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Tucked away on a beautiful two-acre block of God’s own in North Canterbury is the home of well-known local car guru Ben Johnson and his partner, Rainy Stevens. To say that these guys love their cars would be an understatement. With three large sheds and a couple of lean-tos spread out on their property, many treats await those lucky enough to be given access to look around. On being asked how long he has had petrol coursing through his veins, Ben replies, “I’ve been into cars for as long as I can remember.” A mechanic by trade — which is quite handy when you are a petrolhead — Ben ran a garage workshop in Kaiapoi for many years, but sold it about five years ago to move on to other things. The plan was just to work around home on some of his many projects, but things don’t always go as planned, no matter how well you set your goals. Not long after Ben sold the business, people started calling with jobs they wanted done, and it’s never really slowed down. “I usually take on a big job, and, once that’s done, I will do some smaller stuff,” Ben explains. “It also gives me time to work on some of my own projects as well.” Asked about the types of things he does, Ben replies, “Mostly mechanical and rust repairs.” Pointing to a Ford Mustang sitting on the lift in his workshop, he says, “That one had had an engine-bay fire, so it’s in for all the mechanical stuff like engine, box, brakes, etc.; fairly straightforward — parts are easy to get, unlike some of the stuff I work on.”
A case in point would be the Mk3 Zephyr he built — now that was difficult, as there isn’t much around in the way of good second-hand parts, which means that it is often a case of making something from two or three items. Over the years, Ben has taken many holiday trips to the US. Although he takes in the odd show, his real passion is finding and visiting old junkyards. “I like to go looking for bits and pieces that I need, but usually end up buying a car or two,” he tells us. On his travels, Ben has also collected a vast array of signs and other garage memorabilia, as evidenced by a look around the workshop. Magazines are everywhere, and model kitset cars are spread throughout the workshop and in cabinets. An interesting long-term project in the workshop is a 1927 Lea Francis that has been in the family of Ben’s customer since 1939. Started by Richard Henry Lea and Graham Inglesby Francis back in 1895, the company was formed to build bicycles. It branched out into cars in 1903, with motorcycles becoming part of the business in 1911. “At present, I am just fitting it back together to see what parts are missing or broken,” Ben explains. After a long look around the workshop, we move outside, where we spot a very cool Buick wagon. “This is my ’57 Buick Caballero, which came out of Montana,” Ben says. “I found it lying in a paddock, so I’m slowly tinkering away on it.” The 401 Nailhead that the wagon now runs is slightly larger than the engine it left the factory with. Beside the Buick is a lean-to containing a ’37 Willys coupe that Ben built to get around Muscle Car Madness in, but the pickup is what catches our eye. Looking a little rough around the edges, the ’57 Dodge Sweptside turns out to be a very rare ride indeed. Dodge built around 1200 of
these pickups between 1957 and 1959, with each year being different. The pickups were built as a rival to Chevrolet’s Cameo, but they never really did excite the buyers, as evidenced by the sales numbers. The ’57 in Ben’s possession is one of only 76 built that year, and was not easy to come by. “I first spotted it a few years ago in Fresno, California. I tried to buy it then, but the owner wouldn’t sell it,” Ben recalls. “I was over again a couple of years ago, and the guy was having a big clean-out, so I asked if he would sell me the pickup, and, to my surprise, he said yes. I couldn’t get the money out quick enough!” The Caballero now awaits its turn for a birthday. It will probably be kept close to original, with a baby Hemi of the same year going into the engine bay, as the factory motor is missing. A walk down to the back of the property takes us to another large shed, where Ben and Rainy keep most of their cars. With the doors flung open, it takes a minute to get our breath as we feast our eyes on the vast array of automotive eye candy. “I’m not loyal to any one brand,” explains Ben. “Different horses for different courses. While the Dodge is a cool cruiser, the Camaro is a great sports car.” With so many cool rides, all having interesting stories behind them, it would take this entire magazine to explain each, so, for the sake of space, we will just touch on them briefly. Ben has owned the ’58 Impala for some time. Purchased out of Sydney, Australia, the stocklooking car has had its original 283 and Powerglide replaced with a 350/350 combo. Next to it is a ’58 Chrysler 300D, powered by a factory dualquad 392 Hemi. Purchased from a Christchurch collector, this rare piece of automotive history had not been running since 1969. Ben has now got it running, with the exhaust and brakes next on the list of repairs.
“It’s a work in progress,” he tells us. Sitting behind this is a ’59 Dodge Coronet. This beauty is running a 361ci V8, and came out of Arizona. Keeping it company is a ’59 Impala that came from nearby Reno, Nevada. This is a very original car, still retaining its factory 348 and Powerglide. The ’51 Cadillac coupe was a junkyard find. “I couldn’t help myself,” admits Ben. “I should have left it there. When I grabbed the pulley, it moved a bit, so I thought [that] it would be all right. Turned out [that] it had a rod hanging out the side and a broken cam.” The next vehicle is a stunner — a 1959 Plymouth Sports Fury. This all-original car came from Huntly and has a 318 four-barrel engine, push-button auto, and power-assisted steering and brakes. Moving right along, we have an LJ Torana GTR. This was a Trade Me find and is all factory except for the Toyota five-speed gearbox. It looks a little out of place with all the American iron in the shed, so we have to ask Ben why it is there. His explanation: “I had one when I was young, and I just like them” — as good a reason as any! Next up, we have one of Rainy’s cars — a black ’68 Dodge Charger. Running a 318 and 904 trans, the originally poo-brown car came out of Melbourne. Steve Allan then stripped it and gave it a new coat of black. Kim Mitchell was responsible for stitching up the black interior. A ’57 Cadillac Coupe de Ville resides next to the Charger, and was another junkyard find that is awaiting its turn on the birthday list. We then move on to a ’58 Sedan Delivery, which was another car to come from Arizona — this time a Craigslist find — purchased as a rolling body. It’s now motivated by a four-bolt 350 and TH700, sitting on drop spindles and disc brakes. The clean shell was taken back to bare metal and painted brown, with signwriting by Elvis. Then, next to Rainy’s little 1300cc Mini is a ’57 Buick two-door hardtop. Running the factory Nailhead engine, it’s just a nice, clean, original car that is waiting to have its running gear sorted. Bringing us to the end of the shed tour are Ben’s ’67 Camaro RS and ’73 Cuda — both red and both very nice examples. The Cuda was bought five years ago out of Arizona and is a matching-numbers car — 340, 727 trans, Rallye dash, and slapstick auto shifter complete the package. The Camaro was a good, clean car out of California, although it has since been
stripped and painted by Steve Allan. It is powered by a 327 and TH700 trans. We now enter the large shed beside the house, and what a cool shed this is. The entire floor is covered with carpet. Taking up parking space is Rainy’s ’51 Hudson Hornet, done up to look like the Hudson out of the Pixar/Disney movie Cars. Elvis applied his skills to the paintwork to give the impression that it’s an old Nascar barn find. It’s still running its big old straight-six engine. With a bar and large seating area, many a party has been thrown in this shed. Saturday mornings see Rainy running scrapbooking classes, which are very popular, and it doesn’t take much to move a few things so that the tables can be set up. The rest of the shed is full of toys, pedal cars, magazines, signs, and one of the most extensive collections of model cars we have seen. Asked if they have room for anything else, Ben tells us that there is always room for more. Well, after a tour of Ben and Rainy’s property, we’re left with no doubt about that!