Rallying around

16:00, Feb 08 2014
 Earl Preston
Blenheim veteran car owners Earl Preston and John Gray with the vehicles they respectively restored, a Swift and a Model T.

Suzuki Swifts are popular cars, but a British 1915 veteran Swift is thought to be one of only two in the world.

Marlborough president of the New Zealand Vintage Car Club, Earl Preston, spent four years reassembling a pile of parts to put the Swift on the road again. It was displayed at Brayshaw Heritage Park for heritage celebrations on Waitangi Day and last month it brought home three trophies from the 2014 Dunedin to Brighton Veteran Car Rally.

Earl was pretty chuffed.

It was the soft-top roadster's first outing since its restoration, he says, and it won a Field Test cup, the 4-cylinder to 4-litre Time Section and was named the best Overall Performer in the rally.

For the Time Section, drivers had to estimate how long it would take their vehicles to traverse the Caversham Hill, winding up its steep, narrow, suburban road then down the other side.

Unsure how fast the car could go, Earl nominated a time based on the Swift - which actually isn't very fast - travelling an average 25 miles (45 kilometres) per hour.


The 63 cars in the rally received a big welcome in Brighton and were on display after completing some field tests. There were questions about the vintage car club for drivers and an obstacle course for cars to test driving skills.

"I didn't think [the Swift] was very good but obviously it was better than anything else."

Earl received a badge marking 50 years' association with the vintage car club and says that started when he was a marshall at the 1962 Dunedin to Brighton rally in 1962. He returned in 1981 with a 1911 Overland.

Reassembling the Swift from multiple parts had not been too difficult because cars built before 1919, when World War I ended, were all hand-built. "You just have to make sure you have all the bits when you buy the parts."

Building new wheels for the Swift had been a nightmare, but a "totally rotten" wheel had been included in the parts so there was something to make a pattern from. "It was a huge job and it just about drove me nuts."

In 2010 Earl and his wife Rose - a veteran car enthusiast in her own right - went to Britain and met the owner of the world's second surviving Swift. It was originally owned by the man's grandfather, who had been an engineer for the Swift company in Coventry, England.

"It's a very comfortable car to drive and was popular with the professions: Doctors, lawyers, travellers and the military, of course."

Fitted with a right-hand gear change and a right-hand brake lever though, no door was built on to the driver's side, forcing Earl to enter and exit through the passenger's door. "There's no opening doors for ladies," he says, grinning at Rose.

Asked about its fuel economy, Earl isn't sure because he towed it to Dunedin and back on a trailer. But he guesses it will do "maybe 20 miles a gallon" (32km to 4.5 litres).

He pumps contemporary 91 octane into the fuel tank and doesn't add anything to compensate for its lead-free content. Fuel quality early last century was "totally atrocious", he says. "And when you restore a car you put good quality, modern valves in. They don't get damaged by the lack of lead."

The Swift joined other veteran and vintage vehicles at Brayshaw Heritage Park for heritage celebrations in Blenheim on Thursday. Cars, he says, are an important part of our heritage.

"They are so important, people to people, they are an important part of our society. If we didn't have cars, where would we be?"