To say Jim Francis’ shed is rather packed is to understate the case, but the seemingly random stacks of car and bike bits, bicycles and pennants, tools and rags soon resolves itself into some sort of order — clearly he’s used to having quite a few jobs on the go and, equally clearly, he likes to keep things. A battered 1920s bicycle against the wall was his dad’s, last ridden in 1933, and somewhere in a back shed, if I heard right, is the Raleigh motorbike he bought in the 1930s to get to his first job.But I’m here to see the car tucked in among all this, in a space barely big enough to fit it — the 1910 Delage Jim’s owned for 67 years.
He’s clearly got a system for starting it and squeezing it out of the garage — my offers to help are briskly rejected as he whisks off the brass fuel cap and hefts a funnel and green-painted metal fuel can, inserts a home-made dip stick to check the volume (there’s no gauge), and reaches into a bonnet panel to flood the carby to get the petrol through. The car is due for a run, he says, as it’s not been driven since it carried Auckland Mayor Len Brown in the Auckland Christmas parade, no doubt the source of the blue tinsel still dangling from one highly-polished brass lamp. By now he’s pushed the car back half a metre to access the crank handle, turned it over, and with a wheezy clearing of the throat it settles into a chuckling idle.
He removes the chocks and eases the Delage out of the garage — there’s very little clearance — before I clamber aboard for a breezy passenger ride. The plentiful airflow is wonderful in this summer weather. It gets along quite nicely, “On a good downhill it’ll reach 80km/h, but up the Bombays it’s 8km/h. We’re not allowed on the motorway, we’re too slow.” Indeed he’s been ticketed for going too slowly — usual cruising pace is around 30 to 40km/h.
Delage is a French company, formed in 1905, sold in 1935 and defunct by 1953, though it had some racing success between 1911 and World War II. A Delage set the fastest lap time at the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1913, and another won the 1914 Indianapolis 500.
Jim bought this car as a van in 1947, the previous owner had taken the hood and rear cabin and trunk bodywork off and fitted van sides, and would put a mattress in and camp in the Waitakeres in it. All the rest — the chassis, engine, cabin interior, mudguards and wheels, and the windscreen forward, are original.
Jim had a furniture business and used it to cart furniture, sometimes pulling a trailer, “It could shift a house load in five trips, it did a lot of work.” When the tyres wore out he wound 10 rolls of insulation tape around each one, which would hold the tube in for a week. That was in 1948, when tyres were scarce. These old-style ones are made in short runs by Dunlop, and they last for a while, this set for around 40 years, he thinks.
Some 15 years after buying the Delage he asked the seller where the discarded hood and rear cabin parts were, “He’d dropped the remains in a well and my late wife and I spent about three hours digging.
“We found one of the hood bows to use as a pattern ... ”
Since restoring it, he’s driven it to the North Cape, to Wellington, “From Wellington it used no oil, no water and no air in the tyres.” It’s a four-stroke, with a four-speed transmission, and no synchro so you double declutch (put the clutch in, change to neutral, let the clutch out, back in, and change gear) on every gear. “I don’t use the clutch sometimes, I don’t worry about it.” The wire wheels are fairly unusual for the time, he says. The brass canister on the driver side makes the acetylene for the headlight, the other lamps use kerosene. There’s a lot of brass on this car, “It takes me about five hours or more polishing; when my daughter’s here we take a side each.”
Jim tells me the mate who suggested I get in touch had asked if he’d like to meet a nice lady, “and I said yes, I’m always interested.” And interesting ... would he sell it? No — his daughter will have the Delage, but he’s not in a hurry. After all, there’s a good seven years of driving to get in before the Queen’s telegram arrives.