A drive around the British capital while on holiday had a life-changing effect on Dominic Cassar, says Joseph Busuttil from the Old Motors Club
English capital, taking in many of the main highlights and sightseeing attractions. It was 1964, a period when London was earning its cool and swinging description, and the drive was a special treat for the young man’s 18th birthday. This memorable event was to have a life-changing effect on the impressed youngster.
“Behind the wheel was Derek, an Englishman who with his wife Mary, used to visit Malta regularly in the 1960s, staying at their apartment in St Paul’s Bay, not far from where my family lived,” Dominic Cassar started out.
“We had become close friends, and when I went to England for a long holiday, they had insisted on taking me around London on my birthday as a treat. Derek was driving his impressive new car – a 1964 Humber Sceptre. As much as I was taken in by the attractions of the capital, I have to admit that the gleaming vehicle also left an indelible mark in my mind.”
Many moons later when Derek retired, he decided to come to Malta and settle down here with his wife. The British racing green coloured Humber Sceptre also made the journey to the island. Cassar kept up his close friendship with the couple over the years.
“One day Derek, who was now getting to a venerable age, told me that the steering of the Humber was becoming too heavy for him to handle, and that he was thinking of driving something more manageable. I offered to buy the vehicle, and later, arranged for Derek to get a smaller, more modern car in the process. I bought the Humber – a dream I had cherished since all that far away day when I welcomed my entry into official adulthood in that vehicle in London,” said Cassar.
He took the vehicle to a garage he had in Paola. His visits to that location were infrequent, but when he tried to start the engine, it would seize up. When he told Derek about the problem, he told him not to worry, and the Englishman would make regular trips to Paola to bring the Humber back to life, an operation that continued over a decade.
Eventually Derek passed away, and Cassar decided to take the now old motor to his garage in St Paul’s Bay. On trying to diagnose the ignition problem, he found out that the Englishman had replaced the original twin carburettor with a single one, one that came from an agricultural tractor.
“The Humber is a fuel guzzling creature, and Derek, being stingy, decided to economise. He knew what to do to start the engine, but in my hands it remained lifeless. I took it to a friend, George Micallef, who with his mechanical skills made the needed alterations and brought it back to perfect running order.”
The Humber was now being used regularly, and after some time, Cassar thought that the engine needed an overhaul. Another friend, John Micallef, took up the tasks that included an engine rebore, new gaskets, pistons, clutch, and brakes. Before re-installing the engine, he decided to go the whole hog and re-spray the vehicle – a project that his friend Noel Attard completed in the same original British racing green colour.
Produced in the UK by Humber from 1963 to 1975, the Spectre was a luxury car based on the Hillman Super Minx, but had enhancements that featured its unique roof, glass and bodywork. Sportier in character than the traditional Humber, its high level of equipment included disc front brakes, overdrive, screen washers, reversing lamp, rev counter, and a full range of instruments.
Cassar became a member of the Old Motors Club before he finished rehabilitating the Humber.
“Initially I was not a very active participant in events but once the classic car was on the road again I enrolled for a trip to Sicily, something that I had always wanted to do.”
He then bought a Hillman Hunter station wagon from Gozo. It did not have its original engine, and when Cassar found one, he replaced it. After driving the Hunter for four months, his friend Noel told him about a lawyer who had a collection of Hillman Hunters. Cassar sold him the vehicle, and in another three-way deal, bought from the proceeds a black 1986 Mercedes 2000 diesel that he had been eyeing up for some time.
“The old motor was in excellent condition, so much so that I went to Sicily a short time afterwards on another OMC trip.”
Cassar used to frequently go to a Birkirkara paint agent to buy supplies, and one day, he noticed that the owner had in his garage a rare Hillman Minx cabriolet. The vehicle was not for sale then, but two years later, Cassar got to know that its owner was prepared to part with it. Fearing disappointment, he did not want to deal with the owner himself, so he sent Noel to get him the details. Fortunately, the asking price was within his price range, and the old motor was soon on its way to St Paul’s Bay.
“The British military green 1938 Hillman Minx was roadworthy, and I drove ot for some time. Only the rexin roof, which had been painted from the inside, needed replacement. On accomplishing this task, I started to notice that other aspects needed doing, and eventually I ended up with a full nut-and-bolt restoration project on my hands.”
Working in tandem with Noel, Cassarsays the task was not small. The arch wheel had five panels with tar in between that needed removal before sandblasting. To replace the rusted areas, more than two metal sheet eight by four feet were required. The vehicle was based heavily on ash wood – the door pillars, the rear circumference, the support platform between the chassis and the body – that had to be put in anew. The engine underwent a complete overhaul, while all chrome parts were sent for treatment in Sicily and the UK.
The Hillman Minx was a midsized family car produced by Hillman between 1931 and 1970, with various models coming out over this lengthy period. The 1938 Minx was the final pre-war model. Cassar said that his vehicle was brought back to life in showroom condition, and that it is the only model of its kind on the road in Malta – there is another standing idle in a Mosta garage.
He also said that although he has no formal technical and mechanical training, he has always been dabbling in engines from an early age, and has always been keen to learn more and dirty his hands when work on his classic cars is required.
The two friends worked flat out to get the Hillman Minx back on the road by the middle of last August, and for a very good reason. The official launch of the classic car had been earmarked for the wedding that month of Cassar’s daughter Christina – who adores old cars – and they worked against the clock to get it ready for that memorable occasion. Alas, his other daughter Angela is lukewarm about old motors, but his wife Therese is head over heels in love with her husband’s classics and regularly accompanies him to events, including the Sicily adventures.
Finally Cassar said there is a lot of positive enthusiasm in the local old motors scene.
“Many good classics are coming to Malta from abroad, and being rehabilitated for the better here. However, I think that we must also be more careful, as I am of the opinion that sometimes, we are running too fast. Not every car that is over thirty years old is fit to be called a classic. Unless we really look after and maintain our old cars in a very good condition, we as owners stand to lose benefits that we have acquired with difficulty in recent years.”