New Zealand Classic Car - - EDITORIAL -

Grow­ing up in the Taranaki area dur­ing the 1940s and ’50s, times were much sim­pler. New Ply­mouth was still a small enough place that most peo­ple you met knew you, and the Kiwi can-do men­tal­ity was strong, es­pe­cially when it came to cars. Dur­ing Lew Martin’s teenage years, mo­tor­bikes, speed­way, and cars were his pas­sion. Trans­late that into speed and more speed.

Lew quickly dis­cov­ered that less meant more. The less weight a car had, the faster it went. Ford V8s were the car of the day, and the hot rod­ding hobby was just start­ing to take off. The Ford flat­head coupé had two fewer doors, there­fore it was quicker; bet­ter still, when the en­tire body was re­moved, the car was even faster. Fi­bre­glass, although rel­a­tively new, fea­tured reg­u­larly in one of Lew’s favourite mag­a­zines of the day, Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the mag­a­zine had sto­ries high­light­ing fi­bre­glass- bod­ied cars. It was all very in­ter­est­ing but of no real con­se­quence, un­til, one day, dur­ing 1957, Lew saw one of the very first Austin-healey 100 sports cars in the re­gion.

Handy skills

Im­me­di­ately, he was hooked by its flow­ing lines, which gave the im­pres­sion of speed even when the car was parked. There was no way he could af­ford it, but per­haps he could build one. What fol­lowed was a very en­thu­si­as­tic con­ver­sa­tion with his good friends Bruce Ward and Ron Webber. The con­clu­sion was that it would be just as easy to build three cars as it would one. Bruce al­ready had a highly mod­i­fied Model A, and it would look fan­tas­tic with a new body.

Lew got in touch with the owner of the Austin-healey and talked to him about the pos­si­bil­ity of tak­ing plas­ter of Paris moulds off it. As the car was pretty new, at first the owner was not in­ter­ested, but Lew per­se­vered to the point at which per­mis­sion was given. Once he had per­mis­sion, though, Lew was very aware that he knew ab­so­lutely zip about fi­bre­glass­ing and even less about the con­struc­tion of moulds. For­tu­nately, his fa­ther was a pro­fes­sional plas­terer and al­ready skilled in mak­ing sculp­tured/moulded plas­ter ceil­ing roses and other res­i­den­tial adorn­ments that were pop­u­lar at the time — a handy skill when you want to pour plas­ter all over some­one else’s car!

Dur­ing the mid ’50s, Lew had started a boil­er­maker/welder ap­pren­tice­ship, so the chas­sis build was quite straight­for­ward, as he had plenty of high-qual­ity tube on hand, along with his nat­u­ral trade skills. The chas­sis de­sign was ac­com­plished by care­fully study­ing pho­to­graphs in Pop­u­lar Me­chan­ics, plus his own in­ge­nu­ity and a rea­son­able dol­lop of over-en­gi­neer­ing.

Two chas­sis were made ini­tially, one to take Model A me­chan­i­cals and the se­cond

to take the run­ning gear of a ’34 V8 Ford sedan that Lew had man­aged to ac­quire for £20. The wheel­base was mea­sured and used as per the Healey, but the track of the Ford was con­sid­er­ably wider. As Lew had no means to nar­row the Ford rear axle, a de­ci­sion was made to widen the body once it was on the car. Ini­tially, it was be­ing built with me­chan­i­cally ac­tu­ated brakes, but the ac­qui­si­tion of a ’39 Ford rear axle meant that he could retro­fit the more re­li­able hy­draulic brakes to his car. The front brake plates were con­verted to ac­cept the Ford ’39 hy­draulic brake cylin­ders. Ad­di­tion­ally, the ’39 had a much stronger diff, en­abling faster take-offs. A no-brainer, re­ally.

Chas­sis work started in a shed that be­longed to Bruce’s grand­mother. She was deaf, so they were able to make as much noise as they liked — well, at least un­til the neigh­bours com­plained and they got kicked out. This would be­come the theme of the time, with the work­shop mov­ing around the neigh­bour­hood, in­flu­enced more by neigh­bours com­plain­ing about the ex­ces­sive noise of a non-muf­fled V8 than the need for bet­ter premises.

The dis­tance be­tween the fire­wall and the front axle was greater than it needed to be, as Lew was con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of fit­ting the Lin­coln-zephyr V12. Sadly, that would be more dream than re­al­ity, as there were no ex­am­ples of any V12 Lin­coln-zephyr en­gines in the Taranaki at that time. Once Bruce and Lew’s chas­sis were mo­bile, it was night trial runs, with sev­eral sprints up and down Corona­tion Av­enue — fol­lowed, nat­u­rally, by more sprints up and down the street to en­sure that they had it right.

En­joy­able day

Even­tu­ally, the two chas­sis were fin­ished. The next step was the bod­ies. With a lot of ad­vice and a lit­tle bit of help from his dad, Lew was able to make a set of fragile plas­ter moulds of the Healey body. Only Lew could af­ford the £300 re­quired to buy the resin and cloth to con­struct the body. In those days, £300 was a lot of money, es­pe­cially as Lew was only earn­ing £5 a week as an ap­pren­tice, half of which had to go to his mum to pay for his board.

Bruce hap­pened to work at a nearby fac­tory where they were man­u­fac­tur­ing fi­bre­glass hel­mets and other small fi­bre­glass prod­ucts. He was al­ways full of con­fi­dence and thought that there would be no prob­lem mak­ing the car body. That was a fun en­joy­able day. Bruce took point, cheer­fully show­ing Lew and Ron how to lay up fi­bre­glass, or, more

im­por­tant, how to do it so that the body could be pulled from the moulds without break­ing them. Ini­tially, only the rear and sides were moulded. The boot panel was cut down the mid­dle and widened to fit over the wider track of the Ford.

A deeply curved wind­screen was used from a 1956 FE Holden Spe­cial that was placed on top of the fire­wall. Modeller’s clay was then used to sculpt the bon­net and front of the car to fit in the com­po­nents of the wind­screen, V8 en­gine, and spe­cially built lower ra­di­a­tor. Once again, a plas­ter of Paris mould was taken care­fully off the clay, and the fi­nal body com­po­nents were made us­ing fi­bre­glass. The doors, bon­net, and boot were cut out and hinged. At this point, an­other body could have been pulled out of the moulds for Bruce’s chas­sis, but, by then, Bruce had some­how man­aged to con­vince his fa­ther to loan him the money to buy a Tri­umph TR2, and a home­built spe­cial was not so ap­peal­ing to him any more. Nei­ther Bruce nor Ron’s car was ever fin­ished — the moulds were stored at a friend’s farm, where they grad­u­ally dis­in­te­grated un­der the forces of na­ture.

Lew’s car, by con­trast, was mak­ing good progress, with a Ford Anglia truck pro­vid­ing the front grille. An­gle iron was used for the front and rear bumpers. These were first welded, then rounded ends were formed, be­fore every­thing got chromed. Half-round brass was used for the bright­work on the side pan­els, which was also chromed. The wind­screen frame was shaped and fit­ted be­fore chroming. The fi­nal step was to get the car painted in the clas­sic Healey two-tone style, in bur­gundy and white.

Late in 1959, Lew not only cel­e­brated the fin­ish of his boiler-mak­ing ap­pren­tice­ship but also the com­ple­tion of the ‘Martin Spe­cial’. In those days, cer­ti­fi­ca­tion con­sisted of a trip down to the lo­cal post of­fice to reg­is­ter it, in this case with the chas­sis num­ber be­ing one, fol­lowed by a war­rant of fit­ness. It failed its first WOF check, as the ex­haust note was deemed “Too noisy!” Eas­ily fixed.

The car be­came well known in the Taranaki area through­out the 1960s, as it ap­peared in var­i­ous pa­rades. It was driven to Ard­more in Auck­land, so that Lew and Ron could watch the likes of Jack Brab­ham and Stir­ling Moss rac­ing.

That pe­riod was a time of many changes. By the late ’60s, Lew had mar­ried his teenage sweet­heart, and two chil­dren had been born. A more prac­ti­cal fam­ily car had to be pur­chased. With one in­come, it was very ex­pen­sive to run two cars, so, by the end of the ’60s, the Martin Spe­cial had been sold, and even­tu­ally it left the re­gion and van­ished.

Belle of the ball

Lew of­ten won­dered what had hap­pened to it, and he as­sumed that the chances a home­built car with 1930s run­ning gear would sur­vive were min­i­mal. Luck­ily, this was not the case. In 1998, Lew was at­tend­ing, of all things, a health and safety sem­i­nar, when he was ap­proached by a gen­tle­man who asked him if he was the guy who had built a sports car dur­ing the ’50s. A con­nec­tion was quickly made, as, not only had Lew’s car sur­vived but it was also still be­ing used as a fair-weather driver. How­ever, de­spite Lew’s en­thu­si­asm, the car was not for sale.

His other pas­sion is clas­sic mo­tor­bikes, specif­i­cally, the Bri­tish Royal En­field, and at a bring-along-your-old-car event put on by the lo­cal clas­sic bike club, Chris Martin (Lew’s son) or­ga­nized with the owner of the car for Lew to take the Martin Spe­cial.

The car, now painted or­ange, was the belle of the ball. Af­ter the event, it was parked in Lew’s garage, and, when he even­tu­ally phoned the owner about get­ting it back to him, it seemed that he was in no hurry to re­trieve it, so Lew made an­other of­fer to buy the car — and this time his of­fer was ac­cepted. So, on Christ­mas Eve of 2000, Lew, who had been the car’s first owner, then be­came its fifth.

The first thing that he did was fix some of the rat­tles and faults that he had never quite got around to over 50 years be­fore. The last owner had com­plained about a con­stant rat­tle in the door, which turned out to be the spare keys Lew had fit­ted in a lit­tle hidey hole. The mo­tor was pulled out. A crank­shaft grind was re­quired, wa­ter cor­ro­sion meant one cylin­der had to be re-bored and sleeved, rings were re­placed, and valves were re­ground. A cou­ple of years were spent search­ing for good-con­di­tion cylin­der heads and wa­ter pumps to re­place cor­roded parts, and se­ri­ous work was car­ried out on the spe­cially built ra­di­a­tor. Then the car was fit for an­other 50 years’ mo­tor­ing.

Con­ces­sions made for mod­ern times were the ad­di­tions of such high-tech gad­gets as seat­belts and blink­ing in­di­ca­tors, nei­ther of which was a re­quire­ment in the late ’50s.

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