In 1969 we relocated to Central Mangrove with 2 trucks and in late 1972 established Vintage Motor Garage, with the intent of providing a repair and restoration service to Vintage and Classic Car owners. The first jobs were an ex-QANTAS Studebaker limo, a Brookland’s Riley and a burnt-out Vauxhall 23/60.
The first body we built was for a mine manager in the Hunter Valley. It was an RL 90 Alfa of the mid-twenties. I designed the body and panelled it in aluminium after the wood frame was built by one of my first employees. In a letter to the VSCC the owner verified that Max Houston had built him a “superb body” on the Alfa.
There was never a shortage of work and at its height eleven people were employed by me at VMG. All mostly highly skilled tradesmen, whose skills I redirected into this different but allied business of restoration.
There were very few replacement parts available in those days so parts manufacturing or reclamation became a normal part of life at Vintage Motor Garage. As required the buildings were enlarged and added to, including a paint spray booth, so that over twenty-five cars under restoration could be accommodated. All facets of restoration and repair were undertaken, all mechanical repair and reconditioning, including remanufacture of white metal engine bearings and machining. Body building and design, and modification including right hand drive conversion, panel and mudguard hand forming.
An important part of motor vehicle refurbishment is the paintwork and finally the interior trim, seats, and leatherwork, veneered dashboards and cabinetwork, particularly of hand-built bodies of limited production cars. I was at the Bentley factory at Crewe in England recently and in a small group Factory Tour I began to realise that the trim and leather work produced at Vintage Motor Garage was more than comparable with that of the new Bentleys.
I was married again in 1985 to Judy Keeva. Judy was from Los Angeles and still had family in the USA, so naturally Vintage Motor Garage’s American era began. Like a lot of small businesses cash flow was always a problem. Judy took over the administrative and PR side of the business and new systems were put in place. This gave me more freedom to be involved with the technical and practical management. Regular trips to USA were now taken and becoming involved with the car restoration scene there took up some of our time on those visits. I also became a member of the Classic Car Club of America and attended rallies in California, New York and Indianapolis. Auctions particularly at Scottsdale in Arizona, Las Vegas in Nevada and at Pebble Beach in California led to the importation of a number of cars for restoration by Vintage Motor Garage. Three American classic cars were purchased in USA and were brought in for restoration and sale. A 1931 Chrysler Imperial CG, a 12 Cylinder Packard and a V 16 Cadillac. These were long term projects but were eventually sold in 100-point condition back in the USA.
The buyer of the Chrysler was so delighted with his acquisition that he visited us from USA to meet the people who had restored his car. He won the Grand Classic Concours d’Elegance, the premier event in the Classic Car Club of America calendar, 3 years in a row with the 1931 Chrysler Imperial CG in competition with a similar car restored in USA.
A number of Alvis were brought in for restoration or rebodying, from drop head coupes to derelict sedans and are now enjoyed by Alvis Club members. I was able to negotiate a Customs Security system for repair and return, so that cars and their parts could come in from overseas for repair without import duty or tax being payable, as long as they were returned to their owners.
We have always believed this was unique for a small business.
A number of Rolls-Royce and other cars came in from Japan under this scheme and were returned to their owners on completion of the restoration. Vintage Motor Garage became a member of the Rolls-Royce and Bentley Specialists Association in the UK during these years.
My son Jonathan served a Fitting & Machining apprenticeship with VMG and an Engineering Certificate Course simultaneously. He became a highly skilled, respected and essential member of the team.
Car restoration is about overcoming the impossible. There are usually no parts available, often no information to help and yet the car has to ultimately be in the same condition as when it left the factory, sometimes about 100 years ago. This is where technical skill and engineering expertise, and above all ingenuity all come to the fore. To have a sample, however worn, corroded or broken is a bonus in the making of a new item. To have to imagine what it was like or what function it performed and then make it to fit and operate correctly is a much bigger challenge.
Jonathan could always “think of something” to solve any problem. The machines in the engineering department under Jonathan’s direction produced some incredible results. To quote a phrase I once uttered “I always believed in miracles, but Jonathan performs them.”