Restoring a car is never an easy undertaking.
Doing so with the painful legacy of a broken neck suffered in a car accident, not to mention hip and knee replacements and a heart condition, presents a whole new world of challenges.
But nothing was going to stop Rob Gillam bringing the MGA he’s owned since 1976 back to mint condition after the ravages of the salty sea air on the south coast had taken its toll.
Not the “pain and inconvenience” of his injuries that have left him with reduced use in his right arm and neck, and not the sheer amount of work required to resurrect his beloved soft-top.
“It’s a family heirloom”
“It’s a family heirloom,” says the 65-year-old at his home in Hove, near Brighton. “It’s like a diary, with 40 odd years of my life in it, almost like a pictorial, living, breathing record.
“I’ll never sell it – my daughters both love it and my eight-year-old grandson absolutely loves it. He says ‘when can we go out in the racing car grandad?’
“My daughter gives me a one eyebrow up look, because there are no seatbelts or safety features – it’s got a door on it, that’s the safety feature. But I don’t drive it mad.”
The 1962 MG is not the only car in Rob’s garage that holds a special place in his heart – his late step-father’s remarkably original mark III Cortina XL has also proved impossible to part with.
Bought new with £1,200 of step-dad Alf’s retirement money in 1972, the tawny brown Ford has covered just 41,000 miles and, apart from a respray, remains almost as it was the day it was driven out of the showroom.
“It’s unmolested, a proper little time capsule,” says Rob, who promised his mum, Joyce, he would get Alf’s car back on the road when he died about five years ago.
“It had been laid up in her garage, buried under boxes and looking a bit sorry for itself. The brakes were seized and clutch didn’t engage, but I got it back running and took her up to Tesco in it.
The love of his life
“She got in it and burst into tears. ‘It smells of Alf,’ she said, ‘he would be proud – it was the love of his life.’
“My mum got another ride in it before she passed away. It was very emotional for her and it would be an emotional wrench to sell it.”
Born and raised in London, Rob trained as a builder before the skateboard craze of the 1970s took over his life, travelling the world as part of a professional team of boarders for five years in his early 20s.
“I was part of the Logo team – brands like Dunlop, Kodak and Rank could hire us for the day and we would wear their shirts,” he says.
“We were lucky enough to go over and skate with the Dogtown boys in Santa Monica, California.”
Otherwise known as the Z-Boys, this group of teen surfers practically invented modern skateboarding after taking over the empty swimming pools drained of water during a drought in southern California.
“They were always years in front,” says Rob. “We learned a lot from them and took that to Europe and, ultimately, Australia.”
He rode the skateboard craze, the new sport’s golden age of discovery, until the “wages died, the magazine died and the advertising revenue died with it”.
The knee and hip replacements are a legacy of those five years of twists, flips and, naturally, falls, but it was during this period that Rob first set eyes on the 1962 MGA laying abandoned on a housing estate near Croydon.
“It was dumped on a housing estate with a tree growing out of it,” remembers Rob. “The lights were missing, the seats were gone and the steering wheel was hanging off the boss.
“I was there with my mate Andrew, we used to restore E-Types at the time, and I said ‘I like the shape of that one’. He said the only way to get it is to find out how owns it and buy it.
“I was knocking on doors to see who owned it but no-one wanted to own up to it, thinking I was an official. “So I went back later that night and put leaflets through doors saying I wanted to buy it, and all of a sudden got a phone call saying yes, come and get it.
“How it got in that state I don’t know – it’s always been a fairly wealthy person’s car because it’s so impractical.”
Rob paid £45 for the dilapidated car, and raided scrapyards to gradually put it back together.
“It was a heap”
“It was a heap and sat in the garden for years being fiddled with,” he says. “Bit by bit we got it done, and it was used for about six years before we had a baby and needed something more practical.”
The MG was laid up in Rob’s mum’s garage, where it remained for nearly a decade, and replaced by a VW 412LE.
“In about 1992 my mum was about to move and wanted the garage space back,” he says. “The deal was, it’s been in the garage for years, come and tidy the garage up for me and get the car out.
“It was buried under boxes and got used a sideboard, so it was a question of digging it out. By then I had enough time and money to do it, and the kids were up and running as it were.”
A “skin-deep” recommissioning saw the car back on the road, but Rob’s move to the south coast came at a cost to the MG, fitted with the 1.8-litre unit soon to be seen in the MGB.
“The car had to live in the road for quite a while and the salt air got to it and it started to deteriorate,” he says. “I had a bad knee and hip and could not do anything, and the car got worse and worse.”
Years of rehab
Then came the car accident that left Rob facing years of rehab to regain partial use of his right arm and neck.
“A car crashed into me, and I broke my neck and badly damaged the radial nerve,” he says. “After three years of physio I’ve got about 85 per cent use back in the arm, and 80 per cent in my neck, though I still can’t look over my shoulder.”
So when Rob moved house again, and painstakingly erected a workshop, he enlisted the help of a “proper old school mechanic” in his 80s to help him once again return the MG to its former glory.
This time, the restoration was “bones deep”.
“Me and an old boy called Henry, who is also disabled, started taking it apart about five years ago and finding experts to help us,” he says.
“He was a local mechanic in Hove who was recommended to me when I needed some work done on an Audi 80, and he’s been around ever since.”
Rob sourced a “genius welder” to repair the rusting bodywork, a sprayer in his 70s to bring the shine back to the light blue paintwork, and a carb expert from Sheffield to rebuild the twin SUs.
“He’s blind in one eye and, although he quoted me £350, he gave me £100 back because they weren’t anywhere near as bad as I described them,” says Rob.
Old school honesty
“That kind of old school honesty and workmanship has nearly all gone. He was building Lagonda carbs from drawings for a customer – you can’t find his skills anywhere.”
The brightwork was replaced, nuts and bolts swapped for stainless steel, and a few concessions to modernity were added including power-assisted brakes, two electric fans to aid cooling and an emergency cut-out switch.
“As I saw the car coming together my confidence came together with it, and my drive to get it finished,” says Rob, with the car finally ready to hit the road again after two years of toil.
So how did it feel to be back behind the wheel of a car he first drove nearly 40 years previously?
“An ear to ear smile is the only way I can put it,” he says. “You could tell how happy I was from the bugs on my teeth, because I was using the Brooklands screens.
“It’s a joy to drive. The handling is really good, like it’s on rails. It’s a little bit tail happy when it’s damp, but nowhere near like an E-Type or a Healey 3000. The guys who helped me rebuild it get to use it too.”
The heatwave summer of 2018 has given Rob plenty of excuses, if any were needed, to stretch the MG’s legs over the South Downs.
“I’ve had a lot of fun in it this summer,” says Rob, with the aftermarket overdrive on third and fourth gears providing more comfortable cruising on the open road.
“I take it out in the sun and run up to Devil’s Dyke to blow the cobwebs away, on good roads with good visibility and sports car curves in them.
“There’s a place we call ‘the surprise car park’ because as soon as you pull into it you can see half of Surrey, Kent, Sussex – it’s a stunning vista.
“You can have a quick pint up there, bring it out the long way home round the back of the Dyke and give it a nice stretch along the A23 and home.”
The MG may be Rob’s pride and joy, but it’s the Coke-bottle Cortina 1.6XL that attracts the most attention, with so many having tales to tell of Ford’s best-selling saloon.
“With the MGA people will walk past and go ‘nice car mate’ and keep walking, but they will talk to you about having first baby in the Cortina, or my dad had one etc,” says Rob.
“People clap at you as you go past bus stops. So many people have got fond memories of that car, more so than the MG. The guy who MoTs it loves it – he had five and always asks if he can take it for test drive.
“I was taking it to a little car show we have in Hove, and a Mercedes stopped in front of me, the bloke jumped out with his palm up, ‘hold on, hold on’, got his phone out and started taking pictures of it. People behind me started tooting.
“If you want to write a book, just park the Cortina on a reasonably busy road and people will come along and tell you their memories of them.”
The car has lived all its life in a garage, and was only resprayed because a window on one side of the garage had allowed the sun to bleach the bronze paintwork.
“It looked like two different colours,” says Rob. “Other than that, it’s 95 per cent original, including its original clutch. No-one ever sat in the back seats, it never went on the motorway and if you open the boot it’s like new.”
Over the years, Rob reckons more than 100 cars have passed through his hands, but these two cars have remained while all the others have found new owners.
“The MG has just stuck around,” he says. “I admit I was going to sell it about 10 years ago, but my daughters, Jodi and Carly, said ‘no, you can’t’. I was overruled by the girls.
“I spent about £20,000 doing it up, and every day I have it I get more of my money’s worth.”
With both cars tucked away in the workshop, whenever he likes Rob can take a look in the rear-view mirror of not only his own life, but his much-loved step-father’s too.
Pictures by Simon Finlay.
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