Car Restoration Projects
An American-Aussie classic Graham
Like many pre-War cars, Paul Ashby’s 1937 Graham Crusader 85 came to Australia without a body. It was a rolling chassis with engine and necessary running gear, but without a body, seats, glassware and lights.
The Australian government had tariff restrictions in place on imported motor vehicles during the time Paul’s car came to our country, in order to protect our motor body building industry. Its body was built in Adelaide by Holden’s Motor Body Builders, along with bodywork for another 233 of this model Graham, during 1937.
The late Paul Ashby came to Ulladulla with his family when he was just a one-year-old and he used to say, with a smirk: “They reckon I’m almost a local”.
His father was a motor mechanic and Paul said he acquired his love of cars from him.
However, Paul learned his stock-in-trade as a ship’s joiner, which is a skilful craft, working with wood on all types of boats and ships. According to Paul there aren’t any square angles, just all manner of compound angles in a ship. Today, shaping and joining meccano-like timber construction is almost a lost art.
In ‘retirement’, Paul loved restoring old cars and trucks, where, of course, the majority of older vehicles have wooden frames, so he was in his element. Paul was also one of those talented artisan, who can quite easily turn their hands to working with metal and all things mechanical.
He was a founding member of the local car club, which was formed some 30 years ago. His first restoration project was a Ford Model T.
“Dad always praised Henry Ford’s Model Ts,” Paul Ashby recalled. “So when I decided to embark on a restoration, I was lucky enough to find a basket-case Model T truck nearby.
“It took me nine-months, working full-time in the back garage of my house to complete the full restoration.
“It was the first vehicle to be bought and restored by a member of our club during its first year.”
With the Model T completed, Paul now had the bug and wanted another project.
“As luck would have it, I was wandering around the Bargo Swap Meet, up in the Southern Highlands, perusing all things old and automotive, when I saw the Graham,” said Paul.
“I didn’t know much about the Graham brand, but it was unusual – different if you like – and somewhat out of the ordinary.
“I thought that this rare car make an interesting restoration challenge.”
So, a deal was done and the challenge of restoring this dilapidated piece of Aussie-American motoring history, became a reality. But firstly, a little history.
During the early 1900s, brothers Joseph, Robert and Ray Graham established a factory in Evansville, Indiana, to build truck bodies for mounting onto passenger-car chassis.
By 1920, an expanded line of Graham Brothers trucks and buses were being manufactured, using Continental and Dodge engines. It wasn’t until 1930 that they started building cars with the Graham Brother’s name.
The Great Depression hit Grahams hard, as it did with the US automotive industry as a whole and a majority of smaller manufacturers either merged in an attempt to stay afloat or just sank.
The Grahams tried all manner of smart marketing, creating less expensive models, but to no avail. The company managed to exist on orders for war material until 1945, but by 1947 the automotive business was sold to Kaiser-Frazer Corporation.
Makin’ old new again
Paul’s Graham arrived at his home, on the back of a car trailer in the early 1990s and the three-year project quickly got underway.
“White ants had destroyed the wooden frame and I stripped everything out of it in order to assess the situation,” Paul said.
“There was no doubt that the car needed a complete rebuild.”
Paul was determined to rebuild the old girl back to its original specification. During the teardown he found a section of bodywork with the original colour and had Stone Bros in Nowra match the original pearlescent brown paint.
The painstaking task of rebuilding the wooden framing was obviously in Paul’s court, using his skill in crafting and joining new timber.
The bumper bars were re-chromed and Paul rebuilt the stainless-steel grille. All the laminated glassware had to be replaced.
He was lucky enough to retrieve some seat leather, to colour match and also for the trimmer to use as a pattern. The trimmer also fitted a velour hood lining, replacing the original vinyl.
“The Australian Grahams were more up-market than the US models,” Paul said. “They only had vinyl seats and hood linings, with basic paint colours.
“I had the interior door handles, dashboard control knobs and the steering wheel pearl coated, because that finish quality was also standard in Australia, but not in the USA.”
Next came attention to the mechanical components. The engine make is a Continental, which was a common powerplant for many US automotive, agriculture and stationary engine companies during the first half of last century.
It was completely rebuilt, including replacement pistons.
“As it happened, a fellow club member, Kevin Gibson, had a set of Chrysler pistons, which had the right dimensions, other than being slightly larger in diameter.
“I knew that we had to clean the cylinder bores up anyway, so why not take a bit more metal out and give the engine a few more cubes?” said Paul.
“The three-speed transmission, springs and steering components were also completely overhauled.
“As for the brakes, I knew a fellow who was restoring a Graham and he brought me a box marked ’1937 Graham’ that contained brake linings and rivets – it’s not what you know, but whom you know!”
On the road
Paul had the Graham finished in 1996 and its first trip was to Tasmania.
“I drove it out of the shed and we headed south immediately, to catch the boat for Tassie, along with a contingent of club members and their cars,” Paul remembered.
“I took a tension wrench and re-tensioned the aluminium head in Tassie.”
At Historic Vehicles, we reckon you have to have a great deal of foresight, skill and faith in your own ability as well as determination, to take on a task such as this. To top it off, you need the confidence to put the key in the ignition, fire it up – without any local shakedown – and head for Melbourne (around 800km by road) to catch the ferry across Bass Strait.
Paul noted approximately 69,000 miles showing on the odometer when he bought the Graham. He had it zeroed during the resto and when we examined the car it showed around 22,000 miles.
Apart from the Tasmanian trip, it’s travelled to South Australia twice and once to Phillip Island in Victoria for car rallies.
There is an active Graham car club in Australia that holds a rally every two years in different parts of the country. New Zealand members usually attend as do some members of the American club who take the trip across the Pacific.
But wait there’s more. Paul meticulously restored a Model A Ford roadster and an historic hearse, and helped club members with many of their projects.
To the last, Paul Ashby believed in: “Keeping the dream alive”.