The first part of what proved to be an American car trilogy; Peter Cahill interviewed George Alexander, a man whose fascination with wartime vehicles lead him to a number of meticulous restorations of older Stateside vehicles. From Issue 124 (July 1999).
GEORGE ALEXANDER has the experience of completing 14 American restorations in the last nine years in addition to maintaining a full time garage business part of which is given over to maintaining, repairing and the specialist preparation of Americans. A fascination for the World War II period resulted in George restoring a number of period military vehicles over the last 25 years his second Jeep restoration can be seen on display at the Beaulieu Museum.
George told me: "In recent years I've ventured from World War 2 vehicles to American cars but I couldn't resist celebrating the 50th anniversary of D Day...I wanted to be different so I went to the States and bought a Packard Clipper."
Inspired by an original photo of Eisenhower talking to Omar Bradley in Normandy in 1944, the military Packard staff car fit for a 5- star General was replicated complete in every detail. Probably the most familiar car of the Alexander stable is the Alexander restored yellow '46 Plymouth Coupe that George and his navigator wife Ann campaign in classic rallying. For over 25 years it stood in a back garden in Dallas down to its axles- floor rusted through -the home for a hoard of squirrels. Standing alongside it in the garage, bearing the hallmark of another top class Alexander restoration is the only 1941 Plymouth Convertible in the country. A regular trophy winner, the convertible features independent front suspension, power hood, leather seats, push button radio and a very efficient heater. George chuckled." I don't do many weddings but I find that the bride gets more orgasmic looking at the car than she does looking at her future husband."
Almost every year, for the last twenty years visits have been made to source parts. "I've made a lot of contacts that I can rely on right across the States" said George "So there isn't much I can't lay my hands on and you can always count on the famous Hemmings publication. The quickest turn around that we've achieved was faxing the order for a piston on a Monday afternoon at 4.00 pm and on midday Wednesday it arrived here from Massachusetts, little more than a day and a half. Cutting down time by knowing good and prompt parts supply is one half of the battle - maintaining, repairing or restoring. The other half is teaming up with the right specialist craftsmen on or off the premises Our trimmer is excellent, the bodyman is equally good and this is complemented by two first class electricians. It's a bit of a team effort one of my mechanics is good at fettling things and making things from scratch which is another god send. Knowing the right way around it and sequence of approach actions, plus a bit of planning doesn't go amiss.
What attracted George to the American automobile? "Frankly, it's not the size or the image of the car that counts." George paused. " I don't have a lot of interest in the Fifties period with big fins and floppy suspension I'm not really a lover of that period. I love the Thirties and the Forties. I think their technology in that period was incredible, Europeans learnt a lot from it and their mass production methods. My interests now go back to the Thirties. I've done several of the Thirties cars and when you look at some of the V16s and the V12 Cadillacs and Packards their design, engineering and production engineering is exceptional. That's what my fascination is based on and has been ever since I was a kid. As a kid tandem linked screen wipers on a 'V' screen, seeing my first Oldsmobile with indicator flasher lights and being picked up from school in a Buick taxi that had ivory wind open quarter light windows helped to create this fascination for American cars. So much so that its progressed from being a hobby to being part of my business."
Questioned about horrendous stories connected with importing, George replied: "My only bad experience was connected with buying a Plymouth at Hershey, Pennsylvania. I bought it on sight. On arrival at Southampton docks it looked as if somebody had run a railway carriage wheel across the roof having pushed into a hold that wasn't tall enough. I refused to accept and sign for it.The shippers promised to sort it out and the wrangle went on for month after month. Finally I threatened them, in reply they pointed out that I had signed the acceptance form. The copy that they forwarded confirmed that somebody had forged my signature. I had a word with the CID, very soon after a cheque in compensation arrived in the post. Out of all of the cars I've brought over that's the only real incident I've had, other than perhaps a rear light lens glass stolen or an ignition key turned on, but nothing more. I now have a good contact in New Jersey who deals with all of the shipping from the east or west coast, the latter is normally by container."
Generally the vehicle descriptions made over the phone by the Americans that George deals with are accurate, the car arrives as described. George warned: "It pays to know somebody over there that you can trust or better still, go over yourself. You've got to make sure you buy it right before you bring it over here. Its increasingly important that you see what you are getting and do the deal on the spot in the USA or be prepared to buy a ready restored car from a reputable source here in the UK.".
George commented on the add-on costs: "If I bring in anything really valuable I always take out an insurance, first bearing in mind that you get charged 10% on the car value and VAT on top of that when it arrives here. You have to remember that with any project you've got to put on top, firstly 27.5%, plus the freight cost. In the recent three or four years you have to be careful about the pound against the dollar - a swing in the wrong direction means that it might not pay to bring a particular car over, unless its the right price to start with. The early boom days of the late Eighties early Nineties when you had nearly two dollars the pound - can't see that happening again! Currently it has to be an unusual or exceptional car to make it worthwhile. With an American car of the Forties or Fifties which needs a decent paint job, because of the price of paint these days and preparation you have to calculate between £2,000 and £3,000. On the mechanical side, with an old side valve engine you are looking at £7-800 to do a decent overhaul job. So you've got to approach it in the right way, even more so these days you've got to buy right. I did a couple of cars in the early Nineties, now they wouldn't be worth doing, you wouldn't break even."
George suggested that there are two authoritative magazines which advertise likely purchases - Classic American and Great Car "they are the two bibles for American cars for sale". Beyond that its word of mouth in the American car clubs both single and multi marque. If you've decided on the car you want join the club - first hand advice can be very helpful. First of all be sure you can afford it whether its up and running or a restoration. If you are so keen a well planned touring holiday in the States could be the answer. George recounted. " We were travelling in Maine in 1990 looking in crooks and crannies to see what was available and there on the garage forecourt of a gas station stood a 1941 chauffeur driven De Soto, with only 38000 on the clock. I brought the car back here fitted a new set of tyres, chromed the bumpers and serviced it - that's all I did. We took it to Paris and back, did all of the UK shows in it, used it generally for running about - it never gave us any trouble. I sold it on to a friend of mine who towed a caravan with it - an in-line six, a semi automatic with a fluid drive and it s still going - trouble free - what a wonderful car."
"I like to see a car in good original condition, some of the cars in the States are way over the top they are never used or driven on the road - they arrive at major club and concours events in air conditioned trailers. There are so many different ways of approaching the ownership and use of an American classic. Having said that the '32 Hupmobile that we are restoring will go to certain shows on a trailer - its too valuable and fragile to be caught up in a fracas on the M25. On the other hand I love driving the '46 Plymouth Coupe, we drive it every where, use it in long distance road rallies, typical out and home in the recent Haynes two day event -700 miles. Road rallying Americans can be fun says George: "I run 195x16 radial tyres on the '46 Plymouth Coupe whereas the '41 Convertible like all Americans of the period runs on crossplys its not a case driving them you've got to aim them. Heavens how they could put up with those drum brakes and cross ply tyres, but you get use to it - we never had radial tyres in those days. Radials and a bit of shock absorber tuning makes a big difference to these cars. Having got the cars up to standard for concours we've won our class on numerous occasions and Best Chrysler, Best Plymouth at all of the big American shows, but we still enjoy using them in long distance road events."
The space required can sometimes be a problem with a body off restoration, even a body on refurbishment or restoration on a large car. . If you are a one car owner driver with only an average garage then understanding neighbours can ease the situation there's no mystique about the permutation of the solutions- lock ups, friends and relations can become part of the work space/storage equation. George commented: "Over the years we've learnt that there's no substitute, when you are taking a car to pieces, to marking or labelling everything. Its so much easier to find it and identify it in six or twelve months time. Use racking, boxes, jam jars... everything. Each section - the wings, headlights, bumpers, body components and their fixings keep each individual section together. We all make mistakes and have lapses of concentration, but if anything is tricky to take apart and difficult to put back or has a particular position- make and keep a note of it. It can save so much anguish and argument in the long run, particularly if there are two or more of you doing the restoration. Any component that goes for shot blasting, the moment it comes back give it a good protective lasting coat of paint or a suitable strength of finish that you know will protect it in service on the car."
When it comes to restoration George feels that its debatable how far you go when it comes to "ground up" and whether its worth it. You may have or buy an American where it pays to keep it original, regularly maintaining it, to get the fun out of using it, rather than throwing money at it. We are all aware of the old syndrome - run out of money, lose patience and interest - ending up with an immobile automobile that has run out of fun. You know that saying about all work and no play...
The Alexander team have developed another side to the business - preparing American cars for long distance marathons, fuel pipes and brake pipes have to be covered, the engine is braced in the chassis frame with steel yacht halyards to restrict excessive movement, special heavy duty road springs, stone guards, sump guards, dual ignition and fuel systems, larger fuel tanks all form part of the heavy duty specification. Additionally an optimum spares and repair kit is included. George" When the vehicles are on the event we maintain almost daily contact with the team by phone fax or internet - ready to air freight any replacement part that might be needed. There was never an hour in the day when I stopped thinking about that damn car (David Dalrymple's '49 Cadillac Coupe) for the 42 days, when it was on the Peking- Paris. To see it cross the finishing line was one of the most emotional times of my life, I wont ever forget it. Out of all of the cars that I've restored that car meant so much to me. Now I'm waiting to get on with preparing it again, plus a 1940 Cadillac which will have the same treatment.".
Certification, licencing and insurance; are there any quirks? You can MoT an American in the normal way and you might be shown a trace of leniency, George told me (with his trade hat on!) - the MoT Manual clearly states where the trade can and cannot be lenient. All the cars have to have windscreen washers and indicators, unless the windscreen opens and then you don't need to fit washers. George carries all the standard manuals of American cars indicating where the chassis numbers are located and the location of engine numbers. To register the car it is necessary to prove to the local vehicle taxation office the date of manufacture. "They won't accept a guess so I use the manuals, producing photocopies underlining the age relation against the engine build date and then they have proof of when the car was built. They will then issue me with an age related registration number so you don't have to put a Q plate on it." George from time to time is involved with taxation offices, at their request, in verifying American vehicle manufacturing dates.
A number of companies provide insurance for American cars including Footman James, Adrian Flux, Norwich Union through their classic policy schemes with the usual annual mileage related premiums - on average a vehicle valued at £10,000 can be covered for around £120 per annum. Running costs vary. George claims between 18 and 20 miles to the gallon from a Plymouth with a 3 1/2 litre side valve engine. With the bigger Americans that run a V12 you are down to about 6 or 7 miles to the gallon.
About garaging; "It's critical," contends George. "If it's a garage its got to be dry, a wooden lean-to with air circulating is better than a closed concentration of damp atmosphere. Don't wrap them up with plastic covers they don' like it. Its a condition that breeds corrosion by the minute and has been the undoing of many a good classic. Looking after them during the Winter is important- disconnect the battery, get the wheels of the ground if you can. I'm not a believer in starting them every week and letting them tick-over. I don't think that's a good thing... big engines enjoy running at normal temperatures with full lubrication. Garaging is expensive these days and the physical size of most American cars calls for something above average in dimensions...its sacrilege to leave them outside after spending a lot of time and money on them in the first place."
When I last spoke to the Alexanders, they were having a weekend off - at the Goodwood Festival. George deeply interested in the day's programme was proudly stood alongside one of his Plymouths - what else?- counting on his blessings that his work is his hobby - and his hobby is his work. No doubt the glass of wine in his hand was sufficient to stimulate his thoughts of the continuing restoration of his '32 Hupmobile and the '31 Buick, the first of the straight eights.
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