Vauxhall GY: A bit of this, a bit of that
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Mike Swanton worked his magic and turned a pumpkin into a silver (and maroon) coach
It's not often you screech to a halt at the sight of a Holden, but this one was enough to stop us in our tracks.
The 1937 Vauxhall GY was built in Australia, by Holden, when it was still a coachbuilder. Holden had opened as a saddler business in 1852, and segued into vehicle upholstery, before constructing car and motorcycle bodies until its merger with GM Australia in 1931.
The car is owned by Mike Swanton, a true Vauxhall nut. He owns, he thinks, 10. Four are registered, four are in the process of being re-registered, and two are basket cases . Plus he has a lot of assorted parts that couldn't quite be classified as cars.
Mike bought this GY in Dunedin in 2008, in poor condition. It was part of a deceased estate.
"I went down Friday, I was thrilled, I'd never seen an Australian body before, and the GY is rare, no one knew anything about it," says Mike.
He paid the $600, got it home, then left it in the shed a few years. "I had no idea how to start." Eventually he sorted through all the bits stored in the car -- the weight had squashed the springs.
"My panelbeater saw the car and said he'd give it a go. He started from the back, welding in patches, and worked forward."
It had the engine block, but no ancillaries, so Mike sourced period replacements (he now has the remains of five GYs). Mike also now has a list of specialists for just about every part of the car, "a good carb man, a good diff man", while he did the research and the finding and restoring of the bits.
He found the bumpers in Perth, wrapped and carried them home on the plane as "sports equipment" -- check-in thought they were skis, and apologised for the $25 carriage fee.
"It has a four-speed box. I took it to one company that said it was only good as a sea anchor, but the next place returned it in full working condition."
As for the colour, he knows the maroon is correct. It's shown in a brochure offset by an almost golden hue that looks odd, so he opted for silver, "1937 was the first year Vauxhall played around with metallic".
This Australian-built GY is parked next to a New Zealand-built one, but there are many differences thanks to different regulations at the time. New Zealand cars had to include 28 per cent local content, but in Australia it was more like two thirds.
The cars arrived CKD (completely knocked down) in crates -- Mike has the side of one of those original crates mounted on his garage wall. They were built here, or in Australia, using the required percentage of local components.
In Australia they had to build the body, and Holden was one of the two big builders of the time. Mike's theory is that GM experimented with body designs via the Aussie market, as this car looks like Chevs or Buicks that came out two years later.
When he was restoring this GY (that had a single rear light, against the New Zealand car's two) he found the little holes in the rear that are identical to the holes in a 1939 Chev, to take the Chev rear lights. As he prefers to be seen, he removed the lead from the holes and bolted on a pair of Chev lights.
It's interesting to look at his New Zealand and Australian GYs side by side. The early Australian car has an all-steel body, where the New Zealand car has a wooden frame with metal panels bolted on.
The New Zealand car's upholstery was leather, the Aussie one used the first of the vinyl finishes, and was more ornate with Art Deco flourishes.
The spacious rear seat includes rope grab handles and a rack for your lap rug, but no ashtrays. The New Zealand one has an ashtray, and a fold-down centre armrest.
The Aussie car has a vent in the bonnet and a split-screen front and back, the New Zealand car has single screens. Seems the UK couldn't do a single body pressing or curved glass, and Australia could.
Some of the restoration was just guesswork. "There are so many things, like the boot catch, that there's nothing to go on."
And some of it involves a lot of research. "Like the door cards! How were they made? They were tar impregnated, as water went down inside the doors, and it had to be strong enough to hold the shape, and soft enough to stitch.
"We had to take one apart, reconstruct it and try to duplicate it, it's a lot of work, but part of the interest is in restoring a car."
As for using it -- he's driven it to the South Island, and to Napier for this weekend's Art Deco festival.
It starts easily, cruises at modern speeds.
"It can overtake in the outside lane," he says. "It's a car to be driven, not a museum piece."