Small Car, Mammoth Task

I’ve owned my ’79 Spitfire 1500 for about 8 years now. It’s been used as my daily driver every year, through every season with the exception of about 1 year when I was in Australia for 6 months and unemployed for the next 6 months. I paid about £3800 for it back then and it was in immaculate condition. Not a spot of rust in sight and excellent mechanically, obviously the previous owner’s pride and joy. Now it was mine. He’d done quite a bit of work to it over the years having owned it since 1984, the same year I entered the world. It was originally Inca Yellow, pretty nasty if you ask me. I fully approve of his decision to have it painted red, perfect colour for the style of car. It actually looks okay here but if you get up close you’ll see rust bubbling up along the sills, lacquer peeling off and rusty suspension. The wires have had better days although they aren’t past it just yet, they will polish up well with a bit of time on them. Given that they’re about £200 each I don’t think I’ll be replacing them anyway.

I’ve done a lot of work on it over the years but it’s starting to rust, heavily in places. The time has finally come to take it off the road and do a ground up restoration before floor panels rot through and it becomes an endless battle with the MIG welder. It’s done incredibly well given the conditions it’s been driven in, even the snow has rarely stopped me driving it (the most fun in a lot of ways with a rear wheel drive car!).  Everything will come off the car, body panels, all the interior trim, controls and dash board. The body tub will come off the chassis, suspension, differential, brakes—the whole lot. It’s going to take some time, no doubt there will be moments of overwhelming frustration but I hope there’s going to be moments of overwhelming pride too. I fully intend on doing everything myself, bodywork included. There will be some exceptions, the body tub for example could really do with shot blasting, as could the bonnet. I’ll have to get this sort of work done professionally. I’ve got some plans for mildly tuning the engine too. The engine is a 1.5L 4cyl pushrod engine that is essentially the same as the earlier 1300 with a longer stroke to increase the capacity. It doesn’t like being revved as a result and is really best tuned with that in mind. If it has a strength, it’s the relatively good low-end torque. The oil can get very hot which lowers the viscosity and the pressure drops. The sump has no baffles so hard cornering can make the oil surge away from the oil pump pick-up, starving the engine of oil. People do race them so fortunately the likes of oil coolers have been developed for the Spitfire to combat some of these problems. There’s also quite a lot of tuning parts and light weight CNC’d alternatives to heavy cast iron parts. There’s even some crazy developments for the Spitfire by the PriRace company like side exit exhausts, race spec drive shafts, independent rear suspension with coil overs—all very nice but way out of my budget! Parts in general aren’t really problem for the Spitfire, there’s tons of suppliers and 90% of the parts can be obtained new.

One of the problems I will face is timing the bodywork spraying as it can really only be done on warm, dry days. Everyone knows they are few and far between in this country so I’ve basically listed all the work that needs doing in a spreadsheet and divided it up in to three phases, disassembly, restoration and reassembly. Within each phase I’ve given each task a priority. I don’t expect to fully stick to the plan 100% but it gives me an outline of what order I’ll need to do everything and what can be done in between tasks, waiting for the body tub to be shot blasted for example. I’ll get some plastic storage boxes, wrap everything in protective plastic and label it. I’m going to label every single connection on the wiring loom too. My memory is bad on the best of days so I don’t want to be scratching my head when it comes to putting everything back together. I’m also going to keep a record of all expenses to total up the cost of the restoration. If I come to sell it later on, that along with all the receipts and this blog will illustrate the time and effort that’s gone in to it.

I’m due to buy a car from a friend that’s recently got a new car herself at the end of this month. It’s a 1.3L Toyota Corolla which is pretty much ideal as a run about while the Spitfire is off the road. Cheap to run and I can sling stuff in the back like a couple of bikes when I feel like going for a ride! Not something I’ve ever been able to do before so that’s quite cool in itself. I’m going to do the Spitfire at my parents house where I’ve got access to a double garage, tools, air compressor etc. and of course dad’s knowledge if I get stuck.

I know some people will think I’m mad taking on a full restoration, especially those that have done a restoration of their own but I like taking on new projects and this one has to be the most ambitious to date. I did a half baked attempt at a car restoration some time ago, a Vauxhall Nova which was an embarrassment. Still, I learnt a lot from it. I think I’ve got a lot more patience now and I feel like I can approach a restoration much more methodically.

I’ll probably never want to do another restoration as long as I live, or I might want to take on something bigger and even more ambitious, who knows!

Driving such a car at the age of 20 was pretty cool. I’m not entirely sure what made me go for the Spitfire. I think it’s really just the shape of the body above all, beautifully designed by an Italian chap, Giovanni Michelotti. Mine’s got a few extras, overdrive, wire wheels, Mota Lita steering wheel etc. It was a real head turner and people were surprised to see somebody barely out of their teens driving it. I’ve had some fun in it, tried to squeeze three including myself in it once! It’s not fast by any stretch but it’s not too bad either and the burbling exhaust note always generated a grin. It only weighs in the region of 800KG despite having many cast iron components so although it’s only 71BHP, it’s got potential to improve on power to weight through engine tuning and weight reduction. It’s possibly the easiest car to work on with the whole bonnet and wheel arch assembly lifting in one piece. It does have several downfalls, the trunnions at the front are threaded in to brass fittings which tend to snap when they’ve not been oiled and seize up. Fortunately it’s usually while manoeuvring and there’s maximum strain on them. I’ve replaced those with ball joint style Caterham alternatives.

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