Veteran Hillman now the glory of Joe's garage

Joe Fraser's immaculate Hillman Californian is polished to perfection and the glory of his garage - but it almost wasn't.

Fraser bought the 1955 Hillman 30 years ago, and what started out as an enjoyable restoration project soon became a headache for the New Plymouth man who admits he was very nearly defeated by the classic Californian.

"I knew it needed a complete rebuild - but little did I know how much work was involved," he says.

But Fraser wasn't new to the restoration game. He had previously restored a 1923 Chev and had greased the wheels for many of his friends who were reviving their vehicles, so when he came across the Hillman in Taumarunui back in 1984 he thought it would be a sure bet.

When Fraser got the British automobile home he completely stripped it, and discovered a lot of the panels were riddled with rust and the boot was virtually non-existent.

"You could see straight through it," he says. "I started off fixing one thing and I would come across something else that needed fixing. It was like writing a book and every section of the car was like a chapter."

Parts were frequently inaccessible which meant his son, Nigel, often had to send him parts from England. But the major obstacle was the body work.

Fraser had some experience constructing body panels but to assist the process he attended a night class where he would learn the finer details, and that is where he would make the Hillman's new panels.

"I would rush home to make sure they fit - and if they didn't I would run back and do a bit more shaping."

It took Fraser 10 years to restore the Hillman back to its original factory condition, but for three of those years the two-door pillarless coupe was banished to the shed, abandoned by its owner who became discouraged by the ongoing issues he encountered with the panelling on the car's left side.

"I nearly let it beat me," he explains.

Then by happy chance Fraser was at a swap meet where he came across another 1955 Hillman Californian. He was able to examine the car, take the measurements for that problematic panel, and this inspired him to pick up where he had left off.

"I came home and pulled the covers off the old girl and got back into it."

Nowadays Fraser says he takes his pride and joy out at every opportunity. The British classic has a four-speed column shift transmission and is powered by an overhead valve engine which generates about 14.5 horsepower.

"It would sit on the open road at about 90km," says Fraser.

The New Plymouth man, whose passion for cars began as a young boy growing up around his uncles who all had a weakness for Fords, also owns the Californian's cousin - the Minx.

Eight years ago Fraser rescued a very scruffy looking 1964 Hillman Minx, which he plans to keep in its original condition.

Fraser doesn't think he will undertake any future restoration jobs but says his cars are always a work in progress and he will continue to perform maintenance work on them.

"I find it boring doing a jigsaw puzzle but I can sit down and work out a problem with an old car," he says.

"My advice to any young person looking to restore a vehicle is to join a car club. There will be plenty of people there who will be able to guide you."

Taranaki Daily News