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Red alert

For Gerald Portanier, restoring a classic car is a challenge for the grey matter.

As the significant stage of adolescence approaches, when a boy becomes a young man – and a girl a young woman – their thoughts start to shift towards romance and young love. However, there are exceptions – Gerald Portanier and his younger brother Louie were two of them.

“At that age, we were determined to spend every second of our spare time at the car hire garage situated in our street in Guardamangia,” Gerald recalled.

The place was replete with British cars, mainly Minis, Triumphs and anything falling under the British Leyland brand. The owner was kind and friendly and used to teach us some technical ropes. Very soon we were helping out in small maintenance and repair tasks. To us, it was akin to the secret garden or Aladdin’s cave. That early exposure to cars, especially the MG marque, instilled in me a genuine interest in old motors”.

This infatuation with MGs developed further when his sister Mary Grace started going out with a boyfriend – now her husband – who used to come to their house in his father’s MG Magnette. Gerald’s fondness was further enhanced when at times he was allowed to drive the MG. Years later, when this vehicle was put for sale, his heart was eager to buy it, but his head and financial situation dictated otherwise.

Being obsessed with speed and timing, he joined the Island Car Club in the 1980s, participating in rallies in a Ford Fiesta. But after a number of years, he had to stop owing to work pressure. In the late 1990s, he was back at the club, this time serving four years on the committee as chairman.

“During that period, we invested heavily in state-of-the-art timing equipment, and a mobile unit, which are still being harnessed today. Additionally the number of hillclimb participants rose from 30 to 100,” he said with a hint of pride.

Gerald then went onto sailing, something which is also very dear to him. He bought a 30-year-old boat and upgraded it. Having had a technical and mechanical educational background and still practising it in his career, he takes to the repair and maintenance of anything which moves like a duck to water. In fact, for many years, he used to service and fix the vehicles of close family members as well as helping out friends who needed motoring assistance. However, in recent years he has increasingly found these tasks boring.

“Modern cars have become so automatic and computerised that for me, they represent no complex challenge to stimulate the grey matter,” he said.

Needing a technical challenge and approaching the midlife stage of 50, Gerald decided to buy himself a classic car.

His line of thinking is that given the financial outlay and the hours of work you spend in restoring an old vehicle, it is better to go for an upmarket classic car

“While the decision was not hard to arrive at, implementing it took one and a half years. In my opinion, there are three general guidelines to be followed prior to buying a classic car. First, decide what model you want to buy. Second, research thoroughly the type through literature, buyers’ guides, manuals, the internet, what to look for in strengths and weaknesses, and whether your choice has added or lower value. Thirdly, venture into the market”.

His line of thinking is that given the financial outlay and the hours of work you spend in restoring an old vehicle, it is better to go for an upmarket classic car which will significantly increase in value as an investment, rather than for a standard classic whose value will remain more or less static.

Another of his personal beliefs is that, especially for the first classic purchase, it is better to go for a rolling restoration – buying an old car which you can drive while carrying out tasks like sprucing it up, settings, replacement of parts, and general upgrade – than carrying out a nut and bolt restoration project which will take a number of years prior to seeing the car back on the road again.

Faithfully practising what he preaches, he first decided on buying an MGA.

“Call it nostalgia if you will, but when the MGA came out in 1955, its body-on-frame design was powered by a 1500cc straight-4 “B series” engine from the MG Magnette saloon. In my office I have an advertising poster stating: “The MGA – A New Beginning”, with the MGA taking centre stage, and the MG Magnette at the bottom of the poster. There is a very definite connection between them”.

Initially Gerald saw an MGA on a London dealer’s website. He went there to have a closer look, but they did not agree on the price. Incidentally, Gerald points out, the old car had a Maltese number plate. Soon after, another MGA was located in Palermo, and a deal was reached. Prior to committing himself, Gerald checked out the genuineness of the engine and chassis numbers, as well as involving the UK MG Owners Club in tracing and verifying its history. He then went to Sicily to bring it to Malta.

The red 1958 MGA was in excellent working condition, and with a nut and bolt restoration carried out 10 years ago, both body and engine left nothing to be desired. All it needed was sprucing up, and tasks carried out by Gerald himself included the dismantling and setting of the carburettors, as well as taking off the mudguards and the rear, scrubbing them down to metal, and restoring them.

“The latter task confirmed the quality of the previous full restoration project done in Italy,” he said.

The MGA, produced from 1955 to 1962, was a complete break in style from earlier MG sports cars. Just over 100,000 were produced, mainly for the American market. In fact, Gerald’s car is a left-hand drive one, and spent many years in the US prior to coming to Italy.

“I am delighted that now I can get out my old tool sets and skills in order to service and maintain the old timer,” he said, adding that he frequently drives the MGA, sometimes even to work.

“But these old vehicles were not built for today’s congested roads, as the engine heats up in traffic, and the clutch and steering are hard to handle”.

His wife Anna Maria, and twin children Paul and Julia are very keen on the latest family addition, and frequently involve themselves in Old Motors Club activities.

Gerald is no newcomer to the OMC as for many years ago, he used to be the navigator in the MGB belonging to, and driven by, Mario Scicluna, one of the original OMC members, in club rallies.

Gerald describes the local old motors scene as encouraging and expanding, but with unfortunate fragmentation among clubs.

Will the MGB be joined by another classic car in the future?

“In actual fact, six months ago I quit smoking, and as a pat on the back, I was going to buy a classic Vespa motorcycle. But with the current spate of motorcycle accidents, my worried wife has asked me to buy another classic car instead. Now my sights are set on a classic Range Rover Mark 1, also known as the Suffix A.”

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