The little car that stays in the family
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What makes an heirloom vehicle? For some it’s rarity, for others it’s age. For Rex Benns, it’s having had a connection with his New Zealand–new 1929 Austin 7 wide-door saloon since he was a boy.
When Mabel Dixon bought it back in 1944, it was already second-hand, and she soon put it to work, puttering around the neighbourhood and, as far as Rex was concerned, regularly passing the school bus stop on the way to milk her two cows. Sometimes she’d pick him up and take him to school in the car, so when she decided to sell it, he put his hand up.
That was 1965, and he scraped together the £25 she was asking (about $1000 in today’s money). “I was only earning £4.10 a week.” He still has the original Certificate of Registration of Motor-vehicle under the Motor-vehicles Act, 1925.
Sadly Mabel had decided to keep it preserved and tidy by covering it in sticky tape, rendering the writing all but illegible.
By then Rex was an apprentice mechanic, working on Austin cars, which would come in useful when he decided to tidy up his acquisition. Work started in 1967, and finished three years later, at the princely cost of $500.
You’d think that at 36 years old it wouldn’t need much, but it seems that having milked old Betsy and Bess, Mabel put the churn in the front passenger footwell, milk had spilled, and the floor had rusted out.
“I used the other side as a template to rebuild where the spilled milk had rotted the car,” Rex says. “It needed a complete rebuild, but nothing was missing.” And nothing needing replacement required a replica part as official factory parts were still obtainable here at the time.
He says the engine was all standard — it’s still “95 per cent authentically correct” —and the process delivered some valuable lessons, including aluminium welding.
Rex did take a few liberties — the radiator surround should be painted, not chromed; the headlight surrounds are polished brass, rather than paint; and there’s non-standard polished finishes under the bonnet. “I used to like to show it off.”
Rex still has the bit of card on which he recorded his costs for the work — starting in pounds, shillings and pence, and ending with dollars.
The most expensive mechanical item was the engine rebore, crank polish plus new pistons and rings, at £20: there’s plenty of detail, tyres were £2 and 10 shillings, a tube 16 shillings, setting up the front suspension was 17 shillings and six, and the chassis took four months before he started on the engine.
By the time he got to electroplating ($15), brass polishing ($2), windscreen glass ($8) and the hood and timber ($5 each) he was on the home straight, though the priciest items remained — the interior retrim, with the seats at a hefty $45, and the repaint $25, plus $5 for undercoat and $1 for sandpaper ...
After all that work you’d think he’d use the car a lot, but it has driven only 3883km since then, including a few family outings — immortalised in his photo albums where there is a delightful shot of a picnic back when his now adult kids were young, in 1976.
It seems that the Austin was feeling its age by then and a more practical Morris Minor joined the family garage.
Rex has owned 55 old cars in his time, buying, tidying and reselling them, but now he has just five. Those five form part of a vast collection of classic and vintage items, from clothes to china, sewing machines to model planes, toys to the cars.
And this Austin isn’t the oldest. That’s a 1918 Model T Ford van. The newest is a 1963 Holden Special sedan. But the Austin is his only restoration.
Life as a mechanic lasted only a couple of years before he moved into car sales, “I never looked back.”
The car now gets just the odd short run to keep it going. “My oldest son likes to try to drive it, but he’s too tall,” says Rex.
But it’s not for sale.
“It’s a family heirloom. My son’s bought a new house, and I’ve told him he needs to make a room in his home for it.”
Might the grandkids develop a taste for it? “They don’t want to know.”