Restoring and maintaining a fleet of some of America’s finest classics in the comfort of your own workshop.
You can never have enough classic cars, especially ones with character and a history,” says Mike Morris, echoing the belief of many an enthusiast. His workshop garage is a little slice of Americana. The Stars and Stripes hangs above a classic Cadillac and Lincoln, a giant picture of Marilyn Monroe stares down on the collection below, and there’s racing photos, model cars and images of diners and hot rods all around. And I swear I can hear Elvis playing over the wireless.
“I’ve worked for auto companies such as Bridgestone and Jaguar my whole life,” Mike explains, “Then in the late 1970s an opportunity came up in Sydney to do wedding car work. I bought a 1961 Cadillac and realised I could make some money out of this.” The business grew rapidly, and before long Mike was running a fleet of 14 Cadillac wedding cars. “It was a great market in Sydney then,” the 76 year-old recalls. “I picked up a few limos too, but had to stop when the 14-seat Hummers hit the market and took over.”
He moved into corporate hire cars after this, eventually selling up shop in 2017 and moving to the Sunshine Coast: “all because a large storage shed and workshop was required to house my obsession with American automobiles,” he says. Land in these parts comes cheaper than Sydney’s sprawling suburbs, so his current collection of six cars will ultimately fit his purpose-built shed. Two from his inventory remain in NSW going through full restorations. “I’ve pulled both apart, ready for painting,” he explains.
Anyone who has owned a large collection of classics knows being able to work on them yourself is integral, otherwise maintenance and repair bills get ridiculous. “There’s a big drive for people buying classic cars from the 1960s and 1970s,” Mike says. “Just look at the prices now for once very ordinary Holdens. They’re much easier for the home mechanic to work on as modern cars have become far too complicated. Home mechanics today are disappearing with all the new cars.”
With tools neatly hanging on the wall, workbenches, hoses, bolts, interior parts and body work neatly scattered around, it’s clear Mike’s shed is a cherished work space. “I personally wouldn’t make money out of repairing cars,” he said. “A professional would take an hour and a half for something I’ll take all day doing. But when you do it yourself, you always find something else that could use a tidy up while you’re there. And the satisfaction of finishing a job knowing it’s right is hard to beat. Especially when you’re actually repairing something, rather than just replacing.”
Growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs, Mike’s family always had taxi cabs and hire cars. “It was a fabulous start in life,” he says, “and I started getting into mechanicals myself when I had my own cars and realised I could save a lot of money by doing things myself.” Nothing quite like learning on the job, Mike cut his teeth watching mechanic friends. “You can pick up so much by watching experts and asking the right questions,” he says. Aware of leaving certain work to specialists, Mike says he doesn’t weld or upholster, and while he can spray, prefers an expert to do so. “I can do anything from gearboxes to brakes, and have restored three Cadillacs in my time,” he explains. “I got into motor racing in the early 1970s with Clubmans and Milanos, a small production run of Australian-built Sports Racing Cars. These Milanos mainly had Holden running components for ease of maintenance and low-cost racing. That’s when I really learned how to work on cars. I’d buy complete or half-done cars, finish them off with friends, then race at Warwick Farm – the best track in the world – Oran Park, Amaroo, then up to Lakeside or over to Sandown. Wonderful times.”
He currently owns a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, 1961 Cadillac Coupe, 1965 Ford Thunderbird, 1970 Lincoln Continental MKIII and a bright yellow Ford-powered AC Cobra replica. “The ’61 Coupe was the first Cadillac I bought, in 1982,” Mike says. “It was won by Australian pro golfer Bruce Crampton at a tournament, and Cadillac arranged a right-hand drive conversion before shipping it to Bruce’s Tumut home. The hand-built Brougham at the time more expensive than a Rolls-Royce; it’s a masterpiece of American iron. The Lincoln holds a special place as we bought it sight unseen from the States. On seeing it pulled out of the container in Sydney it was like seeing your first child being born.”
What’s life like with these giant American classics? Mike says most suffer a bit from overheating – especially in Sydney summertime at the peak of wedding season – but overall are fairly basic. From 1949, Cadillacs were electric everything, but even so, it’s all quite rudimentary stuff. “The last limo I had was a 1989, as after that the electronics just got too complicated,” he says. “I heard this week about a guy with a $9500 repair on a BMW 5 Series just out of warranty, while even if something like a wiper motor goes, it can be $3500 at the dealer.”
“I Can Do Anything From Gearboxes To Brakes, And Have Restored Three Cadillacs In My Time.”
Parts availability isn’t bad, with Mike buying in Australia from Ballarat’s All American Auto Parts. “They tend to buy some parts from China or Taiwan,” Mike says. “I won’t touch Chinese manufactured products, so I check before buying, and send them straight back if I find they are.” Too many bad experiences it seems.
Maintaining and using his American classics is Mike’s enduring passion. “Retired people or those my age can play golf or need a hobby like cars. Classics are fantastic and a good social outlet too. There’s the people you meet, and car clubs are a fabulous grapevine for information. Then there’s driving on a Saturday afternoon and seeing other people enjoying the car. It’s wonderful.”