Back on the road

Australian Muscle Car - - Muscle Jumpstarter -

It’s not a mus­cle car, but it’s prob­a­bly helped keep plenty of high per­for­mance cars on the road over the years. Phil Ill­field has pre­served a small but im­por­tant part of Australia’s mo­tor­ing his­tory with his mag­nif­i­cent restora­tion of a 1970 HT model Holden Bel­mont NRMA Road Ser­vice panel van.

Start­ing with an old NRMA van which had spent the past 20 years sit­ting in a pad­dock, the re­tired boil­er­maker in­vested 15 months and some $60,000 into turn­ing this rust­ing, de­cay­ing wreck into the metic­u­lously pre­sented ma­chine which you see here.

At this point, the ques­tion might be posed: why spend so much time and money restor­ing such a mun­dane ve­hi­cle as an old NRMA van? Phil’s an­swer to that is a sim­ple ‘why not?’

“I just thought it would be a bit of a chal­lenge,” he told AMC.

How Phil came to ac­quire the van in the first place is a story in it­self. It was while trav­el­ling through ru­ral NSW about five years ago that he no­ticed a faded old NRMA ve­hi­cle rust­ing away in a pad­dock in the tiny ham­let of Walla Walla, about 30km north from Al­bury. Phil takes up the story for us.

“The lo­cal Holden dealer, DE Li­eschke and Sons, they owned the van; it had op­er­ated from out of their deal­er­ship. I went and saw the guy at Li­eschke’s and asked, ‘what are you do­ing with that old NRMA van?’ He told me it’s not for sale.

“Then in June 2010 I got a call from him, to ask if I was still in­ter­ested in the van. Ap­par­ently they had a guy who wanted to buy it and cut it up. I told them that I wouldn’t do that; if I bought it, I would re­store it. And I said, ‘well, what’s it worth?’ And he said, ‘two-two. Not two grand, it’s got to be two-two ($2200) – and it needs to be fold­ing money’.

“I told him I couldn’t get down there till Novem­ber, but did he want me to send him some money in the mean­time? ‘Nah’, he said, ‘it’s yours, that’s it’.

“So I get there, and we’re un­do­ing the pad­dock gate, and he stops. He looks at me and says, ‘now, you are go­ing to re­store this, aren’t you?’ I as­sured him I was.

“We pumped up the tyres, but by the time we’d got it on the trailer three of the tyres had popped…

“When I got it home, it was rain­ing. I was wheel-spin­ning in the wet grass try­ing to tow it round the back of my place; only made it half­way down the side. So I rolled the van off the trailer, put four new wheels on, five litres of fuel in the tank and a cup­ful straight into the carby – and it started up, just like that! Af­ter sit­ting in a pad­dock for 20 years…

“It had no brakes – which made it a bit hairy try­ing to get it into the shed with­out crash­ing into things! I put it up on the hoist, gave it a good clean and fixed the brakes. I got it reg­is­tered on his­toric club plates, and then I drove it around as is, for the next three years.”

Those three years were spent pre­par­ing for the restora­tion: sourc­ing the re­place­ment parts that would be needed, some of which would have to be made es­pe­cially.

Re­mark­ably for a 40-year-old ve­hi­cle that had sat dor­mant in a pad­dock for 20 years, it was still me­chan­i­cally quite sound. Apart from the brakes, Phil changed both rear wheel bear­ings, and fit­ted a new ra­di­a­tor and wa­ter pump. And that was pretty much it.

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