The Dingli family’s passion for vintage cars is earning them silver screen status, Joseph Busuttil from the Old Motors Club says.
Film producers from many countries view Malta and Gozo as an ideal backdrop for their prospective productions. The historic and unique locations, sunny weather for most of the year, and a steady supply of supporting facilities are among the main attractions that draw big names both from the silver as well as the small screen industries to the islands.
Sometimes the film script is set in the past, and in order to be as faithful as possible, producers try to recreate a bygone era down to the minutest detail. This would call, in the case of traffic and transport, for the provision of old cars belonging to the period of the picture flitting in and out of the action.
With such a rich local heritage of old motors, this requirement is easily seen to by a number of classic car owners who are more than willing to offer their vehicle, and sometimes even themselves, as extras in the production.
Joseph Dingli is one of them.
“I was born in a family that ran two auto establishments, the Medway Garage in Marsa that carried out mechanical tasks, and the Liberty Self Hire Garage in Ħamrun,” he says.
“Both had more than their fair share of old cars around. In the Ħamrun garage, I remember, among other motors, a seven-seater, 1939 Plymouth, a 1956 Ford Fairlane, as well as a 1950 Hillman which is still sometimes seen in Sliema.”
He adds that there were eight children in the Dingli family – four boys and four girls – but only his brother John and himself followed their father in the running of the mechanical garage, as eventually the car hire facility was closed down.
In his early years, a number of old cars went through his hands, including a 1950 black Austin Devon, a blue and white 1960 Bedford CA van, as well as a light blue with dark blue roof 1961 Simca Aronde Elysee.
Dingli has always had a soft spot for big American vehicles, and his present car collection reflects this. A 1955 Pontiac V8 (370) brings back a lot of nostalgia for him.
“Originally the large vehicle was brought to Malta for use by the American Embassy, but eventually it was sold to the Texas Garage. The new owner harnessed it for weddings, and sometimes he used to come over to our garage in Ħamrun with it. The first time I laid eyes on it, I immediately dreamt of owning it – but the time was not yet ripe. Later the car was sold, and when it finally turned up for sale in Mosta, I lost no time in acquiring it. The colour of the vehicle had been changed to black, but I opted for its original combination of green and white.” Another large American car, a 1970 Buick, also sits on the sides, awaiting restoration.
Being a professional mechanic, Dingli has bought to life a number of old motors which now grace his garage. These include a black 1957 Wolseley 15/50, which was purchased from a carpenter in Birkirkara. It was roadworthy but eventually needed an overhaul, which turned out to be a lengthy nut-and-bolt restoration task. Two other restoration projects involved a four-door, 1957 Ford Prefect he bought with a Morris engine that was replaced by the original Ford side valve one, as well as a 1967 Peugeot 404 that also saw its BMC engine changed to the original.
He has always had a soft spot for big American vehicles
Dingli has now retired from work due to health reasons, but still frequently goes to his workplace in Marsa, which has now been converted into space for accommodating his car collection. Other vehicles in the garage include a light blue 1972 Morris Marina, a maroon 1972 Hillman Hunter – put together at the Malta Car Assembly – and a green 1980 Opel Kadett. Despite having so many old cars, each with its own pedigree, he does not make any distinction between them.
“There are no favourites – they are all part of my family,” he quickly points out.
He is very proud that some of his old motors were featured in films.
“The Ford Prefect has been harnessed in two productions. In 2005, it appeared in the film Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg. Two years later, director Robert Young used it for the story about Adolf Eichmann. In 2015, the Peugeot played a small part in the film By the Sea, starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.”
Dingli has two sons, who although not following in their father’s business, have nevertheless been also bitten by the classic car bug. Christopher has totally imbibed his father’s fascination with big American cars, and he has a long list of such limousines. These include an eight-seater black 1950 De Soto, a blue 1967 Ford Meteor, a light blue metallic 1959 Chrysler Imperial, an off white Chevrolet Impala of the same year, as well as a gold 1981 GMC van. Another couple of American vehicles – a green 1951 Dodge Royal and a black 1956 Chevrolet – await restoration.
Besides these large vehicles, Christopher has also acquired a number of standard sized classic cars. In his garage one can find a blue 1957 Ford Thames 400E, a white 1961 Volkswagen, a green 1963 Singer Vogue, a red Triumph 2000 of the same year, and a white 1972 Ford Transit Mk 1 which needs an overhaul.
The other son, Mark, has so far limited his acquisitions to just one old auto – a white 1968 Toyota. He says that he bought the vehicle from its sole owner, who had kept it in original and showroom condition, and had clocked up only 13,000 miles prior to parting with it. The Toyota Crown is a range of middle to full size luxury cars that first came off the line in 1955. Mark’s model belongs to the third generation S50 output that was manufactured between 1967 and 1971. The Crown’s claim to fame includes being the longest running name plate fixed to any Toyota model, as well as for being the first Japanese car to be exported to the American market.
All three male members of the Dingli family belong to the Old Motors Club, and frequently participate in club events, sometimes as a trio. Their favourite activity is static shows, of which they would like to see more, as was the practice in the past. All of them subscribe to the point of view that locally, old motors are now earning the respect they deserve.
“Before, no one cared for old cars, but now the scenario is shifting. There are some people who actually prefer buying an old car instead of a brand new one,” Dingli says.
Christopher echoes his father’s feelings, adding that he just hated seeing old cars going to the scrap heap, and embarked on a crusade to save as many of them as he could from destruction. His burgeoning collection of classic cars is proof enough that he puts his money where his mouth is.