The rare restorers

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MEN AND MACHINE Some of the mechanics who specialise in repairing vintage cars Photo: M. Karunakaran
MEN AND MACHINE Some of the mechanics who specialise in repairing vintage cars Photo: M. Karunakaran
It’s not easy to keep vintage and classic cars running since there are very few specialised mechanics to attend to them
A modern auto component fitted in a vintage car will stand out like a sore thumb, and a mechanic who attends to these cars without understanding them as anachronisms, like a hand in a cast. He will fret and fume more than these routinely overheating cars. Vernon Miller, one of the Miller brothers that are on first-name familiarity with most of Chennai’s vintage car aficionados has a perceptive comment about this mismatch: “Patience is the keyword for a mechanic dealing with Brass Era cars. Often, work will come to a standstill for want of a single part. The younger crop of mechanics find it difficult to deal with this frustration. After a couple of such deadlocks, they lose interest in these cars.”
Vernon runs a garage where old and modern vehicles nuzzle bumpers and, whenever faced with delays in restoration of a vintage car, he shifts attention to the modern machines. “Let us face it, regular cars are fast money. They are easier to work on. In the time taken to restore one vintage car, ten in-production cars can be repaired from bumper to bumper. There is good money in repairing antique machines, but getting there takes time. The mechanic who understands this and makes adjustments, stays longer on the vintage circuit.”
Owners of antique cars think this wisdom is disappearing, along with solid mechanics. “Age has forced many of the trusted antique car mechanics of Chennai into retirement. Many others, slightly younger, have turned drivers, unable to deal with the scarcity of work. No mechanic can expect a regular supply of vintage cars that require ground-up restoration. When Premier Padminis and Ambassadors ruled the Indian roads, they could attend to these machines during lean periods. When it comes to present-day vehicles, these mechanics find the knowledge gap insurmountable. Getting behind the wheel is the easier way to stay relevant,” says S. Kylas, secretary, Madras Heritage Motoring Club.
In this climate, A. Veerabadhran, an 80-year-old mechanic in a life-long romance with Brass Era cars, is an obvious rarity. He says, “These are cars that I am accustomed to. When I started out in 1951, nobody saw them as vintage or classic.”
Owners value the Veerabadhranas of the city and miss those of his calibre that are out of the reckoning. But, it is tempting to ask: are these mechanics as indispensable as made out to be?
“They are!” is the loud answer. Restoration of a vintage car has two aspects to it, one involving the visible and the other the hidden parts of the machine.
Talking of the latter, Vernon says, “The internal mechanism is largely the same and any mechanic can understand it and get a car up and running. Minor differences — such as the gearbox being placed before the engine in a Citroen Traction Avant — do not matter.”
But, that is not all there is to it and Vernon knows that. “When you take the whole process, experience counts. A mechanic who understands the historical value of these machines will go the extra yard in sourcing original components or re-creating them,” he says. At 44, Vernon illustrates that any mechanic — even the younger ones — can reach this level of understanding.
Says Partha Banik, an engineer and a judge at vintage rallies, “All the manual inputs such as tinkering and upholstery are handled better by experienced mechanics. Even tuning the engines of these machines is done best by mechanics accustomed to them. Adjusting something as simple as carbuertor jets takes skill.”
One, probably the only, way of getting around the problem is owners themselves developing greater technical expertise and showing green-horn mechanics the way.
Actually, not a wild idea. C.S. Ananth, who owns vintage cars and restores some for friends, is already considering the option of taking up a crash-course in Leeds University to gain expertise in bodywork of cars.