Australian politics, society & culture

Switching Clubs

Classic Car Restoration

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Peter Sutton

Medium length read1300 words
 
Cover: August 2012
August 2012
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I am in the shed, staring into the engine compartment of my 1958 Land Rover. I haven’t resorted to prayer yet, but restoring classic cars is certainly a path of faith. Things have just come to a critical station. I am looking at a mass of wires I do not understand. They are mud-spattered and tangled up, they have been frayed and then rebound in electrical tape; some disappear into what appears to be another dimension, and some end in mid-air, mysteriously.

This wire octopus is what is called in car-speak the ‘loom’ or ‘harness’. For many a car restorer it is the bit that lies somewhere beyond their ken, and even their courage. Thus far I’ve done all right in decomposing, cleaning, oiling, greasing, resealing and recomposing various mechanical things – like the water-cooling system and what lies behind the wheels – but the loom is too much. I decide to buy a replica loom from Vintage Wiring Harness in Melbourne. It arrives and looks brilliant. The complex colour coding is exactly as the manual says. Even the cross-braiding on the central joins is sewn in cotton in the original way. But the instructions are cryptic and the workshop manual wiring diagram makes a map of the London Underground look like the work of a late minimalist.

I go to the local auto electrician, who recommends his own teacher, John. John is retired and does casual work on old cars. He was also an apprentice when my Land Rover was new. He comes to see me, and the loom. He reads it as a structure while I am still seeing cooked vermicelli. His first instruction is a relief: “Rip the old thing out.” He gives me detailed ‘homework’ to do on the various lights. He is positive and quick. His focus is on what can be achieved, not what stands in the way. He will come back when I have finished the first phase.

There is joy in cutting and yanking out the old loom. There is less joy in angle-grinding the rusted bolts that hold the light fittings to the body. The noise drives my dog away. I feel guilty about putting the car first, but he forgives me at dinner time.

John acquires a badly broken foot and so I turn to Ian, a car restoration professional in Canberra. We arrange to meet. I bring my greased-up copy of the Land Rover manual and he counsels me. He is generous with his time and patience. A certain sequence is advisable when putting it in: start at the front, and with the main functions. He has the same model in original condition and will send me photographs of the proper layout. This is a familiar experience by now. There is a siblinghood of classic car lovers. They may compete and sometimes – very guardedly – criticise but, so far, most of what I have seen comes out of a shared love.

The job of a wiring loom is to connect power to concrete outcomes – light in the lamps, sound in the horn, movement of needles in gauges. There is a dialogue between positive and negative electrical forces. And the whole thing is rendered less dangerous by being earthed, by being anchored to the large and heavy chassis of the world beyond the electrical system.

Contemporary academia, in the social sciences at least, does not always have this kind of structure. A while ago I withdrew from membership of the Australian Anthropological Society and joined the local MG Car Club instead. Occupation and education and origins and political positions don’t matter here. Abuse is taboo. Large and small kindnesses abound.

When my book on indigenous policy, The Politics of Suffering, won a prize in 2010, I couldn’t help noticing that the award amount was about the same as the price of a decent classic MG. Well, I thought, you can’t fang about in the Adelaide hills on a sunny day in a superannuation portfolio. After the GFC, a classic car was looking better in every way.

This one is a white 1969 MGC with a black leather interior. It’s like the MGB in looks but it has a teardrop-shaped bulge on the bonnet, and a bigger and more powerful engine underneath. It’s a coupé and a tourer, meant for long trips on the open road. It has two seats, but only room for one suitcase. In 1969 this was still considered a little saucy.

My first driving trip with the club is with others in the MGC register. We are a small band compared with other registers like the MGA and the MG T-series. We assemble in Adelaide city and take a twisty run through the hills to Strathalbyn. Our cars were still new when the artist Hans Heysen, who made this landscape, was dying. We have coffee and devastating German cakes at the Argus House. Amid the jollity there is some swapping of repair tips. I have learned other languages but am reluctant to start a new one now. I am asked if my car is, like many others, a Californian import that has had the steering wheel moved to the right. I don’t know, so we assemble as I open the bonnet. Barry tells at a glance that this car was made at Abingdon in England, as an original right-hand drive. The clue is in the manifold, apparently.

Months go by and I see that classic cars have been holding or improving their real value in the face of the defeat of super. An investment I’d made a decade before had crashed back to its original value. I pulled it out and went on the hunt for an MGA. A white coupé, like the C. There it is on the internet, looking wonderful. I ring the owner. Is it reliable? Have the mechanicals been restored? Does he think it would be OK to drive back from Hobart to Adelaide? He’s not driven it a great deal since buying it from a man with dementia, he tells me, who could not tell him its history. The bit he is least sure about is the long drive.

I take a plunge and buy it over the phone. We are to meet in the airport car park. I get there first and wait. It seems to be a long wait. Suddenly there he is, coming round the corner in what looks so tiny a car, like a Dinky Toy. Paperwork done and hands shaken, I head off for Devonport and the ferry to Melbourne. Through the porthole I watch the dawn alight on Bass Strait.

It is summer but the 1959 MGA copes well, losing no coolant and no oil on the long day’s drive home. In a car close to the bitumen, all windows down to deal with the heat, and unable to go as fast as a semi-trailer, childhood memories are evoked of fiendishly loud trucks and facefuls of diesel fumes. Happily, the future of our union is largely day trips among vineyards and olive groves.

On the way to Adelaide I stop at the Giant Koala at Dadswells Bridge. Parked at its feet, the little coupé looks like an egg that the koala has just laid. At Keith I stop to admire the 1950s Land Rover atop a pole that commemorates the spread of agriculture from Western Europe to the Tatiara Council District. Some see this elevated Noddy car merely as the instrument of postcolonial imperialism and white hegemony. This requires the sense of humour of a cat. Although some of my best friends are anthropologists, when it comes to clubs I prefer the siblinghood of the classic car.

Peter Sutton

Peter Sutton is an anthropologist and linguist at the University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum, and a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. His books include The Politics of Suffering.
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