Classic Cars: Great reputation for reliability
HARD TO BELIEVE THE CHASSIS OF THIS 1920s GEM WAS FOUND ABANDONED IN A PADDOCK
My first contact with Christopher came via an email with an attached photo of him behind the wheel of his 1924 Austin 20 in the McKenzie country, a fair distance from his Auckland home.
It was taken on the 50th commemoration of the 1965 Haast International Vintage Car rally, which he did with his dad when he was 21. The route was identical, starting in Christchurch and passing through Tekapo, Mt Cook, Twizel, Queenstown, Invercargill, Wanaka and Haast.
“I shipped it to Christchurch and drove it back from Invercargill. We’d done 2800km by the time we returned, and she didn’t miss a beat. Used a litre of oil, and no water,” he told me.
These four-cylinder Austins had a great reputation for reliability and reasonable performance, perhaps one reason they were used by Charlie Edwards for his Auckland-Paeroa bus company.
The 20 was designed to revitalise Austin after WWI, during which the factory was turned over to the war effort, making trucks and munitions. When he saw the war grinding to a bloody close Herbert Austin came up with the 20, having assumed post-war Britain would reflect the pre-war status quo, when only the wealthy could afford a car. The 20 is named for its tax bracket — with vehicles taxed at engine size.
Christopher and his Austin 20. Picture/Jacqui Madelin
“It was a good design, but too expensive, and soon after it hit the market the company was in financial difficulties. It had to come out with smaller cars, the 12hp and then the Austin 7, so not many 20s were made.”
He found the bones of this car in 1968.
“My father was an Austin dealer, Douglas Wood Ltd, and he introduced me to the idea of vintage cars. He and I restored an Austin 16 in the early 1960s.”
His mother’s side were the brand’s master distributor, Seabrook Fowlds, so it comes as no surprise that he’s now president of the Vintage Austin Register.
When he spotted this 20 he realised it was fairly rare, but it had been cut into a farm truck.
“This car left the Austin Motor Company in chassis form, went to Australia and had a body built there. It came to New Zealand in 1937. By the time I found it the body had all gone and it was in a sorry state, so we had to build one.”
It was originally steel and aluminium over a wooden frame and a friend of Christopher’s, a coachbuilder, copied the body from photographs to work with those panels he already had.
As for the rear windscreen, “I found one. It was aftermarket on a lot of cars, and we couldn’t work out how it fit. But then I saw a photo in a book, and went back and got it.”
Rear passengers in need of protection extract the fold-out glass panels, attach them to the body, then someone else fastens the cover over their legs, with the windscreen sitting pretty much over their laps. It’s remarkably effective once it’s in place, though without help, you’re trapped.
Given his mechanical engineer background, Christopher did all the mechanical restoration