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Peer pressure

Inspired by his friends, Noel Aquilina decided to trade modern for vintage, says JOSEPH BUSUTTIL from the Old Motors Club.

The crossroads of life, like a traffic junction, are an important stage in the human journey. It is a time when one reflects on the past, ponders the present, and plans for the future. Important decisions have to be taken, including putting all resources together in order to put up a strong stance with the aim of realising a dream, or face an unusual challenge.

Noel Aquilina was brought up in a family where cars were always important.

“My father Charles was very keen on cars, but being a businessman, the vehicles did not gather dust in our large garage in Balzan, and as soon as the right offer came along, the vehicle would depart to be replaced by another,” he said.

“Consequently, both my two brothers John and David, as well as myself, followed our father’s footsteps in developing an enthusiastic interest in the four-wheeler, but always concentrated on modern cars.”

From his youth, Aquilina has formed part of a group of friends that frequently got together with their vehicles.

“A very significant bond developed between us over the years, and it is still going strong to this day. While we shared many interests and had quite a lot in common, there was one big difference between us. While my friends gathered in the group in their old motors, I stood out as I always came along in my current modern car, standing out like a sore thumb,” he explained.

Photos: Tony Vassallo

Obviously many were the comments by his friends over the years egging Aquilina on to discard modern cars and join the fold with an old timer.

“One of my best friends, Charles Zahra, was the leading initiator, urging me to get out of my comfort zone with modern vehicles and taste the joys of classic cars. As my 49th birthday was approaching, I decided to do something different in midlife, spoil myself and go for it – and in the process started to look for an MGB, a classic car that I was already familiar with, although from a distance.”

Aquilina finally found what he wanted in London, a deal was eventually done, and the vehicle was soon in Malta.

“The red 1974 model was in a very good condition. I only needed to carry out some minor body work, as well as upgrading the black upholstery. There was also a deep sense of nostalgia about the MGB, which harked back to my youth.”

Produced between 1962 and 1980, the MGB was a two-door sports car produced first by the British Motor Corporation and subsequently by British Leyland, as a four-cylinder soft top roadster. Sporting a 1.8 L B-series 14 engine, the model proved to be a significant success not only in the UK, but also on the export market, especially in America.

However, new safety regulations imposed by the US meant that from the second part of 1974 the MGB started coming out with a different look. The chrome bumpers overriders were replaced by rubber ones. A new steel reinforced black rubber bumper at the front incorporated the grille area as well, giving a major restyling to the nose. A matching rear bumper completed the change. The new US headlight height regulations also meant the MGB headlamps were now too low. Rather than redesign the front of the roadster, the car suspension was raised by one inch. Aquilina adds that luckily, his model came out in the first part of 1974, and thus was unaffected by these changes, which subsequently somehow altered the MBG’s previous slick and sporty appearance.

He now began to join his old motors friends driving his MGB.

“All went well for a while, but at one point some of them, who came along in their old Jaguars, started to suggest to me that I should now look for a similar model. Charles Zahra, who from his first days in the group used to drive around in his father’s Jaguar, was the most persuasive.” Consequently, Aquilina started searching for a Jaguar.

Originally Aquilina was going for an XJ S model, but eventually found out that a number of such models had already been imported in Malta. Feeling that the local scene was overcrowded, he turned his sights to an XJ C coupe Series 11. Such a model was located in the north of England.

“The owner had not used it for a couple of years, and although we were dealing online, I sent a friend to have a closer look at it in order to set my mind at rest.”

On arrival in Malta, Aquilina found that the 1977 Jaguar, with black leather upholstery, was in a very good condition. Nevertheless, he decided to respray it in its original red colour.  

The XJ is a series of luxury vehicles produced by Jaguar in four series that stretch from 1968 to the present day. The flagship of the company, the XJ is one of the cars to be found in the garage of the British royal family, while a stronger version is used by the British prime minister. The Series II was manufactured between 1973 and 1978, and around 10,000 came off the line. The two-door coupe, with a pillarless, vinyl hard top body, was based on the short wheelbase of the XJ, and came with either a 4.2 L or a 5.3L engine.

Proudly rotating his two classic vehicles on an equal basis, Aquilina soon joined the Old Motors Club, where he participates in runs and rallies.

“I would like to involve myself more often in events and activities, but work pressure sometimes comes in the way.

He added that for him, the local old motors scene is developing in a very healthy way. Interest is keen, especially on particular marques, and as an example he cites the formation of one brand clubs, like those for Jaguars, Minis, and American cars.

Asked about harbouring any desires for future classic car acquisitions, Aquilina , who is also a member of the Valletta Grand Prix Foundation, said that he has two dreams.

“I have long wished for a 1974 Porsche 911. This is a model I have ardently admired from close as well as from a distance ever since my childhood. Some of these models are available on the market, but their asking price is increasing by the hour.”

The second dream is a bit closer to home.

“A lot of old cars passed through my father’s hands, but although he was keen on cars, he was not a collector, and soon the old motors left our home. I can still vividly see in our garage a Mercedes Pagoda sports, a Fiat 125, an Alfa Giulietta, and others. I would dearly love to lay my hands on one of my father’s old cars, buy it, and bring it back to the family fold.”

(First published by Times of Malta on June 30, 2019)

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Fast Times

For Joe Gerada, it all started with an MGB, says JOSEPH BUSUTTIL from the Old Motors Club.

In classical Greek mythology, Cupid is the god of attraction and affection. His source of power is a bow and arrow whose sharp golden point, when making contact, fills one with a spontaneous and uncontrollable love and desire.

It seems that one fine spring day, more than 25 years ago, Cupid was on the prowl and made a direct hit, as Joe Gerada and his wife Corinne were driving casually through Birkirkara, and all of a sudden Gerada saw an MGB displayed in a showroom there. Immediately attracted, he stopped his car and they went in to have a closer look.

“Looking back, it was funny because till then, I was not really enthusiastic about old motors, and was not actually looking for one,” he says. “I have always been interested in the mechanical and technical side of things, including vehicles, but classic cars were never a priority. Moreover, there has never been any family history of old cars to influence or role model on. But like a bolt from the blue, I was mesmerised by the British racing green coloured MGB.”

In the showroom, it turned out that the owner was an acquaintance of his wife, and a deal was soon on board.

Photos: Tony Vassallo

“The 1969 model was in a good condition, but the body had some rust patches. I decided on a nut-and-bolt restoration, and so I dismantled it, then took it to a panel beater and a sprayer. It was a lengthy process – more than three years – to get the work done and for them to put it together again. My first experience in my old motors life taught me an important principle: that ideally, the same person who dismantles a classic car, puts it together again himself, provided one has the time and skills,” remarks a now wiser Gerada.

The MGB was manufactured and marketed by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) as a four-cylinder, soft-top roadster between 1962 and 1980. The car had an innovative and modern design, utilising a monocoque structure instead of the traditional body-on-frame used on previous MG vehicles. The lightweight design also lessened manufacturing costs, while enhancing overall vehicle strength.

The restoration gave the MGB a new lease of life, and Gerada started driving it frequently.  He adds that the advantage of an MGB is that is can be harnessed on a daily basis. It is not a conspicuous vehicle, and can be used for normal everyday tasks. A decade ago the classic car was given a light facelift.

Enjoying the new pastime to the full, and becoming enamoured of the MG marque, Gerada then turned his attention to acquiring the predecessor of the MGB – an MGA.

“I was looking for a wreck in need of restoration, and finally I found an MG dealer in Darlington in the north of England, who had a variety of these types. He had what I wanted: a vehicle crying out for rehabilitation, but with a sound body and the original engine and gearbox. Its history was fascinating – it had been exported to Kenya and found its way back to Britain. Its production date was 1957 – my year of birth – so chemistry was instant, and soon it was on its way to Malta.”

Work on restoring the blue MGA started immediately, and Gerada took it to a panel beater. Alas, the task was taking too long and was not up to Gerada’s standard, and so after five years, he changed the panel beater. The engine and the chassis were seen to by another skilled mechanic. The whole project took nearly eight years to complete, but eventually the MGA, now sporting an old English white colour, was back on the road.

The MGA was produced from 1955 to 1962, and had represented a complete break from the marque’s earlier designs. It was a body-on-frame structure, harnessing the straight-four B series engine from the MG Magnette saloon driving the rear wheels through a four speed gearbox. The MGA raced extensively in competitions with considerable success, especially in the US. 

With two MG sports cars in the stable, Gerada started to appreciate more how advanced for their era these vehicles were.

“Moreover, they were simple productions, comfortable, with appropriate size, and accessible in terms of money. I also observed the thoroughness and sophistication of the MG pre-war designs,” he adds.

The MG took a stronger hold and he was soon searching for a predecessor of the MGA – a model from the MG T series. This was a range of body-on-frame two-seater sports car, with very little weather protection, produced from 1935 to 1955. The series featured the MG TA, TB, TC, TD and the MG TF Midget.

Knocking on the doors of an MG dealer in north London who specialises in models that came on board prior to 1939, he found an MG TC that although coming out in 1947, had a pre-war design. Production was halted because of the war but soon after the war ended production started again with the available designs and components

“The vehicle had a lot of wood, including the floorboards and coach section, and a total nut-and-bolt restoration project was called for. While repairs were required, I made it a cardinal point that preservation was to be given priority over restoration. The same black colour was kept, while the red seats and chrome retained their original patina.”

Gerada explains that his love affair with pre-war vintage cars is further stemmed from their character and unique, individual looks. Becoming involved in the Malta Grand Prix administration, he thought of acquiring a vehicle that could participate in the pre-war section of this event. His sights fell upon a black, 1935 MG PA with supercharger, acquired from another UK MG expert dealer.

“The vehicle – a sweet, small car and the first one to be referred to as the MG Midget – was in excellent condition, and needed no attention. I took part in one Grand Prix edition, but felt I was mistreating and punishing the MG PA, as the circuit is more sprint than endurance.” 

The MG P type was produced between 1934 and 1936. The roofless, windowless vehicle harnessed an updated version of the overhead camshaft, cross-flow engine, driving the rear wheels through a four-speed synchromesh gearbox. Only 2,000 MG PAs were manufactured. While the PA sported an 847cc engine, the other model in the series, the MG PB, had a slightly larger 939cc one.

Trying to combine his passion for rallying and his favourite 1930s cars, Gerada came upon a 1935 Alvis Special 12/70, a two-seater racing car. The Alvis Car and Engineering Company was a British manufacturing company operating in Coventry from 1919 to 1967. Besides cars, it also produced military vehicles and equipment.

“The Alvis was located in Germany, and had a previous history of rally racing in that country. The former owner had also participated with it in the 2010 edition of the Mille Miglia.”

The vehicle was in a very good condition, although he admits that initially he found the gears hard to engage, and put it down to the lack of a synchromesh gearbox. He spent years using the double clutch, until he realised that the synchromesh rings had worn out over time.

He replaced three out of four gears and the car’s performance greatly improved . He became a member of the Alvis Owners Club, and procured two gears from them, the other one being produced locally.

“Technically the Alvis was very advanced for its era,” Gerada explains. “As with many other upmarket engineering companies of the time, Alvis did not produce their own coachwork. Instead they relied on the many available coachbuilders in the area. Many Alvis cars were customised for racing, according to the owners’ requirements.”

With his racing Alvis, Gerada has taken part in the last six editions of the Grand Prix, as well as in various Old Motors Club rallies. His most exciting event so far has been participating in the Alpine Trial in France, a three-day regularity rally.

Photo: Luca Emanuele

“It features long distances, going through narrow roads and mountain routes including Mount Blanc and Lake Geneva, with sharp edges and hairpin bends. Going downhill is always a hair-raising experience. It was quite tough and a challenge for this old car, considering it has no roof or windows, and its brakes are cable and rod. However, the Alvis behaved very well and we made it.”  

He opines that old motors are attracting more newcomers to this pastime in Malta. He also praises the varied skills of local sprayers, panel beaters, mechanics, engineers and upholsterers whose standards most times surpass those found abroad. Gerada would like to see more events like classic hill climbs and rallies, as the local scene needs more competition.

“A racing track is highly desirable, as the Grand Prix circuit is only around two kilometres long. One has to go abroad to achieve the aim for which these fast cars were built. Sicily, with its roads, hills and mountains, is our nearest option, but this is not always possible as time and money are needed. The demand and the enthusiasm is there, and if crowd pulling events are organised, a racing track is doable, possibly a public-private partnership,” he says.

One final question: five thoroughbred old vehicles – which is his favourite?

“I feel like a father with a family of five children. Despite their unique differences, the father bestows upon them equal love and affection.”

(First published by Times of Malta on May 26, 2019)

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Hitting the headlines

A photo in a newspaper inspired my love for Alfa Romeo, Johan Huy tells JOSEPH BUSUTTIL from the Old Motors Club.

The attention of the boy was drawn to the main story and pictures splashed across the front page of a leading Dutch newspaper. It recounted the story of a murder that had taken place along the Amsterdam North Sea canal. An Italian man was found dead in his car, with a bullet that went through his head and lodged in the roof of the vehicle, an Alfa Romeo GTV.

“In my mind, reading the gruesome details faded into insignificance compared to viewing the stark beauty of the Italian iconic car, and from that day onwards, I became hooked to the Alfa Romeo marque. I was only ten at the time, but I said to myself that in future, I would be driving such a car,” said Johan Huy.

Huy’s father, Jan, drove a DAF car. “It was a lot of fun for me, because in those early post-World War II days in Holland, very few people had a four-wheeler. Primary and secondary school in Amsterdam were followed by university in Groningen, where I went to the department of psychology and the art academy for graphic design,” he added.

Soon after graduation, Huy went into business, setting up an art gallery as well as an aluminium frame factory in Holland. Eventually he expanded his business interests to textiles, and that is when the Malta connection started.

Photos: Tony Vassallo

“In the 1980s, I came over to the island in order to look into the feasibility of producing jeans here. The venture took off and was successful. I started visiting Malta more frequently, and lulled by its beauty as well as attractive tax system, eventually decided to relocate with my family here,” explained Johann, who then set up a marine business which he still runs today.

That childhood vision of the Alfa Romeo remained with him, and as was to be expected, his first car was a 1970 Alfa Romeo Bertina 1750cc.

“I’ve had 23 models of this marque at different periods in my life. At times, an intruder would come in – there have been a couple of Porsches, a twin turbo Maserati E, a Mini Countryman, and an MGB GT – but eventually they would be shown the door, for I always say to myself: when you drive a good car like an Alfa Romeo, why change it?” he explained.

His love and affection for this Italian manufacturer has seen him setting up the Dutch Alfa Romeo Club, of which he is an honorary life member. With a number of his Alfa Romeo models, renowned for their velocity, Johan has taken part in races in Holland, Belgium, Germany and France. He is also a regular contributor with articles in Alfa Romeo publications in Holland and Germany, where besides the auto element, he also gives a publicity plug to the Maltese islands.

Presently, Huy has four Alfa Romeo cars. Close to his heart is a 1970, red Zagato Junior 1300 GT.

“This is a very rare model, of which only 1,104 were built, with around one to two hundred still around today,” he said. “It was in production from 1969 to 1972, with the design coming from the Zagato company, which was similar to Bertone and Pininfarina, and that had many racing successes in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

“The Zagato Junior itself was built on a Spider platform, delivered by Alfa Romeo to Zagato, shortened, then the coach frames would be put on by hand and with the help of wooden frames. Basically, all cars were different, which is normal for hand built vehicles of a limited production.”

Huy had long coveted such a model, and in 1984 while in Holland, he spotted a newspaper advert with one for sale. He immediately phoned for an appointment, and together with a friend, was soon on his way to see it. “We had a look at the car, that had been in Sardinia. It was in a very original state – I drove it three times round the block, and bought the vehicle on the spot.”

Although in a good condition, Huy eventually decided to restore it, and harnessing Alfa Romeo restoration specialists in Holland, a long-term nut and bolt restoration project was initiated, coming to completion in 1987. He kept the car for 14 years since he not want to sell it – all other cars, including a Porsche 911, had to be sold since the Maltese customs authorities wanted to impose prohibitive taxes for the vehicles to come here. Finally in 2005, Huy drove the classic car from the Netherlands to Malta, a journey of more than 3,000kms, with no hiccups at all.

One other Alfa Romeo that Huy has is a 1971, yellow Giulia Super 1600cc, a four-door saloon which he proudly pronounces came out of the now defunct Malta Car Assembly in Marsa.

“One hears a lot about other models that were assembled there – the Triumph Spitfire, the Triumph Herald, the Austin Mini, the Morris Marina, the Hillman Hunter – but hardly is a sound ever uttered about the Alfa Romeos assembled there, like the Giulia and Sud models,” said Huy, who has plans to write a book about these locally assembled Italian icons.

Explaining how this classic car came into his possession, Huy said that while on the first trip that the Old Motors Club organised to Sicily, he got talking with another participant, who told him that he had a Giulia Super that he had wanted to restore, but had given up on it. Huy became interested and eventually bought the vehicle. He left it there for many years, but now that he has acquired a lot of spare parts for it, restoration is about to start soon.

“I will see to the mechanical tasks – I have already bought a block from Holland – but the panel beating and the rest, I will leave to expert hands.”

An extremely organised man, his innate love for classic cars and unquestionable teamwork, organisational and leadership skills have seen him being one of the founding members of the Valletta Grand Prix Foundation, where he served on the committee for a number of years. Huy is also a driving force behind an informal grouping of local Alfa Romeo owners, which he says numbers around 150, and which he hopes to turn into a formal organisation at some time in the future.

He is frequently seen at Old Motors Club events, sometimes with his son Johann Junior, who has inherited his father’s passion for old motors. Alas, his wife Jannette and his daughter Esther do not share the classic car enthusiasm gripping the male members of the family. As to the OMC, Huy urges more utilisation of the social media in order to modernise and thus attract younger members to the club, as well as the introduction of more mobile and interactive events, rather than, for example, static shows. He also opines that more use of the English language at activities would help foreign OMC members to feel more at home.

As to the national old motors scene, Huy feels that the former total dominance by British models on Maltese roads is now being seriously challenged by other iconic brands coming mainly from Italy, Germany, France, and even Japan. Popular and standard classic cars have also now been joined by more sophisticated and upmarket models that grace the local roads. He clings strongly to the idea that a classic car should be left in its original, factory like state, and comes down heavily on owners who change engine capacity or customise old vehicles with changes that are completely alien or irrelevant.

Although Huy presently has only four Alfa Romeo models, he finds that his passion for the Italian icon is emphatically enhanced as he goes around his vast collection of more than 500 Alfa Romeo small scale model cars, meticulously displayed in a number of glass showcases strategically placed in and around his study, and dating from the earliest production vehicles to more modern offerings.

(First published in Times of Malta on April 28, 2019)

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Precious classic pearls from Poland

The Maltese and the people of Poland have quite a lot in common. The red and white colours make up the flags of both countries. Similar to the Maltese, the Poles have long-standing and deep Catholic roots. Malta and Poland have a history of lengthy periods of rule and domination by foreign powers. The two nations were heavily bombed during World War II and similarly, with true grit and determination, succeeded in rebuilding their country.

Like their Maltese counterparts, Polish old motors aficionados had to be very creative in, phoenix like, restoring their four-wheelers after the war, for besides the bombing, the military authorities in both countries had requisitioned all private cars, which suffered a lot in the hostilities or were destroyed.

To have a closer look at their efforts, I recently visited the Museum of Motorisation and Technology in Otrebusy, about 50 kilometres outside Warsaw.

Photos: Joseph Busuttil

The museum opened in 1994 and has over 300 old motors of all shapes and sizes. Besides, there are dozens of old motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, and equipment related to the four-wheeler, plus hundreds of model cars displayed in large showcases. The compound is made up of a huge barn leading to a large open yard, after which comes a smaller barn. The entrance to the museum is packed with vehicles large and small left in the open air – my heart skipped many a beat when I saw such precious pearls barely visible under a thick white blanket of snow inches deep, as it had been snowing all night and the temperature was well below zero.

Car production in Poland has always been a very important part of the economy. The first vehicle was produced by the Ursus company in 1893. Popular models during communist rule were the Warszawa, the Syrena, the Polonez, and the Mikrus. The country had, and still has, successful joint projects with Italian giant Fiat, resulting in a number of Fiat Polski models.

A number of them grace the museum, including the 125, 126 and 127. Four red Fiat Polski sports cars are crammed together, with a long row of antique motorcycles dangling above them on shelving protruding from a nearby wall. For a time, Poland also collaborated with neighbouring Czechoslovakia in car production, and a black 1928 Praha made in Oswiecem (Auschwitz) harks back to this period.

The first post-war car designed in Poland was the Warszawa, and a grey and light blue 1955 black Srodmiescie model shows how powerful, sturdy and rugged these vehicles were. Named after the capital city, the first model came out in 1951 and was a licensed copy of the Russian Podeba (victory) vehicle, authorised with the blessing of Soviet Union President Josef Stalin.

Another Polish car in the museum is a red 1957 Mikrus MR-3000 model. This was a micro car produced between 1957 and 1960. Only 1,728 of them came off the line. Designed as a cheap car for the masses, it came about when spare production arose at aerospace manufacturers WSK Mielec and WSK Rzeszow, the former producing the body and the latter the engine. The Mikrus was very popular initially, but high production costs and an expensive price tag saw its demise within three years.

Another small Polish car is the Syrena, produced between 1957 to 1983, a lengthy period during which only minor changes to the model occurred. Manufactured in various models, the most popular was the 105, a pink example of which is at the compound. All were two-door sedans with a two-stroke engine. A van and a pickup were also produced, while a coupe sport and a hatchback remained prototypes only.

Pre-war Germany is well represented in the displays. A rare, white, 1939 collaborative NSU-Fiat 500, made up of 300 parts, was produced by Karosserie Weisberg. Also made in Germany in 1928 under licence from the US is a two-tone, black and brown Ford AF. A red 1939 BMW sits next to a blue BMW Wartburg model. A couple of black Horch limousines from Automobile Werk Eisenach – now known as Audi – date back to 1938, the same production year of a white Mercedes 170 V cabriolet. This Mercedes model was a market success, and the most produced car of Daimler Benz until the outbreak of the war. It was also the first Mercedes vehicle to come off the line once peace was restored.

The oldest exhibit is an American J.A.G. from 1897. Other iconic American models feature a 1923 Oakland, a white 1959 DeSoto – part of the Chrysler company – and three Durants in white, black and green. One of the largest vehicles on show is an enormous 1924, 12 cylinder Packard Landaulet, with a dark blue driver compartment and a black passenger rear, fitted with thick light brown leather, resembling more a plush, circular and sophisticated sitting room sofa. In their time, Packards were the perfect combination of all that is best in cars – good looks, great design, high quality and reliability. Many prestigious Packards had luxury bodies and interiors made to special requests from very rich clients. Before World War II, Packard cars were the official vehicles of the US government.

Historically, Poland has always had a bittersweet relationship with Russia, and this is reflected in the arrangement of Soviet Union cars in the museum. Various models, including a 1949 Podeba M20 and a 1959 GAZ 13 Czajka, are to be found freezing in the snow in the open yard connecting the two barns. There are other old motors in this yard – including a number of Rolls Royce and Bentley models – but unlike the Russian vehicles, they are under the cover of overhanging awning.

Other European marques abound – one finds an Italian Lancia, a 1978 Swedish Volvo Bertone, and a French grey 1972 Peugeot 304. Another attraction is a French, white, 1960 Renault Florida convertible, highlighting the vibrancy and elegance of the French style in the 1960s. This model also came to symbolise the end of the difficult post-World War II period, and the return of cars bought for pleasure, grace and performance.

The Bible of old motors enthusiasts is divided, like the religious Holy Book, into two parts, the Old and the New Testament. The classic cars New Testament lays down that an old vehicle should be thoroughly rehabilitated – sometimes undergoing a nut and bolt restoration process – to a showroom, ship shaped condition. On the other hand, the classic cars Old Testament strongly states that a period vehicle should be left as found, with minimal change or intervention, in order to return on the road.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the Polish Museum of Motorisation and Technology stands firmly behind the teachings of the Old Testament. With its barn-find atmosphere, eccentric and cluttered arrangements, free range lay out, dust, cobwebs, warts and all, it is breath of fresh air, far removed from the usual clinically clean and formally organised classic car museum.

(First published in Times of Malta on March 31, 2019)

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From scale models to real ones

An uncle who used to gift him with scale models fuelled Marcus Harrison’s love of classics, says JOSEPH BUSUTTIL from the Old Motors Club.

As a small boy born in England to a Maltese mother, Marcus Harrison had the best of both worlds. There were regular family visits to Malta from an early age, while relatives went over to England to see them at frequent intervals. He always looked forward to the visits of one particular uncle, who arrived loaded with boxed Matchbox classic car models – something that would have a significant effect in the future – and which can still be seen today, displayed in brand new condition in a glass showcase in his impeccable, large garage.

“I always loved cars, and at 18 bought my dream vehicle, which my budget dictated to be a brand new Ford Fiesta,” he says. “However, shortly afterwards, a good friend of mine, from where I used to lived at Southend-on-Sea, had to sell his old Triumph Dolomite, and for unknown reasons, I bought it. The fact that my father also drove a Triumph may have unconsciously influenced me.”

Harrison started to find out that he was using the old car much more than the new, now idle Fiesta.

“With its intense 16-valve engine, wood trimmings, rare ice blue colour, smell and sounds, it gave me a thrilling, hands-on feeling, and definitely was much more fun to drive. Now I was so different from my friends with their flashy new cars!”

The Triumph Dolomite was kept for a year, and then replaced by another old vehicle.

“In England there is a different culture as to how long one stays with the same car. There is a wide and accessible market, with a wide variety of vehicles to choose from, cheap to change, and no problem of space,” he explains. “Usually an old car is parted with before it is has to undergo its MOT, the UK version of the VRT, which is every three years.”

Harrison says that while his current car would not bore him, he would go after something that he saw and he wanted, loving the chase. True to form, during his many years in England, he reckons that around 130 vehicles passed through his hands. Among others that stand uppermost in his mind, he highlights an early Ford Lotus Cortina Mark 1, that he ran into the ground, and which now would be much sought after, and a 1963 Sunbeam Alpine. There was also a string of Jaguars, including the XJ.

In the early 1990s, he started a small business selling spare parts for the Rover P5, sourced by tearing cars apart. In the process he came across a Rover P6, which he really liked, and which underwent a nut-and-bolt restoration. After enjoying it for some time, he exchanged it for a Lancia Beta HPE.

“I had never driven a car like it before, and it immediately infected me with the permanent Italian car bug, meaning that at periodic intervals, I had to have, despite their quirks and foibles, a Lancia or an Alfa Romeo.”

When his father died, his mother decided to return to Malta in the early 2000s, and Harrison started visiting the island more frequently in order to help her settled down. His stays were becoming longer, and finally, four years ago, he also decided to remain here for good. With him came his current car at the time, a 1990 Mercedes SL 500. He soon sold it, and not long afterwards, purchased a similar Mercedes model.

“The 1984 pale metallic blue model was in a very good condition, and except for the replacement of some chrome parts and trimmings, needed no attention.”

As he started to settle in Malta, his yearning for Italian cars came back, and soon he was attracted to an Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider that he found online in Holland.

“The 1963 graphite grey model oozed a very Italian, Amalfi coast, Dolce Vita vibe. From the photos it looked in very good condition, and I bought it. Looking back, I took a risk buying it online, especially for the amount of money it cost, but luckily there were no regrets, and its 1.6L engine is one of the best in existence.”

Despite its good state, Harrison started doing little tweaks, finally ending on what he calls a full “rotisserie restoration”. Another Italian car soon followed.

“I accompanied my friend Alex to Holland, as he was going to look at a Fiat Spider – the Dutch seem to really appreciate Italian cars, and they are good people to deal with. After this task, the dealer took us to a friend who had a collection old motorcycles and cars, and among the latter, I espied a rare, Lancia Fulvia 1300cc two door coupe. Loud bells rang in my mind, for some years earlier, my partner had given me a model car of this make as a Christmas present. Things happen for a reason in life, meaning I had to buy this 1966, Saratoga white model, which was in an excellent condition.”

In Harrison’s garage, there is also a 1967 Jaguar 420G, that belonged to his partner’s father.

“He bought it brand new, an early four-door model featuring overdrive and manual gearbox. On his death, the golden sands coloured car had been garaged for 17 years. When it eventually saw the light of day again, it needed a full mechanical overhaul.”

He says that a friend from the UK came over to help him out in the task, as he says that he has more technical ability than confidence, and therefore seeks expert advice when the need arises.

The 420G was the new name given in 1967 to the Jaguar Mark X, the company’s top of the range saloon car for the decade between 1961 and 1970. The large and luxurious vehicle was mainly aimed at the US market, targeting heads of state, diplomats and film stars. It was also the first Jaguar saloon with independent rear suspension.

A fifth vehicle that graces his garage is a 1968 Bentley T1. Produced between 1965 and 1980, the car was a Bentley badged version of the totally redesigned chassis-less Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.

“I bought it recently from a Mayfair Rolls Royce and Bentley dealership in London,” he says, as he brings out a stack of original documents detailing the history of this extremely rare vehicle, of which only 1,700 were produced.

Its records show that this Bentley led a privileged life. The owner requested extras from the factory, such as additional mirrors, lamb’s wool floor rugs, air conditioning, and seatbelts. As far as factory documents show, this T1 is the only car to come off the line with a particular dark blue colour with a bit of a purple mix, a combination known as Circassian Blue.

Maintained all its life to very high standards, the factory documents also include a manual which features specific instructions to the chauffeur as to the driving of the vehicle – for such cars were rarely driven by their owners. Needless to say, Harrison has not done anything to the car, except search for its original radio, which he managed to find.

The latest addition to his collection is an Aston Martin.

“It is only nine years old, but all Aston Martins are classic straight from production, being hand built and signed off by the individual inspector. It is a Vantage model, with tungsten silver paintwork and a dark red interior.”

Harrison says that he went to England with a friend of his to help him buy a car for his daughter, and ended up finding this one owner, very low mileage car for sale – he just had to buy it.

“We drove both cars to Malta, which was quite an experience – a 1,700-mile adventure on mainly autostrada roads in an Aston Martin is truly unique.”
The old cars, all of which are roadworthy and taken out on a rotation basis, sit at various angles in more than comfortable space in the well groomed and clinically cleaned garage. His office one floor above has a glass window wall, from which Marcus can glance downwards upon his classic four wheel extended family at leisure. One wall of the garage is taken up by the showcase of model cars, all meticulously spaced out. Besides the presents of his uncle many moons ago, the showcase also contains other models of many of the old vehicles that he owned at some time or other.

Harrison opines that the love of the Maltese for old cars, as well as old motorbikes, is quite phenomenal. Through a common interest, aficionados get together and some lasting friendships are formed on the basis of this shared passion. He sees the Old Motors Club as a valuable asset, a voice for the enthusiast, as well as a pressure group that successfully takes up motoring issues. Finally he says that sometimes, too much flak is fired at old cars with the regards to the amount of pollution that they are said to produce, while ignoring the obvious environmental damage that modern cars are also capable of causing.

(First published by Times of Malta on February 24, 2019)

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Lines of beauty

Reno Psaila’s love of art and design makes his Morgan 4/4 the perfect purchase, says JOSEPH BUSUTTIL from the Old Motors Club.

In the past, prestige cars were handmade, individualised and incorporating old fashion material like solid wood. They were expensive, and waiting lists sometimes ran into years. But they were special vehicles, made for special people.

One such manufacturer was the Morgan Motor Company, a family-owed firm that started building – and still does – iconic British sports cars, blending craft, heritage and driving experience. Set up by Henry Morgan in 1909, it started with three-wheelers or cycle cars, and then moved to four-wheelers in 1936 with the Morgan 4+4, later changed to 4/4, a model that is still in production today.

Reno Psaila owns a Morgan 4/4, built in 1986.

“I bought it a couple of years ago, but actually it was not my idea originally,” he explains. “As a young girl of eight, my wife Vivienne had accompanied her father to a motor show at Earls’ Court in London, and there fell in love with the Morgan in British Racing Green. To cement this love, she was given a balloon, sadly sucked away in the underground. A few years ago, her souvenirs from a London trip consisted of just Morgan memorabilia. A woman’s subtle hint, one might ask? Anyhow, when my garage became empty after I had finished a long-term aviation project and the empty nest syndrome had firmly set in, I started looking at vintage sports cars and the wife suggested that I should buy a Morgan.”

Psaila found a Morgan 4/4 model in the suburb of Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire. It was in a very good condition, needing little attention – a key factor which helped him decide to buy it, as he did not want to spend too much time on some nut-and-bolt restoration project.

However, being a perfectionist, as well as a jack of all trades, he carried out small improvements, like designing and handcrafting a period-style steering wheel, fabricating the walnut veneered wooden door trims, and stripping the foot wells, front sub-frame, suspension and rear differential, and repainting them.

The Morgan 4/4 is the longest-running production car in the world, and has seen many engine changes over the years. Psaila’s model has a Ford CVH 1600 engine. Its factory original colour was blue, but in 1999/2000 while in Jersey it underwent some restoration work and was painted in a two-tone cream and royal blue finish. A unique feature that Psaila points out is a cute little baby seat behind the passenger seat, installed by a former owner who being a mother, used the car frequently with her baby in tow.

Besides the handwork, the Morgan is admired, among other things, for its sleek lines and sporty design, features that have not failed to impress and influence Psaila, who has art and design running in his veins. Attracted to fast vehicles like the Ford GT 40 or the Porsche 908 and 917 seen in magazines from an early age, he soon started to sketch his own cars. As we talk, he shows me a number of pencil and pen designs of sleek sports cars from those early teenage years, profiles that were well before their time.

While at the Ħamrun Lyceum, his art teacher, the late Esprit Barthet observed and consequently nurtured his talents and helped him find his first work in 1969 after finishing school, aged 16, working as a draughtsman in the interior design studio of his friend, mural artist and fine art painter Frank Portelli. Here he learned the ropes of technical drawing for interior design at a time of a revolutionary refurbishment of local entertainment and commercial premises.

Two years later, he changed companies, and started to work as a graphic designer with an advertising agency, rising to art director within a couple years. In his spare time, he continued to sketch sporty car concepts, dreaming that one day, a couple of designs might jump from the drawing board onto the road.

Psaila’s determination to see such a development finally came to fruition. At the Lyceum, he had a bosom buddy, Joe Baldacchino, whose father Francis had introduced fibre glass in Malta. He became close to the family, especially with another son, Freddie. Together, Psaila with his design and Baldacchino with his fibreglass skills, managed to produce the first Maltese street buggy called the Rhino Bug. The design was turned into a plug, mould, and then a monocoque fibreglass shell, and mounted onto a Volkswagen Beetle platform incorporating the same bolting points, and VW engine and running gear.

Two models were produced, the four-seater Rhino Bug 1 with a high roll bar and an exposed rear engine, and the Rhino Bug 11, a hybrid buggy and 2 + 2 sports car with a lower roll bar.

Working from a small garage in Luqa, they produced 25 buggies between 1971 and 1978. The 2+2 classified vehicle was technically safe and financially feasible, and demonstrated the ingenuity, resourcefulness and talent of local craftsmen. But unfortunately the Rhino Bug did not have official authorisation for manufacture, and eventually production had to close down.

Psaila had also designed the Oner, a mid-range engine sports car to compete with the likes of Lotus Europa, but unlike the Rhino Bug, it never saw the light of day.

As fate would have it, he won a four-week scholarship to improve his French language skills in Strasbourg, and prior to leaving Malta armed with his car sketches, photographs of the Rhino Bug and the scale model of the Oner, he contacted Peugeot to see whether they could take him on for a short-term apprenticeship in their design department.

“My plan worked, up to a certain extent,” he says. “I was given the opportunity to work with Peugeot, but I found out that the coachwork design was made off-site by Italian designers, while the French team looked at the interior styling. Moreover, the French staff were just given a brief by their chief designer, then went back to their cubicles to work alone. There was no teamwork, discussion or feedback – definitely not my cup of tea – and so I returned to Malta and my job at the advertising agency.”

His work at the agency included the portfolio of the Malta Car Assembly, and it was a bonus for him to harness his design skills on the campaigns of locally assembled cars like the Mini, Marina, Triumph Spitfire, Hillman Hunter and others. More creative designs from that era, both of his work as well as of his own fantastic futuristic vehicles, are laid out in front of me. His passion for car design drove him to sketch a new mid-engine Mini based sports car, but before he could take it further, the death knell had started to ring for the Malta Car Assembly, which eventually closed down.

In 1976 he left the advertising agency to open a graphic design studio in partnership with journalist Godfrey Grima. Less than two years later, he branched out on his own, operating his own studio for 40 years.

“I have two sons, Kirk and Dirk, both good at designing, who I did not encourage to follow in my footsteps in graphic design. The eldest Kirk, has his own interior design and turnkey company, and the youngest, Dirk, is an architect. I could feel way back in the 1990s that the digital age would lead to an overcrowded graphic design market.”

Psaila laments that career-wise, his own father was not so open minded with him.

“As a boy, I was also fascinated by planes, and was constantly assembling Airfix warplanes. At 14, I built a radio-controlled aircraft. At 16, I applied to join the Royal Navy as a pilot cadet but being under age, my father had to endorse and sign the papers, which he flatly refused to do.”

With the passage of time, he went back to radio-controlled model aircraft, buying a couple of kits, then designing his own.

His fascination with flying led him to get, after groundwork in Malta and a course in the US, a private pilot licence in 1984. In the US, he saw some home built aircraft which could be either produced after purchasing plans, or assembled from kits. Psaila took this further, designing and single-handedly building his own two-seater light aircraft, the RP-Kestrel, in composite materials. This project took him over 25 years to complete in his free time.

“Originally I worked on it in a single car garage in Naxxar,” he says with a sense of justifiable pride.

“Towards the end of 2013, I moved the completed aircraft to the Malta Aviation Museum, assembled it, and carried out the first engine runs and systems checks. The aircraft, which is now in a hangar at the Malta International Airport, is in the process of being evaluated by the Civil Aviation Directorate at Transport Malta for clearance for a permit to test and the start of the flight-testing programme. It is a lengthy process that involves a lot of paperwork, inspections and checks. This is the first time the Civil Aviation Directorate has had such a request, so it is treading carefully.”

Psaila’s skills at creative design and innovation are not limited to cars and planes but also cover motorcycles. He has a Harley Davidson 883 Custom, as well as a Kawasaki EN 500, both of which have had custom modifications to their original design. A restless man who has a need to be doing something, he finds his classic Morgan, which he uses a lot, an oasis of tranquillity and relaxation. He is full of praise for the local old motors scene, which he describes as very active, where classic jewels abound, citing local concours d’elegance events as the sure spots where to find them.

(First published by Times of Malta on January 27, 2019)

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Lamborghini Miura SV and Countach LP 400 Periscopio fetch record prices at auction

At RM-Sotheby’s Paris auction last February, two of Automobili Lamborghini’s most iconic historic cars were auctioned at record prices. The models sold by the famous auction house were a 1971 Miura SV chassis number #4840 and a 1977 Countach LP 400 chassis #1120262.

Both cars have had a troubled history, with several mechanical and aesthetic changes over the years. The brand’s top experts have recently restored them and, in the case of the Miura SV, it has also received the coveted certification issued by Lamborghini Polo Storico.

Photos: Lamborghini

“This is a pleasing but not surprising result, since it confirms a clear trend,” said Paolo Gabrielli, Head of Aftersales at Automobili Lamborghini, which oversees the Polo Storico.

“Historical Lamborghinis are of increasing interest to the world’s leading collectors, who are looking for the utmost respect for originality in their cars. The Polo Storico restoration programme, alongside supporting top independent specialists through the provision of advice, documents and original spare parts, makes it possible to obtain restorations of the highest level and quality, which are appreciated by collectors and, consequently, by the market.”

The Miura SV, certified by the Polo Storico, is one of 150 cars produced, first converted to “Jota type” and then restored to its original trim. It fetched €2.4 million, the second highest value ever for a Miura SV, second only to one sold by Gooding & Co. in London last September. The Countach LP 400, which belonged to singer Rod Stewart, was produced in only 157 examples; it too was a victim of multiple transformations (including the roof removal), before being restored to its original specifications, and fetched €775,000 in auction.         

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Driven by nostalgia

Inspired by a former family car, a Fiat 132, ALEX ATTARD has built an interesting classic collection, says Joseph Busuttil from the Old Motors Club.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Fiat 132 was a very popular car in Malta, and many were attracted to the distinctive and innovative features of this large family saloon, which took it to the upmarket level. Among the owners was Paul Attard, who used it regularly for many years. After giving him long and sterling service, he decided to sell it to his son Alex, who, on coming of age, had just got his driving licence.

“I had long been dreaming of getting my hands behind the steering wheel of the Fiat,” starts Alex.

“Being very keen on cars and experimenting with them, I soon began to make some changes, including changing the engine from petrol to diesel. I was also part of a group that loved to race cars, so the Fiat, instead of tender loving care, saw a lot of speeding and all that comes with it, and as a result it was damaged and broke down a number of times.”

The Fiat 132 was launched in 1972, replacing the 125 Berlina. Improvements in appearance included a longer wheelbase, while the overall length was substantially increased. Two years later, the model sported a new grille and longer tail lights. In 1977, grey plastic bumpers, lower side rubbing strips, and distinctive clover patterned steel wheels were introduced. Production ended in 1981.

Photos: Tony Vassallo

Alex continued to use the 1980, sky blue-coloured Fiat for four years before selling it. Then came a succession of modern cars prior to a period when he started flirting with the thought of getting a classic car.

“I had always been giving more than a fleeting glance when an old timer passed me by on the road. However, initially, I never saw myself as a serious collector of classic vehicles.”

Things took a different turn when one day, five years ago, he was surfing the net and saw a Jaguar XJ 40 for sale in an Attard garage.

“Although it had been idle for more than seven years, it was still in a very good condition. I fell in love with the vehicle, for besides its good state, it also had a chequered history, in that it once belonged to Anthony Miceli Farrugia, a captain of Maltese industry, and his initials still stood on the personalised number plate”.

A deal was soon done. The 1987 grey colour model only needed new tyres, filling up the air conditioning, and just minor adjustments to the upholstery.

The XJ 40 was a full size luxury sedan produced by Jaguar between 1986 and 1994. This model harnessed the Jaguar independent rear suspension arrangement, and featured a number of technological enhancements such as an electronic instrument cluster. Although the new model design was already on the drawing board in the early 1970s, it took a long time coming off the production line owing to the oil crisis as well as internal problems with the parent company British Leyland. When it eventually saw the light of day, the XJ 40 was at the time the most extensively tested car the company had ever developed. It also pioneered significant improvements to how Jaguar cars were designed, built and assembled.   

Despite having one classic car in the garage, two years later Alex started to feel frequent bouts of nostalgia for the former family car, the Fiat 132. Aware that one of his clients had such a model, he made discreet enquiries, only to be informed that the vehicle had just been sold to a Qormi car dealer. He pursued his dream with determination, and finally landed what he wanted.

“My eyes lit up when I saw it, bringing back many happy memories. The 1980 blue 2000cc model was in a good condition, with no rust. All I had to do was change the ball joints and the brakes. While in the process, the vehicle was also repainted in the original colour.”

A year later, Alex felt that the two classics should have a convertible as a companion.

“Initially I started looking around for an original MGB or a Triumph Spitfire. I went to see a couple of models, but they were asking exorbitant money for them. Besides being overpriced, one has also to factor in the cost of restoration.”

He then came across a Mercedes SL coupe in Mqabba, which tugged at his heartstrings. He went to see it with a knowledgeable friend for expert advice and guidance, who told him to seek something else. Some time later Alex came upon a similar model in Mosta.

“I went to have a look at it at six in the evening, and I just melted in front of it. The 1979 pearl white, 500 V8 model was in excellent condition, and I bought it on the spot. All it needed was a new battery.”

The Mercedes SL – super light – was a grand tourer sports car which started production in 1954. The original idea was to put on the American market a toned down grand prix car tailored to well heeled performance enthusiasts. The first model was the so called Gullwing, with the doors opening upwards. The SL tag also refers to the marketing variations of the vehicle, including engine configurations spanning a number of design generations.

A year ago, Alex was talking to another of his clients, a car dealer in Tarxien, and the subject turned to classic vehicles.

“Being aware that I already had two old motors, he told me that he had just the right car for me. He showed me a 1987 blue Mercedes Benz W126 that had been inactive for seven years. The engine did not start, but being in good condition, I bought it.”

The W126 was the second generation in the S-Class Mercedes models, having a more aerodynamic shape retaining the unique design elements of this type of vehicle. Produced between 1979 and 1991, it aimed at an improved ride, better handling, improved safety and fuel efficiency. It was the most successful S-Class model in terms of units produced and production duration.

Towing it to his Siggiewi farmhouse, he went over the six-cylinder V8 vehicle and identified areas for restoration. New rims and tyres came from Germany, similar to the multi faceted grille. All fuel items – petrol pump, filter, tank – had to be changed. It also needed panel beating to remove two small rust pieces.

Alex laments the length of time classic cars have to stay inactive while waiting to undergo restoration.

“In my youth, I used to do everything myself. I took the family Fiat apart and reassembled it several times. But now I have become impatient, and fear that I may damage my vehicles if I tamper with them, so I take them to the specialists for them to carry out the needed tasks,” admits Alex, who besides his full-time work, also balances two other part-time jobs.    

Alex is a regular participant in Old Motors Club activities.

“When I bought my first classic five years ago, a relative who is keen on old motor bikes, told me about the club, and I joined immediately. I also go on the Sicily trip with the Jaguar, accompanied by my wife Elizabeth, who although not too keen on classic cars, helps me out to procure needed parts.”

Regarding the local old motors scene, he says that there are many enthusiasts, and the hobby is getting bigger. However, Alex adds that traffic has become a great problem, with many drivers becoming intolerant. “Now you can never say that there is one day where traffic is light. Then there is the parking problem – you have to be careful where you leave your old car, for if the vehicle gets a small scratch, it is not easy to combine the spray, and you have to paint it all over again,” he rues.

The meticulous Alex keeps his vehicles in an impeccable condition, in a large, clean, tiled garage, and totally covered to avoid contact with dust. He would like to add to his collection – a Triumph Herald 13/60 or a Jaguar model come to mind. But space is a problem for him, and acquiring a new garage for the moment is out of the question.

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Maserati celebrates the A6G 2000

Starting from Maserati’s roots to plan its future: the values of exclusivity, unique design and 100 per cent Italian DNA of cars of the past are renewed today in the models that mark the brand’s new era. It is in this spirit that Maserati celebrates the 70th anniversary of the A6G 2000.

The A6G 2000 was presented at the Salone dell’Auto di Torino in 1950. Photos: Maserati.

The first A6G 2000, a car representative of the A6 series, built by Maserati from 1947 to 1956 and named in homage to Alfieri Maserati (hence the letter A) with a 6 indicating the engine type (straight 6) was delivered exactly 70 years ago, in February 1951.

The new model was the replacement for the A6 1500 series sports car, and its name referenced the cast iron (or “ghisa”) of its crankcase (“G”) and its engine displacement of 2,000 cc.

The need to increase power output in response to the general trend in the Italian market of demanding higher-performing cars, partly as a result of the country’s improving economic conditions, led Maserati to convert the A6GCS two-litre engine to fully exploit the potential of the A6’s chassis.

The increase in displacement compared to the previous A6 model was achieved through precision engineering work on the bore and stroke of the straight 6. The upgraded engine, with displacement of 1,954.3 cc, achieved a power output of 90 to 100hp depending on the final setup, enabling a top speed of 180 km/h, a clear manifesto of Maserati cars’ quality sports spirit.

The 1950 Turin Motor Show provided the backdrop for the impressive launch of the A6G 2000, which Maserati presented in two versions: a four-seater, two-door sedan by Pininfarina, and a convertible designed by Pietro Frua.

Sixteen of these cars were assembled in 1950 and 1951: nine with bodywork by Pininfarina, and five convertibles and a coupé by Pietro Frua. Alfredo Vignale produced just one car, a two-tone A6G 2000 coupé, with his signature sporty stylistic features.

Rear-wheel drive, a gearbox with four speeds plus reverse and a dry-mounted single disc clutch completed the characteristics of the new A6G 2000, together with the independent wheel front suspensions and rear suspensions comprising rigid axle with leaf springs. Hydraulically operated drum brakes on all four wheels and solid steel or spoked wheels completed the carefully chosen blend of craftsmanship and technological innovation, which made this car, built for the few, an icon on the motoring scene of the time.

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