Buchanan Holden Restoration
by Rees Mckay
Before and After
The Buchanan body came about when Nat Buchanan, abandoning a sports car construction project after building two prototypes, took a mould off Tom Sulman’s Aston Martin DB3S while it was being repaired after a crash racing at Mt Druitt in late 1956.
After some minor changes, bodies were made and sold as replacement bodies to modernise/ lighten/update MGs. As well as MG Ys, TCs, TDs, TFs, bodies were also fitted to MGAs, Triumphs, Austin Healeys, and others such as Austin A40s.
Special chassis were also made to suit the bodies, including a number of significant racing cars. The active racing life of some of these extended into the 70’s. Over 80 bodies were built in 1957 and construction was later taken over by J&S Fibreglass, and about 150 were built in all over a number of years.
This example uses a Rizzo chassis, one of perhaps 6 – 8 built by Arthur Rizzo (famous for his Riley Specials), which were curved ladder frames of 3” diameter tube with either MG or Holden front cross member. General opinion is that all Rizzo chassis were commissioned for racing, but no evidence has been found to date as yet.
This chassis incorporates Holden front cross member, suspension and steering, rear axle, and engine, mainly FJ but some FE. The body is Number 10, placing it sometime in 1957, but it could be that the builder took some time to finish the car itself. (Sports Car World March 1958 quotes Buchanan ‘next month we will be delivering our 100th body’.
History of the car
The car was built in the Brisbane suburb of Paddington, and was painted red (twice). At some time in the 60’s it was fitted with a fastback GT roof to comply with the GT Rules for racing in Queensland. The sweep of the front mudguards were also closed in. In the late 70’s it was bought by an apprentice electrician Shane Grinkley who rewired it using only domestic red and black wire, plastic connecters and lots of tape, painted it yellow, and registered it for the road.
He later removed the centre of the roof to make it ‘Targa Top’. It was later owned by a marine engineer who did some work on the car but went to sea and is now unknown. It was then went toy Ian Peters who returned the car to original shape by removing the fastback roof and mudguard panels. He then took up other projects and did not pursue any history of the car.
Peter Yorke of Canberra, bought the car in 2002 with thoughts of emphasising its Aston Martin links but gathered many Aston parts and decided to build an entirely Aston Martin DB3S reproduction, using the Buchanan as a guide and template. This entailed cutting up the body and temporarily moving some of the chassis parts.
When the Aston project was finished he sold the car to Rees Mackay who collected it around Christmas 2013.
Checking for trueness
The first job was to check the chassis for trueness and reinstall the steering box and column. This was a new experience as it is the first car with independent front suspension I have rebuilt, and the various linkages and idler arms needed a bit of thought.
The steering box had been dismounted and I couldn’t work out how it had been previously fitted, bearing in mind that I thought all the steering rod joints should be in line and idler and steering arms should be parallel to avoid bump steer, so took the opportunity to start afresh to get the steering wheel in a good position for me and get the steering right. Numerous rivet holes were welded up and various brackets attached. While welding up the holes I was concerned that I blew a hole in the tube, but was reassured that I was not alone when I found a blowhole on an original steering bracket that had not been made good.
Suitable wheels were required to replace the roller skate wheels and tyres fitted. Fortunately Volvo wheels have the same stud pattern and being 15” fill the mudguards nicely as the Aston Martin used 16” wheels, and do not protrude outside the guards.
There was no evidence to show where or how the pedals were attached to the chassis, and it seemed that they might have been just slung off the flexible fibreglass which was a bit frightening. This perhaps was a blessing as it meant that the pedals could be adjusted and mounted in a convenient location for a 1.9m driver.
Seats, mountings and runners also had to be made to ensure a reasonable driving position was established and others could also drive.
front half of the body
The front half of the body was tackled first, repairing the splits, reconstructing the top of the scuttle, repairing the door posts, and redoing all the old repairs, then re-attaching the inner guards and remnants of the firewall. It was interesting to discover that there had been an early crash repair – the off side headlight and its surround was a new piece grafted in, whereas other repairs were quite rough, although it must be acknowledged that fibreglass repairs in situ would have been difficult.
A new bonnet also had to be made, using the remnants of the old bonnet to make a buck, then a mould, and finally the new item, together with a new hinge. It was convenient that the body was in two parts as it had to be continually turned over and round to make the repairs bit by bit, and half a body was quite manageable.
The body was then propped in position and mounts adjusted to suit. Locating the body was difficult as there was no consistency of dimensions anywhere – from body to body or even from side to side, and it was finished by eye. The firewall was then finished, including steel inserts to properly support the altered pedal boxes.
The rear half
The rear half of the body was then set upon – this was a sad case as the deck from the cockpit back and around the boot had been removed as a part of the GT roof work, and the mudguards had flares upon flares and masses of bog (up to 20mm thick), but surprisingly the original panels were still there and almost complete. Fortunately a new deck panel from the original mould was obtained as making a new one did not appeal.
The initial plan was to assemble the rear body on a pivoting frame to make it easier to work on, but it was again impossible to work out how it should go together due to the same problems of inconsistent dimensions and flexible panels.
The frame was then cut to fit over the chassis and temporarily fixed, then the panels and inner guards, including the doors, propped and clamped so it looked right, then the panels were stitched together with temporary strips of metal.
With the rear body tacked in place the door hinges were installed and doors swung to check that acceptable door gaps could be achieved.
With the rear body tacked in place the door hinges were installed and doors swung to check that acceptable door gaps could be achieved.
With the front half of the body in place, the next stage was swinging the doors. Repairing the doors and hinge mountings and fitting them together took weeks as in true Buchanan fashion, nothing was the same, square, true, parallel, or straight, but good enough door fit was achieved to proceed with the back half of the body. This perhaps maligns Buchanan as it must be noted that the Aston Martin had been raced for some years and probably knocked around before its big accident, and the body was off and twisted when the mould was taken, and then the fibreglass car was knocked around, altered, and cut up before I started.
The motoring press in 1957 noted how clever Buchanan was to lay vinyl in the mould to impart a texture on the inner faces of the doors. This of course made it extremely difficult to clean and repair them, and meant hours of picking, scrubbing, scratching and low pressure sand blasting. It could have just been sanded smooth, but I thought it best to keep as close as possible to the original car concept, even if it was a little crude.
Returning to the rear half, and reassured that it was the right shape and in the right position, fibreglass patches were placed between the temporary metal stitches and a new bulkhead made to hold the body together behind the seats and provide fixing points to the chassis. The metal stitches were then removed and patches made continuous, and the body was then removed and turned over to complete the repairs on the underside. As the GT roof work had changed the tail lights the mouldings to support these had to be recreated and fibreglassed in, as were threaded inserts for the boot hinges (which will also have to be made). The bulk of the filling/sanding of the underside of the tail was done with rear half up in the air to avoid having to do it from underneath when it was in its correct position, and then the rear half was placed back on the chassis and fixed in position, with doors swinging to check the position and gaps. The panels below the doors were then rejoined and made good, and door sills remade as these had been mostly removed in the past, and so the body was now structurally complete and in one piece.
With the doors swinging the door locks were fitted. This worked out easier than anticipated, the latches were refixed to the doors, with the strikers, fortunately reusable, fitted into them, and, with the doors in the correct position, a mounting plate made to suit the striker which was then fixed in place.
With the body structurally finished, bogged and undercoated, it looked good and I could feel very smug about progress made, but it also meant there was a lot of work to do which wasn’t very obvious. After the paint had dried the most obvious faults were puttied and the rest spray puttied, and left to settle.
Due to the intention of some track work a roll bar had to be refitted. This meant some heart in mouth moments when drilling holes in the newly repaired body, but was successfully completed after lots of string lines and battens to get the holes in the right position. Brackets for seat belts also had to be made and fitted, and then the tunnel refitted, and floor panels made.
A gearbox cover was made by erecting formwork of cardboard and sticky tape and laying fibreglass in situ. When cured, the fibreglass was lifted off and the formwork removed. After tidying up the gearbox cover was neat and fitted well. It includes a removable panel to allow easy access to the clutch slave cylinder.
The windscreen also had to be refitted. This should have been done before covering up the locations of the mounting holes. The original windscreen, though complete in its frame, is Perspex and unusable, so a low aeroscreen was planned to allow it to be made from Perspex and avoid the need for windscreen wipers. The aeroscreen is perhaps higher than desirable, but it was decided not to cut down the windscreen posts, to allow a proper windscreen to be refitted in future if the source of the glass original is ever found. (Presumably Buchanan sourced the original windscreen from a car common at the time, but what??) A plywood template was made, then Perspex cut to suit and heated and bent over the template. The Perspex needed trimming and easing to fit well, and fixing brackets made.
Lots of 5 minute jobs
There were lots of 5-minute jobs which each take a day or more. For example - whilst cleaning the headlight bowls one of the threaded nylon inserts split – this meant making a new one out of brass, and of course, it had an unusual thread. Others included bonnet and boot catches, towing eyes, fitting of lights, battery support, making/allowing for brackets for various fittings, and instrument panel. The speedo took some work as it contained several mud wasp nests.
After the paint and putty had settled for some weeks rubbing down could be commenced, and this was done in stages to avoid tedium setting in. Of course, more imperfections were found, and these were left until later, or possibly forever.
Preparing the engine
The engine had to be prepared – I had a reconditioned short motor, but work was needed. Firstly the oil pipe between pump and gallery was removed and remade so that a remote oil filter could be fitted, then the sump extended and baffled. A flywheel was machined to lighten it. Brackets were made to fit the generator, and minor adjustments and improvements made to the cooling system.
with The end in sight
As the end was in sight, the brakes were inspected for the first time. Naturally, the cylinders were seized, but came apart without great difficulty. Being Holden, new cylinders were available and cheaper than sleeving etc; and new pipe and hoses were obtained.
A frame on dolly wheels was then made up so that the body could be removed and placed upon it and taken to a painter as my painting skills are not up to the task of spraying consistent coats over large continuous curving surfaces.
Colours also had to be found
Colour names are useless and manufacturer’s code numbers are necessary so that, in addition to advising the painter, spray cans could be obtained to paint the various bolts and brackets during final assembly. Scanning the internet provided a starting point and codes to check current availability, and then touch up cans (the cheapest way to get samples) were mixed to test.
With the body off, work on the chassis could be easily completed, including injecting anti rust in the chassis tubes; and the rebuilt engine installed.
Chassis ready for the body
Body ready for the chassis
With all work possible finished on the chassis the family was drafted to help lift and guide the body onto the chassis. This was easily accomplished as the body is not heavy, just a little awkward to lift properly and place. It was then bolted in place with minimal difficulty, and the steering column inserted through the radiator intake and fixed. With easy access, the rollover bar was also fitted.
The rear lights, boot lid and catch were also fitted as access was easy from underneath without floor or petrol tank.
Installation of all the various bits then proceeded, working from the rear. This was very satisfying as it was finally beginning to look like a car.
As to be expected, there were problems.
While the bare chassis had been on the ground to move it to put the engine in, the ground clearance was found to be less than anticipated, leading to the large single exhaust pipe being changed to two smaller pipes to get an extra 15mm clearance, and an offset muffler having to be made to maximise ground clearance.
Fitting the new tyres and correct wheels showed that this was insufficient, more measurements were made and the blocks between the rear springs and axle changed to increase clearance. Currently they are temporary as I am sure they will need adjusting after road test.
The most tedious job was wiring, and the worst of it feeding wires through heatshrink sleeves or binding. This was done in sections as I did not have sufficient colours; for example generator wiring and ignition wiring were kept separate to help any future troubleshooting. Prolonged problems with the fuel pump were eventually traced to the ignition switch, which would not carry a heavy load although it was fine on testing before installation. The first attempt to dismantle and reassemble the ignition switch took the best part of a day, the last less than an hour.
After finishing the bulk of the wiring, the fuel line was installed, first connecting each carburettor individually to check float level.
With a new battery, first attempts at starting were problematic, but after adjusting the timing, it started immediately. There were minor oil, petrol and water leaks, all fixed; and concerns about low oil pressure put to rest after advice from experts was that the grey motor has a low pressure, high volume pump. After working for a while the voltage regulator failed leading to further delays.
The hydraulics were charged and bled again and again and linkages adjusted until everything seemed to work, although no doubt it will all need doing again after settling in.
The seats were then trimmed and fitted.
All was ready, but disaster – on getting the car off the stands things got caught up breaking some of the fibreglass underneath the body at the front. Nevertheless a drive was essential. It started, drove, changed gear, steered and stopped, but the exhaust scraped on the ground at the least excuse, although it cleared the nearby speedbump.
A revised system taking the exhaust outside rather than underneath the chassis, discharging in front of the back wheel was required, but at least I learnt that my muffler construction method was effective. Making the new exhaust system was tedious, as it involved lots of cutting bit by bit and fitting several curved pieces of piping. Each piece had to be fitted and marked in situ, the assembly removed from the car, tack welded, refitted to confirm it was correct, removed again for final welding, then refitted to the car to proceed to the next piece.
Then to finish – various adjustments and repair the damaged fibreglass, fit the windscreen, mirrors, seatbelts, indicators, a more appropriate steering wheel, and make and fit a tonneau cover.
It’s only taken three years, and there were still a few things to do, plus shakedown tests................
The first short run went well, but the radiator fizzed, on a slightly longer run it boiled, confirming my fears that the radiator was too small. I had used it only because it came with the car – obviously it had been swapped for the correct one while the car was in pieces. After finding what was available for holdens and making templates one was found to suit and purchased. This of course meant new radiator and fan support brackets, hose arrangements, and re-organising the catch tank and horn location. Initial tests proved satisfactory.
Now for longer tests and the inevitable adjustments, but is it ever really finished?