Phil Hill's fascinating motor car collection

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It is now fourteen years since Phil Hill won the World Drivers’ Championship at the wheel of a 1½-litre V6-cylinder Formula One Ferrari, the quiet Californian having long since slipped away into “retirement” in his home town of Santa Monica, a coastal suburb of Los Angeles. In fact “retirement” would really be the wrong word for Hill, a man in his forties, maintains a keen interest in matters motoring, indeed his bread and butter is now made from a partnership which restores and rebuilds historic road cars. Far from being a big business tycoon, Hill is right in there with his employees and partner, fettling away at the cars with great enthusiasm and gusto. “We allow ourselves an hour or so in the office to sort out the paper work, then it’s out into the workshop,” he smiles.

Good quality road cars have been a part of the Hill family life ever since he can remember and, in addition to his collection at the unpretentious workshop in the centre of Santa Monica, Phil maintains a mouth-watering selection of “ready to go” machinery in the family garage at his home. At the time of our visit to his business premises, work was in hand on several Packards and LincoIns, all dating from the 1930s, but Hill found time to wander round the garage with us pointing out his “prize” possessions, some of which are restored to running order and others which obviously have a great deal of work still to be done on them.

Possibly the most fascinating item at the workshop was a six-cylinder Pierce 48 dating from 1911. “Very much the Rolls of its day,” grins Hill with almost paternal concern. “George N. Pierce established himself in business as a builder of quality road cars and he was one of the first to build six-cylinder machines. By as early as 1910 all they built were sixes; all the four-cylinder machines were long gone by then.” One of the most fascinating aspects of this machine is that much of the body is made from cast aluminium, including the tool boxes on either running board. Apparently Pierce were loathe to abandon this method, even for surfaces which had to be painted, and the bonnet is nickel-plated with the area that was intended for painting etched over so that the paint would take. The result is beautiful paintwork and equally beautiful hinges along the centre of the bonnet which have been left unpainted.

Wandering through the workshops Hill turned to a Duesenberg coupé which had been refurbished for a customer, pointing out the extremely high standards demanded by both himself and his staff. By contrast he turned to another car, to untrained eyes equally as immaculate and well restored, and began to itemise precisely why and where it was deficient. He also pointed out that there’s a great tendency to “over-restore” old cars in the United States and he shudders when he sees an immaculate old car rebuilt to superb standards with the addition of such new refinements as flashing indicators. For Phil Hill and his men, originality is the underlying keynote for all their restorations.

Unfortunately Phil’s 4½-litre “Blower” Bentley was in pieces, its cylinder block receiving attention down at Dan Gurney’s premises in Santa Anna, so we were unable to sample that device on the open road. Passing by a beautiful, but unrestored pre-war Alfa Romeo sports/roadster and a 16-cylinder Cadillac under restoration, we found the surprising sight of an immaculately-restored 3-litre Offenhauser four-cylinder engine mounted on a plinth. This proved to he a specially fuel-injected version developed by Bosch about 15 years ago and used in the Ferrari Mondial driven in SCCA races by the late Walt Hansgen. But if we derived pleasure from wandering round Hill’s workshops, drooling over the machinery there, his private garage at home proved sheer delight. Swaying along in our anonymous great Avis “Mushmobile”, we followed Phil’s 6.3-litre Mercedes V8 on the four-mile drive along the coast to the home he’s known since 1929. It was difficult to know quite where to begin. In a huge garage at the end of a small garden, surrounded by dozens of trophies which mirror his distinguished racing career, there were no fewer than seven cars, five of them in running order. Personally I found the imposing 1931 Pierce Arrow Le Baron bodied “sedanca de ville” the most fascinating car in the collection, this fascination heightened by Phil’s assurance that it had been in the family ever since 1931. “I can remember the day it was delivered to my aunt 44 years ago,” he smiled, admitting that he was very young then but already had developed a passion for cars.

Brought up in that sort of environment, it was easy for Phil’s great enthusiasm to be fired. Unfortunately the Pierce Arrow had a flat battery on the day of our visit, but we were able to sample the luxury of his magnificent chocolate brown 8-litre Packard V12. “I bought that in 1968,” he continued, “it was quite shabby then, but all there.” It’s in no way shabby now, having undergone the full “Hill treatment” over the past few years. As lunch time was fast approaching, Phil decided that we would go to eat in that Packard, a ride long enough to convince ourselves that this American quality car of the 1930s was every bit as refined, quiet, well built and trimmed as any British car of that era. Sitting behind that gigantic bonnet with its distinctive Cormorant motif on the front (introduced in 1932 on the twin-six so Phil told us enthusiastically), the refined interior trim with its rich leather upholstery, polished woodwork and deep pile carpets sent our minds back to an era where life moved at a rather more relaxed pace. The 8-litre engine, with a mere 43,000 miles under its belt in 37 years, endowed this two-ton machine with a quite respectable performance and still returns between nine and ten miles per gallon.

Packards certainly seem to dominate Phil’s collection and it was with a great deal of regret that we were unable to sample his early, open-sided, four-seater 1912 roadster which was so high that it only just managed to clear the garage roof. Although Phil backed it out of the garage, he was unable to free a sticking valve, so we were forced to abandon our proposed drive in the high-seated luxury of its buttoned leather and polished brasswork. It seems a great distance to go to spend one’s time clambering over old British cars, but we had to push the tiny Austin Seven out into the road to get at his smart silver MG TC roadster. The little Austin belongs to Phil’s wife while the TC has the added attraction of a Shorrock supercharger to brighten its performance. Something of a classic in American motoring circles, the MG TC did a great deal to “blow away the cobwebs” of the post-War years at a time when sporting motoring was still trying to regain its feet and American manufacturers were going through a depressingly dull period as far as design and engineering were concerned.

The great aspect of Phil Hill’s personal collection is that every car is maintained ready to be driven at any moment, the owner driving as many of them as he can as often as he can. It didn’t take a few moments for that little MG to burst into life and Phil immediately vacated the driving seat and despatched me off on a tour of the local residential area behind the wheel. Ever since I first read MOTOR SPORT in the late 1950s, the MG TC was the one car I’d always wanted to have. Even when I was offered one, at the age of 18, for the modest price of £200, I never even took the opportunity to drive it, let alone buy it. It really did seem to be the ultimate irony to come over 5,000 miles from England to finally get a chance of driving one!

Showing commendable faith, Hill left me with a cheery “rev it well, up to 5,500 r.p.m.” and I’m glad to record that it in no way disappointed me. Having installed my bulky frame behind the steering wheel, the tiny pedals and knotchy gearbox were all well laid out and proved simple to manipulate. The whole personality of the car exuded practicality—even in 1975—and its vintage feel and hard ride in no way diminishes the attraction of the TC. The Shorrock supercharger endows it with an extra touch of lively performance and it was with some reluctance that I finally brought the crisp little two-seater back into the Hill family garage.

“I hoped you revved it well . .” beamed Phil.” “Oh yes” I lied, shuddering at the thought of my own reaction if it had been my own car and I who was loaning it out.

We left Phil Hill busily discussing the possibility of renting some extra garage space for yet another car in his fast-growing personal collection. He admits that his whole life is bound up with doing exactly what he wants to do; restoring the cars he hardly had time to glance at throughout his racing career.

“I used to go mad with compulsive enthusiasm when I was racing—I could never imagine just how I would be able to complete all the work in the time available. Now it’s my life from day to day, doing exactly what I want to do.”—A.H.

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