As you can imagine, being part of the NZ Classic Car team I’m in the privileged position of viewing classic cars almost on a daily basis, so when someone asks ‘What’s your favourite?’ I have to admit it’s a very difficult question to answer. Sure, it’s fairly well known that I’m a bit of a late ’60s muscle car fan, despite the fact I’m now onto my third Porsche 911 – but every now and then, I see a car that just appeals to me and not only because of its enormous price tag, or the fact that there’s only three examples left on the planet. In these instances, it’s purely and simply about exemplifying what a classic car should be.
Earlier this year I attended the Galaxy of Cars show at Western Springs Stadium – it was a stunning day and a great opportunity to catch up with some friends and have a look around for cars. Of course, at the back of my mind was the desire to track down cars to feature in future issues – but I had also been invited to help the organisers of the event, the New Lynn Lions, judge the different categories. As I wandered around, naturally gravitating to the muscle cars (there were no Porsches), I spotted a car that really took my fancy. The combination of colour, style and, I suppose, to some extent the fact that I hadn’t seen or even noticed one before really made me want to investigate further.
The car – a gorgeous 1960 Hillman Minx convertible – was parked amongst a number of club cars, and when I asked about its owner, I was told he had wandered off. I left my card with one of the club members and asked if they’d be kind enough to get the owner to give me a call sometime. By this time I was walking around the Hillman, taking photographs for NZ Classic Car’s Facebook page and, to be honest, I must have stood staring at it for 10 or 15 minutes, trying to take in every little detail. Half an hour later the owner, John Harris, called me on my cell phone and, after a brief meeting alongside his Hillman, we arranged to sort out a full feature on his car.
John Harris started his apprenticeship on London buses as a fitter and turner at the age of 16. He didn’t learn to drive, however, until joining the Territorial Army at the age of 18 and, as he was in the Airborne Signals, he was able to drive an assortment of army vehicles – including Land Rovers and Austin Champs. Once John had saved enough money he decided to purchase his first car, a 1934 Standard Ten, for £30. Alas, it had seen better days and was full of the dreaded rust, so it wasn’t long before John decided to buy another, slightly better car. At the age of 19 he bought his first convertible – a 1948 Standard 8 Tourer. Driving a soft-top car was definitely appealing to John, and he’d undoubtedly caught the open-air bug. By the time he had reached 21, he was driving a 1952 Morris Minor convertible. At that time, his brother owned a 1954 Hillman convertible and John was convinced that, one day, he too would own one.
When he was 22 John was called up for National Service and he was sent to Berlin in 1961, while the city’s infamous wall was being built. He remembers that while stationed there, during cold night patrols and surrounded by hundreds of Russian tanks, he often dreamed about the 1960 Hillman Minx convertible he was going to buy once he was out of the army. Looking back at those days, John reckons his desire to own one of these cars stemmed partly from the fact he’d seen the Hillman referred to as the ‘world’s sexiest little convertible’ when visiting the Earls Court motor show in 1960, just before he was called up.
Finally, in 1963 John was able to purchase the car of his dreams – a white, 1960 Series IIIA Hillman Minx convertible. He can still recall driving the car to Berlin with two mates in 1963, and when it was time to leave Berlin after three weeks holiday they were completely broke and couldn’t afford to even buy petrol to drive home. A solution to the problem came when the friends got together and each donated a pint of blood to a local blood bank – the ‘blood’ money being enough to purchase sufficient petrol for the drive back to Blighty.
It was during this period that John met Jean, the girl who would later become his wife – a partnership that has now lasted for 49 years. The couple have many fond memories of adventures travelling in the Hillman convertible, and on one particular occasion whilst in Cornwall, lack of funds meant they had to drive around on bald tyres and with faulty brakes – luckily, their trusty Hillman Minx convertible looked after them.
Back in the UK, John remembers reading a newspaper article during a tea break at work that described an American singer who had a large convertible with a specially fitted record player. John commented to his workmates that one day he was going to travel to America and buy a convertible. The response was predictable – “Harris, you’re a big dreamer.”
Two New Worlds
Despite the scepticism of his colleagues, in November 1964 John emigrated to Los Angles, California, and in January 1965 purchased his first American car – a 1962 Ford Galaxy convertible. And, yes you guessed it, the Ford was fitted with a record player exactly like the one he’d read about.
Of course, John couldn’t wait to send photos of the car and the newly installed record player to his old workmates in the UK, along with a note saying – “who’s dreaming now?” Jean joined John in California six months later and they were married shortly afterwards, during a brief return to the UK.
During their time in America John and Jean owned several cars, including a 1957 Ford Thunderbird, before buying a 1966 Austin-Healey Sprite straight out of the showroom in 1966. They also acquired two more Healeys – a 1964 Sprite and an earlier 1960 Frogeye. At that time in the US it was possible to buy virtually any ’50s car for around US$500. John and Jean went on to own a few other cars including a Plymouth, Fiat Bambina, Sunbeam Imp, Pontiac and a couple of different Fords until purchasing their pride and joy – a brand spanking new 1968 Chevy Impala with a 5.4-litre (327ci) V8 engine. This one John literally drove straight out of a Chevrolet showroom in 1968.
In November 1972, John and Jean decided to move to New Zealand and had the Chevy Impala shipped to our shores. Alas, it was subsequently sold in 1973 to help raise funds to buy a family home. The car was advertised in the NZ Herald by a dealership as the most beautiful car in New Zealand at the time.
John’s mode of transport had diminished slightly – he was now driving an old Morris 1100 and in 1984 he owned a 1972 Hillman Hunter. Over the following years John had his fair share of Japanese cars and felt he was slowly but surely going backwards. By 1996, he was close to retirement and knew he wanted to get back into a decent car again, not a modern one, as he reckons they’re dull and lifeless, but something more classic and stylish.
The thinking cap was now firmly in place and John considered many options, including another 1968 Chevrolet convertible, possibly a 1962 Ford Galaxy convertible or perhaps a 1960 Hillman Minx convertible.
Despite buying a 1963 Sunbeam Alpine and a 1968 Nash Metropolitan convertible (both of which he has since sold), it was a Hillman that would end up being his classic car of choice – the goal being to acquire a Series IIIA 1960 Hillman convertible, exactly like the car he’d owned back in 1963. However, that was much easier said than done.
He approached several used car yards only to be told he’d probably never find one, as they’d virtually all rusted away. Undeterred, John’s tenacity led him to search overseas, with many faxes and phone calls to Australia and the UK in search of a suitable vehicle. He even tried searching in California for a non-rusty Hillman but to no avail. John then decided to advertise locally in NZ Classic Car magazine for a Series IIIA 1960 Hillman Minx convertible and remembers seeing one drive through Howick at about the same time – although he wasn’t able to turn around at the time and follow the car home.
Not long afterwards, John received a phone call from a person in Henderson who knew someone who owned exactly what John was looking for – and it was located in Howick. John couldn’t believe his luck and very gratefully took down the owner’s contact details. He promptly phoned the owner of what turned out to be a 1960 Series IIIA Hillman Minx convertible and asked if he was interested in selling the car. Unfortunately the answer was no, but John asked if he could have a look at the Hillman and duly travelled to Howick to examine the car. He reiterated that he was very keen to buy the Minx, dollars were discussed and John left saying that he would keep in touch – just in case the owner changed his mind.
About three weeks later, he arranged to view the car again and was told the values they’d discussed during their previous meeting had been too low, the owner believing his Minx was worth significantly more. John responded by asking the owner to name his price – a price was duly named but the car still wasn’t up for sale. John told the owner he had until the end of the week to decide whether or not to sell the car, and added that he would pay another $1000 on top of the figure they’d discussed. True to his word, John arrived on the owner’s doorstep at the end of the week with the cash in hand. “Is the car mine,” asked John. The reply was in the affirmative.
This all happened back in 1996 and John’s wife, Jean, pointed out that he wasn’t due to retire just yet and he was jumping the gun a little by purchasing his long-awaited retirement project. John’s reply, and yes we all know this one – “But you’ve got to buy these cars when they come up for sale, otherwise you miss out!”
John’s new pride and joy was exactly the car he wanted, although the interior colour scheme wasn’t his taste as it clashed with the light blue exterior. It may have worked originally as the car was painted white, but John felt that the blue and brown, including the brown convertible top, didn’t quite look right.
However, colours aside, John and Jean used the car as it was for a few years to travel to their Coromandel holiday home whenever possible, despite John’s niggling ambition to eventually restore the car.
Restoring the Minx
Once retired, John and Jean decided to sell their holiday home in the Coromandel and their family home in Howick so they could move to Beachlands, a lovely quiet area close to the sea. John knew this would also provide them with sufficient funds left over to restore their Hillman Minx convertible, and commenced the project by handing the car over to a local car painter in 2004.
The Hillman required some rust removal and also needed new sills. Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan and John collected the car from the local workshop in a rather sorry state, despite having already paid for the repairs.
Once it was back in John’s home garage, he began stripping off all the chrome and exterior trim with the help of his brother to completely refurbish it back to its original state. The next step was to paint the car, and John’s son-in-law suggested he speak to his father who had a spray booth. To cut a long story short, John finally had the car painted for $350 plus paint, a perfect result and John was very pleased with the outcome and couldn’t wait to get the car home in order to refit all the stainless steel and chrome trim.
He then had a new set of carpets custom-made before the budget started to run out, and he still had the dilemma of the unloved brown upholstery to deal with. This time his brother-in-law came to the rescue and said his brother could supply him with a product that could be sprayed onto the upholstery in the colour John wanted. This was a perfect solution, and John wasted no time in preparing and painting the door panels and seats in dark blue to complement the exterior colour of the car. The convertible top proved a bit more challenging, as the only colours available to John were black or white, so a specially made blue soft-top was imported from the UK and a matching tonneau cover was made to match.
Mechanically, the Hillman is virtually untouched and John reckons it runs like clockwork – although he does admit there are one or two minor oil leaks, but they don’t justify the expense of repairing them just yet.
A year after starting the restoration, John finally had his 1960 Hillman Minx just the way he wanted it and he enjoys driving it almost every day, sharing memories and ’60s music with his wife just like they did back in 1963.
1960 Hillman Minx Convertible Series IIIA - Specifications
Engine In-line four-cylinder
Max power 40kW at 4400rpm
Max torque 98Nm at 2200rpm
Bore/ stroke 79×76.2mm
Fuel system Zenith carburettor
Transmission Four-speed manual
Steering Burman recirculating ball
Suspension Front: independent coil/ wishbone Rear: semi-elliptic leaf springs
Brakes Lockheed hydraulic drum
Overall length 4115mm
Kerb weight 1024kg
Max speed 130kph
0–100kph 23.8 seconds
[The Minx Series IIIA boasted revised styling (including the addition of fins) and a floor-mounted gear-change. The IIIA was the replacement for the Series III (1958–’59) and, in turn, it was replaced in 1960 by the IIIB. The next Minx, the Series IIIC with its larger 1.6-litre engine, would remain in production until 1963.]
Words: Ashley Webb Photos: Adam Croy
This article is from NZ Classic Car Issue 258. Get your copy here.