Melissa Jardine has already successfully restored a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am and now, in memory of her father, she’s reviving a 1984 Datsun Laurel.
Blame dad, blame TV
When she was a child growing up in the ’80s, Melissa was exposed to a lot of motoring influences. She watched films like Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run many times – cars jumping through the air, races and the charismatic Burt Reynolds giggling away as he once again thwarted the efforts of Sheriff Buford T Justice. It was enough to set her young imagination ablaze.
It wasn’t just the TV though – Melissa’s dad helped develop and grow her love of cars. He bought a lot of cars back in the day and, as money was tight, he would often buy a ‘project’ – things in need of some love. Melissa watched and learned as tired car after tired car came through the household, all to be given a new lease of life by her skilled father.
“It’s a money pit!” her dad said. But did Melissa listen…?
At 10 years old, Melissa stopped watching and started to get involved. Little did she know, however, that one particular car would start a journey that is still in full swing today. It was a Datsun Laurel. If you’re not familiar with this rare beast, think of it as a Japanese BMW – a large, square saloon car brimming with luxury.
Her passion for motors continued to grow through the car and working alongside her dad, not least because she learned to drive in it at the tender age of just 13. However, Melissa is keen to emphasise, “always on private land, not the M1!”.
She loved her dad, she loved the car – it was perfection. So smitten with the Datsun was Melissa that she threatened to buy her own, although her dad advised against it: “It’s a money pit!” Did Melissa listen? No, she didn’t.
Hitting the road
When Melissa passed her test her dad sourced her a car. She was grateful, but it wasn’t the Laurel.
“The Vauxhall Cavalier was nice, but it wasn’t flicking the switches,” admits Melissa. “There was still something niggling in the back of my mind. I wanted my own car to restore. I wanted a big, silly American car, and thanks to the film influences, it had to be a Trans Am!”
A dream realised, albeit a rusty dream
Finally, in 2001 Melissa found a Trans Am. It was ‘a bit of a heap’ but it didn’t stop her from buying it. And who cares if it needed some work? It was a 1977 Trans Am. It was the Bandit’s car! It rarely gets cooler than that.
“I used to help out in the workshop where the car was, and things were getting more and more technical. I was rebuilding the suspension and building up the engine and so on, the kind of stuff I had never tackled before. It’s a far stretch from wire-brushing back when I was 10!”
It was a steep learning curve, but having found some skilled petrol-heads to help, the car was slowly restored.
It took 15 years before the project was finally complete. During that time, the car was in and out of the workshop – it was, shall we say, a ‘rolling restoration’. But it worked and worked well.
The car periodically won awards when it went to shows and always drew the admiring gaze of passers-by.
“I was so proud,” explains Melissa. “So was my dad.”
And it’s no wonder: he’d watched his daughter adopt his passion and develop her own skills over the years.
This is for you, Dad
“By the time I’d finished, it was basically a brand-new car. Sadly though, as is the way with old cars, it developed a bit of a problem with the engine in 2007,” she says.
Melissa wanted to sort it properly, so the engine came out again with plans to have it ready for summer 2008. However, this spiralled and “everything in front of the windscreen had to come off! It got a bit in-depth”. Not that this was a bad thing, as Melissa loved working on the car.
Sadly, once the Trans Am was off the road for repair, Melissa’s father became ill in 2009 and passed away five years later. Unsurprisingly, enthusiasm to work on the car waned. It hurt not to have her dad there anymore, but she dug deep for motivation and once again got the car back on the road.
“Once it was on the road again it won an award at the first show it went to. I was thrilled, obviously, but it would have been brilliant if my dad was there to be a part of it.”
The return of the Datsun
Throughout the restoration of the Trans Am, Melissa had been on the lookout for her first love: a Datsun Laurel. These cars were rare back in the 1980s, and 30 years on there are just 12 still registered for use on UK roads. Still, the Trans Am was completed, so it was time to find one. Melissa wanted to revisit that part of her life, not only for herself, but for her dad.
Her skill, dedication and emotional resolve is already admirable. But on top of the passing of her dad, she is also suffering from a medical condition that often results in her using a wheelchair. Just as parental advice didn’t stop her getting an inadvisable car she loved, Melissa hasn’t let her disability stand in the way of her passion.
“That’s why the Datsun project is on,” she says. “I want to do it while I still can. I don’t want to look back and think ‘I wish I had’.”
“The impulsive side of me wanted it, but I had my dad’s voice saying ‘walk away'”
Determination is wonderful, but it was only something she could put into use if she could find a Laurel.
“Finding one was a challenge,” explains Melissa as she starts the story. “I heard about one in Scotland and I was obviously excited to go and see it. I hadn’t seen one for 20 years, so I was pretty giddy!
“When I got there though, it was rough and hadn’t been looked after. The impulsive side of me wanted it, but I had my dad’s voice saying ‘walk away’. I spent a few hours looking at it, but in the end I walked away broken-hearted.”
Later in 2016 she found an old advert online, dating from 2014. A Datsun Laurel was being sold by a daughter who had also lost her father. She wanted it to go to a good home and be looked after, not end up on a banger track. For 20 years it was her father’s pride and joy and had been superbly maintained. It was like Melissa’s Trans Am.
The car had already been sold, but Melissa’s quest was not yet over…
A project begins
“I found the car had also been on eBay in 2015, but hadn’t sold,” says Melissa, excited as she tells her story. “I managed to track the owner down in 2016 and he still had it. I got lots of photos of it, but it didn’t look great. There was lots of rust on it, and that’s a worry as parts are hard to find.
“I thought about it for weeks. The car had a lot going for it: it was completely original and had never been messed about with.”
The car boasted complete factory spec and, furthermore, everything worked.
In the end, its originality swung Melissa – after all, metal can be cut out and replaced and she knew people who could help with that. It might be a big job, but it had an MoT, so how bad could it be?
“It has a lot of rust, but I’m still determined to do it”
“I took the plunge and had it delivered up from Holyhead. It arrived at about 9pm and I can tell you, it was emotional as I now live on the same street as I did as a child. Seeing that Laurel roll back down our road was a special moment for me.”
Melissa had finally done it, she finally had her Laurel.
“It has a lot of rust, but I’m still determined to do it. I’m part of a restoration club, which has all the knowledge and the facilities so that’s a big worry lifted,” she explains.
“But then I got lucky again. There’s a local chap breaking one. Amazingly, it’s rusty in all the places mine isn’t, so I took to it with a grinder to get all the good metal I need.
“My goal is to complete it by July 2017. It’s going to be tight, but it should be doable. The restoration club is having an ’80s display, so it should be a good draw.”
After 23 years of searching, this Datsun Laurel is more than a car to Melissa: it’s a time capsule to her childhood, to fond memories of her father. This car is part of the family.
Advice for the budding car restorer:
- “Get involved! It’s only metal, and that can be fixed. Obviously work to your skills, but don’t be afraid to try new jobs on the car.”
- “Research is everything. Don’t buy the first car you see. Let your head rule your heart, it’ll save time and money later.”
- Join the club. “There are restoration workshops and clubs out there that are brimming with help and advice. Get involved with one of them and you’ll be laughing.”