Museum Report – The British Car Museum, Te Awanga, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

Car museums come in many shapes and sizes, from the full professional experience at the newly revamped British Car Museum south of Birmingham to the immense collection of the Cite de l’Automobile in Mulhouse and the often livelier atmosphere of museums in North America, which contrasts with that in a smaller UK museum. My key impression of recent visits, though, is that presentation is getting ever more important, and the definition of historical includes a significant chunk of my lifetime. Worrying.

This one, though, is different, with a focus on quantity seeming to takeover from quality, and certainly from preservation.

The basic premise is quite simple. Though to, say, the early 1970s, British cars, along with Australian Fords and Holdens, were the staple of New Zealand motoring, and many were assembled there from kits shipped from Cowley, Longbridge, Luton or Coventry, and there is inevitably a strong nostalgia pull for the (ever friendly!) Kiwis towards Morris, Austin, Vauxhall, Rover, Hillman and other British brands. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that and so our recent holiday included a visit to the British Car Museum in Te Awanga, in the Hawke’s Bay area of the north island.

The owner, for this is an individually owned museum not a charity or trust, has essentially been collecting British cars (almost exclusively but there a few intruders) and the museum bears a very clear personal stamp. It all started with one Morris Minor 30 years ago, and within the 450 cars are reportedly 38 Minors, of every different style, age and condition you could imagine.

But its not just Minors, or even BMC/BLMC. Hillman, Humber, Vauxhall, Rover and Triumph are all well represented, and this is where the first problem becomes apparent. The museum has run out of floor area, so cars are stacked on angle iron frames above each other. You get the situation where there all seven of the Vauxhall Vivas HC are on the top deck.

The Standard Vanguard Vignale sits above an earlier Vanguard, and a rare Vanguard pickup. But what’s peeping out from the other side of the Vanguard?

A Scimitar SS1, produced by Reliant in the 1980s and marketed under the Scimitar brand rather Reliant. Various Ford Sierra elements under an GRP body, looking to take on the mantle of the MGB and TR7. Neat registration plate.

Morris Marinas atop an earlier Marina and a later Ital,

Rapiers over Rapiers and so on. Access to view closely was very limited for many of the cars, and obviously limited to front suspension views in many cases. Triumph 1500 behind, Chrysler Alpine and Avenger alongside.

This is the BMC/BLMC ADO16 area, with something like a dozen examples squeezed in, whereas the ADO16 story could be told with many fewer cars you could have looked at properly in a smaller area. See what I mean?

Little, if any, preservation is being done, although the building is dry. The most disappointing point for me was the condition and presentation of some the cars I won’t see at home, like the Australasia only Morris Kimberley and Austin Tasman.

This which was a Austin-Morris 1800/2200 Landcrab effectively disguised by a Maxi like front, squared off rear end and a new interior.

The Leyland P76, designed by BL in the early 1970s to take on the full size Australian Fords and Holdens, is there, buried under a load of junk. Frustrating, to say the least.

Like wise, an Austin Landcrab pickup conversion.

But let’s take a quick tour of my personal highlights.

This 1950 Sunbeam Talbot 90 was certainly one of them, and looked much better than many exhibits, including the New Zealand assembled Avengers alongside – Hillman on the top, Chrysler underneath.

This very tidy Ford Zephyr Six from the mid 1950s did many years service as a taxi in nearby Napier, before being allowed a retirement. The idea of a windscreen sunshade was one of the key signs of a British export specification. Ford Prefects, Anglias and Populars are alongside, as are Austin A30 and A35. On the lower deck, unlit, are more Zephyrs.

Regular CC readers will know of my Rootes enthusiasm, and this museum didn’t disappoint. A good selection of Hillman Hunters (Sunbeam Arrow in the North America) together with the earlier Hillman Super Minx and its Humber Sceptre derivative..

New to me, as a first time visitor down under, was a Hillman Minx badged as a Humber 80. Rootes, like GM, varied the brand name used for the same product in various markets. Humber was often used in Australasia for what the UK knew as a Hillman, and the Minx as a Humber 80 is typical. This is not to be confused with a Sunbeam Talbot 80, of course.

These Humber 80s are mid 1950s, but even I am not sure why we need to see two.

The Commer FB1500, later the Dodger Spacevan, was also represented

The Hillman Super Minx was never a huge seller, anywhere, so seeing two from different generations side by side was quite a treat, at least for my inner Rootes fan. Various Hillman Minxes (or Humbers actually) are above.

But the biggest surprise on the Rootes front was not actually a Rootes product, but a Singer Hunter, the last product of the independent Singer Company, in fact two of them. The Hunter was launched at the 1948 London Motor Show and was Singer’s last roll of the dice, and missed the necessary double six. Singer was taken over by Rootes in 1955, and the Hunter replaced by the Gazelle, a warmed over Minx, initially fitted with a Singer engine.

The Rover P4, from 1948 to 1964, is now sometimes misunderstood, but it did a lot to create the image and reputation Rover had by the 1960s. Here are an early (1951) 75, with the distinctive Cyclops central fog light, sitting with a 1961 100 and a 1964 110. The more modern car is a 1990 Austin Metro, bearing aftermarket Rover badging.

Tucked into the corner was a Rover 2600, the six cylinder version of the immortal SD1, and in the splendid yellow used for the launch cars. Two Rover 2000 P6s and another P4 were keeping it company, but can you really see it?

The grander British marques are not forgotten either – this is a 1955 Alvis TC21/100 (known as the Grey Lady), and in the background a 1950 Austin A125 Sheerline limousine.

The most impressive display is the centrepiece of Morris Minors, which were better cared for than the rest of the collection. Looking back, I’m not sure all these were UK market colours.

There is no doubting the proprietor’s intention and genuine interest (he claims the 450 cars are the world’s largest collection of British cars and has just spent several thousand pounds shipping a tidy 2005 Rover 75 from the UK, for example), knowledge and pride in his collection, with a special highlight being his first Mini, and seeing him interact with a young family and a 1931 Dennis fire engine was proof: it’s just that it was a bit like being a wonderful antiquarian book shop, rammed full of books on shelves and in piles on the floor and being only allowed to read the titles on the spines.

Don’t get me wrong – it was worth going to and I’d go again, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting!