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Wild about jaguars

Photos: Charles Sultana

Photos: Charles Sultana

Charles Sultana, known as ‘Charlie tal-Jaguar’, is the proud owner of a rare 1934 Triumph Gloria Monte Carlo. But that’s not the only vintage horse in his stable.

That the present state of the old motors sector in Malta is a healthy one is beyond doubt. However, this was not always so, and it has only been over the last 25 years or so that this positive development really started to take root.

Most of the credit goes to a handful of locals who had the vision that one fine day, old vehicles will return on the road. Charles Sultana was one of these farsighted few.

“As far as I can remember, cars have always been an integral part of my family. My father Publius earned his livelihood running the Falklands car hire garage in Floriana, with his entire fleet made up of two cars – a Morris 8 and a Morris 12,” he recalls.

“Besides dabbling with these vehicles in the garage, I was also spoilt with a tricycle, a pedal car, and a collection of model cars.”

His interest in classic four-wheelers was further enhanced by the fact that the family house was close to the Royal Air Force headquarters in Floriana, with dashing officers coming and going in their sporty Sunbeams, MGAs, Jaguars, and Ford Lotus. He would wait to hear the super sounds coming from the powerful camshafts, and smell the strong odour of burning fuel. In 1964, his father bought a Ford Corsair, which Charles customised with spacers, spotlights, and racing mirrors, in order to emulate his sporty neighbours – but it was a poor effort, he admits.

Charles continued this mechanical bent by attending the St Joseph Secondary Technical School in Paola, first going into metal work and woodwork, finally specialising in the latter.

After further studies, he started teaching woodwork in various government secondary schools during the day, and harnessing his technical skills on the repair of old motors in his spare time.

As soon as he could drive, he started to buy classic cars, beginning with a 1938 Austin 8, followed by a 1953 Baby Austin A35. A Fordson 10 cwt van followed, soon joined by 1958 Riley 1.5.

“At that time in the early 1970s, the price of petrol rose drastically, and I decided to exchange the petrol guzzling Riley with a diesel Mercedes 180 – something that with hindsight I now regret,” he says.

Despite the petrol hike, old motors aficionados continued to flock to Armier and Ta’ Qali to follow or participate in the unofficial car races held there, especially during the weekend.

In 1971, while searching for a sprayer friend in Rabat, Charles noticed a Jaguar XK 150 S abandoned by the road. He was instantly attracted to it, and further investigations revealed that it was being looked after by a Maltese diver while actually belonging to a British film producer living in Marsascala. A series of complicated transactions over six months with the owner and the caretaker followed before the Jaguar passed into Charles’s hands.

“From Mtarfa, we towed the 1960 model down to Floriana, where for a long time I worked on restoring the old vehicle. Both the body and the gearbox needed a thorough overhaul.”

Charles did all the scraping, panel beating, mechanical and paint work himself. He first replaced the original old English white colour with a white coat, then changed it to silver blue. Dissatisfied with the last tone, he finally settled for the present English racing green.

“The restoration was a rolling one, lasting a number of years. I used to drive it with missing body components. Sometimes I used to take parts to the school where I taught, and with the prior permission of the head, give them to students unwilling to take part in woodwork to go over them. My school policy was: always occupy the students, even the unwilling, in any activity. The idle students were delighted to do something different but practical, like scraping mudguards and bonnets. Now I would meet some of them by chance, and they would remind me of their original stake holding,” says a bemused Charles, who still uses the Jaguar on a regular basis, even in different competitions.

Unfortunately, many had been forced to sell their classic vehicles owing to getting married, or being seduced by modern motors. I did the opposite

Initial exposure to this British icon set off a lifelong fascination to acquire more, and now Charles owns various Jaguar models, including various Mark 1, Mark 11, XJ6, and S Type 3.8 L. Moreover, he is the recognised local expert in repairing old Jaguars – hence his nationwide nickname ‘Charlie tal-Jaguar’.

In 1973, a colleague informed him of an old car in a garage in Birkirkara.

“It was a 1934 Fiat 508 Balilla, in good condition, but rust was cracking the paintwork. The original engine worked perfectly, and the only headache was removing the paint. I applied a brown and beige combination, under the influence of some vehicles starring in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. But later, I had to change it to its original blue and black tones in order to take part in the Fiat centenary concourse d’elegance in 2000.”

Developed by some of the leading Italian car engineers of the day, the Balilla combined some of the qualities of a high-class car with a modestly priced vehicle.

Fired by his foresight and surrounded by a few old motors soul mates, he was one of the five original members of the Collectors’ Vehicles Club set up in 1982.

“This was the first local old vehicles club, aimed at, among other things, the preservation of motors and bikes with historical value, and the organisation of public events to present them to the public. There were also Gerald and Julian Zammit, Anton Cuschieri, and Godwin Hampton. The CVC performed perfectly for a number of years, but then unfortunately disintegrated completely for a number of reasons. However, in its wake, in 1989 we saw the emergence of the present Old Motors Club.”

A very active OMC member, Charles says that the jewel in the OMC crown is the club headquarters, a restored British military battery in Mosta. He dwells on the fact that the CVC had no premises, and members were like fugitives, running from one member’s house to another for meetings.  The current old motors boom thrills him to bits.

“I have been saying, since the 1970s, that old cars will be fashionable again. Unfortunately, many had been forced to sell their classic vehicles owing to getting married, or being seduced by modern motors. I did the opposite.”

In fact, Charles also has squeezed, in a number of garages, a 1965 Daimler V8, a Rover P5 coupe, a 1935 Morris 8 saloon, a 1945 Morris 10 cwt van, an Austin Healy 100/6, a 1965 Fiat Moretti and a 1976 Range Rover. Most are roadworthy while others patiently await restoration.

Being so involved with cars, close friends comment on how patient his wife Violet must be. Acknowledging this, Charles adds that his enthusiasm for old timers has also brushed off on her, and she is a frequent companion in his classics.

“Moreover, my son Clayton, who is an engineer, naturally follows me relentlessly in all old motors projects. The other son, Ian, an auditor and accountant, is also keen, but has less time on his hands.”

Charles has one unfinished major task in life: that of restoring a rare 1934 Triumph Gloria Monte Carlo. Designed by the famous English car designer, rally driver and speed record holder, Donald Healy, only 33 were produced, with 13 surviving worldwide.

“I found it abandoned in a Balzan road, and bought it from its St Julian’s owner. It was in a very bad condition, with no engine but a number. I dismantled it, and aware of its precious pedigree, immediately became a member of the Pre-1940 Triumph Owners Club. They offered me an engine for just over £500, but at that time, I preferred spending that amount on a complete Jaguar. How I regret that decision now.”

For the last 10 years, Charles has been in correspondence with the Triumph club to get to the background of his rare vehicle, especially since the car sports a ‘G 10 – Competition Tourer One’ badge.

“In 1934, Donald Healy used two Gloria racing cars specially modified by himself in the Monte Carlo Rally, coming first in the 1500cc class, and third overall. One of his cars is accounted for. What happened to the other? Is it the one lying in my garage?” he asks.

In recent years, two different secretaries of the English club have visited Charles to inspect at close quarters the Triumph Gloria, and each one offered to buy it. But now Charles has only one thing on his mind: find an original Gloria engine, put the car together again, and find out the origins and history of this rare old motor.

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