Football and cars

Football and cars

In 1964 Emanuel Abela bought a Triumph Spitfire, which was his pride and joy for six years, until a number of circumstances forced him to sell it in 1970. In the passage of time, the desire to acquire another Triumph remained dormant owing to other pressing priorities until finally it emerged in 2006.

A fast car was a must, an entry ticket into a special peer group- Joseph Busuttil

“I have always been interested in old cars,” Abela said. “My childhood was spent in Sliema, but as a teenager I spent most of my time in Gzira, at the premises of relatives who had a garage full of mainly American cars, buying, repairing, and selling them. At one time, they had 500, including Lincolns, Packards, Studebakers, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, and all kinds of Fords. I used to help out in all kinds of ways, and felt a natural inclination towards classic motors.”

At around that time, he also began to feel technically oriented, and at the age of 14, he started an apprenticeship as a ship fitter at the Malta Drydocks. He spent 47 years at the Drydocks, until he reached retirement age.

“As an apprentice, I used to get a little pocket money, and with some other small earnings from other odd jobs, I saved in order to eventually buy a car,” Abela said. In 1964 he had enough saved to buy a Triumph Spitfire.

“In the swinging 1960s, I was right in the midst of the young men in Malta with speed as the thought uppermost in their minds. A fast car was a must, a status symbol, a badge of identity, an entry ticket into a special peer group, a sure sign of protest. The large group would get together with their Spitfires, Mini Minors, Mini Coopers, Alfa Romeos, MG and MG Midgets, and Jaguar E Types, and set off for pre-determined unofficial racing sites at Tal-Barrani, Armier, or Ta’ Qali, where we would let off steam.”

“I have always looked at the Spitfire as something exceeding beauty in shape and style. For me it was love at first sight with its sleek and sporty appearance. From the technical aspect, it is easy to handle and not difficult to work on. Besides, its class seeps though its curves and contours, a hallmark of the Italian designer Michelotti,” Abela said.

The Spitfire was evolved by Giovanni Michelotti for Standard Triumph, with the platform for the small two-seat sports car largely based upon the chassis, engine, and running gear of the Triumph Herald saloon – another Michelotti idea. The vehicle, which saw the light of day in 1962, had its bodywork fitted onto a separate structural chassis. While the main production base was in Coventry, England, the Spitfire was also assembled in a number of countries, including Malta.

“In the 1960s, the Malta Car Assembly at Marsa was a hub of activity, putting together a number of vehicles, including the Triumph Herald and the Spitfire. I was one of the lucky persons who bought one of the first 10 Spitfires that came off the assembly line,” Abela said, adding that he could still roll off by heart the names of the other nine owners. His dark grey Spitfire 4, also known as the Mark I, came with a 1147cc engine, and was in production for two years.

For six years, the vehicle gave Abela endless joy and pleasure, as a number of old photos in his garage clearly indicate. However, he was also passionate about another sport: football. His inherent talents as a goalkeeper were first nurtured at the Sliema Wanderers youth team, and later in the first team ranks of Gżira United, who in the early 1960s were always hovering high in the then second division football league.

“We had a very good team in those days, even managing to gain promotion to the first division in season 1963-64,” Abela said.

With football training taking up a significant part of his free time, as well as preparations to get married, the Spitfire was first sidelined, then sold. However, the desire to be behind the wheel of another similar vehicle was always deeply entrenched in his subconscious. It was just a matter of time, albeit a very long time, before it came to the surface.

“I had been enjoying my retirement for a couple of years, when in 2006, I came across a Spitfire for sale by auction on the internet. I fell in love with it at first sight, and bought it. The vehicle was in Plymouth, England, and so I asked my brother-in-law, who lives in the UK, to go and inspect it. Sometime later, I also flew to England to have a closer look at the car.”

Despite buying the vehicle before actually viewing it, Abela did not have one single regret about his decision. The 1969 Spitfire Mark III was in a very good condition, and it was soon on its way to Southampton for eventual shipping to Malta. On arrival, the engine needed very little maintenance, and the only major task undertaken was changing its colour from orange red to signal red, with matching black upholstery. It was soon back on the road, and after nearly four decades, he was again savouring a Spitfire.

The Mark III represented the first major facelift to the model. The front bumper was raised in response to new safety regulations. The front end of the bonnet also looked different. The over riders were removed from the bumper, which now had reversing lights, and the engine upgraded to a bored out 1296cc unit.

Abela and his Spitfire are frequent participants in Old Motors Club activities, with a preference for static shows, as these are less demanding on the vehicle. He is greatly impressed by the increased enthusiasm seen locally for old motors, and the genuine love and affection their owners bestow on them.

“Earlier this year I spent a few weeks in Melbourne, visiting relatives. Besides going to the Australian Grand Prix, I also went to a number of classic car shows in the area. There I met a number of Maltese who participated with their old motors. These included Freddie Azzopardi, who used to live in Gżira, with his 1948 Morris Minor, 1961 Vauxhall Victor, and 1962 Ford Cortina.

Another former Gżiraresident, Carmel Borg, was also there with his eye-catching 1938 Buick 8. Yes, definitely, Maltese in Australiado continue local traditions, and this is not limited to local delicacies like the cheesecake, but also the old motors menu!”

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