How a Rust Bucket of a Car Changed My Views by Helen Harwood

I will not be describing how to restore a car.  There are massive amounts of reference books, websites and videos to do that.  I will describe memorable events that occurred while making an abandoned wreck into a beauty.

Dave’s project, which quickly became OUR project, began a few years ago, when his dream car was still barely a thought in his head. The year was 1996.   Dave and his brother were going to a Jaguar Concours in Oakville, Ontario.   Their wives were invited too.  What would I see and do at a Concours , I did not know.  I did not even know what one was.

Row upon row of beautiful cars lined up in a lovely parkland setting.  Most of the cars looked like they had just been driven off a new car lot.  Something wasn’t quite right with this picture. Several of them were half a century old, not new at all.  ‘Restored’ and ‘Classic’ were the descriptive words used.   Many owners looked keen to talk about their cars, others reminded me of guard dogs. You DON’T touch a show car. Some cars even had signs saying so.

A competition of elegance is where we were.  We weren’t at a car show. It was like a beauty pageant. The cars were going to be JUDGED.  How would they be judged? Weren’t they all elegant and almost the same? By the end of the day, I had learned   an E-Type Jaguar was Dave’s favourite car. It was his dream car. As he says, “That was the one I lusted after.” 

Little did I know that in a few short years Dave and I would be under the same scrutiny from earnest looking judges, carrying their clip boards.  I would be one of those people asked, “Is this your car?   What year is it?  Is it a 12 cylinder?   Did he do all the work himself?  Where does he find parts for it?  Every MINUTE detail would be examined.

Dave did get his E Type.  He bought it, sight unseen on E-bay in 2001.   The two of us had the somewhat harrowing experience of driving to the outskirts of New York City to trailer it home.  My job was that of navigator. This was pre GPS days. I had to   watch for road signs, read the map or sometimes just watch the traffic lights while Dave read the map! He didn’t always trust my skills.

The first glimpse of OUR car did NOT leave me with a feeling of excitement.  It sure didn’t look special to me. Of course I didn’t say that.  Sharing excitement was the best response. 

As we returned with the Jaguar in tow, I learned we had something special. Transport drivers would pull up beside us, then slow down so they could take a better look. They would give a nod of approval or a thumbs-up salute.

The tollbooth attendant enthusiastically enquired, ”Where did you get that?” and “Where are you going to drive it?” and “It goes 150 mph, you know.”  Followed by, “I know, what you are going to be doing this winter.”

In the middle of the night patrons at the gas station were moving around the car. They wished for a longer inspection time.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the border wondered if there might be mice in the car.  There were bits of straw wedged in it from the 20 years of being stored in a barn. My thought was, ”Is there is some law that doesn’t allow U.S. born rodents to be imported into Canada?

The border guard inside the customs office was much less enthusiastic. After delaying us for quite some time because the paper work was not done quite to his satisfaction, he assured us our troubles WEREN’T over. He gloated at us, “Just wait ‘til you try to register that thing.” 

We finally got the car home to Arnprior, Ontario. It reminded me of a little kid’s pedal car. It had no floor. Moving it from one place to another took two or three men to push it around the driveway and in and out of the garage. I think Dave and the neighbours liked doing that.  The car had a rather sad and forlorn disposition. It certainly did not look like the beauties at car shows. Cousin Jim said when he first saw the car he was reminded of a rusted tomato juice can.

Sharing and supporting my husband’s interest was always a given. I did not know that would mean, almost everyday there was something to do, where my help was needed. Secretly, most of the time, but not always, I felt honoured to be asked.  I did not know my job would include lying on the ground under the car, trying to get my hand twisted in some tight spot to tighten or loosen a bolt.  It was an almost prestigious job I had, or so I thought. There is no picture to prove this. Dave was in no mood for photography, at this point. Not at all prestigious though, was the time-consuming job of cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning of the rusty bits. 

I learned it takes a long time to take a car apart. It takes a long time to restore a car part and it takes a long time to put a car back together.  Unlike Humpty Dumpy it COULD be put together again. Piece by piece the car was taken apart. Actually, once half the car disappeared before it could be put back again.

There were times, when I would sit on a bar stool in the garage, knitting. Dave liked to have someone to talk to, as he worked.  He wasn’t always talking to me though. Sometimes, it would have been a good idea to have my ears blocked. I hope the neighbours did not hear him. His language left a bit to be desired.

Awful sounds and smells came from the garage. Metal being torn apart with a grinder was ear piercing. The stench, when the forty-year-old original gas tank was opened, was that of rotten eggs or a dead animal.  Talk about a ‘hold your nose and stomach’ pungent smell.

Funnily, the neighbours never complained. They even took a keen interest in what was happening.  They came running over, the day that the engine first roared.  A celebration occurred. Really, I wondered why, there was so much excitement over what was a very, very, frighteningly loud noise.

All the rusty bits, which were my description of most parts that came off the car, were packed in boxes or tiny plastic bags. Each one labeled and shelved, waiting to be restored.   Big parts, like the bonnet was stood on its end in the garage. My car vocabulary was expanding! Until then a bonnet was a hat for a baby. Dave wondered aloud how long it would be before the engine would go back in the car. I wondered when it would have wheels again.

The car was upside down for a few weeks. Why it needed to be upside down was a question.  A home-built rotisserie did the job.  I thought a rotisserie was for barbecuing chickens.  A cow could have been cooked on the one made the car.

We spend winters in Florida. The car came with us a few times. Dave wanted his project with him. Again, the car attracted attention while in transport. It had a custom-made cover, made by me.  Some homemaking skills such as sewing and design are easily transferred.   Service Centres and hotel parking lots became one- man car shows. Questions were, ”What are you haulin’? What’s under there?” When answered, the response would be, “I thought so. I could tell by the shape.” For goodness sakes, it was all covered up! Times had changed. Years earlier, young men chatting would ask,  ”What are you drivin’ now?”  Older men now ask, ”What are you haulin”? 

Ten years later, the car was all back together. It was a beauty.  ‘Fully restored’, is the term.  Dave restored most of the original parts, made a few that could not be restored and reluctantly bought a couple that he couldn’t make. The completion year was 2011.

“Were all those years of work worth it?” It took TEN years! “Sure, they were worth it.” No longer was there a rusted piece of metal to be seen. Instead we had a beautiful shiny silver gray E-Type Jaguar.

We go for drives, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with the Jaguar Club. It is fun and exciting to be in a long line with other special cars, driving on off-the-beaten-path roads. Drivers love all the curves and gentle hills. Drivers we meet, wave, smile and give a thumbs up, as the engines roar or sometimes sputter.

Concours, car shows and cruise nights are different for us now.  Restorers love these events. I’m kind of fond of them myself.  When we show our car, the day may start by 5am.   At the show site we are shown where to park, ideally in the shade, in a long line of beautiful cars.  We quickly set up directors’ chairs and a cooler full of drinks and snacks for sharing with friends and strangers.  A tired or bored look on the face of a passerby warrants an invitation to sit down and rest awhile.

New friends have entered our life because of the Jaguar restoration project. I met one of my now very good friends, when she and her husband arrived at our place one day.  They had been referred to Dave as a resource person. They were starting their project car.  Dave had invited them for lunch. A fast friendship resulted.  Dave has often invited people to come to see what was happening in ‘his’ garage.  When a couple arrive, I ask the wife if she prefers to sit on the deck and have a cup of tea or a glass of wine with me. Most are delighted with the offer.  One time Dave invited the whole Jaguar Club. Now that was a party!

At shows, Dave is always busy answering all sorts of questions and sharing the impressive story about his restored his E-Type.  People remember the story and they remember him. One man was so impressed with what Dave had done, that after several months he recognized Dave.  Dave AND the car he was then driving, his daily driver, a VDP Jaguar, were given the V.I.P. treatment at the man’s restaurant.  The car got the VIP parking spot. The whole evening Dave and I were given the royal service.

At a recent Concours, a viewer mentioned how brilliant the wheel spokes were on our car in comparison to the car beside us.  I casually informed him that I was up at 5 am that morning with a toothbrush and scouring pads in my hand. I knew Dave had gone to bed the night before, disappointed that he had run out of time and energy before he had the desired look on the car. A show car should have every square centimetre, inside and out, underside and upside and downside cleaned to a spit and polish standard.

I’m definitely involved more than I planned.  Heart and soul? Well, not quite that much. I know our car well enough to answer questions about it.  Sometimes I give a wrong answer but it isn’t noticed. What is noticed is my passion.  Memorable moments must be shared. I’m so glad to be enjoying the rewards of this labour of love.  I love hearing all the nice comments people make.

Does that mean that my label, ‘Restorer’s Wife’ is redundant? Not in your life. There now are FOUR BOATS in various stages of restoration, all sitting at our place waiting for my attention.   After that it won’t surprise me when another rust bucket of a car will come into our lives!



 last updated March 09, 2020

Members - Projects
Helen's Story of Dave's XKE Restoration

© The Ottawa Jaguar Club 2005-2019 all rights Reserved

Ottawa Jaguar Club
Follow us on Facebook