AUSTRALIA’S Mr 356 60
Richard Holdsworth tells the life story of Aussie Porsche hero, John Gregory
Today, sixty years on, Spyder automobiles is verymuch alive and kicking with his son-in-law, Mike Jacobson, continuing the good work, putting best service and highest standards first for the Porsche world Down Under. Myaussie wife, Heather, and I are chatting over a coffee in Melbourne withmike and his partner, Lorena, writes Richard Holdsworth, and I amreminded of the fact that in 1965 John Gregoryʼsmen repairedmy Speedster after some errant driver clouted the car after a sunny dayʼs shopping at Southmelbourne market. The damage was not great and John and his team had the car back on the road in perfect condition before you could say Air Cooled Rules!
John Gregory was born in Lebanon, but in 1952 moved with his family to Melbourne where he became a motor mechanic with Devon Motors working on Fiat, Simca and Alvis cars. Aged just 19, he had completed an apprenticeship with a Ford dealer in his home country and had this uncanny knack of knowing what went on under the bonnet of a car as if heʼd spent a lifetime in the trade. He was also fluent in five languages. Within a few years he had his own operation, a service station in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington, run with his brother and cousin and specialising in service and repairs to Volkswagens. The operation was named Carrera Motors.
Then came a chance meeting one sunny day in May 1956 – a meeting that changed Johnʼs life. Norman Hamilton, the man behind Porsche in Australasia, drove onto Johnʼs forecourt and they started chatting – chatting about the rather unique 356 that Norman was driving.
Years before, Norman Hamilton, a Melbourne entrepreneur, had been on holiday in Austria and had espied this sleek sports car carrying the name of Ferry Porsche and was convinced the cars would find an enthusiastic following Down Under. Norman Hamilton went home, made an approach to the factory in Germany, ordered two 356s and established Hamilitons as the first export dealer for RHD Porsches – the year was 1951.
And on this day in 1956, when Norman swept onto John Gregoryʼs garage forecourt, this also brought a sea-change to John Gregoryʼs life. The two got talking and, inevitably, the engine lid was raised and Johnʼs head was soon among the machinery. It was air-cooled and also like the Volkswagen Beetle that John knew so well: it was rear-mounted and bore so many mechanical similarities to the Peopleʼs Car.
At that time Johnʼs mode of transport was a side-valve Ford Club Coupé but he ditched the hot rod in favour of his first Porsche, a 356 Speedster, just the fifth Speeder imported by Hamiltons. But the car was not just purchased – John had to know more and it was not long before he had it stripped bare to find out what made it tick. The love affair really began.
In 1959 John bought a second 356, a Cabriolet, and started
taking on the service and repair of Porsches alongside his Volkswagen work. Over the years, he had specialised in the running gear and chassis alignment of cars and was confident that he could contribute to the Porsche world that was taking hold in Australia. John returned to his friend, Norman Hamilton, and through him was appointed by Porsche in Stuttgart as an authorised repairer and service agent – a position he held until 1975. The Porsche side of his business took the name Spyder Autos.
Johnʼs company progressed and Spyder was where Porsche owners headed when they were in trouble, as with my own experience when the Speedster was clouted at an intersection on the busy St Kilda Road. I called Hamiltons and asked, ʻWhere should I take the car for repair?ʼ
My Speedster had been hit on the front near-side, fortunately missing the wheel but the impact spun the car around wrenching open the bonnet and my weekly shopping (a bachelor at the time) spilling out onto the road. The man at Hamiltons replied, ʻGather your shopping and take it home – but take the car to Spyder Autos. You canʼt do better than see John Gregory.ʼ
Johnʼs empire grew, taking in Chassis Tec, specialising in chassis straightening and component re-jigging using jigs designed and developed by John so that a severely damaged car would be returned to its owner as good as new.
The Gregory family had bought a property at Bacchus Marsh some 40 miles north of Melbourne on the road to Adelaide and John had in his mind retiring there, which he did years later. At Bacchus Marsh he spent his time scouring the country for early air-cooled Porsches, ultimately assembling a collection of over 20 of the 356 model and, later, a handful of 911s as the new Stuttgart car started filtering through to Australia. By now John was married and for their honeymoon he and his wife, Jean, covered 5000 miles touring Australia – it was no surprise that it was in one of Johnʼs collection of 356s, a Cabriolet.
But simply collecting and restoring Porsches never quite brought satisfaction for John and the lure of helping other Porsche owners was too much; he moved Spyder Autos back to Melbourne. The year was 1983 and normal service resumed. Their daughter, Lisa, soon got the bug – being dropped off at school each day in a variety of Porsches and she could hardly fail to be the toast of the schoolyard years later when she was old enough to get behind the wheel of a 356 of her own.
It may seem strange that the Land of Plenty has a recession but Australia experienced such a phenomenon in the 1960s, but
such was the expertise of John Gregory and the support of his faithful customers that he survived, employing 20 men and handling new car preparation for Hamiltons, after-sales and warranty work. But the stress of running the business, sometimes working 16 hours a day, took its toll and John relinquished his Porsche service authorisation in the mid 1970s, moving back to the family farming property. But, once again, retirement was not for him and he was back in town by 1983 re-purchasing his old premises and workshops of Carrera Motors in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington.
By this time his wife Jean and daughter Lisa were active in the business and when Lisa married Mike Jacobson, Mike became part of the team. In 1988 the business was moved to the Melbourne suburb of Moorabbin and business thrived.
John Gregoryʼs health had been suffering for some time and he succumbed to Multiple Myeloma in March 2003; he had worked up to Christmas Eve, 2002, showing typical loyalty to customers by completing outstanding projects and work.
Lisa had started a sign business, Affordable Sign Systems, running this alongside Spyder Automobiles until the decision was made to move to Warragul, some 70 miles to the east of Melbourne where Spyder Autos operates to this day. Lisa was well known in the Australian Porsche world – and beyond the shores of Australia – and when she died of cancer in October 2011, words of sympathy came from many quarters of the globe.
One was fromamerica. Dave Bouzaglou of TRE Motorsports is the organiser of Targa California – an annual three-day rally of 850 miles across some of Californiaʼs best sports car roads. The rally is for pre-1975 cars and air-cooled Porsches feature heavily. And such was the name of John Gregory and daughter Lisa that Dave Bouzaglou used the 2012 event as a fund raiser for breast cancer with the funds being split between Australia and the United States. Mike Jacobson accepted the invitation to travel to the 2012 rally and became navigator for Chuck Miller in his 2.7 Carrera; they have stayed firm friends to this day.
Mike and I are still chatting and it seems appropriate to take a break as I find out the next move and how this brought Mike Jacobson into the John Gregory family, his daughter Lisa, and Spyder Autos.
Mikeʼs training had been as an apprentice at a major Ford dealer in Melbourne and he explains: ʻThe Ford dealer had a rich history in motorsport and I cannot remember a time when motor racing of one sort or another was not part of my day. By age 18 my interest had grown and I joined a sporting car club where I met John Faulkner and helped him at race meetings with his 3.0-litre Ford Capri Touring Car. Then I was enlisted by David Cannon with an RS2000 Ford Escort. It was at this time I first started competing in club events then progressed to open race meetings.ʼ
Mike tells us that after his apprenticeship he was seconded to Brian Wood Ford, another dealer that was a major motorsport supporter and it was not long before he was