Restoration of a
1938 Hillman Minx Magnificent Sedan

Story and pictures by Ern Broughton

Note: This article was originally written for the Hillman Car Club’s newsletter.  “Brum” has since been sold to a couple in the Hillman Car Club, on 4 October 1997.

The real “Brum” is an extremely popular star of children’s TV.  He is a cute little yellow car, an early thirties style open tourer about one quarter the size of an Austin Seven, has red steel disc wheels, a personality all his own, and is apparently loaded with remote control gear.  Brum normally lives in the Cotswold Motor Museum in the UK (which is featured in Popular Classics for May 1996), but he has a secret life!  When the museum is closed Brum starts himself up and drives off to explore the world, with his exploits captured on video.

The real Brum is a favourite of our Down Syndrome grandson Alexander, so it seemed appropriate to adopt “Brum” as the name for our 1938 Hillman Minx Magnificent DeLuxe Sedan.  Our Brum is at the end of a restoration that has taken about twelve years, although we have had the car for only three of the twelve.  Our aim has been to restore Brum to a good presentable, but not concours, condition.

In September 1984 the Minx Magnificent took part in the South Australian biennial Bay to Birdwood Run, along with almost 1500 other historic vehicles made prior to 1 January 1950, and was in daily use at the time.  David, the then owner, had the engine and gearbox rebuilt.  New liners, pistons and bearings were installed, the gearbox had new bearings, the radiator was renewed and five new tyres were fitted.

In March 1985 the car was sold to Rory.  Rory took the car home, and then decided to restore it.  Over the next three years he completely stripped the car and had the shell resprayed, but then other interests intervened and the car laid in a heap in his garage, getting knocked and scratched each time someone entered.  The family cat used the body for sleeping in, but judging by the claw marks on the newly painted exterior was not always successful at leaping inside in a single bound.

Rory eventually succumbed to wifely pressure that he either finish the car or get rid of it, and in May 1994 Peter Tavener, the foundation secretary of the Hillman Car Club of South Australia, phoned and asked me if I “had time to go and have a look at a ‘38 Hillman for sale that a chap rang about.”  I went, saw the bare shell of a car surrounded by a mountain of bits and pieces, realised the potential of such a project and was hooked, buying the car on Friday the 13th of May!  To sweeten the deal Rory threw in a four litre unlabelled can of black rust/soundproofing bitumastic epoxy paint, and a four litre can of fish oil based rust sealer.

We had to sell our 1964 Series V Minx to make room in our garage for the pile of cartons, mudguards, doors, seats, windows and other pieces (among them the grille which had been dismantled and chrome plated and was in 52 pieces) that the Magnificent DeLuxe came home in.  The engine, brought home for me by David Watson, came with the gearbox attached, but with the timing cover and front plate removed for some reason, and engine oil dribbling everywhere.  We couldn’t find the tin into which all the nuts and bolts had been thrown during dismantling, but this didn’t become a problem during reassembly as over the years I have accumulated a collection of BSF threaded nuts and bolts.

My good intentions and my solemn promises to my wife Elva of starting the restoration straight away were derailed almost immediately.  I was asked if the Hillman Car Club would remove an old Hillman from a lady’s house, but when I got there to check it out the ‘Hillman’ turned out to be a 1959 Ford Prefect in very derelict condition, hemmed in by two Humber Super Snipes, a 1956 and a 1957.  Talking to the lady about vehicle restoration I mentioned that motor cycles were my first love, whereupon she said “I’ve got an old motor bike down the back yard”.

Sure enough, completely overgrown with grapevines and Ivy creeper, was the frame, engine and wheels of an ex-South Australia Police 1972 650cc T65 BSA, all in a very rusty state after having been in the open for 18 years.  I bought the wreck, spent almost a year restoring it and then started on the Hillman.  In case you are wondering about the Humbers, a chap from Western Australia took them after I tried, but failed, to generate interest in them locally.

I have not been able to establish any of Brum’s history beyond two owners ago, but he must have spent a lot of his life in the drier parts of Australia as the car is remarkably rust free.  It seems that the car, assembled in Sydney by John McGrath Ltd., body No. 2827, was put together in late 1938. The latest date that I have seen on any of the components is July 1938 on the back of one of the shock absorbers; allowing time for it to be shipped from England and installed would give a late 1938 build date.  Also, the car is fitted with a Solex A.I.P. type carburettor as fitted in late ‘38 to chassis number 1005431 onwards, and a distributor incorporating both mechanical and vacuum advance as fitted to late ‘38 and all ‘39 models.

In January 1995 the Hillman Car Club was invited to put on a Sunday display at the Brickworks Markets and I was all fired up to take Brum (at that stage just the body shell and chassis) along on a car trailer. When the day came the forecast was for thunderstorms and heavy rain, so I decided not to take the car in case it got filled with water.  As you might expect, it turned out to be a beautiful sunny day with no rain at all!!

In November 1995, with the BSA on the road, restoration of the Hillman was slowly but steadily underway.  Each little piece that I fitted made Brum more complete than I had ever seen him.  Mudguards were the first things to be attached, using newly zinc plated bolts.  When restoring the BSA I took all its screws, nuts and bolts and brackets to be zinc plated, and as there is a minimum charge of $25 for about a 10 litre can full of odds and ends I threw in as many nuts, bolts, washers and other things for the Hillman as I could find, plus the rails for the front seats.

When I went to collect the finished articles a week later there were only three seat rails instead of four.  Panic set in as I realised that it would be almost impossible to find another anywhere.  The foreman of the plating shop suggested that I had only brought three in because it was unlikely that anything that size would be lost in the plating bath.  I was certain that I had taken four, the foreman apologised, said that it had possibly got mixed up somehow in someone else’s job and that when I found another to bring it in and they would plate it free of charge.

Still feeling more than a little bit miffed I got home with what pieces I felt I was lucky to still have.  The first thing that I saw on the bench was the missing rail, where I had obviously put it instead of in the can with the rest of the gear to be taken to the plating shop!

Next to be fitted were the doors (I forgot to get the countersunk headed screws and cup washers that hold them to the hinges plated), the boot lid and the spare wheel compartment cover.  The door mechanisms were overhauled, MIG welding them together where the rivets had worn loose over the years.  I then liberally doused them in white non-staining zinc based grease and fitted them in place.  The window winders were given the same treatment but put aside to be used later.
I completely rewired the car, changing to a 12 volt negative earthed system and adding a voltage regulator/cut-out in place of the previous cut-out/third brush regulation.  I have used the original 6 volt starter motor, windscreen wiper motor, and horn, and changed all of the light bulbs.  Two serviceable trafficators were made up out of six old ones in various condition.

Concerned about the inadequacies of Brum’s tiny, and nowadays hard to get, Lucas stop/tail light I had for the past eighteen months been keeping an eye out at swap meets for a twin to it to fit to the other end of the number plate.  One day I came across two in good condition.  I bought one for what I felt was an exorbitant price and brought it home.  Tossing and turning in the wee small hours that night I kept thinking about how much I had paid for it, and whether it was too much.  Then I thought about the other one, about how hard they were to find, and next day went and bought it for a spare at the same exorbitant price.

Just before Christmas 1995 I painted the car interior with the deal sweetener black rust/soundproofing bitumastic epoxy paint from the unlabelled can, giving it two really good coats.  Wrong.  In the summer heat the bitumastic part of the mixture took weeks to set, remaining sticky and keeping me from doing any further work inside the limo.  Occasionally (only about four or five times a day) I would forget about the stickiness, lean into the car for one reason or another, and emerge with some part of me rustproofed.  To keep as far away from the paint as possible I turned my attention to the engine.  After carefully checking the timing chain and the timing wheels, and the timing itself, I could see no reason why the front end had been removed, so I reassembled the engine plate and the timing cover, gave the water jacket cover plate a new seal and sprayed the lot with two coats of gloss black engine enamel.

Three days later I lifted the engine/gearbox assembly, carefully sloping it downwards as shown in the workshop manual, rolled Brum into place and tried to install his vital organs. 

What a struggle!  It was almost impossible to lift the front engine plate up, over and down into the front engine mounts while keeping the gearbox mounts at the rear on top of the chassis cross member.  It seemed that either the engine/gearbox was too long or the car was too short.  I soon realised why Rootes altered the front engine mounts on later models so that the engine just needs to be lowered into place.  With judicious use of jacks and a jemmy bar, plus a smidgen of bad language, I eventually succeeded, then took time off to recover and celebrate Christmas.  Being the quick thinker that I am, about three days later I realised that the timing cover and front plate had possibly been removed to make it easier to get the unit out of the car, and that might have been the way to go to replace it!

On January 15 1996, with all of its auxiliaries connected, I started the engine for the first time since March 1985 and ran it for about an hour.  It sounded pretty good but the Lucas distributor vacuum advance unit did not work.  It was not easy to track down a replacement but I came across a new old stock one for a Jaguar.  With a slight modification it fitted and worked well, so I suppose that makes Brum an XK-something Minx.

In early February I took the front and rear seats to the car trimmer to be rebuilt while I turned my attention to the rest of the car.  I had the naive idea that by the time Tony finished the seats I might have my jobs done and would be able to deliver the car to him to do the interior.  Wrong again.  He beautifully retrimmed the seats and I had them back in a little over a week; almost six months were to pass before he had Brum for completion.

In that time I did a thousand and one jobs on the car. The bonnet, new bonnet lacing and new scuttle rubber were fitted; tubular shock absorbers were swapped for the terminally ill, unrepairable and irreplaceable old double-acting ones, and new brackets had to be made for same; the grille took two attempts spread over four weeks to reassemble and make it look presentable, and sound deadening sheet was applied to the inside of the bulkhead and to the floor pan under the back seat.  When I told Peter Tavener, who has "Arthur," a similar car but a 1937 model, that Brum would be "whisper quiet" he broke out into hysterical laughter and could only be subdued by forcing glasses of icy cold beer down his throat.  Peter must have been in a worse condition than we thought at first, as it was amazing how long we had to continue the treatment before he showed signs of recovery.

I replaced the four drain tubes for the sliding roof, which is not an easy job, made and replaced the timber trimmers for the interior trim, fitted the windows using new rubbers and made new glass run channels.

What was left of the front swivelling window rubbers was rock hard, and I cut new ones out of bulk "universal" rubber.  Several times during the restoration I was caught out by what must be the Restorer’s Waltz, "two steps forward and one back," where I had to undo what had recently been done because something else should have been done first.  Perseverance eventually paid off and at the end of August Brum was registered, MINX-38, as an Historic Vehicle.

On September 25 1996, armed with a three day permit, Brum, Elva and I set off on the first test run.  Despite a terrifying tendency when braking for one or other of the cable operated brakes to jam on and violently slew the car sideways Brum performed well.  After a change to clean underpants and further tinkering with the brakes we were ready for the 1996 Bay to Birdwood Run.  Heavy incessant rain on September 29, the day of the run, didn’t deter us (or the 1781 other entered vehicles) and Brum, loaded with five people, completed the about 130km round trip to the National Motor Museum virtually without incident, although the greasy roads and the still slightly dodgy brakes had us a little heart-in-mouth at times!  Twelve years had elapsed since his previous Bay to Birdwood Run.  Later the brake problem was fixed by ditching the thin out-of-round and easily distorted brake drums and fitting four with much thicker walls from a later model, hydraulically braked, Minx.

Car restoration is not a solo thing.  There are many people who helped me complete Brum and I would like to thank them all.  Elva was a model of wifely assistance, a holder of parts while I fastened them or a spanner while I operated the other end under the car, a supplier of the timely cup of coffee and a master at asking the quiet probing question whenever I showed signs of losing enthusiasm for the project.

David Watson, our Hillman Car Club parts officer extrordinaire, was of great help as a source of missing bits and pieces, and steel for making various brackets; Bill Waite delved into his valued stock of spares for his much travelled ‘49 Hillman Mark IV for some items for me; Bob Killoran had the happy knack of supplying the right part at the right time, including a twelve volt battery, a voltage regulator and a handful of trafficators from which I made the two serviceable ones; Gavin Johns dug deep into his spare parts to supply an air cleaner; John Seaton gave me some helpful advice from his experiences with his own immaculately prepared ‘38 Minx, and Stuart Lisk magically produced a gear lever knob with the correct shift pattern on it.

Ken Kite, whose first car many years ago was an identical one and who had forgotten how small they are internally and is surprised at how tight the driver’s seat seems to be now, supplied some good brake drums; Lyall Savage repaired the door and window mechanisms and loaned me an engine hoist; Tony van Manen, a young bloke the same age as me but with a lifetime’s experience in the motoring trade, retrimmed the car from floor to ceiling with care and consideration; and "Windscreens O’Tavener," Margaret and Peter, were invaluable.  Not only did they show me how to install Brum’s rear window but they took Arthur to the trimmer’s and left him there so that he could be used as a guide, and graciously answered many phone calls from me asking how and where does this or that piece go.  The late Vic. Woolford, who we all miss very much, supplied two refaced cylinder heads for spares.  The keys for the car have been missing for many years, but Master Locksmith Steve Holmes from Port Locksmiths at Semaphore Road, Semaphore made keys for the front door and the boot while I waited.  I apologise if I have failed to mention anyone else who helped.

Since completion of the restoration we have been on many HCC and associated car club runs, and also took part in a Rootes Group Tour of Tasmania, but not a very big part, unfortunately.  Actually, despite taking the car on some long test runs locally, we only got 250 kms from home when Brum’s radiator packed it in, so we had to finish the tour in a rental car!

There are still some small tasks to be done on the car (where does restoration end and wearing-out begin again?) but we are happy with our little flying machine and looking forward to many enjoyable days out with Brum.  Future plans may include an ambition I have to travel, with a few other Hillmans, to Alice Springs and the Red Centre.  Seeing a line up of Hillmans at the base of Ayers Rock would make the 4,000 km round trip well worthwhile!

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