Online and out of sight

What are the perils of purchasing a classic car online, asks Joseph Busuttil from the Old Motors Club

It goes without saying that, over recent years, the rapid development of the internet has made many aspects of life much more comfortable as well as accessible. In the field of old motors for example, spare parts previously hard to locate and procure for a nut-and-bolt restoration project, can now be identified and obtained from worldwide sources at the click of a button. The same applies when one is pondering the purchase of that long sought and desired classic car – all one has to do is surf the net and the world is one’s oyster.

However, this ease of accessibility, availability and variety can also have its pitfalls. When buying an old motor on the net, some Maltese go as far as personally going abroad, sometimes with an expert friend, in order to see up close and personal what they are going to buy, as well as the people that are dealing with. Others trust the seller and their sales pitch, enhanced by attractive photos and luring literature, and eventually buy online. Alas, once in a while, the buyer would later find out that a Pandora’s box has been opened.

Anthony Camilleri, whose old motors story was recently featured in this publication, is a classic example of how a dream can turn into a nightmare. Luckily, his true grit and determination, aided and abetted by a number of friends and officials, finally turned the tables, and the tale had a happy ending. But the saga is worth retelling, for it is a real eye opener for prospective purchasers.

“It was one February day in 2017, and I was on a flight returning to Malta. To pass away the time, I was visiting a Jaguar international website. Suddenly my eyes fell upon a magnificent 1952 Jaguar 120 XK fixed head coupe, and seeing this rare model for sale, my heart skipped a beat,” he remembers.

Soon after landing, he immediately contacted a friend, Chris Saliba, who owns a number of classic cars, for guidance. Despite its derelict looks, he was advised to go for it.

Needing a second opinion, that very same evening Camilleri sought the counsel of Joe Said, the doyen of Jaguar classic cars in Malta. The latter did not mince his words: there was no other Jaguar XK 120 fixed head coupe in the island, and during its six-year production run, only 2,400 of this model were produced, making it a rare and much sought after classic.

Finally Camilleri shared his thoughts with another classic car guru, Barry Owen, who also opined that he should go for it. Buoyed by this triple expert consensus, he immediately contacted the owner, and paid a deposit.

“Completing this nut-and-bolt restoration project has been a labour of love”

The Jaguar XK 120 is a sports car manufactured between 1948 and 1954, the first since 1940, with the new XK 3.4L engine. Three body styles came out: an open two-seater roadster, the fixed head coupe, and the drop head coupe. In all, 12,000 models were produced. The sports car was highly successful in high-speed runs, races and rallying, including Silverstone, Le Mans, Targa Florio, Mille Miglia, and the Alpine rally.

“The Jaguar was in a classic car establishment quaintly called Romance with Rust and located in Orange County, California. The dealer, Chris Ashworth, told me the vehicle had been idle for 30 years, and in need of restoration. I then paid the rest of the price, plus shipping, which came to quite a hefty sum. I then eagerly awaited its arrival in Malta.”

Alas, the days turned into weeks, and the weeks to months, with no sign of the Jaguar surfacing. On further investigation, Camilleri found the dealer had closed his Facebook account, his e-mail address and telephone went dead, while the website of the company was marked ‘under new management’. He went to a local lawyer, who wrote a legal ultimatum to Ashworth – but still no reply.

A bewildered Camilleri then visited the Fraud Squad of the Malta Police. They were very helpful and advised him to make an appointment and talk to the Maltese ambassador in Washington, Pierre Clive Agius.

“I did exactly that, and also found an understanding reception. The ambassador told me that similar cases sometimes surface. He asked me for details, so that an official letter could be written. He also told me to contact the consul for Malta in San Francisco, Louis John Vella, to write a similar official letter to Ashworth. Despite all the official legal pressure, there was still no sign of life.”

Camilleri thought that this graveyard silence might have been due to the fact that all correspondence was being sent to the business address of the dealer, as the private address had never been known. He then embarked on some elaborate detective work – aided by another of his classic car friends Marcus Harrison – and finally the home details were found out.

“The address was given to the Malta consul who armed with legal documents, finally confronted Ashworth face to face. The dealer came up with many excuses for the shipping delay: missing papers and wrongly numbered documents. But the fact was that the vehicle was still in the name of the original owner, as Ashworth did not affect the transfer in order to avoid paying taxes. He released the Jaguar for shipping, but still refused to sign the transfer. The impasse was resolved when the shipping company got the bill of sale from the previous owner. The vehicle finally arrived in Malta in September 2017.”

However, instead of breathing a sigh of relief, Camilleri faced more complications at the local customs, who refused to release the Jaguar as the American shipping company did not send the needed documents since they had not been paid by Ashworth. Again, the Maltese consul was contacted and came to the rescue, running for the umpteenth time after the American dealer, who finally paid up, and the important papers eventually found their way to Malta.

While the Jaguar was impounded at customs awaiting its release, Camilleri was unaware that he had still to register it with Transport Malta at an earlier stage, something he became aware of when he finally went for the registration and log book. A huge fine was avoided at the eleventh hour by his going to a lawyer to sign an affidavit retelling the story and reasons for the late application.

Finally the Jaguar found its way to Camilleri’s garage in Attard in January 2018.

“It was a project car as expected – the body and chassis were in excellent condition, the gearbox and engine were spread out on the back seat, while other parts sourced for restoration were in the luggage. I took the engine to Owen for assembling, while I started working on the body. Due to a misunderstanding, I took back the engine to put it together myself.”

“Completing this nut-and-bolt restoration project has been a labour of love in more ways than one,” says a proud Anthony, as he inspects his finished Jaguar, now gleaming in its original British racing green colour.

Objective appreciation of the newly restored vehicle also came in the latest edition of the Malta Classic last October, when the Jaguar came first as People’s Choice in the Concours d’Elegance, and second in the Best Restored Pre 1970 Group.

Having done most of the rehabilitation tasks himself, he remarks that while he has another eight old motors in his classic car collection, the Jaguar is the sole specimen that he has really dirtied his hands with, for all the rest were either road worthy or else needed very little to see them back roaring to life. Having had his fingers burnt, he urges prudent caution when buying classic cars on the internet, and to run a due diligence exercise on the seller, as acting in haste, one might have to repent at leisure.

Related Posts