These car enthusiasts designed their life – and home – around their vintage fleet

Auckland’s Kawakawa Bay is home to a growing collection of notable classics.

Words: Andrew Kerr  Photos: Tessa Chrisp

Will and Pat Neal’s modern home is a well-sited retreat set back from the broad, inviting beach at Kawakawa Bay, near Clevedon, on the outskirts of Auckland. The bespoke house was dreamt up by a car enthusiast for car enthusiasts and sits on land that Pat’s family bought in the late 1950s. Garage space is on a par with living space, and there’s as much pristine concrete in the level approach as manicured lawn.

The height of the main garage roofline makes sense when Pat explains that it accommodates a commercial-grade hoist that allows Will, now retired after a career that started in fitting and turning and ended up in landscaping, to tackle virtually any servicing task or repair. And he says there are few that he wouldn’t attempt.

The complete restoration of their jet-black Austin A30 is an extreme case. This “baby Austin” was sold new in New Zealand in 1954 and is unusual for its original colour scheme and the integrity of its little shell. Even so, most people would have considered it fit for the scrapheap before Will set about rescuing it.

“Its original owner was a chap who had an Austin dealership up north, and a small brass tag confirms the provenance. The car was clearly well looked after, and it remained a one-owner car until the early 2000s. Because it was always garaged, the original hood lining is still fitted, and even the seats are okay,” Will says.

“Our son Shane found the car 14 years ago when it was for sale as a restoration project. He and a mate pulled it into a million bits — as young blokes do — and then they lost interest.”

So Will and Pat “inherited” a trailer-load of parts and have been working on an Austin jigsaw puzzle ever since.

Most of the suspension was missing, the original diff was out, and there was no steering column, so Will had to steer it with the front wheels. “The door glass proved the hardest part to source,” Will recalls, “and the fact that it came with good front and rear screens was a little short of a miracle. The availability of some original parts at our old local garage in Kawakawa Bay was just as amazing. Bob, the proprietor, searched everywhere and came up with Austin filters still in their original packaging and an old box of hard-to-source wiper blades. I bought the lot.”

A loose sheet of paper with the “trailer-load” also proved a godsend. “It showed that the motor had been rebored with new pistons and listed all the replacement parts. After troubleshooting to fix a few faults, the little 803cc motor has run brilliantly ever since.”

The first respray by a so-called professional was a failure that Will took on the chin. A mate’s follow-up attempt was fast and effective and cost a couple of boxes of beer.

A finishing touch was setting up the signaling to satisfy Warrant of Fitness inspectors, as Pat demonstrates via the button on the centre of the dashboard. “Instead of indicators, the A30 has orange reflective trafficators that flip up on either side of the roof beside the B pillars. Getting them right really tested our patience.”

And how does the A30 drive on the winding rural roads that spiral through the hilly terrain between Kawakawa Bay and Clevedon township? “With only 28 horsepower, it struggles a bit with inclines and is slow up hills, but it’s generally a lot of fun to drive. It’s a bit loose in the gear change, and there’s no assistance in the large steering wheel, but it soon lightens when you’re moving. It even clicks along fine on the motorway at 90 kilometres an hour, and I don’t feel intimidated by bigger modern vehicles.

“When Pat and I took her for a recent run, we contemplated driving it to an Austin Club gathering in Rotorua. Pat said it would get there quicker on a trailer, which might be true, but it would get there either way.” Driving is one thing, but Will concedes that the thing he and Pat enjoy most about owning cars is maintaining and improving them and attending social gatherings organized by car clubs. “And what makes the work on the Austin particularly satisfying is the number of people who approach us to relate their A30 memories.”

By contrast, few New Zealanders have experienced the top-down delights of the Neals’ most recent acquisition, a 1960 Hillman Minx Convertible. This car is a rare find. Pat says that it’s quite possibly the only one in New Zealand.

“We knew the long-term owner wanted to sell it,” Pat explains, “and he was concerned that it should go to a good home where it would continue to be used but cherished. And that’s how it’s panning out.”

The Minx was shipped from England to Napier for its first owner William Armour, in the winter of 1961. The registration papers show it changed hands frequently and was enjoyed a lot, racking up 150,000 kilometres by the end of the 1960s.

Now it’s a fine-weather car that the Neals would never take out in the rain. Like most convertibles from the era, it looks at its best with the hood down. So, the Minx gets a regular run when the weather allows, and Will says he has so much confidence in the car that he and Pat would be happy to go touring in it.

But despite the little Minx being so good to drive, Will can’t resist improving it.

“I need to take the motor out and cure the customary oil leaks by going through all the gaskets and seals. Shane found another running motor that could be a good substitute, but Pat gave me a look that suggested I shouldn’t pursue it. I’ve invested in some fresh whitewall tyres instead.”

And just when you think Will and Pat have their work cut out maintaining a pair of British classics from the 1950s and 1960s, Pat reveals that their Austin “fleet” mainly comprises much older cars from the 1930s. On cue, a garage door lifts to reveal a rare Austin Seven Special Boattail and a splendid 1937 Ruby.

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