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The real priorities

A health scare pushed Mario Psaila to nurse a passion for classic cars, Joseph Busuttil from the Old Motors Club says.

Photos: Tony Vassallo, Old Motors Club

Photos: Tony Vassallo, Old Motors Club

In today’s fast and furious lifestyle, many a dormant childhood dream is put on the back burner indefinitely owing to time pressures. Until one is forced to steer into the slow lane, or stop on the hard shoulder, and with plenty of time on one’s hands, the mind starts to reflect on the real priorities in life.

Some time ago, Mario Psaila, a financial consultant, found himself in this position.

“In November 2013, I was in a hospital bed, waiting for a serious operation. As I lay there, surrounded by doctors deliberating on medical tests and my physical state, nostalgic memories of my teenage years growing up in Paola started to meander in the alleys of my mind. Having always had an interest in classic cars, I could pleasantly revisit images of youths with their roaring Triumph Spitfires roasting the roads of the south. There was this common perception that Spitfires ruled the south, while the MBG was the motor of choice in the posh areas of Sliema and its surroundings”.

Luckily for Psaila, the medical intervention was a success. But the die was cast, and within a few weeks, a Triumph Spitfire was in his garage. “I saw the vehicle on a UK classic car website. I spent about four to five days negotiating with the owner, who after some time, told me she had other offers. It looked in a good condition, I did not want to lose the car, and eventually gave her what she was asking for.”

Psaila did not have any regrets about his decision, so much so that when the 1972, signal red Triumph Spitfire Mk IV arrived, the VRT testing station gave it full marks. The only thing that needed replacement was the upholstery involving the doors, seating and floor – a task he carried out himself.

“The finished vehicle impressed my son Declan so much that he wanted to go up immediately to the UK, and buy a classic car for himself. We first went to the Anglia Auction in Norfolk, but while driving in the outskirts of Peterborough, we saw a classic car repair and sales outlet. A gleaming 1972, old English white MGB caught our attention – the fact that one of the mechanics there had a Maltese father facilitated the purchasing process, and the MGB was soon on its way to the island.”

Psaila has always had a soft spot for the Triumph marque. “It goes back to when my father Salvo was learning to drive on a Triumph Herald in the early 1960s, and I used to sit in the back,” he explains.

“He then bought a Triumph 1300 front-wheel drive, which at the time was considered upmarket. My first car was also a similar 1967 model, and I kept it for seven years.”

A number of other cars passed through his hands, including a 1962 Morris Traveller which he bought mainly for tasks connected with building his house. The intention was that when construction was completed, he would restore the classic vehicle – in fact he had started to buy spares, including the ash frame from the UK. But when Psaila started to dismantle the body, he found out that it was a botched job and he had no option but to sell the crumbling vehicle for less than the cost of the wooden frame.

Psaila has another two Triumph models – one is a 1972 Stag V8, which he bought on EBay. He found the vehicle in the outskirts of London, and conducted a thorough inspection through Skype. The white-coloured vehicle was in a good and original condition, needing no attention whatsoever.

He dwells lovingly on the history of the Stag, which he says Triumph developed as their flagship, upmarket car to compete with the class of Mercedes and BMW. However, management problems, poor quality control, and an antiquated engine design led to a marketing disaster. To complicate matters, when Triumph merged with Rover, its engineers insisted that the Stag should continue to be fitted with the Triumph, not Rover, V8 engines, as they claimed only their engines fitted – a sad story.

It goes back to when my father was learning to drive on a Triumph Herald and I used to sit in the back

The third Triumph in the garage is a 1980 Dolomite Sprint, which he also purchased online. While not in a bad condition, Psaila has dismantled the vehicle and describes the situation as a work in progress. Manufactured between 1972 and 1980, the Dolomite was the final addition to the small car range of the Triumph company.

Psaila also has a soft spot for Land Rover, which he describes as having both a rugged appearance as well as performance. Three such vehicles are to be found in his garage. The first is a 1984, black and green camouflage coloured Series 3, which he has just restored. However, he admits to a preference for the earlier Series 2A – he has two of these models, both dating from 1962.

“I had been eyeing one of them in Attard for a long time, and when the white body, black top vehicle finally came on the market, I went for it. It was in a very good condition, with a perfectly original 2.3 petrol engine.”

Alas, the second Land Rover was the complete opposite. “I set myself a challenge, for I really bought a wreck of a vehicle. I had to harness a low loader to get the various parts from Marsascala. The chassis – which is the most important factor in this project – is being rebuilt gradually, similar to the front and rear axles. Nearly all the parts of the limestone coloured car have been completed, it is now just a matter of putting it back together.”

Psaila has long been attracted to the Old Motors Club well before he started collecting classic cars. He mentions landmark regular static shows that used to be held at the old Trade Fair grounds in Naxxar, and how he filmed videos of the participating vehicles. While he regularly takes out his robust Land Rovers, he is a little reluctant when it comes to the Triumph classics.

“Speaking from experience, it is dangerous at present to drive an old motor in Malta, owing to lack of road manners. Because of this situation, I only hazard out either early on a Sunday morning, or early in the afternoon, when the roads are not so busy.”

Psaila describes the local classic car scene as vibrant, with attractive changes in registration and other charges making it more viable to go for a purchase. But he opines that sometimes, classic car owners take themselves, and their vehicles, too seriously.

“I go abroad to visit old motor shows, and there one finds everything – from the rare models transported in trailers and laid out on carpets, to standard classics with their scratches, warts and all. There is a place for everybody and every old car. But here in Malta everything must be spick and span, otherwise a barrage of snide remarks and destructive criticism comes your way.”

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