I’m the proud owner of a recently rebuilt 1979 Spitfire 1500 and although I’m not new to tinkering with motorcars, I’d owned 45 by the age of 45, all self repaired bangers, it was another thirty years before I began again to dream of owning a sleek Spitfire, imagining it bright red and wearing flying helmet and goggles as I speed like Toad of Toad Hall about the North York Moors scattering sheep and grouse before me.
So it was, some three years ago, I bought my Spit for £1500. She looked clean, sounded healthy but on the drive home from York to Kirkbymoorside, she overheated and I waited an hour beside the Castle Howard lake for the engine to cool before continuing home.
My wife and I ran the car for a year doing nothing to her other than flush the radiator and renew the hoses and thermostat and enjoying visits to car buff meetings including one at Sledmere Hall where on examining many lovingly restored cars, including several Spitfires, I resolved to embark on a similar restoration.
I began the work in a spacious garage belonging to a skilled motor mechanic friend who generously allowed me to dismantle her and store the larger parts for a few months before I began the rebuild in my own domestic garage just large enough for the project but only just. My plan was to dismantle down to the last nut and bolt and it soon became obvious that the black grease covering the chassis and the much filled glass fibre body work repairs, hid many major problems. I was not a welder and expected to employ this trade and a re-spray specialist but everything else seemed within my long term experience. I was aware that the engine promised to be worth rebuilding and that the overdrive functioned but the gearbox was clearly failing and constantly slipping out of gear.
I was 76 when I started the work and did wonder, as I hoisted the engine and gearbox onto the wheeled trolley I had built, if I would live long enough to complete the job. Now however I can look back to that time and gaze at my pristine Spitfire, a shining Signal Red but protected from the winter salt and the dreadfully wet conditions of our recent exceptional winter, sitting dry and warm in our insulated garage as we await a bright warm spring to allow our dreamed of open car drives over the North York Moors. We proved her last year attending a couple of meetings and are ready for the fray this year so that by October, aged 80 I will be able to look back over four years to the several times when I almost gave up and when this sleek creation of a bygone period of motorcar history may have been returned to the scrap yard.
The first hurdle was the chassis. It looked perfectly sound but after shot blasting we saw that it had suffered a frontal impact and was creased in front of the engine/suspension turrets. A web search located a restored replacement in Sheffield and after examination I brought it home on my car roof rack to begin the restoration of the rolling chassis. Working in my own garage I was able to strip the engine and rebuild it after a Malton engineering workshop had established that the main bearings were sound, deglazed the cylinders and skimmed the cylinder head. I reground the valves and completed the engine rebuild. Over time I had all the component parts checked, repaired or replaced until I had a virtual kit car to reassemble. This included a complete rebuild and replacement of all the wheel bearings, brake drums, pads, discs and shock absorbers so that when the engine was completed and the replacement gearbox fitted, with an engineer checked overdrive in place, the entire unit was lifted into the chassis.
This was the point when I almost gave up, coming close to putting this useless set of wheels and power point onto eBay. The reason was that in blasting the bodywork we had discovered that the overall condition was so bad that the cost of repair would be too great. For a year I searched for an alternative body shell being unwilling to start from scratch with another car with the possibility that the same problems being revealed. Many of the parts I had used to that point had come from Rimmer and I called them to see if they had any advice on finding a body shell. I explained my problem to the Rimmer agent and he suddenly said,
“Hang on a minute, I think I remember that a customer in your Post Code are has a Spitfire already dismantled for sale.” He gave me the address and I took my body repair man with me to examine the shell. Although the car was a 1973 Triumph Spitfire 1296 CC the body shell appeared quite a lot better than mine and because there was a new chassis with it, new seat covers, hood, engine, gearbox and overdrive, and many other spares purchased by the owner with the intension of rebuilding the car, I decided to buy and wasted no time in taking the body shell to my re-spray man.
Although I did not want to start again with the new chassis I saw that it would act as a perfect template or jig upon which to create the new body shell. So it worked out, but of course the second shell was not as perfect as we first thought and with every move after the shot blasting, panel after panel had to be replaced providing a new drivers floor panel, triple sills, boot floor, one rear wing cut from the original shell and many more smaller repairs. Nothing was left to chance and when the first of many coats of paint was applied I knew we had a shell that was probably significantly more sound than the original and certainly much better painted.
The marriage of body to chassis came in the deep mid winter snow last January. Mounting pads and bolts were all lined up as myself and three friends carefully lifted the body into position. That it lined up should not have been a surprise but it was. An extra I had decided upon was the replacement of the glass fibre bonnet with a steel item. First I had obtained one from the Spitfire Graveyard in Sheffield leaving the glass one with him, space always at a premium. That 60 mile trip to Sheffield and back with a very large item on the roof rack, resonating in the wind, was memorable.
Back at the body shop, realising two of the bonnet panels and most of the tubular substructure needed replacement I decided that the cost would be almost that of a new bonnet assembly which cost over £900. Bighting the bullet I ordered this for delivery to my home and transported it, still boxed, the 20 miles to the body shop on the roof rack again.
So, on that January day my friend and I brought the wheeled vehicle back to my garage on the shot blaster’s trailer for final refitting to begin. My engineering guru and fellow member of RAFA had been a foreman engine fitter with a garage in Malton. Most of his vast experience was contemporary with the Spitfire production period and although in his mid eighties there was little he did not know and few tricks of the trade he had not remembered. He and I jury rigged the elements to make it possible start the engine. To my surprise it had started without difficulty so I was able to begin the body refit with some hope that on completion the car would function.
But there was much to do. A new loom to be fitted, seat frames to be repaired and painted, re-upholstered and re-covered with the covers which came new with the second car. This work was undertaken by a local bus upholstery firm for a surprisingly reasonable price. I refitted the door handles, locks, glass drop regulators and door trims managing with difficulty one of the worst jobs on the car. I re-carpeted and trimmed over the rear wheel arches, installed newly finished fascia and instruments. In all these areas I was able to select the best of the items that had come from the two cars and in every case they were as sound as new. This applied to the drop glass windows and the windscreen but here I balked at the installation and employed a windscreen specialist, even so it was the original screen almost unscratched. It was the same with the bumpers, with four to choose from I was able to select and although not 100% perfect they polish up almost like new. Similarly I sand blasted and powder coated all the parts of the hood support struts, replaced the plastic bearings and chose the best of two hoods, to use one quite unmarked.
There was only one downside to the second body shell other than the extra work uncovered by shot blasting and that was discovered when I tried to fit the tandem master brake cylinder. Of course the 1973 vehicle had been fitted with the single line system and the unit was 2” shorter than mine which must have had a belled hollow in the bulkhead to accommodate the extra length. My metal worker copied a card template I made to overcome the omission and the unit fitted snugly.
As the last tasks were completed Brian, my guru joined me and we began attempting to prove reliability which in the first runs proved illusive. After twenty minutes on the road with all the right feelings of power and promise of fun she would become intermittent and cut out. Over a period of two or three weeks with perhaps a dozen attempts at rectification and adjustment we systematically balanced the carbs, witnessed the colour of combustion, changed the distributor condenser, the coil and even the HT leads and distributer cap. We noticed that the vehicle lacked a heat shield that had not been on the original car and strongly suspected that was the cause. Finally however and for no reason we could put our finger on, the car chose in it’s own good time to run perfectly. Neither Brian nor I will ever know what caused the problem but in the end every aspect of ignition and carburettion was either changed or checked with the greatest care.
Such are the frustrations of old motorcar restoration. If we feared the frustration, the challenge or the cost, which can never be fully estimated beforehand, we would never start in the first place and we could never have the joy of that fruity sound or the pleasure of driving a sleek car so reminiscent of Britain’s past motorcar heritage. Roll on the spring.
|From Triumph Spitfire|