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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.

“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.

Photos: Tony Vassallo

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.

“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 differences, the father bestows on them equal love and affection.”

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Plastic fantastic

The lightweight Lotus Elan had a heavy influence on sports cars, says Jules Christian

Having been involved in motoring journalism for more years than I’d care to remember, you get to drive all sorts of vehicles, from the completely exotic to the absolutely mundane.

Inevitably some stand out more than others and one of those for me was not in the supercar group of an AC Cobra, Lamborghini Miura, Porsche 959 or Ferrari 512BB, but a little 1960s sports car called the Lotus Elan.

The original Elan was designed by Colin Chapman, the owner of Lotus Cars and a successful racing car builder, whose revolutionary thinking in automotive design included introducing aerodynamics and the mid-engine layout, which won him seven Formula 1 constructor titles between 1962 and 1978.

With an aeronautical engineering background, he is accredited with applying to both motor-racing and production car design, his famous basic philosophy: “Adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”

It was this approach that was applied to the first Lotus Elan roadster, which in 1962, with its steel chassis and plastic fibreglass body was an incredible 250kg lighter than, for example, an MGB or Sunbeam Alpine in the day. It was also far more technically advanced, initially with a 1,558cc engine and then almost immediately with a 1,600, upgraded with the famous Lotus twin cam head. It had disc brakes all round, rack and pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension with additional supporting rear struts, which he invented and are used on most cars today.

A pioneer of monocoque construction – a bodyshell with sub-frames added on – Chapman designed the bodyshell of the Elan to be an integral part of the stress structure of the car, so that although it had a chassis, the strength of the car was spread throughout the vehicle. The result was a true driver’s sports car that had exceptional handling, roadholding, steering, acceleration, braking and comfort.

1973 Lotus Elan Sprint Coupe

In such a small light car, the performance by 1967 and the SE Sprint model was outrageous. With over 125bhp and 0-60mph (0-96km/h) in around 6.5 seconds, it could easily outflank, up to about 90mph (144km/h), most supercars of the day. On open country roads it was a dream with incredibly positive steering, balance and excellent gear ratios. You just could not believe the speed at which you could take corners on a road you knew well. The Elan basically seemed to defy logic and gave you an adrenalin buzz every time you drove it.

During its 11-year production run, the Lotus Elan was subtly upgraded with a better interior and increased performance, with little done to its rust free body shell. As well as the roadster with optional removable hardtop, there were Coupe versions and SE (Special Equipment) editions. There was also the stylish and more luxurious, but not so popular, +2 model.

The legacy of the original Lotus Elan lives on, with many of its highly respected engineering innovations reflected in the cars of today. The rebirth of the small sports roadster in the 1990s, for example, with the introduction of the Honda MX5, owed much of its inspiration to this little Lotus British Classic. Respect indeed, when the designer of the McLaren F1 supercar, Gordon Murray, said that his only disappointment with the F1 was that he could not give it the perfect steering of the Lotus Elan.

1971 Lotus Elan

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The big bite

The Dodge Viper’s massive engine and Spartan approach fuelled plenty of fun, says Jules Christian

Most sports cars of recent years have been very civilised. By the time that emission control, ABS brakes, automatic gearboxes and traction control have been put into the equation, you have a sophisticated, efficient and reliable piece of practical machinery to drive around in. There is just one thing missing – fun.

An open top car, the adrenalin buzz of raw power when you hit the throttle, the guttural roar of the exhaust note, the sensation of being shoved back in your seat, seemed a thing of the past.

Admittedly, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s been a long time since legendary muscle cars in the likes of the AC Cobra have been available, let alone affordable. Well, not quite. In 1989, American giant Chrysler unveiled a concept car that was designed to be just that. Three years later, enter the Dodge Viper RT/10.

Now we’re talking US here, so let’s think big. One of the criteria was to use as many Chrysler parts as possible – so what about an eight-litre iron truck engine? No, let’s ask those nice guys in that subsidiary we own (at the time), Lamborghini, to help out. So an aluminium eight-litre V10 – 400bhp at 4,600rpm – will do nicely, and, it’ll fit under that ridiculously long bonnet at the front.

Sophisticated suspension? No, lets shove big fat tyres on it – that’ll do. And keep the cost down. Fibreglass body, no exterior door handles, no air conditioning, a canvas roof, vinyl side window flaps – there you go. Not that it was entirely benign – it had alloy wheels, excellent seats, a sports steering wheel, proper carpeting and a good sound system.

The car was cumbersome, with really heavy controls, the gearbox change was clunky, the brakes heavy and the engine not as smooth as you would expect from a V10. Despite its massive power, however, it was not uncontrollable, with the enormous tyres giving you an unexpected amount of front-end cornering traction before the inevitable rear tail-out with too much exuberance on the throttle.

Dodge Viper GTS

In a straight line it was outrageous, going from zero to 97km/h in just 4.2 seconds, and up to 171km/h in just 9.2 seconds, claiming a top speed of 266km/h. That speed in that car was not for the inexperienced or faint-hearted.

The Viper, despite its bite, clearly needed development and, over its production run, became a very different beast from the original. With the second of five generation changes, the GTS Coupe was introduced which then had 90 per cent of the car’s parts replaced or upgraded. By the end of production the GTS equivalent, the SRT had all the interior comforts and mechanical features you would expect of a sports car today with an 8.4-litre engine pushing out an outrageous 645bhp! As to the price, well, a 1960s AC Cobra could cost you around €500,000 while a 1990s Viper SR/10, in the region of €40,000. That aside, for me, it was always the look of the thing, and the torque, that made it extraordinary – an exercise to create a stubborn yet exuberant piece of driving fun.

Viper SRT Venomous

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A life in classics

With single-mindedness and sheer tenacity, David Arrigo has managed to create, cultivate and lead the classic car cult in Malta, says Joseph Busuttil from the Old Motors Club.

In Maltese old motoring circles, David Arrigo is regarded as the doyen at the court of the classic car. With single-mindedness and sheer tenacity, this larger-than-life figure has managed to create, cultivate and lead the classic car cult in Malta. Over the last six decades, the initial trickle of adherents has risen to a flood of firm and faithful believers, witnessed by the escalating and healthy number of local car collectors in Malta today.

His passion for cars started in childhood.

“My maternal grandmother raced a Mille Miglia Speciale Alfa Romeo in Italy in the early 1930s and my father loved cars, initiating me to cars in 1945 with his 1937 MG Magnet. My mother drove a Topolino and was the only woman driver in the street where we lived.

The Siddeley in front of the windmill where is lay for 63 years. Photos: David Arrigo

“Being the first chartered accountant in Malta, my father had most of the main car concessionaires as clients. Eager to see newly imported cars I accompanied him to his clients’ garages where I also drooled over stocks of old cars taken in part-exchange.”

Also etched in his mind were the vehicles that plied the Sliema front, belonging to the Sliema elite. Compounding the interest, his father would regularly buy him the latest Dinky car models, as well as Airfix model kits to assemble. The car collecting die was cast.

Sent to boarding school in England aged 10, he later followed his father into accountancy in London. Buying a 1932 Lagonda from his tutor in Wales while studying for his intermediate exams, he sadly had to sell it to finance another course for his final exams. He describes car collecting as an incurable and developing hobby, a lot of which is nostalgia.

“Car collecting in Malta in the late 1960s and early 70s was a novelty. After the war people wanted brand new cars so old vehicles were relatively cheap. I was lucky enough to track down and buy many of the actual cars I remembered from my youth, rare and exciting sports cars from the 1950s, like a Morgan, Bristol 400, Jaguar XK 120, Porsche 356, Austin Healey 100/4, a Fiat Topolino Model A and others. Aged six, I never forgot the red Allard displayed in the foyer of a Gzira cinema. I rescued it in 1972, restored it and drove it halfway across the world – twice. These cars replaced my Dinky toys my mother had given away while I was at boarding school.”

Andree Smaine Bugeja, David Arrigo’s maternal grandmother, with her Alfa Romeo 1500 Mille Miglia Speciale.

In a wider perspective, he prevented these vehicles from leaving the island, as British and American servicemen were pinching them by the dozen. He developed a very keen interest in what he describes as ‘Malta cars’, vehicles brought to the island when new, having spent most of their time here.

Once in 1968, while in Gozo he heard about an old car in a derelict windmill nearby. It was a 1904 Siddeley, the first vehicle to come to Gozo, put away and forgotten since 1907.

Unsuccessful in its acquisition through being pipped to the post by an English collector, he managed to repatriate this treasure 46 years later.

He is also the proud owner of the second car to be registered locally, a 1904 Cadillac, also forgotten about in an Mdina palazzo for half a century. The aristocratic owners of the so-called Inguanez Cadillac had never been willing to sell. However, the determination of youth managed to buy it in 1968.

“I was just 25 at the time and very young to own such a car.”

Barn finds are every collector’s dream. Arrigo is lucky to have had several. Although once inexperienced in restoration, maintenance and upkeep of a veteran vehicle he learnt quickly, restoring the Cadillac and not only getting it to run after 60 years, but successfully drove the car in the 1972 London to Brighton Veteran Car Run to the finish in time and on its maiden voyage.

His need for speed is reflected in three, historic open-wheel Formula Monza 875 Monoposto racing cars, now raced in the local Mdina Grand Prix. A realistic dreamer, he says he needs another lifetime to bring all his unrestored cars back to life.

Historic motorcycles are also part of his passion. His collection includes some unique and historically important veteran machines including a 1914 Metro claimed to be the world’s sole surviving specimen. There was a phase when he collected military vehicles, many of which are now in museums in the UK – space for such huge vehicles being limited in Malta. A classic boat – a 1951 aluminium Albatross speedboat is also berthed among the old motors.

Another aspect to this colourful character is car building. He has constructed a number of retro Barchettas, based on the iconic Fiat 500, as an open sports version. He is often seen driving them – believing that open top motoring keeps one young.

The Allard on the Equator in Kenya in 1998.

Having lived in England, Zimbabwe and South Africa and rallied three times half-way across the world, Cairo-Cape Town, Peking-Paris, London-Cape Town and in many European rallies, as well as driving his mother from Boston to San Francisco via Miami, Arrigo sees Malta in an international perspective, a haven for old cars. He advocates for more concours d’elegance events, hill climbs and historic car races, attracting overseas entries.

“Another wish is for a small race circuit for test driving and racing all sorts of cars, including old timers. Besides, such a circuit would attract young people to classic vehicles – something needing promotion.”

Practising what he preaches, he has participated numerous times in the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. The Willys has been on two Great British Film Rallies in England and France, once even being flown to London. The Allard made Maltese motoring and journalist history when in 1997 Arrigo entered the Allard in the first Peking to Paris rally relaying, with pictures, the progress made across Asia via Inmarsat satellite telephone in a series of weekly articles published in The Sunday Times of Malta.

As a pair to the Allard found in Mosta, he also bought and rescued a similar model from England as a box of bits. A year later both were driven to Cape Town in 1998 on a rally, the latter car being the overall winner winning a gold medal. The journey was an unbelievable 50-day adventure.

Looking at the current old motors scene, he sees the many classic car imports in a good light

“It is better investing in classic cars than building more and more blocks of flats, although they have no Malta history today, but in time they will. Admittedly, it is now harder, if not impossible to find historic vehicles locally, and aspiring collectors have to look for them abroad. This is very important for the national heritage, not having preserved as many cars as we should have. Seeing beautiful old cars on the road promotes success and stability of the country.”

An avid writer, he has written, among other publications, Majestic Cars and the Palace Square, a definitive catalogue of Maltese vehicles throughout the ages, seen through period photographs. Celebrating the Inguanez Cadillac’s centenary in 2004, Arrigo published a book featuring its chequered story. Presently he is compiling a book on the Malta buses along with researcher and bus aficionado Richard Stedall.

A firm believer in the adage that a crisis also brings an opportunity with it, he is positively harnessing the current COVID-19 constrictions. Technically gifted, he has built five engines during the lockdown period, is restoring a pair of Fiat Jollys, building an Abarth Barchetta as well as concentrating on finishing his major literary work, the definitive book on Maltese family businesses. He is very keen to lead and encourage the next generation in the passionate art of preservation and restoration.

“I would like to teach young apprentices, not only to relay technical skills, but also to imbibe them with the heartfelt care and custodianship that an old vehicle rightly deserves. This however, should come with some form of help, either from the EU or some other authority or foundation.”

He hopes to protect his collection through his own foundation that is in formation. It is said that creative creatures are denied cerebral rest and Arrigo, always sprouting new projects, is clearly a case in point.

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