Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The cars are the stars

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Brij Maharaj with the Vauxhall that appeared in the film adaptation of Sir Vidya Naipaul's book The Mystic Masseur

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Brij Maharaj shows the Model T that is the oldest working car in Trinidad and Tobago

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Brij Maharaj cruising about San fernando in his Model T Ford. Photo:Dave Persad

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Brij Maharaj showing the operation of the Model T Ford, the oldest working car in Trinidad and Tobago

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The iconic Italian scooter known as the Lambretta

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1934 would be the beginning of years of strike action and riots by the working class of Trinidad, which saw the rise of union leaders and labour parties, a period that will be remembered this Thursday at the annual Labour Day celebrations in Fyzabad.

That year, 80 years ago, was also the date of manufacture of a car called the Chevrolet Phaeton, built in Tarrytown, New York, and sold at the astronomical sticker price of US$1,395, money that could have bought you a Woodbrook house back then, with money left over to furnish it.

Despite the worldwide economic depression in that decade, Trinidad still had some filthy-rich people who built their palatial homes on the fortune made from sugar, cocoa and oil, and needed an equally cool automobile to make some distance between themselves and people trying to catch a train, whip horses and donkeys, or ride bicycles to get from here to there.

So itís not surprising that there was already a vehicle dealership in Port of Spain selling to the upper crustóMassy Ltd, whose owner Charles Massy would form an alliance with Neal Engineering to create the mighty Neal and Massy in 1931.

Massy Ltd sold some of those Chevrolet Phaetons in Trinidad. And in the most unlikely of storylines, one of only four right-hand-drive Chervolet Phaetons known to still exist in the world has survived, and is parked in the garage of an unassuming house at Vistabella, San Fernando.

The vehicle is part of a collection of antiques that, even if you are not a car person, will leave you stupefied. The vehicle has been so immaculately restored that it could have been bought yesterday.

It belongs to San Fernando businessman Brij Maharaj, who has another 14 antique cars, seven motorcycles, and 40 more vehicles in various stages of rebirth.

The collection includes the countryís oldest working car, a Model T Ford, with a manufacture date of 1917-18. Impressive since the first car rolled ashore in 1900, and the first road fatality happened 11 years later (you can read all about that in Angelo Bissessarsinghís book Walking with the Ancestors).

Maharaj, whose life is as interesting as the things he has spent the last 40 years collecting, is now 60 years old, retired and ready to share with the world what he was able to save and restore from Trinidadís colonial past.

And if you think 60 is young, consider this. Maharaj has been working since age 14, when he secured an apprenticeship at what was then Texaco, Pointe-a-Pierre, learning the skills that would allow him, within seven years, to open his own business, and within ten years, to quit that refinery job to go full time into his company, Mech Tech Services.

To hear him tell it, Maharaj has always had an interest in old vehicles, capable of repairing anything. When he decided to begin collecting, Maharaj canít say for sure, but it could have been around 1973 when he learned of the death of old man Turab, who for years rode a British-built James motorcycle around the hilly city, selling paimee and stuffed crab backs out of a box strapped to the frame.

Maharaj said he went looking for Mr Turabís widow, asked about the motorcycle, and was taken into the dead manís bedroom where the motorcycle was parked next to the bed.

He bought it. Maharaj has that motorcycle, made in 1950, to this day. A successful business allowed Maharaj to do what most only dream of, travelling the world, racing fast cars and motorcycles, repairing, owning and sailing several boats up the island chain. All of which he has since given up, he said, since everything has a season and too much of one good thing often ends in ruin.

However, Maharaj never lost his passion for collecting, always searching for genuine parts for his ďground upĒ restoration projects, making and repairing himself what he could not find.

Maharajís reputation for integrity in his community, and among the classic car fraternity, is the reason for several of those vehicles ending up in his hands because the original owners and/or their families thought that he was the only man capable of preserving them as they needed to be.

His cars are movie stars. They were featured in the 2001 Merchant Ivory production of Sir VS Naipaulís The Mystic Masseur and more recently in an historical film, Pan! Our Music Odyssey, by Dr Kim Johnson.

He has since transformed several rooms of his residence into a time capsule. Not only are the cars and motorcycles in that climate-controlled area, but also period posters and memorabilia, including a collection of rare diecast scale model cars and vintage signs. If all goes as planned, the public will have a chance to see this relic along with some incredible automobile history.

The Brij Maharaj Motor Museum and Heritage Collection is set to open in August (by appointment only) since Maharaj and daughters Kebrina and Natalya are concerned about the long-term preservation.

The main aim is to raise public awareness about the rich motoring heritage of the country as well as educating people in the necessary skills for preserving vintage motor vehicles. The effort is being supported by historian/writer Angelo Bissessarsingh who has been researching the history of Maharajís collection), car collector Ishwar Mungroo and engineer/enthusiast Wesley Deosaran.

A full constitution and board of trustees are in the works. Long-term plans include using the facility as a teaching tool to impart mechanical skills to the youth and affiliation to other motor museums, thereby facilitating loaned display items.



THE 1934 CHEVROLET PHAETON Ė Its classic lines raise images of Hollywood starlets and Chicago gangsters with tommy guns at the same time. Maharaj restored the car with utmost authenticity, refusing to substitute mechanicals parts when no spares could be found. However, driving it would be daunting, since there are no power accessories and the brakes are a bit scary since they are antiquated pushrod-types of a design not seen in sixty years. The gearbox also takes a great deal of skill to manipulate since there are no synchromeshes and to miscalculate a gear change can destroy the unit. Everything is period-correct for this car, from the narrow white-wall tires to the "poop-poop" brass horn and delicate swan hood ornament.





THE MODEL T FORDS - Maharaj has restored two. San Fernandians would have seen the black 1930 Ford Model A five window coupe cruising around the city. The backseat is another quirk of 1920s and 30s cars, known as rumble or dickey seat, it was also called the mother in law seat. The Ford Model T was produced from 1908-27 and sold 15 million units, putting the world on wheels. Maharaj has a 1918 Runabout which was a sportscar in its time. Charles McEnearney secured the dealership for Ford in 1919 but was selling cars before that. The runabout is a two seat body and is closer in design to a horsedrawn buggy than it is to a modern car. From the skinny tires mounted on wheels with oak spokes to an unusual two-speed transmission, the car is as quirky as can be imagined. For instance, the foglamps are illuminated with kerosene and the gas level is measured by opening a barrel-shaped tank under the seat and dipping a stick in the fuel. There is no fuel pump so that if going up a steep hill, the gravity-fed carburetor is starved and the car will stall. Steep hills must be scaled in reverse gear. The single tiny windshield wiper is operated manually with a crank handle. The Model A (black car) was the successor to the Model T and was a more modern car with a proper transmission, brakes and ignition.