putting seatbelts into cars. It’s not like we all just threw out our old cars and got new ones with seatbelts; we had them installed. It’s similar to historic buildings. The building my office is in dates to 1851. The choice wasn’t between using an outhouse and tearing down the building. I have modern plumbing. We have devised a way to integrate modern technology.”
Likewise, Stiefel says, contemporary or historic vehicles can be respectfully retrofitted with new features that improve safety, fuel efficiency, or even autonomy. “The greenest building is the one that is already built,” he says. “We can learn to do that with cars, too, if we just give it a chance.”