Mechanic Profile

The Maintenance Man

Keith Wilson has the enviable – if busy – task of helping maintain over 30 special vehicles from a classic collection.

How’s today’s job list looking for you? Eight or so cars to get through with no slack built into the schedule? Then there’s those customers showing up expecting no bad news and practically no bill to pay. “It’s a different world up here in our workshop,” says Keith Wilson, no doubt to the envy of all working at a busy mechanic’s.

The 65-year-old helps take care of a fleet of some 36 classic vehicles in a collection at Coolum on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast – a dream job for many with mechanical skills. “There’s no time schedule here,” Keith says. “Everything is done properly, whether it takes a day or a week.” And it needs to. The range of cars, military vehicles and engines on display is quite extraordinary.

Keith’s the fix-it guy at Carrolls Transport Depot and the Sir Henry Royce Foundation Showroom (he of Rolls-Royce fame) – two large climate-controlled auto galleries where guests and visitors can get close to an array of motoring history. Solicitor Frank Carroll’s personal collection makes up 26 vehicles, while a further ten are on loan from other private collectors.

All are in beautiful condition – everything ACMhere is restored and maintained to a very high standard. They’re kept on permanent trickle charge, while Keith keeps a rotational roster to have each out for a run to keep them moving – most important for these classics.

It’s mainly British classics inside, from a 1927 Rolls-Royce Phantom I to an ex-Australian Government 1967 Phantom V Limousine; a host of Austin 8s and numerous Bentleys and MGs. There are giant Rolls-Royce aviation engines and even an ex-Australian army 1955 Daimler Ferret 4×4 armoured scout car. This features a Rolls-Royce engine, as does the collection’s latest acquisition – a 1960 Thornycroft airport fire tender truck.

Keith takes me to his workshop a short drive from the immaculate building where the collection is housed. This giant fire truck, which features a 6.5-litre Rolls-Royce straight-eight, gleams in its red paint with yellow roof. “We’re tidying it up at present,” Keith says. “I was pretty excited when Frank asked if it was a good idea to buy, and not long after, it turned up here on a big transport float. Then I had to start waving my magic wand.”

Keith’s the kind of chap who can seemingly turn his hand to anything requiring a practical brain. He was a shop fitter by trade, working in private homes, shops and doing the big timber joinery in the likes of water treatment plants. “This was good schooling for mechanics,” he says. “The planning, attention to detail and making sure you don’t rush things. Being a shopfitter meant everything had to be spot on. I’ve an eye for detail and presentation, and that’s shared with Frank as that’s exactly how he wants his cars to be.”

Always a car enthusiast, Keith owned and worked on Holden Torana A9Xs in the 1970s – and laments the fact he didn’t keep hold of a couple of these now very high value classics. “I’m self-taught, but I built up my mechanical ability from those Toranas, which were really good cars, and have always been around good mechanics to learn how it’s done properly.”

Keith had retired from shopfitting and heavy vehicle driving when the Carroll family, who had known him for decades, asked his advice on the 1927 Phantom’s running boards. “They were in very ordinary condition, I helped out and it all started from there.”

The workshop has a hoist and a vast collection of modern and old tools, suited to the variety of vehicles Keith works on. There’s a recently-acquired 1947 MG Y on the hoist being “tidied up” as Keith says. Properly restored is another way to look at it. He’ll do what work he can mechanically and aesthetically, while very specialist work – such as upholstering or the inner complexities of a near-100 year-old Rolls-Royce engine – are sent to Keith’s long list of trusted experts.

Work on the MG Y has stalled as he’s been waiting for a new fuel tank the past two months. “I do plan my day out a fair bit, but if there’s something holding me up like the fuel tank, I just move on to something else,” he explains. “There’s always something to do rather than wait for the one job. It means I don’t get frustrated when certain things go pear-shaped.”

Also on the list are sorting the fire truck’s distributor to make it run a bit sweeter. He’s managed to obtain a new set of heavy vehicle front tyres for it, and it’s already had its first demonstration run. “The Thorneycroft is a challenge to drive as it’s very heavy and has no power steering. It’s my current favourite though; it’s such an eye-catcher.”

Keith says he encounters many challenges in his work, but has the luxury of time to deal with them. “It may take a couple of days to repair something. If we can’t buy a replacement, we have avenues of making a whole new part. Both Frank and I are very particular about originality, so things have to be correct.”

It’s an ideal setup for a man who likes things done correctly. “I know a normal workshop is a business that must be run to schedules and customers must be provided for, but I can make sure there’s thinking time for any repairs,” Keith says. “Even the simplest jobs can turn into a nightmare if you rush things.”

There’s no plug-in diagnostics on these vehicles, and Keith says he fears for a shortfall in young mechanics who can work on older cars. “With old-school engines you have to tick the boxes off and eliminate the things that could be wrong. It brings you back to ground level. On new cars you just have a laptop in your hand and in minutes the problem is sourced.”

There are places for younger mechanics to do the work Keith does, even if the skills needed take plenty of time to develop. “It’s a very unique trade, but you could have a job for life,” he says. “There are many people out there who want to use their classic cars and see them well presented. There’ll always be work in keeping these old cars going.”

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