When a visitor can find a 1964 Triumph motorcycle by moving aside some cardboard boxes and removing a pile of newspapers and a blanket, you know you have an interesting garage.
Bernie Smith’s garage, on the ground floor of a house he built 34 years ago in Purcells Cove, could probably hold four or five cars if it was empty.
It is far from empty.
Besides the Triumph, there are 40 Jaguar starter motors (“You never know when someone might need one,” Smith says), most of the parts of a Model T Ford, half a dozen walnut or mahogany steering wheels hanging on nails, a box labelled MGB Engine Parts and perhaps as many as three quarters of a million other objects.
In the middle of the garage
is the star of the show, a 1954 Jaguar XK120M that Smith has been working on for quite a while — 43 years, by his estimation.
“It’s a modified 120 for sports car racing,” said Smith.
“If I fooled around back of the garage, I could add a C after the M, C for competition carburetors, because it doesn’t have those. But I thought I’d get it running properly and sorted out before I started putting racing equipment onit, other than the exhaust system, which does sound very nice, doesn’t it?”
Unlike, say, a silver Civic, the driver of a ’54 Jag in Halifax doesn’t have to worry about seeing a bunch of identical cars when tooling around town. Smith’s XK120M hasn’t been on the road since he bought it in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in the mid-’60s.
“I think it was ’64 because my
son was born in 1964 and he was in diapers when I bought this,” he said. “In 1964, I paid 1,200 bucks for it.”
Smith estimates the car would fetch $100,000 if he were to put it up for sale. At that price, he joked, he’d break even if he valued his labour at 15 cents an hour.
Smith’s varied career has included stints as a meat cutter and a deputy minister. He came to Nova Scotia in 1968 to lend his accounting savvy to a provincial government in fiscal crisis, and stayed on.
He puts his political skills to work when asked questions like how much money he’s put into the car, or how old he is, though he does say he’s been working for 70 years.
Like the Cadillac in the Johnny Cash song, Smith has built his Jaguar one piece at a time.
“It was in rough shape, didn’t have a dashboard. Just a festoon of wires, no floors in it, it was a shell,” he said.
“I found the dashboard in a swamp, in the States somewhere. I went there, trying to buy bits off a guy and he said, ‘I
pitched a whole bunch of that into the swamp out there,’ so I went out and got ’em. The piece of metal that goes across here, I had to bring in from Arizona or some place.
“The steering wheel’s not original, technically, but it’s a competition wheel for the right model.”
Except for the paint job, Smith did all the work on the car himself, including the installation of a 190-horsepower 3.4-litre engine.
“Mechanically, it’s so advanced for its time,” he said. “Basically, no one had mass produced, inexpensively, an engine of that complexity before. That’s a complex engine but it’s reliable.”
A new red leather driver’s seat has been installed, and the remaining upholstery work is the only thing between the Jag and safety inspection.
Smith has driven the car up and down his long driveway, and he plans to make its public debut at the British Car Show in Windsor next summer, after a canvas top has been fabricated.
Smith has worked pretty much full time on the ’54 and another Jaguar in his garage for the last five months, as he is currently in between jobs.
Estimating that he has owned in the neighbourhood of a hundred cars, including “a lot of MGs along the way,” Smith reckons this Jaguar is the best one.
“Yes, I think it probably is. Though I had a three-litre Bentley at the very beginning, and I didn’t know how lucky I was,” he said.
“Should’ve kept it.”