Polish Restoration : Saving an SD1, part 1
IT started out as an idle thought, and soon became a mad-cap plan…
Back in 2005, we bought a £200 Rover SD1 as a project, in order to save it from a fate involving kit-car owners and the scrapyard… in the subsequent months, nothing happened, and the home restoration never happened. However an unusual plan to ship it out to Poland germinated in our minds, and thanks to Rimmer Bros for the loan of a Range Rover/trailer combination, and Alexander Boucke for his knowledge of the Polish scene, it all came together rather nicely.
In association with…
Words: Keith Adams, Pictures: Keith Adams, Alexander Boucke, Monica Halaja, Andrew Elphick and Matthew Hayward
Part one: Making a sacrifice
IT’S freezing cold, a chill wind is blowing directly from the Urals, and rather than being wrapped up in front of a roaring open fire in the comfort of my own home, I’m over a thousand miles away, stood in a desolate looking forecourt full of crap cars in varying states of decay, and I’m trying to smile for the camera, while rationalising why I’ve just trailered a car I paid £200 for all this distance… Have I taken leave of my senses? Of course not. I’m just a car enthusiast…
The idea of taking a car out to Poland and treating it to a cut-priced restoration had been kicking around inside my head for at least two years. I’d always known that Poland contains some of the world’s most resourceful craftsmen, and had heard many tales of cars we’d have long given up hope on being brought back to life by enthusiastic garagistes who believe that life doesn’t finish with earning a quick and easy profit from performing inflated oil-change services.
I guess that comes from a combination of culture (Poles have always been doers), and lack of resources, borne from being on the other side of the Iron Curtain from 1945 to 1990. This kind of work ethic doesn’t just vanish overnight, and I’d more recently seen plenty of evidence of this thanks to Alexander Boucke. He and his friends have taken plenty of cars to Poland in the past few years – and the Vanden Plas 1100 that we’d recently featured as a Car of the Month in these pages had particularly impressed…
It was always a loose ambition of mine, one that I kept saying I’d do one day… never quite believing that I’d actually get off my behind and do it for real.
However, combination of events conspired to turn the Polish adventure from an idle pipe-dream to a serious plan. It all started in late 2005, I purchased a Rover SD1 from fellow ARG-enthusiast, Andy Jones. He’d bought the 44,000-mile SD1 from eBay – recognising that the car was ‘a bit special’. Registered in September 1976, and with a very low chassis number, the car remains one of the earliest SD1s in existence, and although there was plenty of evidence of bodged attempts to make the car more acceptable to the eye, underneath that, it was clear it was sound and straight, if rusty in all the usual places.
However getting rust sorted is a big job – if you want it doing properly – and it meant that my light re-fettling of the car would actually become a much bigger job than I anticipated. I sent some images of the damage to my mate Brian Gunn, who drew up a list of the repairs that would need to be done. It wasn’t good news at all.
It was around this time the news that Rimmer Bros had secured many of the original SD1 parts produced in India by Standard Motor Products during its ill-fated attempt to build a local version of the car during the late 1980s. This something of a red-letter event for SD1 owners like myself, because it meant I could use original panels, and that should make the restoration a whole lot straightforward for whoever wanted to take on the job.
It was then that a dose of reality struck again – quotes to fit the new flitch panels, inner/outer front wings, sills and other bits and pieces started at well over £1000 – and that was at favourable rates. Before a full respray, and general fettling. It was clear that these guys didn’t want the job – and those who did, were booked up years in advance. Not good.
And that’s when I decided the car should go to Poland – after all, Alexander’s car restoration had come up to about £2000. So, why shouldn’t I do the same… after all, there was nothing to lose now.
With the decision taken to go to Poland, it was now down to the mundane matter of planning the trip. Given that it would involve a trailer and a tow car, it was time to look around. However, as luck would have it, I mentioned my plans to Graham Rimmer – the owner of this month’s Car of The Month – and like me, he was energised by the whole concept of Polish restorations on British cars. He mentioned that he’d recently bought a 1988 Range Rover, and would be happy to lend it to me – along with a trailer – on the understanding that I return with a great story to tell.
The adventure was now piecing together nicely. Around the same time, I received a call at the office from Mark Evans – he of several classic car related programmes on the Discovery Channel. He had seen my piece on Alexander’s Vanden Plas in Classic Car Weekly, and wondered if I knew of anyone in the UK considering doing the same thing, as it would tie-in nicely with an upcoming series… As you can imagine, my response pleased Mark no end.
Our deadline for leaving came all too quickly, and after sourcing a garage in Poland (thanks Alexander), it was down to getting everything together.
The first day was an adventure itself – a 6.30am start to get to Lincoln to pick up the Range Rover and trailer, then get back home, pick up the SD1, stick it on the trailer, rush down to Dover to catch the ferry before plodding across France and Belgium to meet Alexander at his place. Like all the best laid plans, it didn’t quite go to clockwork, not least because the SD1 took a fair bit of coaxing to get started (and once it did, it became clear the clutch slave cylinder was goosed, along with the battery), but once we did, it sounded wonderful through the blowing exhaust.
Still, we were finally on the way, and although there was plenty of stress involved – mainly because I never plan things thoroughly enough – once I disembarked at Calais, I started to enjoy myself. Finally.
Given that our weapon of choice for the Pan-European trailer adventure was a V8-powered Range Rover with an autobox, I was expecting a hole the size of the Grand Canyon to appear in my wallet. I’d filled up when I left home, and by the time I reached Calais (200 miles and a ferry ride later), it was nearing the ‘E’ mark once again.
Still, ‘hang the expense’, I thought to myself – mainly because the Range Rover was so damned good at the job in hand. The fact that it sounds so good, it has an excellent seating position, with a commanding view over that snub nose, and immense stability when towing two tons of SD1 (and the long inventory of new panels inside it) and trailer, can be taken as read, but I had been genuinely surprised by how relaxing the whole experience of conducting this heritage convoy actually was.
Okay, I was sticking to 60mph, and rolling along with the trucks, so things shouldn’t have been demanding, but it was genuinely surprising to see my night one destination in the German Cathedral city of Aachen (where Alexander would join me for the rest of the journey) roll up quite so quickly as it did. This was going to be a walk in park.
Day two kicked off bright and dry – and after consulting my ageing MIO sat/nav system for a route to the smallish town of Czestochowa where our garage was located, it soon became clear that the journey would become an exercise in Motorway pounding. Once again, I found myself driving in the land of the de-restricted Autobahn with a slow vehicle – this time I’d be restricted to something less than 60mph (the German rule for cars and trailers is to stick to 80km/h – aargh!) – and as we hit the road, I knew that heading eastwards unrelentingly was going to make it a long, long day.
It was soon clear that we’d not make Czestochowa in one hit, and my own experiences of driving across Poland last year proved that it would be slow going once we left Germany. Instead, I decided that we’d drive as far as the border, stop over, and do the Polish thing the following day. Despite looking pretty small on the map, Germany actually takes ages to cross (especially at 55mph), and it took most of the day to cover the 460 miles from Aachen to the beautiful border town of Görlitz.
During that time, excitement of getting something done to the SD1 continued to grow – a fact that was reinforced every time I looked in the Range Rover’s mirror, and clapped eyes on the skeletal Rover badge and slit-like headlamps of my car…
Although Poland is now happily ensconced in the European Union, you still have to undergo pretty strict passport controls to get in. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of the outer-most countries in the Pan-European group of countries, or merely because the border guards are bored and need to keep up their interest. From Görlitz there are two ways of entering Poland – you can re-join the E40 motorway, and line-up with the herd there, or you can cross within the town itself, at the rather kitsch post just before the River Neiße, which since 1945, had divided these two countries. We chose the latter.
Still, this was the first (and last time) I’d need to produce my documents (and those of the two cars), and because the guards had obviously never seen a car like this before, it aroused plenty of interest, with plenty of questions being asked about our 1976 Rover. They pored over it, and enjoyed learning all about its V8 engine… and how we were driving cars like this in Britain over 30 years ago. Now we were in the East, we’d have to get used to the curiosity, and accept that we were going to be stared at a lot.
In truth, I rather enjoyed it – a major contrast to the disinterested indifference you get here in the UK.
A disappointment on the trip was the fuel consumption. Not at how poor it was, you understand. Quite the opposite in fact.
Up to the point we reached Poland, our Range Rover had averaged just over 20mpg – and considering just how easy the drive had been, and how much kick-down the transmission had been using to get us up and down the steep eastern German hills, the tales of being bankrupted by the juicy V8 just weren’t going to happen. I should have been happy, but journalistically, this was not what I wanted – the Range Rover had been running faultlessly, too… a disaster for the ‘story’.
Now we were in Poland, the costs would be even more favourable – fuel costs about 60p/litre there, and premium quality for those with a taste for the rich stuff (like the Range Rover) we found widely available.
However, travelling across Poland on the E40 showed me something else, too – the country is rapidly getting better off. The motorway itself is standard Euro-quality fare, and the cars overtaking us were mixture of new, and well-cared for 1990s stuff. Smokey old FSOs and Wartburgs seemed pretty rare – although the former are still in evidence – and as the miles rolled on, I found myself resigned to the fact that the old-style grim country we all picture (and which I saw at first hand last year on the way to Ukraine), is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
Good news for the Poles, I say…
Nearing our destination
Peeling off the motorway, and with darkness approaching, Alexander confirmed that we were about 40 miles from our destination. The entire trip had been pretty much painless from start to (nearly the) finish, and I caught myself wondering at the sheer ease of the exercise. The 1200-or-so miles we had covered to this point had been incredibly easy – and thanks to the Range Rover’s long legs, wonderfully comfortable.
However, Poland’s veneer of new-found affluence is a little thinner than we’d have liked. Although the sat/nav had painted a straightforward route along a series of A-Roads for the final leg of the journey, this is Poland, and you can forget any ideas that this is going to be akin to a gentle run up the A13. In fact, the main road network seems to have yet to see the benefit of those EU billions, and as we traversed from village to village along narrow, unfinished and pot-holed roads, it was clear that night time was not the best time to be playing dodge-the-crater, while running off the road to avoid the HGVs hurtling towards up at undiminished speed, but being careful to avoid the darkly clothed pedestrians who could appear from anywhere.
Yup, this was more like it…
The night drive was a real awakener, and as we rolled into the outskirts of Czestochowa, we were ready for a rest. For sure, that mad drive through the countryside had been a reminder of the difference between East and West… and had we not been in the Range Rover, perhaps we’d have been looking to have the tow-car restored, too!
We’d arranged to meet Mark Evans and the ‘crew’ at the garage the following morning at about 9.30am, and that gave us plenty of time to go exploring the local area beforehand. An early start, and a look at the urban map for an industrial area had us heading back out of town towards the countryside. It never ceased to amaze just how quickly the urbane sophistication of the centre of the Polish cities we have so far visited disappeared once you head for the suburbs. Roads become a mess, and the accommodation either degenerates into Brutalist concrete blocks or small and insignificant houses dominated by the colour grey.
Every time we jump out of the Range Rover to find photographic backdrops, we’re either assaulted by the not-unpleasant but nearly-forgotten smell of burning coal, or are taking in unfamiliar sights, such as the ugly and exposed steel pipelines which are everywhere, and which were a Communist-era method of delivering shared heat through steam to every home.
It’s a reminder that there’s still a great deal of catching up to do, and Poland probably remains a country of haves and have-nots.
To the workshop
|How much will it cost, and is it money well-spent?
In cold, hard terms, no classic restoration is going to be done purely on the grounds of economics. Even at bargain basement Polish prices, the renovation of my SD1 is not going to be a cheap process, and anyone considering doing the same should think long and hard before going for it.The basic cost of the restoration has been quoted at €2500, and I think it’ll stay within that as there aren’t too many horrors to consider beyond the rust.The engine and gearbox are in good order, but if they’re not on your car, these Polish garages will happily undertake the work to fix. In fact, it almost makes sense to go over there for a cheap engine overhaul – or perhaps LPG conversion, which can be done for about €500, depending on the car.So, say the restoration comes in at €2500, and my transportation costs are around €500 including hotels, that comes up to around £2000 all in. Add in the parts prices (for me, about £800), and the trailer hire, (say, £200), and that’s £3000 for everything.Initial comparisons with jobs in the UK are favourable – and the quotes I had for the fully monty were £5000-plus. You pays your money and takes your choice…
Once we’d got our pictures, it was finally time to head off to the garage. The plan hatched up between Mark and me was that I’d turn up with the car, and the garage’s owner, Jerzy Halajda, along with his workers would see the car for the first time, with the cameras running on them. It was a very good idea, and as we rolled into the courtyard the guys couldn’t conceal their pleasure at the site of this magnificent – if temporarily crippled – car.
Closely watching their reactions to the SD1 made me realise just how car buyers in the UK must have reacted back in 1976. They smiled, and as soon as we’d come to a halt, they were all over it, taking in every detail. A journalist from the local paper had also turned up (a slow news day I guess), and he asked me (in very good English) about the car. ‘Was it a supercar?’, ‘how fast is it?’, ‘was it really that old?’… Once furnished with the facts, he couldn’t help but comment, ‘are Rovers like this today?’
He couldn’t believe it when I told him the horrible truth.
Meanwhile the guys were underneath the SD1 surveying the damage – with me, prompted by Mark, trying to point out everything that needed doing. Every time corrosion was found, one of the mechanics would attack it with a big hammer, while I tried not to look too upset by the scale of the rust underneath. Discovery had brought along an interpreter, but for the sake of the cameras, we’d try not to use him – the intention being to show the viewers that it was easy to get over the language barrier.
In truth, it was pretty easy – although they’d never clapped eyes on an SD1 before, the guys identified everything that needed doing – and very quickly, too – and whenever the question was raised about supplying new stuff, I amazed them by telling them that whatever they needed, I could get it all. Short of owning a Morris Minor or MGB, it’s difficult to think of another classic car where brand new parts are still to readily available.
The bottom line…
After the inspection of the car, where I noticed the boss writing down a very long list of things to do, Mark asked them to start stripping the car – for the cameras, of course – and within a few minutes, pieces were being removed from my pride and joy.
We then sat around the table and began to talk about what was needed to be done. Once the boss had reassured our translator that he’d supply a translator for overseas customers, we decided to work with ours – much to my relief. Jerzy had already revealed to us that he was keen to get more business like ours, and you could tell from the way he was looking at the car that he desperately wanted to do the best job he could. All good news for me.
Once down to business, and sat round the table, he wasn’t for giving an inch. I had a price in my head for the work the Rover needed, and given that I was going to aim for that. When I asked him the bottom line, his response was long and detailed… and as clear as a puddle of mud. He’d be doing this, and he’d be doing that – but at no point in the translated sentence was there any mention of money. I pressed again – and once again, he seemed to evade the issue. I was starting to worry.
All I needed to know was a price, and he was doing all he could to evade the issue. Why?
After further detailing of the work involved, I tried again. How much? This time the figure came at the end of another long and descriptive sentence about the car’s general state. What was it? €3000, was his response… or about £2000. Time to haggle – and in the end, we managed to come up with a figure of €2500 – and that encompasses the all-new panelwork, a full respray, and anything else they find once they start digging (including getting rid of the Vitesse rear spoiler off the bootlid).
Obviously, if unforeseen set-backs are found, they’d let me know if rectification was needed…
With the cost now ascertained, the other important question was asked – when did I want the car back? Now, this one did catch me off-guard, because going off all of Alexander’s previous restorations, I just assumed I could forget about the car, and that they’d let me know when it was finished.
After all, he had a friend who’s P6 had been in Poland for over a year, and there was no sign that it was going to be finished any time soon. However, before I even thought about it, I’d blurted out ‘Christmas’, and that it would be nice to have my shiny ‘new’ SD1 to drive around in 2008…
Once that had been completed, it was time to lay out the plans to Mark – who happens to be a big Range Rover fan – and explain the reasons for doing what I’m doing. As explained elsewhere, there’s no point doing a restoration on a car, if you’re looking at it as a financial exercise, but at the same time, it’s pretty clear that the money saving aspect of bringing the car to Poland is pretty compelling. It wasn’t just about economics, for me, but also quality – and to prove that it could be done.
Okay, my SD1 is never going to be worth major money, but if we also assume that when it comes home, it’ll be in what the classic car mags describe as condition one, and therefore, worth about £2500. Considering the restoration will have cost a little more than that, when the other costs are factored in, it’s clear that there’s more to this than money.
But having said that, I argued, if you own a classic that’s in borderline condition, and not worth masses of money like mine, going down this route is a very appealing alternative to not being restored at all. I told him that I reckoned this opened up the possibility of restoration to many cars that simply wouldn’t have been touched before. After all, many more owners can afford a deferred outlay of £3000 (and as can be seen, the costs can be an awful lot lower than that – as many parts can be repaired rather than replaced), and that potentially means that many more classics will be saved…
I certainly didn’t feel uncomfortable with what I’d done…
Coming home was always going to be an anti-climax to this adventure, and because Alexander needed to get home quickly, we didn’t have time to go hunting for something to crap bring back on my now empty trailer. However, the signs were good for a future visit, as I was told that Polonez and 126 prices start at around £100…
The good news was that this meant that we could drive back a lot quicker – and although not necessarily legal in Germany, a cruising gait of 70mph seemed ridiculously easy for our Range Rover. We even stopped at all the same places on the way back – something I’d never recommend if you’re wanting to make a small holiday out of your trip – but it’s all been logged for future restorations.
If the restoration goes to plan, I may well be driving out during the summer with a further consignment of parts – and to see how progress is going – and depending on the insurance side of things, driving the car home for Christmas. Now, that surely is a present worth waiting for.
We’ll keep you posted at regular intervals on how the restoration goes.
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Unsung hero: our Range Rover didn’t miss a beat, and took to the job of transporting its V8-engined brother to Poland with ease…