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Wheels of time

The 1904 Siddeley, the first-ever registered car in Malta. Photos: Jonathan Borg

The 1904 Siddeley, the first-ever registered car in Malta. Photos: Jonathan Borg

The old saying goes that history was written on the back of a horse. Jessica Arena leafs through David Arrigo’s new book which highlights the moments when history was instead made behind the wheel of a car.

At the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta, two pieces from David Arrigo’s collection – including the first-ever registered Maltese car – are being displayed throughout this week.

The elegant setting in the palace courtyard seems somehow curated to host these cars. The glory of the baroque interior is a pleasant contrast to the quaint, veteran vehicles, which however do not going unnoticed and inspire tourists to snap a constant flurry of pictures.

The message is a clear one that transcends any language barrier: these cars are as much part of our history as the palace they are parked in.

Mr Arrigo’s new book, Majestic Cars and the Palace Square, is a dedicated volume of both invaluable archival work that can contribute to melitensia and a charming catalogue of Maltese vehicles throughout the ages that any motoring enthusiast will enjoy.

I was lucky, I started collecting when you could buy cars locally. Nowadays, it’s extremely difficult to find a ‘Malta car’

The inspiration behind it is the upcoming Valletta Concours d’Elegance, being held for the first time this Sunday at St George’s Square. The square is arguably the highlight of Mr Arrigo’s book, as it details many significant eras in its history; from execution grounds and car park to host of royal parades, the square has seen it all.

Mr Arrigo points out several photographs that were taken only steps away from the Palace. These feature shops that were previously car dealerships, buildings reduced to rubble during bombings and royalty – the likes of King Edward V, King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth II – stepping out of their cars and on to the cobble stones.

“I represent the history of cars in Malta through a history of photographs which I call ‘majestic cars’,” Mr Arrigo says. “In 1907 it was the first time that cars were used by royalty in Malta. King Edward VII brought his cars with him.”

The collection of photogaphs detailing the history of the square becomes not only remarkable, but ties directly to Mr Arrigo’s personal car collection. He collects what he refers to as ‘Malta cars’, which are cars that were brought to Malta when they were new and spent the majority of their time here.

David Arrigo in front of his Cadillac.David Arrigo in front of his Cadillac.

“One of my passions is to bring back some of the cars that left,” he says, pointing to one of the cars, which spent four decades in England.

This 1904 Siddeley happens to be the first car ever brought to Malta, and bears its original registration number of ‘1’. It has something of an amusing past, having earned itself the nickname ‘Il-Karozza tan-Nar’ during its time in Gozo.

“The Gozitans were terrified,” Mr Arrigo says. “You read a lot of accounts of people being frightened or suspicious of them. It was the first car ever on the island and no one had ever seen one.”

Bringing back these missing cars, however, is not always a straightforward journey.

“I was lucky, I started collecting when you could buy cars locally,” Mr Arrigo says. “Nowadays, it’s extremely difficult to find a ‘Malta car’ on the island; even important cars, whose absence has been noted by experts, are increasingly hard to trace.”

Above all, Majestic Cars is a nostalgic work, one that taps into the collective memory of shared history, and the personal histories of many of the subjects of the pictures in the book.

Mr Arrigo shares an anecdote of only a few days ago. While visiting the display, an older gentleman was flipping through the pages of the book and began pointing out cars whose owners he knew and some of which he had seen during his lifetime.

The man’s father had owned a garage during the 1920s and 1930s, and he had spent so much time there as a boy that he had a wealth of knowledge about all the cars in Ħamrun at the time. These are the sources that best inform the work Mr Arrigo has done.

Having come together over the course of three decades from public archives and private collections, people may easily recognise family-owned vehicles or ancestors themselves within the pages of the book. By publishing his work right in time for the Concours d’Elegance, Mr Arrigo feels that both the event and his book will help enrich the local motoring culture.

Getting to see these cars that are no longer on the road and viewed so fleetingly is an opportunity to learn more about them and about the rich and important history they represent. 

David Arrigo will be signing copies of his book, Majestic Cars and the Palace Square, at the Grandmaster’s Palace until the end of the week and at the Valletta Concours d’Elegance on Sunday.

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