KITS AND PIECES
AM AN AND HIS MACHINE RE UNITED AFTER ALMOST FIVE DECADES
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.
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.
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.