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Cars in the capital

Photos by Tony Vassallo, Old Motors Club

Photos by Tony Vassallo, Old Motors Club

John Saliba has translated his passion for vintage cars into an attractive collection and a beautiful event in the capital, Joseph Busuttil from the Old Motors Club says.

On a sunny Sunday last April, the historic grounds around Hastings Gardens in Valletta were invaded by an attractive armada of more than 75 classic cars, which proceeded to proudly take up prominent positions along the old fortifications, with breathtaking views of the restored Manoel Island fortifications below. No resistance was offered, and not a shot was fired – the only sounds were the frequent flashing camera clicks coming from hordes of spectators milling around the old motors.

The first Valletta Concours d’Elegance event had made its debut.

The event was the brainchild of John Saliba, who says that as far as he can remember, he was always in or around classic cars.

“My uncle Carmelo had returned from the United States to resettle in Malta, and having a passion for hunting, wanted to buy an estate vehicle to practise his hobby. I was only two years old when he took me with him to an auto agent in Marsa, from where he took possession of a brand new 1958 Austin Cambridge Estate,” recalls John.

“I was soon a frequent passenger in it, roaming round with my uncle at every available opportunity. It was my baptism of fire, converting me effortlessly to a lifelong devotee of old motors.”

Needless to say, this two-door vehicle now enjoys pride of place in his small collection of classic cars. He dwells on the fact that this Austin estate has coachwork by Martin Walter Limited, and that it still sports its original 1.5cc engine, grey colour, and red upholstery.

When John got his driving licence at 18, he wanted to buy a car. His father Joseph came to the rescue and gave him his own 1967 Ford Anglia.

“This 10cc, 105E model in old English white was in perfect condition. It did not need any doing up, but captivated by the local current custom of the swinging 1960s of congregating at the abandoned Ta’ Qali grounds for unofficial car races, I changed its original wheels to replace them with alloy ones.”

John is quick to add, however, that he has retained these, and sometimes nostalgically bolts on the standard factory wheels temporarily to take part in classic car shows.

John also has a 1964 Renault 4 TL, an early model with the old grille. He changed the original blue colour to beige, but is now having second thoughts about it, and says he will paint it blue again in future. Also known as the 4L, this hatchback 8cc economy car was produced between 1961 and 1992, and was a commercial success due to its trimming and design.

A fascination for the Mercedes estate finally led him to purchase a 1983 W123 five door model. This vehicle has a long history, having been brought to Malta by an English settler, who some time after registering it, unfortunately passed away. It was bought by a Maltese mechanic who looked after it. It changed hands again before eventually arriving at John’s stable.

“The light green, 2L, German car was in excellent condition, and the only thing I did on it was self-levelling repairs and general cleaning.”

The Mercedes Benz W123 Estate was a range of executive cars made between 1976 and 1985. Such was its instant popularity and demand that a black market soon developed for it in Germany. With waiting lists of up to a year, many models changed hands almost immediately after leaving the showroom with hefty profits being made.

John’s daily car is a running classic, a 1984 BMW E30, also known as the Series 3.

“Initially, I had bought a 1986 model from Zabbar, but its grey body needed repainting. Instead of going through with this task, I spotted a similar one in very good original condition and bought the metallic burgundy vehicle.”

Two other classics also spent some time with John before moving on. One was a 1972 Sunbeam Stiletto bought from an English woman, and the other was a 1983 Ford Fiesta.

“The first vehicle had to be sold so that I could finish my house, while the second one moved out after being used for teaching my daughter Priscilla to drive.”

John has always been deeply enthralled with the architectural heritage and beauty of Valletta.

“For many years, just walking up and down the historic streets of the capital and gazing lovingly at the imposing baroque buildings, provided me with soothing and serene sentiments of peace, tranquillity and the continuity of life. I wanted more people to appreciate this glittering gem,” he says, explaining how the idea of combining the elaborate culture and art of Valletta with the artistic appearance and presence of classic cars gave rise to the concept of the first Valletta Concours d’Elegance.

When he tested the ground, it was initially infertile. Some said it could not be done, others opined it was superfluous as there were already similar events at the Malta Classic Grand Prix and at Villa Bologna.

“While both events are laudable, I wanted something different while not wanting to compete with them. Having attended the two activities and even participated in one of them, the feedback was that both events had limited space, and a number of would-be participants felt left out. I wanted to organise something more inclusive, and different in the sense that all the judges would be professional and come from abroad.”

Working intensely with a small group of colleagues, his concept came to fruition within the span of five months, having successfully dealt with all financial, bureaucratic, logistical and organisational aspects. Full cooperation was received from, among others, the Valletta Local Council, the police, Transport Malta, and main sponsors, Auto Sales Limited.

The event had many categories, including Elegance, Best Pre and Post War, Best Preservation and Original, Popular Classics, Sports Cars, Pedal Cars, Light Commercials, Best Costume, and Best in Show Car – the latter being won by Oliver Attard in his Citroen Traction Avant. Twelve judges, led by Nick Waller of Pebble Beach California and Bonhams fame, came from the US, the UK, Sweden and Italy to look at the old motors.

“Thanks to all involved, the event was a success, although headaches persisted until the very end,” points out John.

“The original activity was earmarked for the Castille – Merchants Street area. But at the eleventh hour, we were moved to Hastings Garden owing to another major event suddenly being held on the same site. But all’s well that ends well. We have received very good feedback from participants and spectators, as well as positive publicity abroad.”

Encouraged by the feedback, John, together with the rest of the organising team, is already planning the second edition of the Valletta Concours d’Elegance, which he says will also include a number of old megacars for exhibition, an art show and maybe a jazz night.

John is one of the first members of the Old Motors Club, and served for many years on its committee. He harbours one regret in relation to old cars.

“My best classics – the Austin and the Anglia – are family heirlooms, having being passed from generation to generation. But both my wife Emily and my daughter do not harbour any deep affection for old motors. So what will happen to my collection in future?”

However, the ever positive John instantly moves on to the logistics of the forthcoming Valletta Concours d’Elegance event for May 2018, which happily coincides with Valletta holding the status of European Capital of Culture, adding much kudos to this unique and comprehensive combination of culture and classic cars.

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