THESE CARS GO ON AND ON …
A HILLMAN AND HUMBER COLLECTION
In the 1960s, it made sense to bring a car with you if you were moving to New Zealand from overseas. Thanks to ongoing war-time tariffs and import licensing restrictions designed to support local manufacturers, buying a new here was difficult, pricey, and seemed to take forever — unless you had overseas funds or were a farmer or employed in other priority occupation. An option was to buy a late-model used car — but you’d pay well over the new price. And you’d take a thrashing on the value of your trade-in if you had one. The motor industry had a take-it-or-leave-it stranglehold on us until the late 1980s, when Japanese imports started to flood in.
So, when Ann and Mike Dimoline and their two young children moved to New Zealand from Kenya in 1968, they brought their family Mini estate with them. In New Zealand, the family grew to six, and two dogs — too many to cram into the Mini. Which was when their 46-year-long love affair with Rootes Group cars began.
A white Hillman Super Minx estate caught Ann’s eye. She loved its folding seats extending the back platform — ideal for kids and dogs. And it was automatic — uncommon then. This was followed in the early ’70s by a white Humber 90 saloon. Well, sort of white — its previous owner had considered it such a gem that he’d emblazoned diamonds all over the bonnet. It was writtenoff by a dazzled VW owner. Undeterred, the Dimolines bought another … and it progressed from there.
After 40 or so years of ownership of various Hillmans, Humbers, Singers, and Sunbeams, and the kids all grown up with families of their own, the Dimolines’ car family now numbers eight, with some restored and others in original condition: two Super Minxes; two Sceptres; three 3B Minx Estates; ‘Babe’, a 1954 1100cc Humber 10 with less than 18,000 miles (29,000km) on the clock; and a 1966 Super Snipe. Some they’ve owned for decades. All
get warranted, rego’d, and driven regularly in rotation.
While visiting the Ellerslie Classic Car Show in the early ’90s, a Humber Hawk– owning friend sold them on joining the Humber Hillman Car Club. They also joined the Sunbeam Car Club and Rootes Group Car Club, picking up numerous Pride of Ownership and other trophies from club competitions along the way.
“It’s amazing going on club runs,” Mike says. “You keep discovering Kiwi ingenuity … old blokes restoring all kinds of things. Out driving, people constantly come up to you and say, ‘Haven’t seen one of these for a long time’.”
Some of their cars have featured in TV commercials.
Regardless of whether you like Rootes Group cars — most of us have grown up with, seen, or experienced them at some time in our lives — you can’t help being impressed by the sheer originality of this collection. Some would be great contenders for the Survivors Class at the Ellerslie Classic Car Show.
“When we were replacing the Mini, we looked at others but kept coming back to Humber,” Mike says. “They’re nothing spectacular, but a good family car, and they just go and go and go.”
Mike’s favourite is one of the Humber Sceptres, while Ann loves a 1964 Hillman Super Minx that she’s owned since 1986.
However, here we are focusing on Mike’s favourite Sceptre and the Super Snipe — only because they happen to be in my neighbourhood and keep catching my eye as they drive past. Well, they all catch my eye — it’s rare to see cars like this meandering around the suburbs. But the Dimolines’ other cars are scattered around Auckland and could take years to visit given the traffic.
The Humber Super Snipe Series V was the last of the big Humbers produced as various models from the 1930s — ceasing production in 1967. This shape, launched in 1958, was based on the Humber Hawk, whose transatlantic styling influences drew comparisons with the ’55 Chevrolet.
The car was sold new in Levin. Eight years later, it moved to Dannevirke, where its owner cherished it for 33 years. Then it belonged for 10 years to a Hawke’s Bay Car Club member, replacing his 1948 drophead coupé. The Dimolines competed with it for decades trying to win the club top-dog award, the Pride of Ownership trophy.
“One day I was browsing Trade Me and bingo, up it came,” Mike says. “I’d never owned a Super Snipe before. So, I rang the owner. There wasn’t much bargaining. One price for a club member, much more if you weren’t.” A deal was done.
The azure blue and off-white saloon still impresses with its presence, just as it did back in the day. It looks and feels big and heavy but rides well, if not softly, wafting along like a British politician discussing Brexit.
It’s wider than and almost the same length as a Jaguar XJ6. But it’s higher and marginally heavier, with more cabin space and legroom. Or, compared with something more contemporary, slightly smaller than a recent Holden Commodore. Despite that, the inside feels big and features all the accoutrements of a car aimed at rear-seat drivers — aristocrats, politicians, professionals, or others who might have relied on a chauffeur. So, there are ashtrays in the rear armrests, cigar lighters (two in the back), rear-opening quarter lights, reading lamps, champagne-glass-sized picnic tables (that fold out from the back of the front bench seat), loads of walnut trim around the facia/dashboard and doors, and heating and ventilation. Safety belts were offered as accessories.
The facia is a chauffeur’s dream, with dials and switches for things that we no longer think about — panel illumination, an ammeter, oil-pressure and water-temperature gauges, air control and a heater blower, a choke, and fresh- and heated-air ventilation — with the usual floor-mounted headlight dip switch typical of the era. And it has power steering.
Power comes from a three-litre overheadvalve inline six-cylinder churning out 128.5bhp (95.8kw) — powerful for its day — matched to a three-speed Borgwarner auto transmission that pushes it from zero to 60mph (97kph) in 16.2 seconds.
It also has its quirky touches. Mike enjoys watching perplexed forecourt attendants searching for the invisible fuel-filler cap — it’s the right rear reflector below the tail lights, and unscrews.
The pristine-condition owner’s manual features information that you wouldn’t see in today’s handbooks — ranging from ignition and valve-timing to carburettor settings, gearbox ratios, and more.
A local market page recommends Europa lubricants, a Russian-sourced brand introduced to New Zealand in 1935 by Todd Brothers — later, Todd Motors — which built a small plant in Petone and assembled Hillman, Humber, Karrier, Commer, and other Rootes models until local assembly ceased.
You normally need to use the choke after the car has been sitting a while — waiting and listening to the fuel electronically pumping through to the carburettor before it throbs into life. And, when you take off, it’s slower, but statelier, than a royal visit.
There’s little road noise or rattles, apart from aftermarket rear venetian blinds clattering in the draught coming through an open window.
In front, you sit high, upright and the seat is firm. In the rear, you sink into deep squabs as you look out at your minions. This is a good car for touring or showing up in for a walk-on part in Yes Minister.
“Growing up, we used to have a Humber Sceptre,” the man said after they’d walked around the car. “Rego CZ1925.” Ann looked at him. “You’re not going to believe this, but … we actually have that car!”
As you may have discovered, odd coincidences occur when you own a classic car. Ann was out in a Super Minx when a car pulled up behind and young couple
approached. “We saw your Super Minx parked here,” the driver said. “Do you mind if we have a look?”
“Not at all,” said Ann, used to her cars attracting attention.
“Growing up, we used to have a Humber Sceptre,” the man said after they’d walked around the car. “Rego CZ1925.”
Ann looked at him. “You’re not going to believe this, but … we actually have that car!” The stunned couple lived close by, and so CZ1925 was brought around to show them.
“They had the car’s history,” Ann recalls. “[It was] originally owned by a doctor who bought it for his wife — he had it shipped out from UK. She absolutely loved it.
“[The couple] were just blown away when they saw it. They had a lot of pictures and the man recalled being in the car as young boy … luxury.”
The Sceptre wasn’t originally on the Dimolines’ wish list. They were living in Rotorua when a fellow car club member asked them if they’d like to see his Sceptre.
Got to have this one, Mike thought at the time. The owner wanted it to remain in the club, so Mike made an offer.
The Humber Sceptre MKI was produced from 1963 to ’65. Originally designed to replace the Sunbeam Rapier, at a late stage, Rootes decided to rebadge it, although some models reportedly still hit the road wearing Sunbeam badges. It was basically an upmarket, more luxurious version of a Hillman Super Minx / Singer Vogue, with Rapier mechanicals, four headlamps, and a wrap-around windscreen — echoing the look of 1950s Chryslers. It was a successful though not big seller, carving out a solid niche in the Rootes scheme of things.
Much smaller than the Super Snipe, at 4200x1610mm, it’s roughly the size of a VW Golf. Once you’ve worked your way through the spluttering choke start if the car has been standing for a time, the engine sounds raspy and pulls away enthusiastically if somewhat leisurely. The 80bhp (60kw) 1590cc Hillman four-cylinder overhead-valve engine and fourspeed manual gearbox with overdrive will catapult — no, make that propel — you to 97kph in 17.1 seconds.
On the road, it feels faster, sportier, and tighter than the cars on which it is based, with a firm ride that makes you feel that you could take on the Monte Carlo Rally.
The mood is enhanced with lashings of black vinyl surrounding the sporting line-up of instruments and switches, dashboard grabhandle, doors, and upholstery that smells like leather even if it isn’t. And it looks the part in its smart two-tone dark olive bodywork and taupe roof.
The Dimolines are the car’s third owners, and it’s likely to be the one that they’ll keep the longest according to Mike. They’ve already had it for 16 years and have had to spend barely a cent on it.
“It’s comfortable; lovely on the road; has overdrive in top; goes well; has a radio, heater, all the extras that earlier ones didn’t have; and there are not many around … not many around in good condition; only three in the club,” he explains.
If you want to know, Ann and Mike can tell you almost everything about each of their cars. And they have books, brochures, and other memorabilia. Will they add to their collection? “Owning one car leads to another,” Mike says. “But I’m coming up to 85, so I think eight is enough.” That said, a day or so later the phone rings. “We forgot to tell you, but we owned another one,” Ann says. Minutes later, she drops off an album crammed with six years of photos taken touring around the country in a ’74 Commer camper pop-top, which they sold last year.
So, the fleet still sits at eight. Until they see another and can’t help themselves.
Will they add to their collection? “Owning one car leads to another,” Mike says. “But I’m coming up to 85, so I think eight is enough”