Calling Gerard Miller a panel beater is like calling Leonardo Da Vinci a decorator. Gerard and his dedicated team at Marque Restoration Adelaide are artisans in the true Italian sense of the word.
We found out about Marque Restorations by accident through a friend who's having his VW Karmann Ghia restored. He said, "You need to check these guys out, their work is incredible", and after looking at their website, I was floored.
This is quiet little ol' Adelaide, my home town, a beautiful city and capital of South Australia. It's famous for its churches and surrounding world class wine regions, but you don't expect much else, especially world class car haute culture - but there you have it.
I had to interview Gerard, find out what makes him tick and how he and his dedicated team are able to create Concours d'Elegance scratch built restorations of classic automobiles, including; Aston Martins, Ferraris and Maserati's to name a few.
When I first contacted Gerard, he was a little uneasy, thinking that I was trying to sell him something - but as soon as he understood I shared his passion for cars he was more than happy for Carligious to come out and see where the magic happens.
Marque Restorations is tucked away in a little semi-industrial area, 20 minutes North East of the Adelaide CBD. The workshops themselves don't look much from the outside, just the typical besser block industrial complex which sprung up all over the city during the post-World War II boom. Nothing gives away that there's something special happening inside.
As agreed, I arrive at 4.30pm towards the end of their day so as Gerard suggests, it's a good time and they're downing tools so I can meet the team.
Looking for Gerard in the organised workshop chaos I'm greeted by a friendly apprentice who asks me who I'm after and how he can help. He gives off a vibe that the work environment here is a good one and that they're a close knit bunch, "follow me", he says, where I'm lead to the owner who's guts deep in a Ferrari 330 TRI/LM recreation.
I'm greeted then by Gerard, a man with a firm handshake and piercing eyes. He comes across as soft spoken but with an intensity that is common to all artists. It's immediately obvious as he starts taking me for a tour around his workshops that the passion which sparked Marque Restoration is still there and his enthusiasm is infectious. We stop at many projects, in different states of finish, all the while he exclaims,
"Isn't that neat!", "isn't that cool!" or "isn't that beautiful!" I can only agree.
Whilst he doesn't look it, at 63 his youthful charm is sincere and he believes in what he's doing. His working life began in 1968 at the Islington Rail Yards in Adelaide as a 15 year old apprentice welder. It's there that he starting developing his skills and learning the craft of steel fabrication. Gerard tells me,
"...times were different then, you weren't just taught your trade, you were exposed to everything... I had a go at technical drawing, I was exposed to engineering, and I saw and helped manufacture locomotives from scratch."
He finished out his apprenticeship and remained with the railyards for 5 years. He then went post trade as a specialist welder, in particular industrial pressure vessels and metal alloy welding to further hone his skills. He also studied metallurgy.
He then become a bit of a wanderer and had 30 different jobs in 5 years, including; die making for Kelvinator, making body panels for the Leyland P76 Force 7, constructing caravans, engine fitting, a stint of panel beating for DCS crash repairs and as a ship fabricator in the Whyalla shipyards.
All of these experiences contributed to the hard yakka work ethic he developed, working long hours in sometimes tough conditions; it would hold him in good stead for his car restoration business.
In the late 70's he decided to turn to his true passion - the restoration and preservation of classic automobiles, and so began Marque Restorations.
Fast forward 36 years and now I find myself in a workshop that is steeped in hard core car culture, you feel it oozing from the walls... if only they could speak.
His love of cars is so strong I wonder I he has oil for blood. He explains how it all began - as a 15 year old with a 35 Ford Roadster, cars were always in the background, whether fixing or restoring his own or that of a friend. His welder background and devoted attention to detail showing early on the mobile art which he'd one day restore and recreate.
How do you describe what I was seeing? The closest thing I can compare to is, the workshops are like Disneyland for car buffs. Coming face to face with classics such as the Iso Grifo Italian supercar from the mid 60's, a rarity in its own country, I'm floored that I'm seeing one in the metal... and what a beast it is. Italian styling with American running gear. It's in for a bit of attention Gerard tells me. It turns out that a bit of attention means fabricating the whole left nose section of the car. I see it at the bare metal stage of the process, the metal work is faultless, the seams for where the new metal has been put in place barely discernible. It's also having the brakes upgraded to four wheel ventilated discs from solid rotors along with a general tidy up. Gerard and the team firmly believe in working with sympathy with the classics and where appropriate, making them better. The Grifo is capable of ludicrous speeds even by today's standard so fitting better brakes does not detract from the vehicle and means the owner can enjoy it more knowing it's safer than it was.
Gerard seems mildly pleased with the results.
Next I'm taken to a 1962 Ferrari 330 TRI/LM recreation based on a Ferrari 400 chassis. Gerard tells me it's 90% finished. This is where I see just how serious these guys are about the work they're doing. You may as well call this a scratch built car, virtually nothing remains of the original and I'm struck by the authenticity of the fabrication. The boys test fit the front nose section and I see the traditional Superleggera lightweight tubing (itself a thing of beauty) which makes up the frame supporting the stunningly hand formed aluminium coachwork. It feels like at any second Scaglietti is going to turn around the corner and commend them all for the fine work they're doing. I'm taken to Gerard's hand drawn technical reference which the build is being based on. It's explained to me how he was able to accurately get dimensions for the car by sourcing archival images from the original , taking known objects from those images and then scaling dimensions from them. I can only scratch my head in amazement. I was salivating looking at the car - it may be a recreation but the passion remains. When finished I'm told the car will be every bit the racer that the famous LeMans winning original was and will be able to exceed 300kph!
Next, I'm taken to the paint booth where a near finished restoration of a 1970 Maserati Indy is about to receive its period matched, burnished gold champagne paintwork. Another car where pictures don't do it justice, it has such presence and no doubt will turn heads wherever it goes. Gerard mentions incidental things like, how they've taken the original fiberglass pop up headlight surrounds and remanufactured them in a light alloy as the originals don't maintain the standard of the vehicle. Gerard likes to point out that, where they can make things better without interfering with the provenance of the vehicle and as long as the owner is ok with it - they do it.
I then see two early 60's Ferraris in different states of repair, I think they're 250GTE's. One is on a rotisserie and I'm shown the chassis from underneath. Gerard describes what a piece of art the chassis is and the team is looking forward to the refurb' it will go through. A pretty straight forward one by his account, it's had a relatively easy life with only 36,000 original miles on the clock. It's a truly beautiful car no doubt but I look at it and think it's ready for a car-crusher, if it wasn't a Ferrari that's probably exactly where it would be. The floor is rotted out and from the last quarter down, major sections of the cars coachwork needs replacing and Gerard is telling me this one's simple! I'd hate to see a hard one.
I see so much other incredible stuff that I'm going into overload, all this nirvana in one place - it does not compute.
The last car I'll mention is a commission to take an Australian 1970 Ford Falcon XY four door sedan and convert it into a two door coupe. This car did not exist but it was something the Ford fans desperately wanted in order to compete with the unique Holden Monaro coupe of the time. I'm left speechless as I see what I could easily describe as a factory Ford approved product. Not only has Gerard reworked the shape seamlessly incorporating a coupe body style but the roofline and rear quarter window have a slightly accentuated sloping cant that enhances the coupe body shape. They have scratch built a full chassis. Staring at it, I imagine that's just how Ford would have done it were they able to. The bean counters at the time quashed any such plans.
At this point we head to Gerard's office, I'm trying to wrap my head around everything and what's been told. There's a striking original painting on the wall of a LeMans racer travelling at speed at night, in the rain. I comment, "great painting". Gerard coyly replies, "oh yeah, I painted that, it's not very good". Gobsmacked... again.
As I try to put a handle on everything, Gerard stresses how none of this is possible without a dedicated team, all bringing together their unique abilities and strengths. He encourages a collegiate work environment, where everyone shares willingly and generously the knowledge each has gained. Work then becomes a pleasant experience for all involved. It's obvious this isn't lip service as I've witnessed exactly that. Only a collaborative work effort can make these automotive artworks possible.
Marque Restorations has a staff of 12 spanning all different ages and backgrounds, united in their love of cars. Their resident engine expert, Frank is a mature gent who is thankfully not retired. What he doesn't know about classic engines and tuning is probably not worth knowing. Frank along with Kevin and Phil make up the mechanical division.
Lesley is the office manager and the glue which holds them all together, also a gun at sourcing the rare parts demanded of these classics.
More staff include; Nick, a fantastic all-rounder which the team all depend on; Felix, panel man extraordinaire, with a burning desire to learn and share his knowledge; Tirama and Cameron, two willing apprentices who are keen to emulate those they learn from.
James in the paint shop is contentious and tireless, along with Kyle the apprentice painter - their fine efforts are a reflection of Marque Restorations high standards.
The apprentices are in a unique place, being handed down skills which for the most part have died out, in our mass produced, techno driven society. It's a beautiful thing to see the art being preserved so future generations can appreciate what's being achieved.
Some of the tools and techniques used on site are over a 100 years old, not because they are averse to using new methods, but more so because the old ones work best with the cars the team are dealing with. They are not closed to new technologies and approaches however, especially if it means the end result is there. Digitising an old part for machining makes sense when there is no discernible difference to it and it also helps keep time and cost down.
Gerard tells me, "Finish is a reflection of effort".This adage borne out by their work on an Aston Martin DB2. When displayed at Australia's most prestigious car show the Motorclassica, the car was awarded "Best in Show" and "Restoration of the Year 2014".
It received 98.5 points out of a possible 100 by the judges in attendance. Gerard, tongue in cheek tells his staff, "It doesn't have to be 100%, 98.5% will do!"
In finishing I ask Gerard the all-important question, why?
He answers as I expected.
"To leave something for future posterity, to continue to learn, to share, pass on skills and learn from each other. To connect with the work that we undertake and where appropriate, tastefully improve on the original".
I really like that.
Many of Marque Restorations past clients are high profile people, celebrities and known wealthy entrepreneurs. As you might expect, Gerard and his team are in high demand and waiting lists stretch out past 12 months, just to start. If you're lucky you might just get your next resto project added to the list.
Images supplied by: Aidan Mason & Marque Restorations