Vintage restorations

photos - Thomas Wielecki
words - Michael Stahl
In a rural pocket north of Sydney, traditional car-making skills are restoring life to expired classics

Hard craft

Wheels Magazine
September, 2008

Stare quietly at the jumble of aluminium panels, flopped in an approximation of a once voluptuous shape. An oxide frost clings to the dull metal, pocked with flakes of dark-green paint. Nearby, sun-bleached ribs of timber echo some of the curves; a holed, flat plank suggests the ghost faces of mechanical gauges. Around me, it's quiet but for the twittering of birds and cicadas.

In the wooded outskirts of a small village, I have the sense that I'm standing over the remains of a between-wars aircraft, ravaged by time and exposure. I can somehow hear the rasping of the wood-saws, the ringing of the hammers, the whirr and clack of the leather-belted machinery that, eight decades ago, had given this machine its form and its life.

And it's not just my imagination. "A lot of cars were made in factories with no more facilities than we've got here," says Jonathan Houston, standing beside me in the sprawling, backyard commune of corrugated-iron sheds that is Vintage Motor Garage.

The 1925 Bentley 3.0-litre Tourer disassembled on the floor in front of us has come from England to be recreated in sleepy Central Mangrove, 90 minutes north of Sydney. And the sounds coming from behind us are those of highly skilled and unexpectedly young men crafting cars from timber, metal and leather as they were decades ago.

Vintage Motor Garage was started in a single rural shed behind the Houston family home in 1973 by Jonathan's father, Max. Still housed in what's now a creeping growth of sheds up the backyard, the business has been in 45-year-old son Jonathan's hands since Max's retirement in 2001.

What has attracted the Bentley's English owner is not some cutting-edge technology to be found nowhere else in the world, but a proud outpost where traditional car-making skills are propagated and celebrated.

The 1925 Bentley was found 10 years ago in an English garden. It had been parked, along with the original owner's Aston Martin, and forgotten since the 1950s. VMG has been commissioned to rebuild the Tourer into an accurate replica of Mother Gun, the 1928 Le Mans-winning 4.5-litre car.

There's nothing remarkable about finding a W.O.-era Bentley in VMG's barnyard; the day I visited there were three W.O. cars, including Max Houston's own multi-awarded 1929 Speed Six. There were as many again Rolls-Royces of similar vintage. Houston pere et fils are recognised authorities on the marque, but they're no Brit-car snobs; Jonathan also has an impressive collection of obscure, European dirt bikes.

The 50-odd cars spread among the sheds run the gamut of cute, collectible and plain kooky: an Alfa Romeo 105 Giulia Super, Austin-Healey 100/6, '64 Ford Thunderbird convertible, a Chrysler Royal hearse.

VMG and its staff of eight artisans is probably the only restorer in Australia that is able to do all of its coachbuilding, wood-working, machining, engine building, panel making, radiator and fuel-tank fabrication, upholstering and painting in-house.

Part of the secret is simply that, as they've progressively introduced new equipment, they never got around to discarding the old.

The first thing I saw, in the original shed that's now the machine shop, was also the first thing that went in: a vintage Nuttall lathe, its bed long enough to accommodate a full-width solid axle. The lathe had already done years of service at the Caringbah, Sydney garage where a younger Max Houston, who had built his first car (an Alvis) from parts at age 16, earned his reputation for keeping 'old clunkers' roadworthy.

The second thing I saw was a Tatra T603. This rear-engined Czech state car was imported new for the Czech consulate in 1963. The Tatra's air-cooled V8 lay dismantled on a bench nearby, exposing the white-metal main bearings that Tatra workers originally cast and machined in position. I mused that every absent stud, spring or doo-hickey could prompt lesser men to sling a rope over the rafters.

"We just have to make things, or find what we can," said Jonathan, chirpily. "We're having pistons made for us, and the white-metal material for the bearings is used in ships' propellers - you can buy it just down the road here. And I go through the Repco catalogues by dimension; Datsun 120Y big-end bearings are gonna fit, and they're Mitsubishi Magna engine mounts.

"We try and use all the original bits when we can, it's just nicer," he added. "Or, if a part's not quite good enough to use, you'll keep it as a sample." A large, murky-windowed storeroom contained shelf upon shelf of paw-printed boxes of new and ancient parts, manuals of parts, parts of parts.

Jobs like pouring and boring main bearings in position require skills quite alien to those of plugging in a diagnostic machine. Machinist Troy Burton, 45, cut his teeth (so to speak) building custom Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

"Somebody's got to be not just a good tradesman, they've got to be a bit artistic," Houston explains. "I'm a fitter and machinist by trade, and Dad would come to me and say, 'We need a thing and it's got to go here, and it's got to work like this, and we haven't got the old one but it's got to look like it belongs to that 1913 car,' and I'd go away and make it - and he'd say, 'Oh, good, you found one!'

"Troy's the only other guy I've found that I can do that with."

It raised the question of the restoration dilemma: period quality, or modern quality? "Oh, you've got to go for modern build quality," Houston said. "People expect things to be reliable, better than they were. People don't realise how rough some of these cars were, even Rolls-Royces. You wouldn't get away with it now.

"They can still be original in every detail - you've rebuilt all the old electrics and all that - but the quality of finish is going to be far better."

The Bentley's timber framework is being hand-made by 38-year-old Justin Grey, a self-confessed "wood enthusiast." Panel man Glen Crowther, also 38 and currently welding the steel rear-quarters on the '64 T-Bird, will roll the Bentley's aluminium body by hand.

He'll do this on an English Wheel. The tall, G-shaped device houses two smooth wheels of different diameters, which stretch the surface of the metal sheet as it is passed back and forth. The original panels would have been made the very same way, most likely by Vanden Plas, more than 80 years earlier.

Australia, too, was once crawling with coachbuilders - remember how Holden started - and, surprisingly, there are still a few craftsmen like Crowther who can use an English Wheel. "Most panel beaters can't, of course," shrugged Houston. "I've had panel beaters wanting a job who can't even weld."

The internet has revolutionised vehicle restoration, not only in sourcing parts but in rooting out pockets of traditional skills. "Some knowledge is getting lost, but other stuff, there's more and more knowledge around," Houston said. "It's not like it's a secret society any more. Though there is some stuff that's still secret."

Owners' motivations are as diverse as the vehicles themselves. The Chrysler Royal hearse belongs to a New South Wales funeral business, now in its third generation of family ownership. The current boss is collecting and replicating examples of each of the significant vehicles in the company's history.

Outside the modern spray booth out back, a pair of denuded WWII military trucks flank a bumblebee yellow 1921 Rolls-Royce that's straight out of The Great Gatsby. The Ford Blitz 4WD trucks, built from 1942-'45, are being restored for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra; the Rolls' replica Brewster body was built right here.

Houston recalled a similar-vintage Rolls-Royce project of a few years ago. The bare-chassis restoration was for a major wedding-car hire company in Japan, that wanted air-conditioning and modern comforts - and wanted them to be invisible. "They spent as much on the modifications as they did on the restoration," Houston said.

At least one car - another vintage Rolls-Royce, in for a $80K smash repair job - topped the magic million in value. But what's the most valuable car they've done?

"Possibly dad's Speed Six - or a 1914 Silver Ghost, of which there aren't many. Any pre-war [WWI] Ghost is worth lots of money ... V16 Cadillacs, we've done a few of those, Rolls-Royce Phantoms.

"The most I can think of that anyone's spent is three-quarters of a million dollars," Houston went on. "There was a Rolls-Royce Phantom 1 ... it had been butchered and bastardised over the years. We had to make lots of parts, build a whole body, drinks cabinet and stuff like that.

"But you know, there's a few Silver Ghosts getting around and I hear people saying, 'Oh, he's spent more than a million dollars on that car.' And I think, well, he's been ripped off, because you can't do much more than we did to that Phantom 1. And I thought we were expensive!"

Our English Bentley owner is treading the replica route, with the certain knowledge that it will enhance the humble Tourer's value when it returns to Blighty. But it can be a jungle out there. How many clients over-capitalise on classic car restorations?

"Probably most," Houston said, again a little too chirpily. "But of course, a new car's not worth what you paid for it in three months' time, either."

Looking to buy a classic to drive or restore? Take some tips from a man who, literally, knows the cars inside-out ...

  • Pay more, spend less:
    "Buy the best car you can afford. The extra three or five thousand you pay for the better car may save you 30 or 50 grand in the long run."

  • Sweat the details:
    "Badges, brightwork and detail stuff is important! If you can buy (replacements) at all, it's often expensive, and if you can't buy it, you've got to have it made, which is much, much more expensive."

  • Good wood:
    "The woodwork can be very expensive if it is dead. Check if the veneer is lifting, because re-veneering costs significantly more than just re-lacquering."

  • Beaten is better then eaten:
    "Dents are easy; rust is expensive. But we give a lifetime guarantee on all our rust repairs."

  • Avoid a sea change:
    "With modern cars, those from (inland) are much better than cars from the coast. Avoid English cars, avoid American east-coast cars - they put salt on the roads. A Californian car is always the go for an American car."

  • Avoid conversion projects:
    "Unless it is something really exotic, an Australian-delivered car will always be worth more to buyers here."  » Visit Wheels magazine website

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