Old Motors Encounters - 17
One is forever grateful for such warm, small mercies, coming so soon on the back of a couple of days of unexpected cold, torrential rains in mid-March. More so when one had been lulled into a false sense of believing that the last vestiges of winter had disappeared, following the recent pronouncements by the men from the Met Office on one of the driest rainy seasons ever, since the inception of weather records.
But nature works in mysterious ways, as I found out recently when I visited Lino Grech, surrounded by most of his important others, at his abode in San Gwann. The sunny glow enhances in no small way the closely knit family atmosphere pervading the room, as the visitor who comes in from the outside looking in, is soon privileged to taste.
What a far cry from the usual, dark, damp, cold and impersonal garages that sometimes provide the backdrop to my monthly trek in search of old motors, men and women, and their machines!
There is innocent teasing, jovial bantering, pulling of legs, insider jokes, wide smiles on happy faces and laughter unlimited as Lino, his wife Melina, son Rhys and his girlfriend Tracy, gather around a large table to share their views on one of the many aspects that bind them together - old cars.
Daughter Cheryl is unavoidably absent, owing to academic commitments, but the rest of the family make sure to evoke her presence, medium-like, by mentioning her frequently in their interventions.
Lino is a relatively latecomer on the classic car scene, starting off his collection in 1999. But the four wheeler has always occupied a prominent place in his life. Recalling a happy childhood in a large family of five children, he cut his teeth on a series of memorable pedal cars as well as a burgeoning collection of old model cars.
"There was a stationer near our home in St Julian's; he stocked a wide variety of Matchbox models. I used to buy some with my pocket money, but the majority was financed by my father. I was the quietest of his offspring, and he appreciated that, so it was easy to twist his arm and get what I wanted, especially after Sunday morning Mass," chuckles Lino with a benevolent grin.
This proximity to the motor car consequently led to a five-year auto mechanic course at the Naxxar Technical Institute. The eager beaver roamed in his natural element to his heart's delight, and at the end of his studies, his efforts were crowned with a distinction award.
"The amazing thing is that I never earned a living from this very good qualification," ponders Lino. "I went straight into the textile industry, then in its heyday, working as a machine technician." As this industry eventually rode into the sunset, he transferred his technical skills to the maintenance of vending machines.
For a number of years, Lino was very actively involved in the sport of auto hill climbing. "I harnessed my mechanical knowledge in the modification of modern cars, and I built quite a reputation in this direction for daring adaptations. Mtahleb was our Mecca," he remembers with nostalgia.
More at ease as a background boy rather than behind the steering wheel, Lino decided to try his hand at driving in a rally one day. However, it was to be an eventful day for him, for a near fatal accident occurred during the proceedings.
Although not directly involved, this development led to increased family pressure to give up this sport, and he reluctantly agreed. For family commitments definitely come uppermost in the minds of Lino and Melina, who both lost their first respective spouse at a young age through prolonged terminal illness.
Family connections also led Lino onto classic cars, when in 1999 he was looking around for another pastime. His first father-in-law, Zaren, had been driving a Triumph Herald 13/60 for many years, but with creeping old age and failing eyesight he had decided to call it a day.
He contacted Lino to ask him whether he knew of anyone interested in buying it. "Like a bolt from the blue, the jigsaw suddenly fell into place, and I said to myself that this was what I had been waiting for! I purchased it immediately for myself," recalls Lino.
The 1968 classic needed a long overdue overhaul, especially the engine and suspension. All parts were imported from the UK. While the interior was not in a bad shape, the body displayed a little rust, and moreover had been hand-painted. Lino replaced the dark maroon colour with a final spraying in the original red. The rehabilitation job took nearly two years from start to finish.
Some time after the Triumph task was completed, Lino was driving through heavy traffic in Gzira. Caught for a lengthy period immobile behind a bus, he was tapping his fingers impatiently and looking around when he spotted an attractive Volkswagen Beetle, lodged uncomfortably half inside and half outside a garage entrance.
Still seated in his own vehicle, Lino lowered the driver's window, and called out loudly to the person standing next to it, whether the car was for sale. "You can have it for Lm100," came the instant reply, and the deal was done in a jiffy!
He did not face significant problems in getting it back to ship shape. "The engine was in fair condition, the interior was torn, there was the occasional patch of rust, but the restoration process, which lasted a year, proceeded without any major hiccups," recollects Lino, who again did all the work himself, with the exception of spraying it back to its original light blue colour.
At present he is spending all his available spare time working on a 1969 Morris 1000. "This car joined the collection quite by chance. It belonged to a sprayer friend, Carmelo, who contacted me to place an advert for its sale in the Old Motors Club monthly newsletter. When I told my wife about his request, she insisted that we should buy it," states Lino, who adds that he wants to finish the job by the beginning of this summer.
The vehicle needed seeing to, with replacement engine and suspension parts coming from Maltese sources, while seats, roof lining, door packing and carpets have already been procured from England.
As if to prove that old motors men cannot stand idleness and certainly do not suffer from any form of ennui, Lino has already bought another vehicle for the next restoration project, once the Morris job has been finished! Its procurement has a long story, starting off with a letter a British couple resident in Malta wrote to the OMC committee, seeking guidance in selling their 1968 Austin 1100. This request made the appropriate rounds, and Lino was among the various people who were interested in it.
He went to see the car, and it was love at first sight. "I immediately realised it was an uncommon two-door model, and my first impressions were that it had been very well kept and cared for, with very little attention needed to bring it back to its former splendour," confesses Lino.
His initial evaluation and gut feeling were confirmed later on, when he got to know the owner of the car, an English woman who had bought it brand new for her own use only.
Lino gives more details of the story: "She was utterly possessive about it, and her husband told me that even he was never allowed to drive it throughout all their long married life! The rear seats had never been used, except by the family dog, which had its own large, user friendly cushion to avoid possible scratching or any other damage.
"Unfortunately, the wife developed a physical ailment which made driving impossible, and thus they were forced to part with it." The British couple were happy selling their car to him, for they deemed that it was going to be in safe, appropriate hands, but not before Lino had been summoned before the wife for a thorough look over.
"Take good care of my baby," was her parting shot as they concluded the deal, states Lino with a sad tinge in his voice.
We get up from the sitting-dining room area, and proceed to the adjoining garage to view this racing green Austin, a rare and real beauty. Being the very meticulous person that he is, he has already subscribed to the UK Austin 1100 Club.
"I want to keep abreast of what is going on in this particular marque field, gathering vital knowledge about restoration projects as well as expert information on spare parts, before eventually starting to work on it," states a now serious Lino.
With so many restoration tasks carried out, does he find a problem getting all the parts that he needs? Not at all, he quickly responds with a sly grin. "I have a good network of local sources and providers, which I got to compile over a number of years when I had a part-time job as an auto spare parts salesman.
"Also, my job as a vending machine technician takes me all over Malta and Gozo, and I keep my ears close to the ground when an item is required." What is impossible to find here, Lino gets from abroad.
How was the OMC connection established, I ask Lino? "When I bought my first classic car, an extended family member, Tony Vassallo, who also happens to be the club's chief marshal of navigational runs, encouraged me to join.
"I took to it like a fish to water, going mostly for the rallies and treasure hunts, as I prefer the mobile to the static activities," says an enthusiastic Lino, who for some years also served on the club committee helping out in events co-ordination.
The OMC is also attractive to Lino for its family focus. "A number of activities involve the whole social unit, although there is room for the organisation of more family-friendly events involving wives and children," he suggests. Here, Melina, who loves Gozo, chips in with her own proposal: "The OMC hardly holds any activity on the sister island, and something should be done to address this imbalance. Gozitans love old cars, and we know of various families and friends from Gozo who visit Malta specifically at weekends to frequent OMC events, especially the static shows."
Although enamoured of old cars, Melina says that she finds them too hard to handle and manoeuvre, although she did try her hand a number of times. Her husband encourages her not to give up, and reassures her that when the Austin 1100 is restored, it will be the ideal car for her to venture on the local roads.
In the meantime, she continues to help Lino in various tasks, like the interior upholstery, purchasing items from abroad through the Internet, and "being the most constructive critic of his overall work". Son Rhys assists in polishing and cleaning tasks, and daughter Cheryl is no mean hand at dismantling, scraping and paint removing, despite her young age.
With a proud gleam in his eyes, Lino points out that Cheryl was his navigator when he placed first and third in two recent OMC rallies. Pictures and photo albums galore on the dining room table provide enough hard evidence of this tangible family affair, if any was needed.
I enquire whether he has any outstanding ambition, and Lino admits that he would love to go 'topless', in either an MGB or a Triumph Spitfire convertible. "Alas, if only my garage were bigger...," he sighs. With four classic cars (and another dilapidated 1968 Volkswagen intended for customisation or as a beach buggy), the garage is overflowing, and a canopy has been put over part of the driveway to provide temporary shelter for the three modern cars that are for everyday use.
With work benches, spare parts, equipment and various other home- made contraptions which he uses in the restoration process, there is hardly room to move. "The garage is a refuge for me, a relief from the daily pressures of work," continues Lino, who even claims that his frequent migraine attacks disappear when he is working there.
Not for him conventional cures like pills or sleeping it off in the dark! The other family members agree with him in mutual mirth.
It is not easy to uproot oneself from this enjoyable atmosphere created by such a close clan, who make one feel at home in no time at all. But the sunny afternoon skies have now turned to grey, and it is time for me to leave.
I am well out of earshot, but the playful, merry laughter is still ringing happily in my ears. Various longitudinal studies on successful relationships have stressed that the family that plays together, tends to stay together; having spent some quality time with the Grech family, I strongly subscribe to such statistics.
• Joseph Busuttil is PRO of the Old Motors Club, e-mail: [email protected]; Website: www.oldmotorsclub.com