Back on the road
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.