Night may have fallen but the bright glow of a welding torch still arcs cheerfully from the entrance of what looks like a serious man cave. Obscure chunks of machinery are stacked everywhere, odd clatters and bursts of song emerge from the interior.
Rob Ross is absorbed in yet another “retirement” project. It will take him upwards of 2000 hours’ intensive labour but the result is a metallic metamorphosis. From old wrecks and a bunch of spare bits come gleaming vintage treasures.
A horseless carriage that first took to the roads in 1902 is restored to pristine working order; a ’29 Dodge that had been languishing under a tree in a Canterbury farm proved its post-restoration roadworthiness by carrying Rob and wife Diane 4700 kms across Australia.
“The reward is that at the end of the day when you take it out for a run, it’s a helluva thrill,” says Rob. “When you’ve picked it up from a junk yard or from under a tree and then it’s away motoring…”
They’ve toured South Africa, attended vintage car rallies around New Zealand and regularly treat local senior citizens to sedate outings in the cars of their youth.
All this some two decades after “retiring” from their Methven farm.
That was where the restoration habit started – initially out of necessity. Limited income and a young family encouraged thrift. The Scots blood probably helped, notes Rob.
“Nearly all the big farms had their own dumps and we’d be out there scavenging in the weekends. Our kids practically grew up in dumps,” Diane laughs.
“The first one Rob fully restored was the 1929 Dodge. That was in 1973 – and in February, 10 days after our youngest son was born it went out on its first rally. Rob brought the entry form into the maternity home. I was wrapped.”
No silent partner in the restoration passion, Diane acquired her own 1930s Chrysler some 20 years ago and has been actively involved in New Zealand’s Vintage Car Association since the 1970s.
“It’s been great. We’ve had opportunities we’d never otherwise have had to go places and meet people. You’re never lonely with an old car. Take them out and people flock around. Open the bonnet and they’re bees to a honeypot – everyone wants a look in.”
She’s also become used to being a shed widow. Without her there to prompt him, Rob tends to miss meals and work into the wee small hours. Even his young grand-daughter reckons he lives in his shed.
“The bigger the challenge the more focused he gets,” notes Diane.
And there have been some big challenges. The couple once bought home a 1915 Dodge Tourer that was no more than boxes of bits.
“Somebody had taken it apart and meticulously wrapped every bit in newspaper. There was no body at all. Just these boxes. But Rob put it all together and made a car out of it. I doubt anyone else would have tackled that restoration.”
You can get complete life-size plans for most of the old cars from the US, says Rob.
“But we didn’t bother with that. We did take some photos of another one we knew about in Christchurch because you’ve got to be authentic. Though in some areas we improve on the original – particularly safety stuff, like making the brakes better.”
His skills are self taught, partly because money was in short supply.
“I got a price for a guy to do some panel work on one and that cost frightened me so I thought to hell with it – I’ll learn to do it myself. So now I do the lot – apart from upholstery. Diane and I were doing it ourselves for a while but that led to a few domestics so we gave that away.”
“Well he wrecked my good sewing machine,” she explains.
She reckons tinkering is in the genes. Rob’s grandfather was a tinkerer. So is their son who’s now doing his own restoration projects. It was a tendency that showed up early, says Rob.
“I was only a young thing when I got into a bit of bother with my mother. She’d left her watch lying around and I thought I could take this thing to bits. So I did. Never got the opportunity to put it back together. Got locked in the wash-house for a while for that.”
It didn’t deter him. Now his problem-solving skills are in demand. Around restoration projects, he fits in machinery repair work and gets a regular stream of visitors after repair or reconstruction work. Although he’s now 71, Rob doesn’t see that stopping any time soon.
“I need to have a project. I’m ruddy hopeless just sitting around. I get absolutely bored out of my brain. I’ve got to be doing something, building something. It goes back to farming days. In winter, if you’re not working on a vehicle, you’d be building sheepyards or working on a new hay barn.
“It’s hard to stop having a project. We certainly don’t need another bloody car – but I need a project..”
Published NZ Herald, My Generation, March issue.