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Princess Diana, comedic actor Rowan Atkinson and a 95-year-old Dennis fire engine all have direct connections to Opunake MTA member Nigel Fraser

Nigel owns Classic Auto Repaints and has been tasked by the Hawera Fire Brigade with restoring its treasured 1925 US-built Dennis.

Nigel and his team are well known in Taranaki for their vintage car restorations. In his early working life, he spent three years working for a specialist Rolls-Royce and Bentley restoration business in London. That’s where he met royalty. “Princess Diana came in for a morning tea and it was my job to show her around the workshop,” Nigel recalls.

At one point during her tour of the pristine, polished-floor workshop, ‘The People’s Princess’ reached out and casually touched Nigel on the shoulder. “I turned to mush,” he admits with a smile.

That Saturday, Nigel was walking along the street with his girlfriend when a light-blue BMW parked nearby. “Princess Diana got out, saw me, and said ‘Morning, Nigel’. She remembered me from the Tuesday. My girlfriend said, ‘What the hell?’”

Another celebrity Rolls-Royce client - Rowan Atkinson - was all about the details. Nigel remembers the actor coming into the business to check on a car. “He was a humble, nice man, a gentleman. And he was fastidious; he would open and close a door five times to make sure it was closing nicely.”

Nigel brings a similar attention to detail, and commitment to quality, to his work on clients’ vehicles in his Opunake workshop.

He began his career with painter Ray Inwood in New Plymouth, moving on to an apprenticeship with painter Neil Brill. When he returned from the UK in the late 1990s, Nigel settled back in his home town of Opunake, met his wife Michelle, and got down to work.

Looking good

Nigel’s focus on fine finishes can be seen on the 1931 Chevrolet half-ton truck that is his everyday work vehicle. The gleaming surface of the royal-blue bodywork is complemented by the shining warmth of the rimu strips lining the inside of the cab roof.

That Chevy is just one of 22 vintage and veteran vehicles in his collection. He favours cars with a few years on them, rather than the “plastic, soulless cars of today”. That appreciation shows up in the current line-up waiting for attention at his workshop: a 1968 Triumph Spitfire, two Morris Minor cars including a rare early 1950s 800 model, a Morris 1000 model sent up from Dunedin for restoration, and a Mini Cooper.

Nigel’s favourite personal car is a 1927 Chevrolet Speedster that he found in 2006 as a rusting chassis filling a gap in a farm fence. Recreating the Speedster took him seven years, but he gained an eye-catching car that he raced in 2016 at Rod Millen’s Coromandel Leadfoot Festival.

A highlight of that festival for Nigel was his race against Indy Car driver Scott Dixon, who was driving a 1906 Durracq; a stripped-down open-seater car that was among the starters at the first Le Mans Grand Prix event. “I beat him in the first run by 19 seconds,” Nigel recalls. “He smoked it in the second run... but that was a car worth $1.3 million. Mine was just 30 grand.”

He’s not expecting to ever realise that modest value. “I’ll sell my wife before I sell that!” he declares.

Nigel’s brief for the project was to “fix what needs fixing”.

The fire truck had not been mobile for some time when it was delivered to Nigel’s workshop before the March Covid-19 lockdown. “The engine was in five boxes,” he explains. “So it’s gone to a specialist mechanic in Levin otherwise I don’t think I would live long enough to be able to reassemble it.”

He has a vision for the completed Dennis, with brasswork hand-polished to a mirror finish and setting off a new red paint colour rather than its present muted shade. “This looks too much like a Victorian red ... more of a maroon ... it’s not right.”

The paint will be a PPG Deltron two-pack product. “It needs to be a more Americanised red ... a kick in the guts that will make the brass stand out, too.”

The fire truck is pleasingly complete, with no major parts missing, he says. When road-ready, it weighs in at about three and a half tons - 150kg of that in the all-brass radiator.

A 34-horsepower, four-cylinder Dennis motor powers the truck, pushing it up to its maximum speed of 25mph (about 40kph). It’s not particularly frugal, drinking petrol at the rate of about 10 miles per gallon (16km per 3.7 litres).

The siren on the fire truck is operated by a foot pedal in the cab, which he explains pushes a jockey wheel on to the flywheel of the engine to spin up the siren and create the warning sounds. To the side of the driver’s seat is the tall gear lever and Nigel snicks it smoothly through its gate to demonstrate the quality of its almost century-old mechanical action. No work needed there.

The front-end components and chassis members will be sandblasted to give a clean surface for a new paint application. The mudguards, and side foot boards where firefighters rested their boots as they sat on the upper body, will be removed, cleaned, sanded down and repainted.

With his numerous vintage rebuilds, Nigel knows how important it is to keep track of parts as a vehicle is disassembled. There’s a box alongside the Dennis that’s already beginning to fill up with items carrying labels and identifying information. “So, six months later, you know where each piece goes.”

Original wooden side panels were replaced with MDF in an earlier refurbishment. “Weetbix!” he declares. “Probably done in the 70s.” A new metal skin will fix that issue with hand-brushed lettering to update the signage.

Inside the wooden body of the truck is a central cavity where a 400-litre water supply was carried. “It’s kinda cool how it still has the margarine-yellow colour inside.”

Beneath the surface of the bodywork, there will be more detailing - including a rewire to replace the modern red-plastic-coated wiring used in the earlier rebuild with an appropriate black-fabric-wrapped cable.

Nigel notes the fire truck’s twin ignition systems, incorporating both a magneto and a coil. Either system could be used to start the Dennis motor, he says. That was a built-in redundancy from the factory.

What’s not factory-original are the set of electrical switches on the painted dash panel. Mounted on a strip of polished wood, they look to be repurposed domestic light switches. Nigel intends sourcing an automotive equivalent, suitable for the truck’s era.

The truck’s wheels are not original, either - single 7x20 solid-centre wheels at the front with dual wheels at the rear, all shod with pneumatic cross-ply tyres. When new, the truck set out on solid-tyred wheels, Nigel says. “But with cast-iron spoked rims and solid rubber, that would probably vibrate your fillings out.”

At the back of the truck is the PTO-driven water pump and that will be refreshed, with its pressure guage housings and many brass parts polished to complement the headlight and searchlight units.

Brigade fired up for restoration

Hawera Volunteer Fire Brigade Chief Fire Officer Mike Fairweather is looking forward to the return of the refreshed Dennis. “It was bought new by the Hawera Borough Council in 1925 for 987 pounds and eight shillings,” he says.

In 1963, then retired from service, the Dennis was presented to Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology by Miss Sue Matthews. “But MOTAT did nothing with it ... it was just sitting there, and we decided to try and get it back. It was one of our new trucks and was a bit of history for us.”

In late 2006, with the assistance of the Matthews family, the Dennis came back to Hawera and was later driven in the town’s jubilee celebrations. “We spent a bit of money to get it running and it led a parade of about 30 fire engines.”

A serious restoration of the machine was going to be expensive, and the brigade volunteers sought funding to pay for the work. “But it had no significant value to anyone except ourselves.”

The solution came with a request to the brigade for its water trucks to carry town water to the wind farm project in Waverley for concrete production. “They asked us if we were interested in delivering water to them and we said, ‘There’s our Dennis money!’” Mike recalls. “We made the decision to commit to the water delivery and give the money to the Dennis project.”

The brigade members want to see the Dennis back leading the town’s annual Christmas parade. “Obviously not this year, unless miracles happen,” Mike says. “But it means something to the brigade members. We have 16 life members and some would have started when the truck first left us, so it has a lot of significance.”

Two other retired fire engines are stored at the Hawera station - a 1962 Karrier and a 1973 International - and with the Dennis, they represent a sense of history that the brigade wants to protect, says Mike.

“It also keeps our life members active and interested. The vehicles need to be used occasionally, so they take them out for a drive once a month.” That’s something that Nigel Fraser can also appreciate. He’s a volunteer with the Opunake brigade and is familiar with the call to action when the siren sounds. Nigel is as keen as his Hawera compatriots to see the venerable Dennis ready to celebrate its history.