Car Restoration Projects

The tale of a cat

 

A rare cat indeed is this Puma GTE sports car that came to our shores in 1973 and was then the only example to prowl the Australian countryside for a couple of decades.

 

 

In mid-1980s, Historic Vehicles’ Jim Gibson was searching for a sports car restoration project.

” I wanted an out-of-the-ordinary classic; something that was unique; a special vehicle that would capture the imagination of collector-car devotees,” Jim explained.

There was, an advertisement on page 61 of the October 1985 edition of a car magazine. It was succinctly written: ’Puma GT (1973) sports car’, followed by an Adelaide phone number and a black and white photograph. 

“I got busy researching the 1973 Puma and discovered it was Volkswagen-based, with an attractive GRP body that was factory-assembled in Brazil. 

 

 

“I and my family had been involved in Formula Vee racing and therefore had repeatedly fettled Ferdinand Porsche’s brilliant, air-cooled flat-four, along with associated VW running gear.” 

So with that knowledge behind him, as well as the fact he wouldn’t need the services of a panel beater, or have to remove rust from the fibreglass body, he dialled the number and was on the following day’s flight from Sydney to Adelaide.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes: the Puma’s classic Italian-style sculptured body was reminiscent of a 275 GTB Ferrari; however, it cast a much smaller shadow, being only 44-inches (110mm) from tarmac to rooftop. 

 

 

“I did the deal and after fuelling up, checking the lights and tyre pressures (there wasn’t a spare) and engine oil, I set out on the 1400km journey (or should I say adventure into the unknown) back to Sydney, in a strange car whose history I knew little about. 

“By the time I reached Balranald the daylight was starting to fade and the shadows were lengthening.”

(This town marks the start of the Hay Plains – an infamous 300km east-west ribbon of mostly straight bitumen.)

“Once darkness descended. I found that high beam left me no better off than Diogenes, with a candle, looking for an honest man.” 

 

The Puma and a semi combination 

 

The headlights of interstate trucks speared over the top of the Puma as they approached from behind, before they rumbled by, with Jim eyeballing their wheel nuts. 

“I  worried that one of these juggernauts would cast a stone into the priceless windscreen – a one-off with a Puma’s head etched in the corner. 

“Having made it through the night unscathed, daylight greeted me in Narrandera, at the end of the Plains – time for breakfast and a coffee, then an easy daylight run north-east to Sydney. 

“With this beautiful little car safely tucked away in my garage and the teardown underway, I set out to reveal just what I’d bought: what was its bloodline and how did it get to Adelaide?

“Research proved time consuming, but fun.

“The company founder, Rino Malzoni, was an Italian who’d emigrated to Brazil with his family when he was an eight-year-old and settled in Sao Paulo, where he later became a successful lawyer. 

“However,  he always had a burning ambition to construct his own sports car. “

Looking at this car reveals that Malzoni’s Italian heritage had inspired much of its design. In traditional Italian manner, the female mould for the body was hand-beaten steel.   

 

The arrow points to the 250mm cut and shut weld in the floor pan

 

The rolling chassis (floor-pans) came from the VW factory in Sao Paulo and were then shortened by 250mm.

“This cut-and-shut concerned me a little, as the New South Wales Department of Motor Transport (now RMS) may not have accepted the welded chassis for registration approval. 

“Although it had been registered in South Australia, that was no guarantee in this country, where each state has its own regulations.

“However, when it came time for registration, the Puma passed with flying colours.” 

It weighed in at 750kg, with a 40/60 weight distribution, biased to the rear.   

 

 

Just how did it get to Adelaide in 1973? An Adelaide-based classic car sales company (Chateau Moteur) imported this very car. The company’s intention was to import them in either Completely Built Up (CBU) or in semi-knock-down form (SKD) and market them in Australia. 

However, with the onslaught of new Australian Design Rules (ADRs) and the frustration of commercial dealings with Brazil in the 1970s – lost letters, pilfered stamps, the language barrier, etc – it all became too hard. 

 

“My factory-built, right-hand-drive car (Chassis No. 1432318 / Production No.1447) was the only one imported.

“It passed through several owners in the 12-year period before it came into my tenure.”

 

 

 

Getting started    

   

“In my workshop I carried out a diagnosis of the patient.

“Externally, it needed some fibreglass patchwork, some badges and a paint job. 

 

 

“The original engine, with its twin Solex carburettors, had long departed from the stern and had been replaced by a standard 1600cc engine.

“Internally, there was need for new upholstery  – South American interior decorating not being my or my wife Gill’s favourite decor.

“I couldn’t believe just how well the doors fitted and closed, with no vertical movement whatsoever in the hinges: a place prone to problems in a five-year-old GRP car, let alone a 12-year-old. 

 

Brazilian flag by the nearside shark-gill air intake

 

“I remembered reading, somewhere in the mountain of facts and figures I’d gathered about Puma Cars, that two thicknesses of GRP were used: a thinner gauge for the Brazilian domestic market and thicker laminate for export.

“In its heyday, Puma exported these pretty little cars to some 30 countries.

“The design and build quality behind this small Brazilian sports car was quite outstanding.

“The more of its finery I removed, the closer I felt to the soul of its maker.”

   

Parts round up

 

Disappointingly, the centre of the steering wheel was missing, but guess what Jim found under carpet? Although only a Puma-head-embossed horn button, it was a treasure.

 

 

“The greatest ‘fun’ was the challenge of locating other missing parts; a search that spanned two continents, from South Africa (Pumas were built in Pretoria under licence by then), to South America.

“No, in fact it was three, as the uncanniest find of all was in Sydney. 

“The Puma was missing one chrome headlight surround and this, at first, appeared to be a simple chromed section of sheet metal, something one might find on a 10- to 20-year-old vehicle in a wrecking yard, but it wasn’t that simple.

“And to make me more determined to find one, Gill said: ‘You’ll never find one.’

“After fruitlessly visiting countless wrecking yards, I thought one of my ‘sheety’ mates would get the job, but as I was passing by a Jeep and Rambler wrecker in Sydney’s Taren Point, I thought I’d give the headlight-surround quest one last try.

“I expected the usual shake of the head after he’d shown old mate the sample, but this time the bloke said: ‘Yes, I think I may have one’.” 

He rummaged through the back of an old Kombi van that he’d bought the week before and there it was, a perfect match for the piece Jim had in his hand. He said he’d never seen one before and hadn’t a clue as to its origin.

“I  reckon it was fate, but I can’t tell you Gill’s reaction!”

 

Chromed Puma metal badge Jim had made locally

 

Ready to roll

“Some five years into the project, I’d replaced the engine with a 1916cc firecracker that lifted the valves via a ground cam and twin Kedron/Solex carbies and extractors made it look and sound the part. 

 

 

“The body was painted in Porsche Guards Red and the interior had been refurbished.

“The magnesium wheels were refurbished in silver and shod with Yokohama 195-60s at the front, with 225-50s bringing up the rear.

“It drove and handled like the real sports car it was and, at 174cm tall, I found sitting in the driving position quite comfortable, albeit with awkward ingress and egress.” 

Jim and Gill spent an enjoyable few years driving her and attending various displays – even winning trophies. The interest from the general public and car enthusiasts alike was gratifying.

 

Disaster strikes

“In 1994 I was stretching the Puma’s legs along the winding road through Sydney’s Royal National Park, early one Sunday morning.

“Suddenly, as I entered a left-hand bend there wasn’t any response to my input at the steering wheel. – the wheel turned, but the title Puma just kept tracking straight ahead. 

 

Stripped ready for rubbing back and new paintwork

 

(Post-mortem examination revealed that the splines between the steering box sector shaft and the pitman arm had stripped, hence the road wheels couldn’t respond to the steering wheel’s input.) 

“There was an earth bank on the right-hand side of the road and in my mind’s-eye I could see what was going to happen after I’d mounded the bank, because I was going too fast to stop before it. 

“Sure enough, the climb up the bank rolled the car, which slid down the bitumen on its roof, while I hung upside down in the seatbelt for a short time and then it flipped back onto its wheels.

“You guessed it: another rebuild, but this time it would have to be a complete body-off exercise.”  

The most valued component, the windscreen, had broken, but fortunately, Jim was able to buy a replacement from Puma Cars in South Africa.

Unfortunately, it came without the distinctive Puma head embossed into the glass, but wait; there’s more:  it had been broken in transit!

“I had them send another, but this time I specified that it be packed more securely for its intercontinental journey.

 

Puma head centres in the 14×6 inch mag wheels

 

“Another exclusive item that had been damaged in the accident was one of the high-magnesium-content wheels.

“I was lucky enough to find a company that took on its restoration, with some trepidation, as it had to be straightened as well as needing a grafted section of the outside of the rim.

“As fortune had it, the artisan who fettled it, was just that, an artisan: there was no detectable blemish and, upon X-ray, the patient was as good as new.” 

 

 

Before the rebuild, Jim wanted the Puma to be at least a different colour, leading him to believe subconsciously that this was another car. It was repainted GM Chrome Yellow.

“When Gill and I changed our lifestyle some years later, moving from Sydney’s rat-race to acreage in the country, the dirt roads were not sympathetic to a pristine, low-slung sports car. 

“So, after 15 years of pleasure and pain, the 1973 Puma GTE went to a new home and these days she’s soaking up the sunshine in tropical North Queensland.” 

 

                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LATEST POSTS

ADVERTISEMENTS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stay informed and receive our updates

From Jim Gibson & Allan Whiting directly to your inbox

You have Successfully Subscribed!