From sheep fence to replica 1920s speed­ster, this Chevro­let is a mov­ing trib­ute to the man who was prob­a­bly Amer­ica’s most un­for­tu­nate mo­tor-in­dus­try pi­o­neer

New Zealand Classic Car - - Fea­ture Car Chevro­let Speed­ster - Words and Pho­tos Gor­don Camp­bell

When Nigel Fraser vis­ited one of his fa­ther’s friends in Waitara, near New Ply­mouth, he spot­ted an old chas­sis propped up in a fence to stop sheep es­cap­ing. With sev­eral vin­tage Chevro­let restora­tions be­hind him, Nigel rec­og­nized the make and ap­prox­i­mate year of the chas­sis, and had to have it. He’d im­me­di­ately seen the ba­sis for the open-wheel speed­ster he had long wanted to build.

Hunt­ing and Gather­ing

Back home in Opunake, on Taranaki’s Surf High­way, Nigel put the chas­sis away and be­gan gath­er­ing up parts. A dif­fer­en­tial was res­cued from his fa­ther’s junk shed, and an en­gine from a friend in Levin. Nigel found a cross-flow cylin­der head from a 1916 Oldsmo­bile, which bolted straight on to the block and would sig­nif­i­cantly im­prove breath­ing over the stan­dard head. He bought a gear­box for $30, and re­con­di­tioned it by chang­ing the oil.

After a year of col­lect­ing parts, fol­lowed by clean­ing, paint­ing and test as­sem­bling, the rolling chas­sis and run­ning gear were com­plete. It was time to hand it over to his good friend and fel­low vin­tage Chevro­let en­thu­si­ast, Neil Carter.

Neil’s busi­ness, Fur­ni­ture and De­sign of Nor­manby, South Taranaki, spe­cial­izes in vin­tage-car tim­ber work, and Neil has a well-earned rep­u­ta­tion as an artist in au­to­mo­tive wood. Given some of the spe­cial cars Neil has re­framed, the Speed­ster’s min­i­mal fram­ing and tur­tle-deck boot were hardly a chal­lenge, so it was soon back for Nigel’s team to cre­ate the pan­elling. Nigel’s busi­ness — Clas­sic Auto Re­paints, based in Opunake — does ex­actly what its name sug­gests, but much more. He is a trade-qual­i­fied car painter who is also skilled at panel re­pairs and me­chan­i­cal work. >

Nigel built the fuel tank while An­drew Corkill, one of his tal­ented ap­pren­tices, shaped the body, then painted it and the tank. Nigel took a while to de­cide what the colour scheme should be. It wasn’t ac­tu­ally that hard — he had a very clear men­tal pic­ture from the start of how the fin­ished car would look, but he wanted the shades to be ex­actly right. His other very ca­pa­ble ap­pren­tice, Am­ber Brown, pointed out that he’d cho­sen the colours of Chevro­let’s ‘bow tie’ em­blem.

Kevin Lowe, an­other ex­cep­tion­ally clever Opunake lo­cal, helped with the wiring, and made up the pipework and brass fit­tings. The cock­pit trim­ming and sides of the tur­tle deck were stitched by a lo­cal up­hol­sterer. The ex­haust sys­tem was al­most com­pletely owner built, and Nigel wanted sharp, agri­cul­tural-look­ing bends to repli­cate how ex­haust sys­tems gen­er­ally looked in the 1920s.

Many de­tail fea­tures fin­ished off a stun­ning car that at­tracts a great deal of at­ten­tion. Large spot­lights, one of which dou­bles as a rear-view mir­ror, a full set of gauges — in­clud­ing a rare and prized tachome­ter that reads up to 2400rpm — and a few ap­pro­pri­ate de­cals are just a few of the de­tails Nigel has added.

He bought the chas­sis in 2006, and the car was com­pleted by mid-2013. His wife, Michele, sug­gested that hav­ing it com­plied and reg­is­tered could be his Christ­mas present, and it was all le­gal on Christ­mas Eve. Ini­tially a lit­tle con­cerned when a young in­spec­tor ap­proached the car look­ing for a door han­dle, Nigel was re­lieved when a rather more ma­ture in­spec­tor took over. The Chevro­let passed its in­spec­tion with­out in­ci­dent.

Pace Your­self

Rid­ing in the Speed­ster is like rid­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle with­out lean­ing into cor­ners. You’re in the open air, ex­posed to the el­e­ments and all man­ner of coun­try smells as you go, while the valve gear chat­ters hap­pily away. You can look down at the front wheel and sus­pen­sion, and watch them work­ing, or look into the footwell and see what the ped­als ac­tu­ally do. At a stand­still, you can watch the ex­posed pushrods op­er­at­ing, which is part of the ap­peal­ing me­chan­i­cal-ness of this car. It’s an in­ter­est­ing mix of tech­nolo­gies — over­head valves were rel­a­tively rare in the late ’20s, and yet the en­gine has ex­posed pushrods. The ‘lucky-dip lu­bri­ca­tion’, as Nigel de­scribes it, ob­vi­ously works, go­ing by the small pud­dles that ap­pear un­der the car at a stand­still. You can imag­ine how oil slicks took over from horse drop­pings as street haz­ards in the 1920s.

Every­thing hap­pens at a leisurely pace — gear changes are ac­com­plished de­lib­er­ately, with no guar­an­tee of the au­di­ble re­sults, while speed be­comes a rel­a­tive con­cept. Mind you, the torquey 2.8-litre four-cylin­der en­gine makes gear changes in­fre­quent as it goes about its work, while the light body en­sures it seems more sprightly than it would be in a sedan. Like a mo­tor­cy­clist, Nigel loves wind­ing roads where he can feel as though he’s fly­ing along, only to look down and see 70kph reg­is­ter­ing on the speedo. >

Rid­ing in the Speed­ster is like rid­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle with­out lean­ing into cor­ners

Even with rear-wheel brakes only and the need to plan ac­cord­ingly, it’s mo­tor­ing fun at a re­laxed level.

I was puz­zled as to why Nigel, at a young 45 years of age, would have a fas­ci­na­tion with vin­tage cars — he owns sev­eral, and un­til re­cently they were all Chevro­lets. He has a 1930 sedan and a 1931 truck that dou­bles as his work ve­hi­cle, and also looks af­ter his fa­ther’s 1923 Chevro­let Tourer. How­ever, not too long ago he ac­quired most of a huge, cut-down 1924 Buick that he in­tends to build as a Kiwi ver­sion of the mon­ster known as Bru­tus — a one-of-a-kind vin­tage racer that was built in Ger­many in the years di­rectly fol­low­ing World War II. This beast of a car was pow­ered by a 46-litre V12 BMW aero en­gine, and to­day is on dis­play at the Sin­sheim Mu­seum in Ger­many. Nigel also owns a chas­sis for an­other Chevro­let speed­ster in­tended for Michele, and a light Chevro­let truck that will one day be that car’s trans­porter. He also has a rare early ’60s Ford Capri that will be res­ur­rected in time.

Nigel can’t re­ally ex­plain the vin­tage car thing, ex­cept to say he likes stuff that’s hand forged, hand built, with riv­ets, wood, steel, brass, and leaf springs. He likes the fact that you re­ally have to drive old cars, and you have to be on the ball when you’re on the road in one, with their solid axles, ‘gate hinge’ king­pins, ‘slow-medown’ brakes, and il­lu­mi­na­tors rather than lights. He says you can’t take things too se­ri­ously when you drive vin­tage ve­hi­cles, with their di­a­bol­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing. Any­thing newer than about 1932 is re­ally too mod­ern for him, and he thinks mod­ern cars are bor­ing. He has owned some newer cars, hav­ing gone through an Austin A30 phase for a while, in­clud­ing a Mazda ro­tary-pow­ered one that his fa­ther in­sisted he sell as soon as pos­si­ble.

The Frasers be­lieve in us­ing their old cars. They love get­ting off the beaten track on ad­ven­ture drives, and the more re­mote the road, the bet­ter. They’ve done sev­eral long trips in the truck, in­clud­ing an All Amer­i­can Truck Club tour that started in Master­ton and took them to Napier, Gis­borne, Lake Waikare­moana, Taupo, Raetihi, Wan­ganui and home again, >

He says you can’t take things too se­ri­ously when you drive vin­tage ve­hi­cles, with their di­a­bol­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing

a to­tal of over 1600km at Easter 2014.

Their ve­hi­cles fea­tured in the film Predica­ment, shot in and around Eltham, cen­tral Taranaki, a few years ago.

Fis­cher Tow­ers

After Nigel qual­i­fied as a car painter he headed over­seas for three years. For most of that time he worked at PJ Fis­cher Clas­sic Au­to­mo­biles in Put­ney, Lon­don, an ex­pe­ri­ence much bet­ter looked back on from a dis­tance of 20 years than lived through. Peter Fis­cher, a Ger­man Swiss, was an amaz­ingly fru­gal mul­ti­mil­lion­aire. The staff com­prised Peter, a Pol­ish car painter, two me­chan­ics and Nigel. Each was given one tea bag and two pairs of rub­ber work gloves per day. If they dam­aged the gloves early in the day, it was just too bad.

Nigel says that Peter be­haved ex­actly like Basil Fawlty, throw­ing in­cred­i­ble tantrums when things weren’t go­ing well. Once, Nigel made the mis­take of sug­gest­ing that Peter should calm down be­fore he burst a blood ves­sel. That just made him red­der and more apoplec­tic and he dis­ap­peared from the premises, only to calmly re­turn a while later as though noth­ing had hap­pened.

Peter used to go to Europe on buy­ing trips and re­turn with up to 20 Rolls-royces and Bent­leys, the brands the busi­ness spe­cial­ized in. The cars could range from the 1930s to the 1970s, and the Fis­cher staff would re­fur­bish them for re­sale. As a con­se­quence, Nigel got to work on some ex­otic cars.

One was a 1950 Bent­ley Con­ti­nen­tal drop­head they pre­pared for the Louis Vuit­ton con­cours. Four months of solid work re­sulted in a sec­ond plac­ing. Back at Northum­ber­land Garage in Put­ney, Peter ex­pressed his dis­ap­point­ment in no un­cer­tain terms. Hav­ing put their hearts and souls into the car, his work­ers were no less dis­ap­pointed, and Nigel pointed out that had Peter been will­ing to fit new tyres, or good used ones, rather than fill­ing the cracks with black ure­thane and dis­guis­ing it with shoe pol­ish, they would have won. >

Pre­dictably, Peter threw a tantrum, but later ad­mit­ted that Nigel was right, a ges­ture that amazed the other em­ploy­ees

Pre­dictably, Peter threw a tantrum, but later ad­mit­ted that Nigel was right, a ges­ture that amazed the other em­ploy­ees.

All in all it was a char­ac­ter build­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and Nigel ac­quired valu­able skills that he’s us­ing to good ef­fect later in life. Much more pleas­ant were the six months he spent work­ing in Lyon, France, even though un­der­stand­ing their au­to­mo­tive paint sys­tems was a chal­lenge.

Builder and Driver

Nigel is a per­son who thinks in pic­tures, a gift that al­lows him to see the fin­ished ar­ti­cle be­fore work be­gins. A quiet de­meanour masks a fer­tile imag­i­na­tion and pas­sion­ate en­thu­si­asm, and the Chevro­let Speed­ster is a prod­uct of both.

Some en­thu­si­asts like to build ve­hi­cles rather than drive them, while oth­ers pre­fer driv­ing. Nigel likes to do both. He spends count­less hours build­ing them, and then thor­oughly en­joys us­ing them as they were orig­i­nally meant to be used. He’s happy to take on most as­pects of car restora­tion. He has sev­eral projects lined up ahead of him, but they aren’t idle dreams that will never see the light of day. His skills and drive have al­ready pro­duced many fine ve­hi­cles, and there are more to come.

Nigel Fraser’s artis­tic eye for line and de­tail, along with a sin­gu­lar com­bi­na­tion of skills, have en­abled him to cre­ate a spe­cial car that evokes an age of mo­tor­ing ad­ven­ture long gone. It’s a fit­ting way to re­mem­ber Louis Chevro­let.

Some en­thu­si­asts like to build ve­hi­cles rather than drive them, while oth­ers pre­fer driv­ing. Nigel likes to do both

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