Canadian collector Steve Harris shows us his (mostly) British classics. The Collector Canadian Steve Harris shows us round his collection of British classics, including a Bentley MkVI and a Humber Pullman once owned by the Queen Mother.
Steve Harris is lucky enough to live on a sprawling rural forest acreage on Vancouver Island, an Anglophile paradise in British Columbia, Canada. It’s seriously British, with red double-decker buses and afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel. A small local commercial property business gives him a useful income without taking up too much of his playtime and his wife Barbara is entirely on-side and as obsessed with her garden projects as Steve is with rare coachbuilt British classics.
Steve’s energy levels are slightly tiring and the results of decades of that applied energy are evident as we crunch onto his driveway. Construction of the driveway, house, outbuildings and garden entailed the felling of 150 trees. His wooden home – known affectionately as Fawlty Towers – has moved twice since the Eighteen Nineties and erupted with extra dining rooms, bedrooms, towers and decks.
He originally restored cars in the basement but now does most of his work in the collection of carriage houses that he’s erected. The latest has a 14ft-high ceiling and the luxury of a hoist.
Steve’s collection leans towards Humber but is an intriguing mixture of happy chances and stubbornly-stalked prizes, some stunning and nearly all either rare or unique. The 1929 Austin Chummy he discovered deteriorating under a local apple tree in 1976 is a good example. ‘The owner told me that it wasn’t for sale,’ he says, ‘so I regularly pestered him, gently applying assorted guiltloading techniques until he finally allowed me to rescue it. I’ve no plans to restore it – I just wanted to save it and get it under cover. It’s currently perched on a table in my basement.
‘It’s actually driveable, despite appearances – I’d love to find and restore a period Austin flatbed lorry and take it to car shows with the Chummy on the back, just as it is. I’m not interested in concours – I’d rather show cars just for fun and in the hope of encouraging new people into the old-car hobby.’
A local doctor imported Steve’s magnificent 1930 Vauxhall Hurlingham from India years ago and it still wears its Calcutta number plates. It has a hidden dicky seat, two windscreens and twin sidemount spare wheels. ‘It’s one of eighteen made,’ says Steve. ‘I bought it before most people realised that Thirties Vauxhalls rivalled Lagondas and Bentleys for their performance and quality. It was designed well before General Motors tarnished Vauxhall’s reputation with crumbly Wyverns and Victors but I guess they were too expensive for their grim financial times. Vauxhall would probably have gone bust if GM hadn’t come to its rescue.’
These spectacular cars still fetch nowhere near the values they should command, and that was certainly the case when Steve bought this example in 2008. ‘It had been somewhat messed about with during the Seventies when it was worth almost nothing,’ he says. ‘It was painted silver and had a mash-up of random instruments, some of which look like they might have come out of a Triumph.
‘It has the biggest and most desirable 3.3-litre straight-six engine but the original crash gearbox was swapped for a Jaguar XJ6 four-speed plus overdrive unit some time during the Seventies. The car came with the original gearbox but I won’t be fitting it because it’s wonderful to drive as it is, with four well-spaced synchronised gears and overdrive. It cruises happily at 70mph.’
At least it did until Steve discovered coolant where it shouldn’t be, which is why it’s currently hors de combat and awaiting further investigation. He then plans to fit suitably period instrumentation and repaint it red and black.
The Vauxhall is topped off by a genuine Lalique glass mascot – a second edition of Chrysis – which should put WO Bentley and Ghost noses out of joint at the next All British Field Meet.
Steve hunted down his Jensen-bodied 1931 Standard Avon boat tail speedster in Oxfordshire. ‘The correct Standard engine is best described as pathetic and really doesn’t suit the car,’ he says, ‘so I’m going to forget originality and hot-rod it with an engine with twice as much horsepower.’ Sounds ominous, but he’s not talking about fitting a Chevy V8 – rather a 1.5-litre overhead-valve SS engine with twin carburettors, ‘SS supplied engines for Standard anyway, so this is really a matter of giving it the engine it could and should have had in the first place – I look on it as remedying an old injustice rather than trampling all over motoring history.’
His 1932 Rolls-Royce 20/25 has a long local history – it was photographed at the inauguration of the Rolls-Royce club in 1956. It then spent 40 years in a barn before the previous owner – a cabinet maker – sorted out the wood and leather, but sadly not the engine, ‘The cylinder head was already cracked so when the cylinder block followed suit I rebuilt the engine, blowing the various internal dirt traps clear with a Heath Robinson procedure that involved an air line, a pressurised tin can of oil, and me lying on my back under the car checking that oil was pouring out of all the right holes!
‘I tracked my 1933 Humber Vogue down in England – this time in Hereford – and it’s one of three made. It’s possibly the first ever pillarless coupé and was designed for the 1933 Motor Show by Parisian dress designer Captain Molyneux. It’s loaded with Wilmot Breeden period accessories and has a freewheel and Lucas Startex autostart. This acts pretty much like a modern stop-start system, cutting the engine in traffic then restarting it when you want to move off again. I can’t decide whether it’s innovative or annoying.’ Parked near the Vogue is a 1933 Rover 10 drophead coupé bodied by Salmons – later known as Tickford – as a show car. ‘I bought it at the Beaulieu Autojumble,’ says Steve. ‘I go there every year and was actually on the look-out for parts for my other cars. There was some muttering about “bloody foreigners taking British heritage abroad” but I was the only bloke there who was prepared to pay good money for it, so that’s the way it goes. It might well return to Britain if I ever decide to wind the collection down and will certainly go back in better condition.
‘The engine’s an early overhead valve design and a bit of a nightmare because Rover only made 50 of them. It’s prone to cylinder head cracking that you can’t easily solve by welding and new heads are no longer available. It’s not really big enough for the car either so it’s overstressed.
‘Still, I’m going to persevere with it. Originality is important to me but not always achievable in the real world.’
The 1939 Humber Imperial drophead coupé Steve bought in 1971 had a very hard start in life. ‘Similar bodies were retro-fitted to Rolls- Royces, but Humbers like this one are very rare,’ he says. ‘It was built in left-hand drive for export before World War Two but got stuck in the UK until 1941, when it came to Canada. It remained as unsold new-old-stock for ten years.’
When I query why a car that looks as good as a Packard wouldn’t have sold Steve explains, ‘It might look like a Packard but it’s a lot slower and cost a great deal more when it was new.
‘I’m only its second owner and it was in perfectly usable driving condition when I bought it. The engine seized in 1976 but I sorted it out and used it on and off until 1984.
‘The mechanics have always been sound but the structural body woodwork has some issues – I had to take it out of service when the passenger door suddenly opened halfway round a corner while Barbara was on board. It scared her half to death because it has no seat belts.
It’s now on my to-do list – it’s a bit daunting, but Winston Churchill paraded through London in one on VE Day, so I’m determined to get it back on the road one day.’
Steve’s favourite car is his 1947 Humber Pullman. ‘It’s one of only five made. I love the supreme build quality and lovely touches like the rear number plate letters that light up. Humber was in a good position as a car manufacturer in 1946. It had something of a patriotic cachet because it had built staff cars during the war. Mulliner backdated the Pullman’s bodywork to make it look more regal and the front wings look more French.
‘Mine has quite a colourful history – the Queen Mother owned it until the royal household sold it to a London rental car garage in 1952. I bought it in Ohio in 1998 after spotting it for sale in Hemmings magazine. It turned out to be an odd mixture of rough and perfectly preserved when I got it back to Vancouver. On the plus side, the interior was pristine even though it’s made mostly of vulnerable fine wool cloth rather than leather. The plebs in the front have to sit on common leather, though – apparently only royal bottoms got to sit on luxurious wool!
‘However the engine and the brakes were seized, the tyres were flat, the paint was nasty and the rubbers had deteriorated into something black and thoroughly unpleasant that didn’t even look like rubber anymore.
‘Posh Humbers are challenging to restore – you can’t just phone up Flying Spares or Red Triangle and give your credit card a battering. So I couldn’t believe my luck when a set of new-old-stock pistons for a Humber staff car turned up in England for just £430 – a lot cheaper than having new ones made.’
Steve rescued his 1947 Bentley MkVI from long-term storage in 1985, with all the usual concomitant problems, including a rough engine that he ended up having to rebuild, ‘You can imagine what Rolls-Royce and Bentley parts prices are like – the bill would have made a merchant banker wince! Still it’s a solid car with a nice interior and it drives beautifully. The James Young aluminium-overwood bodywork is much nicer than the steel original and the narrow roof pillars mean the interior feels really light and airy, but the paintwork was destroyed.
‘It had been in unheated storage in Calgary for decades so I had to tackle a really weird problem. Calgary sometimes gets a winter wind called the Chinook which is so warm that you can practically ride a motorcycle on Christmas Day. But the flash-freeze return to minus 30 degrees can destroy a car’s paint because the aluminium body contracts and shrinks at a different rate from the paint, which then literally falls off. I could pick the old paint off with my fingernails!’
The 1948 Ford Thames pick-up might not be the most prestigious vehicle in Steve’s collection but it’s certainly up there for rarity. It’s also 95 per cent restored and therefore something of a deviation from his usual habit of buying rarities suffering from major issues and then turning them into nice driver-quality cars.
‘Most vans and pick-ups are simply destroyed by hard work and then thrown away,’ he says. ‘The fact that this one survived at all is pretty amazing but I had to track down a replacement for the rotten bed. Oddly enough for something so rare, some parts for these cars are freely available from Paul Beck in the UK – you can order even the most obscure rubber parts and they arrive soon after with no drama and no Beaulieu table-raking. ‘Its construction is a bit odd – it’s semi-cab-over, so the engine is over to one side with the driver’s footbox on the other side. That’s why there are two starting-handle holes in the grille – the same grille works for both rhd and lhd versions.
‘I picked up a really useful tip when I restored this car – I discovered that boatyard trimmers are a lot cheaper than car trimmers, but do just as good a job. The top-quality cover on the back is custom-made but was very reasonably priced.’
Steve opens the bonnet and points out a detail he’s particularly pleased with – a period-looking aftermarket oil filter. ‘These Fords didn’t have oil filters – they were only expected to manage 30,000 miles or so between rebuilds so I love the fact that the oldfashioned tin cover pulls off to reveal a modern spin-on Fram filter.’
We’re nearing the end of our tour now, but there’s one more car that Steve wants to talk about – a 1961 Morris Traveller that belongs to Barbara. ‘We both owned Morris Minors when we first met, so restoring one as a present for her went down really well. I chose a Traveller because it’s more practical, economical and spacious than the saloon – and who doesn’t love that half-timbered body?’
It’s also rather quick, having been treated to a cheeky twincarburettor 1275cc A-series engine and better brakes. ‘I used to race a Frogeye Sprite and always tried to make it go as fast as possible. That experience came in handy when it came to brewing up a nicely quick Traveller, though it entailed a full restoration.’
Steve’s future plans, hopes and dreams are cheerfully fluid. The immediate future includes some delicate bodywork sculpting on the boat-tailed Standard at RWM and Co in Vancouver, and in the medium term he’s keeping an eye open for an Austin K series flatbed lorry, which he wants to restore to gleaming perfection and then decorate with his dramatically dilapidated Austin Chummy.
The usual challenge that Brits face in storing large collections of cars in small premises simply doesn’t apply here. When a new car arrives, Steve simply lays a concrete base, orders a truckload of four-by-twos and trusses, and erects another building in which to store it with sash-style windows and wooden cladding to blend in with the Victorian house and pre-war cars.
Vancouver Island weather is pretty temperate but winter sees Steve retreating to the warm basement under the house to fettle the latest project for a spring debut.
Humber Imperial drophead coupé not due a rebuild anytime soon. Rolls 20/25, regarded as underpowered compared with the 25/30, is not slow as such. It’s stately… Obscure 1948 Ford Thames pick-up has surprisingly good spares availability. 1930 Vauxhall Hurlingham is off the road with engine woes. Garden-rescue 1929 Austin Chummy is battered but charming. Obscure 1948 Ford Thames pick-up has surprisingly good spares availability. 1930 Vauxhall Hurlingham is off the road with engine woes. It’ll all come in useful one day. Top automobilia treasure is a Lalique second edition of Chrysis. Uprated Traveller has disc brakes and 1275cc Cooperish A-series engine. Parts prices for the Bentley engine rebuild scared Steve. 1933 Humber Vogue coupé reveals the ravages of time and long-dead bodgers. Steve has long been in the habit of buying up new-old- stock Lucas parts. Standard Avon boat-tail Speedster is being readied for 2017 driving season.
ALL THE CARS
1930 Vauxhall Hurlingham boat-tail speedster
1931 Standard Avon boat-tail speedster
1932 Rolls-Royce 25/30 by Carlton
1933 Humber Vogue pillarless coupé by Molyneux
1933 Rover 10 drophead coupé by Salmons
1939 Humber Imperial drophead coupé by Thrupp & Maberly
1947 Humber Pullman Sedanca de Ville by HJ Mulliner
1948 Ford Thames pickup
1949 Bentley MkVI by James Young
1961 Morris Traveller
1993 Jaguar XJSC