Australia has tens of thousands of registered old cars manufactured pre-January 1, 1979 – per capita more than any other country in the world. They have each been restored with amazing passion, and delivered with a special story. It’s about the love of cars.
With a sheepish grin behind his grey whiskers Peter Smyth confesses he’s in love with his old Chic. His understanding wife, Lyn, doesn’t mind; it has kept him out of the kitchen for years.
In his loveable larrikin days on the farm at Salter Springs near Balaklava, a hamlet that boasts of a closed one-building school that produced two Rhodes Scholars and according to Peter still has two-and-a-half men and a dog, he was known to race her around a dam, but nowadays dare we touch or lack respect.
With amazing passion, dedication and some may suggest madness, Peter restored his Chic, a beautiful automobile that graced us in the early 1920s. All of her glory was noted in a classic collection of tales that hum on the first Thursday night of every month when almost 300 members of the local branch of the Historic Motor Vehicles Club meet in the clubrooms in Jolly Street, Victor Harbor.
Upon becoming a member, each newcomer delivers the story of their car, and it has been said the long-timers at this 44-year-old club continue to drool at the sheer mention of Peter’s little Chic.
During the emotional fall-out from a recent announcement that General Motors Holden will cease production at its Elizabeth plant in 2017, we reminisced about South Australia’s car manufacturing glory days, but not mentioned was our other car, the Chic, with only 32 produced here, using British parts and assembled in Millswood, an inner Adelaide suburb from 1923-29 – 19 years before the first Holden, the FX, rolled off the assembly line at Woodville. It is car heritage at its finest.
In 1925, Peter’s grandfather, Peter McDowell Smyth, was one of the first to buy a Chic, a luxury car of its time, and was known to drive through the dusty streets of Balaklava mumbling ‘giddy-up, giddy-up’ as if he were still driving his horse.
“My grandfather handed the car to my uncle, who gave it to me in 1954, which was probably the silliest thing he ever did in his life,” said Peter, who turns 77 on Tuesday.
“Being part of a young group of idiots pretending to be Argentinean legend Juan Fangio (five-time World Grand Prix champion), who was our hero along with Stirling Moss, we used to tear around a circuit marked with hay bales. No one was killed or injured; we were lucky.
Another weekend we’d be hurtling around the back roads; no registration, and we had a sled that we towed around the streets as if we were water skiing.
“Of course, the Chic was subjected to grave mistreatment. The body was ripped off and various hotting-up modifications were attempted.
“For years I could hear my grandfather’s words: ‘well, you’ve wrecked that, haven’t you’. It bothered me so much that in 1970 I realised the error of my prodigal ways, and set about rebuilding the car; researching, and obtaining as many parts as possible, which was not easy with just 32 of the things built.
“I worked on the car on the farm with help of Peter Turner, who lives in Goolwa and did the body work for me; he’s an utter craftsman.”
Perhaps coincidental, but Clarence Chick made 32 of his Chic cars, and it took Peter 32 years to finally return the one he wrecked into a magnificent piece of classic machinery.
“I tried to stick as close to detail as possible, including using the original cast iron pistons and engine,” Peter said. “We even replaced the leather upholstery. Overall, the car was a very forward design for its time.
“It was a lot more enjoyable restoring the Chic than wrecking it, and I guess a really guilty conscience was behind restoring this. I like to think I have made amends for my rash behavior.”
Of the all the Chic cars produced, only four others are known to have survived, including one in the Australian National Motor Museum in Birdwood, which unlike Peter’s can barely be driven.
Another local Historic Car Club member, Doug Sweetman, 82, recalled the day in 1934 when his father, Fin, who worked in a pump station near their Jervois home, walked into the Dodge dealer in Murray Bridge and bought a new Dodge 4.
“Dad had never driven a car before, so the salesman told him how to start the car and change gears, and off dad went,” Doug said. “He didn’t even have a licence, and I don’t recall him ever getting one.
“It was the way things were; the milk that came from all the dairies in the swamps used to be picked up by river boat, so for a long while no one thought they needed a car. I guess my interest in cars started from that day dad bought the Dodge 4.”
Doug has since restored eight cars, including his most recent challenge, a 1929 Nash with its twin ignition and eight-cylinders. Of course, it means little to those of us who know nothing about cars, but to these guys in the club this is heavy talk. It’s what they breathe.
“The opportunity to buy the car came along in 2007,” Doug recalled. “Sometimes we don’t always go out to buy a particular make or model; it’s what comes along. This car was in a wrecked state in Mount Gambier… it was a heap of bits in a shed; everything stripped off it, sitting on a chassis on blocks.
“When asked whether I was interested in buying it, I said, ‘not really, I’ve got one’. The bloke went on to tell me the story about this car and, sure enough I bought it. Two years later after a lot of restoration work, we have a magnificent result.
“I just love doing this stuff… bringing something back to life. You get a whole wreck or a trailer-load of rubbish and you make a car out of it over a period of time. You keep on convincing yourself that you should sell one car and get another one in.
“It’s time consuming, but if you can do most of the work yourself it is not so expensive. If you had to send the car out to have work done professionally it would increase the cost two or three times. For me, the hardest part is the panel beating.
“You’ve got to be interested in mechanics and motor vehicles. There is enormous satisfaction in what we do.
“I have had a 1938 DeSoto Chrysler sedan for 15 years, and it has given me enjoyment every day.”
Milan Prochazka, 76, also remembered growing up without his family owning a car.
“We lived in Moree, a northern NSW town, at the time and we had no reason to go anywhere,” Milan said. “Dad was a blacksmith and he got by on his pushbike.
“When my brother Ivan and I were old enough to get a licence we put in x-number of pounds to buy a car, and dad put in the rest on the condition it was a black car, and so a black car it was. Every weekend he’d sit in the backseat while we were the chauffeur.
“I guess with my first job being a mechanic for the local International Harvester dealer I developed an interest for doing up cars, trucks and trailers.
“There was the 1956 Dodge ASW 120 International 4WD drive truck, which we dug out of a paddock in Ravenshoe, Queensland. The hood was belted in, and the rain fell through the rust.
“We stripped a jeep down to the basics, and I also rebuilt a TD6 crawler tractor and put in a 4326 Perkins engine.”
Of course, you would do this with a TD6. Again, car talk, and another example of living in a dream world. For the record, Milan’s 1952 Vauxhall E series ute is special too, bought in Naracoorte because the previous owner could not afford the $20,000 required to pay someone else to do the basic restoration work.
For the men and women of the Victor Harbor branch of the Historic Car Club, it’s all about their cars, not them, and they live by the creed to “… encourage the preservation, restoration and use of veteran, vintage, classic and any other interesting vehicle”.
Rest assured, in many years to come at these first-Thursday-of-the-month meetings they will revive the memories of when this state had a car industry, started by a Gallipoli hero named Clarence Chick. And, no doubt, they’ll mention Peter Smyth and his Chic, enough to produce more revs in a crowded room than a hot Chevy on a Saturday night.