Published: 13-Jun-2012 15:18
On a recent trip to visit Gary and Pat Asplin, I was quite surprised to see their impressive collection of Austins. In fact, I can’t actually recall the last time I’ve seen this many representatives of the Flying A marque tucked away in a garage at one time. Cars such as Gary’s daily driver — a very nice 1978 Austin Maxi — together with a 1970 Austin Mini 1000 Automatic in superb original condition, a 1937 Austin Seven and a lovely, one-owner 1970 Wolseley. But what I had really come to see was the Asplin’s gorgeous and very rare, fully restored 1970 Austin 1800 ute.
I looked around this Austin 1800 ute — and I have to admit I’ve never seen one before — with Gary (just out of hospital after receiving a nice new knee) who proudly pointed out every intricate detail on his pride and joy. I couldn’t help feeling this wasn’t a bad-looking vehicle. In fact it boasts a nicely proportioned body offering oodles of space in the rear — suitable for carrying a 2.4 by 1.2-metre sheet of Gib or ply.
Best of British
Once back indoors — with his ‘new’ knee back in a resting position — Gary told me he’d always had a passion for old British cars, especially Austins.
In 1951 when he was just 15 years old he met his future wife, Pat, who was also 15. Both had just left school and had good permanent jobs. Gary recalls teaching Pat how to drive (there’s a brave move) in his dad’s 1928 Model A Ford, which she eventually mastered after quite a few spats because of braking, gear changes and running into ditches — amongst other things. It wasn’t too long after learning to drive the Model A that Pat decided to step down a size or two, and in 1952 she purchased her first car — a 1937 Austin 7 Ruby.
The fortunate situation for Gary was that he was lucky enough to be able to keep the little Austin parked at his place — but only on the condition he collected Pat and took her home from work each day. That arrangement worked quite well, although Gary reckons there were a few complaints about his shabby punctuality. Nonetheless, they enjoyed going everywhere they could in the Ruby.
The following year, 1953, Gary and Pat sold the trusty Ruby and bought Gary’s granddad’s car — another 1937 Austin 7 Ruby, this time around a very low mileage vehicle with only 25,000 miles (40,000km) on the clock, and in absolutely immaculate condition, having been garaged all its life and only used for weekly shopping trips.
Both Gary and Pat reckoned the new car was just awesome, and they kept it for five years, by which time they had finally tied the knot and married. Subsequently, with the birth of their daughter and the issues of travelling with a bassinet on the back seat and all the appropriate baby gear, the diminutive size of the Ruby became quite a problem. Sadly, the time had come to upgrade to a larger car that would accommodate all their luggage. This time they bought a 1953 Austin A30 that also proved to be an excellent vehicle, but as the Asplin family continued to grow, the search was soon on again for something bigger. That turned out to be a 1963 Austin Vanden Plas which was, in fact, one of their favourite cars before they purchased an Austin 1300 in 1972. Another step up and another Austin, this time a Chilli Red Austin 1800 which Gary and Pat became rather fond of: this was the car their teenage kids would learn to drive in. Then, unable to resist the temptation, they bought a 1973 Austin Maxi, another great car which they owned for a few years before purchasing an Austin 1300GT and then Pat’s mother’s Austin A35 — the latter car was eventually sold but is still going great with another member of the Austin Flying A Club.
Once all the family had flown the nest, it was time for Gary to think of a little project to keep him busy and, as he was extremely fond of Austins (as you’ve probably gathered by now), his first thought was to try and locate an Austin 1800 ute, something he’d always admired. Unfortunately they were few and far between, so over the next few years, wherever they went on holiday, they would scan farms and rural sheds looking for old cars that might need a home, but to no avail. Occasionally Pat would say, “Did you see that one?” and a few kilometres down the road a discussion would begin as to whether they should turn back to look. In most cases they did turn back for a closer look — if only to confirm that the ‘find’ was simply an old rusty shell of something that didn’t resemble anything that Gary recognised.
As time passed, Gary and Pat almost gave up on their search and even trawled the internet and looked in Australia for something suitable, only to discover that the asking price was too much for the few they found. Pat’s comment to Gary was along the lines that he should be thinking of some other project.
However, Gary wasn’t prepared to give up and carried on searching. Finally, while browsing through Trucks for Sale magazine, he came across an Austin ute that was for sale in Hastings. Thoroughly enthused by what they saw in the ad, Gary and Pat arranged to go and see the ute itself and, after spending a nice weekend away and meeting the owner, Gary thought he could get the Austin looking good, but no definite price was agreed upon. In any case, as a project car this Austin appeared too expensive, as he could see a lot of work that would need doing. Reluctantly, he decided to keep on searching.
Then, after talking to several Flying A car club members, Gary learned of another Austin 1800 ute languishing in a wrecker’s yard in Cambridge, and decided to investigate further by travelling south to take a closer look. This time the ute was exactly what Gary had been searching for, and after some negotiating and many telephone conversations, the Austin was almost in Gary’s grasp when the sale suddenly ground to a halt following problems with the owner. After several fruitless telephone calls, Gary decided the purchase was in the ‘too hard basket’, so he was back to square one.
Fast forward two years and Gary was anticipating his 70th birthday. Unbeknownst to him their son, Mark, had contacted the owner of the Cambridge-based Austin 1800 ute once again to see if it was possible to purchase it. The plan was to have it delivered to Gary’s home as a surprise birthday present — this all happening only two weeks prior to the 70th party.
Pat couldn’t believe it when Mark rang and said, “Mum, we can get it next weekend!” Now it looked as if a deal had been struck, Pat started to have second thoughts — she well remembered seeing the ute in its old shed, well stacked with car parts on its tray, plus visible rust and multi-coloured paint. However, she kept her concerns to herself and decided to go along with the plan — which included her grandchildren blowing up heaps of balloons and making streamers and signs.
The day duly arrived, and a family friend who lived in Cambridge trailered the car to Mark’s house early on the day of Gary’s birthday. There, he tinkered with the motor which spluttered and coughed, but could now be driven a few metres down the driveway.
Meanwhile, Gary was having a wonderful day enjoying his 70th with friends and family, completely unaware of what was about to happen when everyone heard a loud rattling noise, and a honking horn. Gary looked outside to see the long-awaited Austin 1800 ute puffing up his driveway, appropriately decorated in birthday attire with grandchildren as passengers on the back, all waving and yelling. Gary looked up — he just couldn’t believe his eyes, even experiencing tears of happiness and joy. Everyone was looking and laughing and giving it the once over — someone even commented “who would give anyone a piece of crap like this for a 70th birthday”, but Pat reckoned that one day they would eat their words, just you wait and see.
That all happened in 2006 — and from that point, the transformation of Gary and Pat’s 1970 Austin 1800 ute began. On further inspection over the days following the birthday party, they found rust had taken hold almost everywhere and wondered what to do next. “Take it to the tip!” was Pat’s first thought, but after quite a while and deep consideration, they decided to embark on a full restoration project.
The first step was to have the body looked at by Gary’s friend, conveniently a panel beater. From what he could see the bodywork looked fairly reasonable, apart from the many small dents and the multi-coloured paint scheme. Once the car was jacked up, a closer look underneath revealed some nasty surprises such as the sills. They appeared to be in good condition but new steel had actually been welded over the old rusty bits, the lot then packed with body filler to disguise the shabby repair. Gary worked at the Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) and had a good relationship with many of the tutors, so he spoke to Neal Plows, the panel-beater tutor, and made arrangements for him to repair the body as a private job.
Neal completely stripped the body of the Austin 1800 ute and fabricated new sills, repaired the tailgate and some of the rusted floor panels, a front guard and straightened the large side panels. Another MIT tutor, Andrew Kiddie, then prepared the body and applied the Chilli Red paint — although not an original colour, this was a shade Gary and Pat really liked from one of their previous Austins.
Once it was back in Gary’s garage, he was able to refurbish the hydraulic suspension with new bearings and bushes. A unique feature of the ute’s rear suspension is the addition of twin torsion bars for aiding weight distribution. The steering was in good working condition and only required some cleaning, and Gary decided to completely refurbish the power front discs and rear drum brakes, and the entire underside of the ute was cleaned, painted and rustproofed throughout.
The 1800cc B-Series engine was stripped and completely reconditioned to original specifications along with the four-speed manual gearbox, which features a rod linkage. Gary decided to keep the interior looking as original as possible and installed new carpets, door panels and seat belts whilst the dash, gauges and seat are the original items. He also spent many hours searching for exterior parts and managed to find new taillight lenses and rear quarter bumpers as well as a good used front bumper. The headlights are original Lucas units and Gary also managed to retain the original grille.
Pat say’s she is immensely grateful to the fantastic qualified people who got involved and the many hours Gary spent assembling the motor and other things. At times it seemed like a never-ending project, but the final result was well worth all the effort. By 2011 it was finished. It travels well and is so comfortable to ride in and is a real head-turner, making Gary the proudest owner ever.
Says Gary — “The reason for wanting to buy an 1800 ute was because I really liked the look, style and rarity of it, as there are not many around in New Zealand. I had the ute on the Austin Stand at the Concours Show on February 12, 2012 and talked all day non-stop — a lot of interest was shown in the vehicle.”
Isn’t that what classic cars are all about?
For more photos and full specifications, visit the Classic Car website.
Words: Ashley Webb. Photos: Adam Croy.