Giving up work to work

Frank Parnwell and his 1928 Singer Junior. Photo: Bruce Barnard.

She’s petite, sylph-like, a dainty lady.

And Frank Parnwell fusses over her. He even spent $11,000 when she needed a new wardrobe.

But it’s been a challenging relationship, rocky at worst, especially during the formative times. “Yep, there were some nights when I really got @#!*ed off with her – really frustrated.” Especially when he couldn’t get her doors to hang properly.

But he never gave up on this little missy. And now she’s sitting out in the drive all sweet and demure and absolutely radiant in her yellow and black livery. She’s perfect.

‘She’ because she hasn’t got a name. After all the pampering and preening, she is still just she. Marigold would be nice, Jessamine or Sunflower – perhaps Fort Knox considering all the gold he has thrown at “she”.

She is a 1928 Singer Junior four-door tourer. That sleek black hood, part of the $11,000 wardrobe allowance, folds down for the open road experience. That experience means 45m/hr or 80-something km/hr as far as Rotorua on a Tauranga Vintage Car Club run.

“Not that we do main roads, we try to stay off them because people keep driving up your arse.” Is that tailgating or just people being naturally inquisitive when the bumblebee rolls gracefully by?

Frank sold his business and retired in 2006. But he didn’t give up his red overalls or the hankering to make or fix things. And there was that enormous reservoir of knowledge and expertise. So after driving an already restored Model A, he decided on his own “project”.

Frank thought he had found that project in Renwick near Blenheim. It was Singer Senior. Not that he worshipped Singers, he was just looking for a project. He bought it sight unseen. At $5000 thank you.

“No, it wasn’t quite a pile of crap. But by the time I got it home the body had sagged on the trailer.”

“Then I heard about another Singer in Turangi. It was a Singer Junior. The idea was to use that one for bits – cannibalise it for the Singer Senior.” But when he saw the Junior, it became the project.    

And the project became a three-year commitment of time and money. “[I] Spent 20 to 30 bloody hours a week on it.” So Frank probably invested the thick end of 4000 man hours on the restoration. “No! That doesn’t count. It’s a labour of love.”

Doesn’t count? Even though in dollar terms it would conservatively run to about $150,000. No, it still doesn’t count. Then ‘she’ spent two months in the paint shop and another five in the upholstery shop getting full leather seats.

The $23,000 tangible restoration costs, plus $5000 purchase price Junior “owes” Frank, also doesn’t count. Probably because he knows he would never get it back. And he can justify it. “Well, I am not going to sell it any way. Not for a long time.” Money is almost a five-letter dirty word to most vintage car enthusiasts.

And there’s more justification. “From being a bloody bomb, which I pulled apart every nut and bolt and panel, she is now like a brand new car.” And there’s the emotional justification.

“She’s a fine little motor car. She’s lovely.”

Lovely right down to her shiny, as new 8hp, two-bearing, overhead camshaft engine developing a peak of 16.5hp at 3250rpm.

And reliable – ‘she’ has broken down just once. A fuel blockage at the bottom of the street. “Fixed that smart,” says Frank.

Did you know that engine, despite being diminutive, was the forefather to nearly three decades of Singer power units?    

No accidents for Frank, but a mishap for which he takes full responsibility.

One day Frank had ‘she’ or Marigold, or Jessamine or Sunflower out in the drive. And therein lay the problem. She was neither in nor out of the garage. She was halfway in and halfway out.

So when Frank’s wife went out in her car, she hit the remote to drop the garage doors. The doors came down on ‘she’s’ newly restored, newly painted bright yellow bonnet.

“Squashed it,” says Frank. “My wife did all the swearing. It was just one of those things that turns to #@!*.”

He got the bonnet straightened out and repainted. “My fault for parking it there.” A noble attitude.

As The Weekend Sun leaves, Frank fondly pats ‘she’, which is parked on show in the driveway. And then the red overalls shuffle off back into the garage. There is work to be done yet.

Frank’s just finished restoring a 350 Douglas Dragonfly – a motorbike to you and I. “The clutch was giving me grief.” Deep within the restorer’s soul, they enjoy a problem. Then they can talk about how they fixed them.

There’s a 1953 Zephyr Sedan under a dust cover in the corner of the shop. There’s another 1955 Mark 1 Zephyr convertible in the body shop having rust removed. There’s more than a hectare of lawns to be mowed outside. And this septuagenarian describes himself as retired. Busily retired perhaps.

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