Restoration Perfection


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09 July 2024
A welcome bright yellow sight for the stricken 1950's motorist : credit: © Craig Pusey
There is nothing quite like an old Land Rover in commercial colours, and this Automobile Association Series I must be one of the best…

When I visited Nick Parr in Kent a few years ago to write about his remarkable collection of Land Rovers (see LRM February 2021) the one you see here wasn’t there. I had to content myself with looking at a few photographs of it, but I agreed with Nick that I would come back when it had returned home. And now, three and a half years later, here I am again in Kent, hugely excited at the prospect of seeing the Automobile Association Road Service 80in for the first time.

Chassis number 36102343 is a 1953 model year Series I soft top that was built on the last day of December 1952 and despatched out to Henly’s of London on 7 January 1953. The reason that it wasn’t here during my last visit was because it was 250 miles away in North Yorkshire, part-way through what would prove to be a five-year, 1000-hour restoration carried out by Robert and Rachel Sargeant.

The brightly painted Series I is a charming sight on quiet, leafy B-roads 

One of the things that stuck in my mind from my previous visit was Nick’s rather endearing habit of naming his Land Rovers after characters in Fawlty Towers, the famous BBC sitcom from the 1970s. It all started 20 years ago when he acquired a rather famous 1954 86in station wagon with the registration number SYB 617. Unsurprisingly, it had always been known by its previous owners as Sybil, which is, of course, the name of Basil Fawlty’s wife. I remember being introduced to some of the other Land Rovers in Nick’s collection, including Manuel, the Major, Gatsby, Andre, O’Reilly and, of course, Basil.

I was rather looking forward to hearing which Fawlty Towers character’s name had been chosen for the 80in, and I must confess that I was a little disappointed when Nick told me that he’d run out of names and the newly restored vehicle is known simply as ‘The AA’.

Another real-life restoration Inspired by Nick's scale model collection

As well as an enviable stable of 1:1 scale Land Rovers, Nick also has a collection of thousands of Land Rover models, and one of the things he particularly enjoys is tracking down the actual full-size vehicle that was the inspiration for some of the scale models in his collection. He has managed to do this with his 50th Anniversary Defender, the 107in Series I recovery truck, and the Irish 86in fire engine. And he has done it again with The AA.

“One of my favourite Land Rover models has always been the Morestone AA Road Service 80in Land Rover, with its distinctive coachbuilt hard top and hinged upper tailgate fitted with two large rear windows,” Nick tells me. “It is a charming early diecast model that was manufactured from 1955 to around 1957, and it is based on a real-life AA vehicle that had the same bespoke hard top and, like the Morestone model on my shelves, carried the registration number NGF 998.

External door handles are maybe the only components that don’t gleam

​​​​“I’ve always thought it would be wonderful to find this very interesting and unusual vehicle, but the chances of that happening seemed to be a million to one. That’s why I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened my copy of the April 2016 edition of the Land Rover Series One Club magazine, Legend.

“Inside was a very brief news item from club member Phil Lambert, whose boss had asked him to sell an old Land Rover for him on eBay.  Phil ended up buying it himself, and when he began cleaning up the bodywork, he discovered yellow paint and black lettering under the badly applied green respray. The photos accompanying the article clearly showed the AA logo and the words ‘Road Service’ on the top of the bulkhead below the windscreen, and the London registration number NGF 998. There was absolutely no doubt. This was the vehicle that had been the inspiration for the Morestone diecast model.

Nick has preserved the original signwritten windscreen panel and it hangs on his garage wall

“Phil had already acquired some period photographs of the vehicle in service with the AA, which had come via Land Rover enthusiast and AA engineer, Tony Knott, and Phil was asking if any club members had any additional information on the vehicle, which he was planning to restore. In April 2017 I finally managed to persuade Phil to sell it to me.

Rachel acts as a human clamp while Robert polishes

“My very good friends Robert and Rachel Sargeant agreed to take on the restoration. Robert and his brother were the third generation of the family to run the village garage in Goudhurst, not far from Tunbridge Wells, which was founded by their grandfather in 1959. The garage had an enviable reputation for working on Bentley and Rolls-Royce vehicles, and Robert’s grandfather even designed and built his own body on a pre-war Derby Bentley chassis, which is still in the family today. Robert and Rachel are also passionate Land Rover enthusiasts and have a wonderful collection of their own.

“They closed the garage about eight years ago and relocated to North Yorkshire, where they built a superb storage, maintenance and restoration facility for their own cars and for the selected restos they do for others. That’s why The AA was away in North Yorkshire for five years.

Bespoke hard top is very distinctive, particularly from the rear

​​​​​​One of the reasons it has taken me so long to return to Kent to see The AA was the fact that I very much wanted to talk with Robert as well as Nick about the marathon restoration, and we finally managed to co-ordinate our diaries and agree a date when the three of us could get together in Kent. Having seen the photos of the vehicle as it was when acquired by Phil Lambert, I’m very keen to learn how much of the original vehicle could be saved.

Axle and hub rebuilds nearing completion

“It wasn’t really in great shape when Nick got it,” Robert tells me. “It looked like it had either been a trialler, or someone had started to try to make it into one. It was easy to get rid of the crude roll cage but after that it really was going to be a challenge to retain as much of the original vehicle as we could. In particular, the chassis would require a huge amount of work, but we were convinced it could be saved, and it was. The original engine was long gone and there was nothing we could do about that, but the rear tub could also be salvaged. One of the biggest challenges would be recreating the bespoke coach-built hard top.

Seam welding on the chassis is a work of art

​​​​​​Looking at the detailed photographs of the work that was carried out on the original chassis, I am hugely impressed by the amount of dedication and the attention to detail that went into it. Every piece of rotten steel was cut out and replaced by new panels fabricated to fit. The welded seams are a work of art in their own right. It is workmanship of the very highest level.

Recreating the coach-built hard top was tough: shown here is the ash frame

And when I see the effort put into creating the replacement hard top, which included building the ash frame, fabricating the aluminium panels including the complex curves of the sloping front roof, installing the working pop-up trafficators, and building the upper tailgate from scratch, I really am blown away.

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Hinged upper tailgate probably the biggest challenge of the project

“We had a bit of good luck regarding the hard top,” Robert tells me. “We came across a story in Legend about the restoration of another 80, and there was an old photo showing the vehicle with a roof that looked very similar to the one shown in the period photos of NGF 998. We arranged to go and see it to take measurements and photos, and we managed to buy it to use as a pattern.

“The Series I vehicles ordered by the AA left the factory as standard basic 80s and were delivered in Bronze Green. As far as we know, the AA did not have a central facility to carry out the conversions, and it was left to the AA regions to complete the work.

Thankfully the AA left the interior in Bronze Green

“As we stripped the vehicle down, we soon realised that the yellow paint had been sprayed on top of the factory Bronze Green, while the interior was left in green. The chassis dumb irons, front crossmember and rear crossmember were also painted yellow. We decided to replicate the original process, so the body and chassis were first painted Bronze Green, before the exterior and parts of the chassis were overpainted with AA Yellow.

Period photographs of Nick’s 80 dating from 1954 were a great help during the project

“The period photographs provided by Tony Knott were absolutely invaluable to us. They were taken by a Fleet Street outfit called The Topical Press Agency Limited and are dated 22 February 1954. We assume they were part of a news story about the Automobile Association. The photos allowed us to determine the dimensions of the AA logo and lettering, for example, which we wanted to have signwritten rather than resorting to vinyls.

Sarah Jarman’s stunning signwriting rounded off the restoration perfectly

​​​​​​“This was completed by the wonderful Sarah Jarman, a traditional signwriter based in North Yorkshire, who offers old-school brush lettered signwriting, gold leaf, vehicle lining and coach-painting. It was fascinating to watch her work, and the end result is magnificent.

Unique, period features continue with this callsign plate 

“There were plenty of other helpful details in the photos for us to replicate as well, such as the circular radio callsign plates front and rear, which identify this particular vehicle as ‘G’, and things like the wing mirrors and the spot lamp on the front bumper.

Tools of the trade. Sourcing all the original kit took time but was well worth it

Plenty of period details and accessories complete the look and feel

“Probably the most helpful of the period photos was the one showing the loadspace area with a full complement of equipment, which allowed Nick and his wife Lyn to spend many happy hours sourcing all of it, including water and fuel cans, fire extinguisher, universal wheelbrace, batteries for jump starts, toolboxes, trolley jack, and even a correct Pye Reporter radio-telephone. The most rewarding aspect of the entire project was working with someone like Nick, who is a perfectionist who wants everything to be just right.”

Ace restorer Robert, left, and a clearly delighted owner Nick

Keyring reminds Nick which vehicle he's driving that day

AA Road Service 80in with Nick's 1953 Bentley

Following its completion in 2022, The AA has had relatively little exposure. Nick took it to the LRSOC National Rally at Packington last year where it won the Best Restoration award, and it has attended several local events and outings in Kent. Nick is also a Bentley enthusiast and owns an immaculate 1953 pressed steel-bodied R-Type, which coincidentally was first registered in February that year, one month after the Series I was registered. Since it was available and is, like everything else in Nick’s collection, on the button and ready to go, we thought it might be fun to stage the period AA call-out photographs, featuring ‘The AA and the Bentley’. Not that Nick’s R-Type would never have the temerity to break down in real life.


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