THE WORLD'S LARGEST collection of classic British cars is owned by an eccentric collector in an out-of-the-way village in a far corner of New Zealand. You have to see it to believe it.
The Hawke’s Bay region in the west of New Zealand’s North Island has the country’s best climate and produces some of its top wines. Its seaside city of Napier was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and was reconstructed during the Depression in the Art Deco style.
Napier’s outstanding architecture attracts visitors from all over the globe, with an annual Art Deco festival that has become one of the country’s leading tourist attractions. It is a beautiful, if remote, part of the world.
Art Deco and the wine are great drawcards, but some people come to see one of the most unique sights in the automotive world – the British Car Museum outside the seaside village of Haumoana. It contains over 500 cars, the largest such collection on earth. Nearly all of them are in running order.
New Zealand is at the opposite end of the world to Great Britain, but economic and social ties between the mother country and its former colony have always been very strong.
Kiwis and cars
With just a few million people, New Zealand was never large enough to develop its own motor industry, and for many years most automotive imports to the country were from the United Kingdom. There were also many classic American imports, but mostly more expensive models for wealthier people. New Zealand roads were for many years dominated by British cars.
The massive collection in Haumoana is owned by Ian Hope, a former mechanic and – to say the least – something of a British car enthusiast. He started collecting in the 1980s when he found he had a few Morris Minors floating around. He started to actively collect them, mostly from the local Hawkes Bay area, and as news spread of his collection many cars were donated to him or sold for the right price.
Despite its name, Ian’s British Car Museum is not really a museum. It is not professionally curated, and the cars have been acquired pretty much at random. It is, in the real sense of the word, a collection. It just happens to be a very large one.
The cars are not on display as they would be in a conventional museum. They are not even properly cataloged – it’s all in Ian’s head. They are in many cases stacked two and three high in specially made racks in his massive hangar-like garage, with narrow passages between the rows and rows of vehicles. There is probably some sort of order – the Morris Minors are mostly together, for example – but it all seems a bit random.
Which is part of the charm. You walk in not expecting too much, or maybe a few cars on display, and you see hundreds and hundreds of Morrises, Austins, Vauxhalls, Humbers, Hillmans, Sunbeams, and the like. Jaguars and Rollers and Bentleys and Daimlers and Triumphs as far as you can see. There are brands that are almost forgotten today, like Jowett and Lanchester and Alvis.
Museum or collection?
I asked Ian if he had ever considered expanding the place and making it a bit more like a proper museum. “Not when you have neighbors like mine,” he said. “I’ve had legal battles with them just to keep it in the shed. I was able to expand it, but I have no more room now. That’s why I’ve gone up inside, rather than expanded the floor area.”
Ian bought his first car, a second-hand 1937 Ford Eight, in 1955. The Ford Eight, also known as the Model Y, was built by the company’s English subsidiary and never sold in America. It was the most successful small car in England before World War II, despite its almost total lack of braking ability. Many, some of them assembled in Australia, found their way to New Zealand.
Ian’s Ford Eight was the start of a lifelong automotive love affair. He became a mechanic in a local garage and in 1963 bought what is still his favorite car, an Austin Mini 7. This was an Austin badged version of the famous Mini Minor, one of the best known British cars ever.
The Morris Minor
At the heart of the collection are 38 Morris Minors. That’s the ones in running order – there are dozens more in various states of repair and cannibalized for spares. The Minor was the biggest selling British car of the 1950s. It did not cease production until 1971, by which time 1.6 million been sold around the world. Designed by Alec Issigonis, better known for his classic front wheel drive Mini Minor, it featured advanced technologies such as torsion bar suspension and rack and pinion steering.
To many people the Morris Minor is the archetypal British car. For millions of people in Britain and throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth it was their first car, or the car they learnt to drive in. (I am one of those people). It handled well, it was comfortable and surprisingly roomy, and it was reliable and durable. Tens of thousands are still on the roads, and a company in Sri Lanka still manufactures body panels and mechanical parts.
Ian’s collection has all manner of Minors, from the early low light models through to a late model 1100 cc Traveller, the famous ‘Woody’. Most models are represented – the MM series and the Minor 1000, and Travellers and pickup trucks and delivery vans. Most are in excellent condition.
The massive shed that houses the collection seems to stretch on forever. You follow a corridor formed by Austins or Hillmans and you turn a corner and there’s a half a dozen Ford Zephyrs. If any part of you has even a vague liking for the history of the British motor industry, this place is incredible. You wonder if it’s real.
Trucks and vans
There are a few commercial vehicles too. The pick of them is a 1923 Dennis fire engine that saw service during the 1931 Hawkes Bay earthquake. There is a Jowett Bradford and a variety of Bedford, Commer, Morris and other vans and trucks. There are even four hearses from different manufacturers.
Every corner of the shed, and on the bonnets of many of the vehicles, are brochures, manuals, badges and other memorabilia. The walls are festooned with road signs, many of which date from before New Zealand’s changeover from miles to kilometers in 1972. There are dozens of old petrol pumps and hundreds of license plates. The collection of automotive paraphernalia alone is remarkable.
Ian Hope is now 77. His eyesight is fading and most of the time he uses a mobility scooter. It just fits between the rows of cars. He never married and he lives on site. “You have to,” he says.
He has no idea of what the collection might be worth. With good condition Morris Minors now reaching five figures, the collection’s total value would be inestimable. But he has no interest in breaking it up and selling it off. Nor does he want that to happen after his time. The collection passes to a trust after his death, for 50 years. As for how it will be managed, that is for his family to decide. He has dozens of great-nieces and nephews.
Might some big collector in England want to buy the lot? “They’d need plenty of money,” he says, with the hint of a smile on his face. “But nothing’s for sale.”
It is his life’s work. He says none of his family has shown an interest in taking over the collection as a commercial venture, but something will have to happen eventually.
“I can’t dictate to them what to do, I can only hope that they carry it on,” says Ian. Whatever the case, this most remarkable collection will remain together for the foreseeable future, tucked away in a massive shed in a remote corner of the Antipodes. It is a truly astonishing thing.
A short list of some of the collection’s gems – a tiny hint of what’s in it:
• 1927 Swift Tourer
• 1933 Austin 12/4
• 1934 Sunbeam Dawn
• 1937 Austin Big 7
• 1938 Austin 7 Ruby
• 1938 Daimler Conquest
• 1939 Hillman Minx
• 1948 Alvis TA14
• 1950 Bentley Mark VI
• 1950 Humber Super Snipe
• 1950 Jowett Javelin
• 1951 Rover 75 ‘Cyclops’
• 1954 Lanchester Leda
• 1955 and 1966 Austin Princess Vanden Plas
• 1956 Jaguar Mark VII
• 1957 Wolseley 6-90
• 1958 Triumph Vanguard Sportsman
• 1962 and 1974 Sunbeam Rapier
• 1962 Jaguar Mk II 3.4
• 1963 Austin Mini 7 (bought new by Ian Hope)
• 1969 Daimler V8 250
• 1973 Jensen Healey
• 1975 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow
• 1982 Jaguar XJS HE V12