Old cars fuel a lifelong passion

21:04, Feb 07 2013
Gordon Dacombe
RESTORATION MAN: Gordon Dacombe with a typical lineup of cars in his Stoke business: A 1912 Rover 12 restored by staff member Trevor Carston after hours over four years; a 1961 Daimler SP250; a 1956 Austin Healey 100/6; the body shell of a 1964 Jaguar E-Type. At the rear is a partly-rebuilt 1937 Packard hearse, and the trolleys used in the Kiwi Flyer film.

It's no surprise that Gordon Dacombe ended up in his line of work - but he has taken it in some unusual directions.

With an engineer father and an interest in anything with wheels from an early age, "I was always going to be a mechanic", the 61-year-old owner of Stoke car restoration business Autofocus says.

He owned his first car, a 1929 Hudson Super Six, before he was old enough to have a driver's licence and after leaving Nayland College he began an apprenticeship at Wrightcars in Nelson, the then Vauxhall and Bedford agents.

It gave him a good grounding, he says, learning to rebuild engines, generators and starter motors, doing the sort of jobs that these days are farmed out to specialists.

Mr Dacombe had a stint in Auckland, came back to Nelson and after selling a successful forklift agency he had begun, developed the work he loves, first from a large workshop at his Maitai Valley home and then in the Forests Rd industrial area where his original Fix-It Shop became Autofocus.

It now has five staff including specialists in painting and panel work, and does everything from servicing modern cars to rebuilding old ones - its core business and one which sometimes sees a car being worked on for several years.


A peek through the door reveals a range of old cars, some very old. There is a gleaming testament to the restorer's art in one spot, a bare, rusty chassis in another, a row of trolleys lined up on a shelf under the roof. It has that organised chaos feeling beloved by blokes. It reeks of hidden promise and rare skill.

"The restoration business is quite interesting," Mr Dacombe says. "We don't know exactly why cars end up coming to us from the North Island or from down south. They just track us down; we don't advertise as such."

Some jobs cost tens of thousands of dollars and a few top the $100,000 mark. With that sort of expense, some owners have to pay as they go, getting work done when they can afford it and then putting the restoration on hold until they can pay for more.

Even restoring a modest car like a Morris Minor has costs disproportionate to the end value and although a restored Jaguar sports model might be a break-even proposition, for owners it is usually a labour of love.

"It might have been a car you had when you were younger or something like that," Mr Dacombe says.

"The best jobs are where the owner is quite involved, and may even be doing part of the process and requiring us to help them along with some of the parts and things like that - the enthusiasm and the enjoyment they get out of doing it and owning it and driving it when it's finished is really good."

The oldest car he has worked on is a De Dion said to be an 1898 model. An enthusiast for the quirky Citroen 2CV6, he has restored a number for customers and has two of his own stashed away for eventual completion.

He has "about 10" old cars of his own in assorted condition and when asked which one he likes to take out on Sundays he says, "the 1961 Daimler Dart, or the 34 Dodge, or the 48 Jaguar or something like that".

Some of his most expensive restorations have been hearses for funeral directors, a 1936 Studebaker and a 1927 Chrysler for North Island clients, and a 1936 Packard being rebuilt for a Christchurch business.

They leave the workshop "an old car on the outside, a new car underneath" and will serve their owners for many years, often strongly appealing to families as the ideal mode of transport for their loved one's last journey.

Old cars have been a lifelong passion and he says he is partly driven by his dislike of throwing things away.

"Most things can be repaired. It's not always economic when you look at it from an accountant's point of view. Often in the process of repairing them you're upgrading them as well, putting in better brakes, power steering, better electrics and so on along the way. But it's much more economical from an environmental point of view to repair something than start from scratch and build a new one."

Mr Dacombe has been a newsmaker for his role in building the trolleys used in the Kiwi Flyer movie and he remains a trolley derby advocate, designer-builder and racer. The next Nelson derby will feature four generations of his family on the track - himself, his son Glen, grandchildren Jared, Morgan and Jasmine, and his 4-year-old great-granddaughter Stella. Her steel-framed trolley is being built now, specially designed to fit her.

Mr Dacombe loves the anyone-can-do-it ethos of the trolley derby and that is what is driving his latest project, an attempt to set a distance and speed record for a trolley powered by a standard battery-driven electric drill. He has already had a test run on the Trafalgar Park track, achieving 37kmh and 4 laps. On January 13 there will be a proper record-setting run at the park in conjunction with a Nelson Falcons-Canterbury United soccer game.

It is all for fun, but Mr Dacombe says the part of his business that produces "sheer joy", is adapting cars so they can be driven by paraplegics and people with missing limbs.

They have done 40 or so for people from around the top half of the South Island, and a new Ford is due to be delivered to be fitted with hand controls and other modifications for a wheelchair client.

"That is really, really rewarding," he says. "It just absolutely transforms the life of a person. Often you're doing it for someone who figured they'd never drive again."

The Nelson Mail