Perfect Prefect not fast but it lasts

By Jacqui Madelin

Leather seats, flappy indicators, the boxy, British Ford Prefects of the early 50s were as common on the roads then as Toyotas are now. In the 60s they were cheap first cars for teenage drivers. Photo / Jacqui Madelin
Leather seats, flappy indicators, the boxy, British Ford Prefects of the early 50s were as common on the roads then as Toyotas are now. In the 60s they were cheap first cars for teenage drivers. Photo / Jacqui Madelin

A lot of baby boomers learned to drive in one of these little old British charmers, says Jacqui Madelin By Jacqui Madelin

Bud Semadeni has known this 1950 Ford Prefect since 1956 when his newly divorced mum bought it for £350, with 38,000 miles on the clock; it now registers 136,000 (218,870km).

Bud promised to look after it, and when she eventually decided to sell it he suggested they keep it, in case it gained value. "I was joking!" he says with a chuckle.

Too late. The rot set in around 1985, when it needed a new muffler and Bud called the then-new Ford 8 and 10 club to find parts. Since then he's been president and VP. His wife, Thelma, wasn't interested at first; thought "Silly old bugger", but she was drawn in as editor of the club mag for 10 years, before taking up the club secretary's pen.

Bud's retired - bar volunteer driving for hospice - and in all that time he's lived on the same street in Te Atatu.

"Dad had a poultry and dairy farm, 20 acres, but Dad and Mum cut it up and sold it to Universal housing. I think he spent the lot on the horses! When Thelma and I got married we bought one of them."

That road was gravel. Now it's a busy sealed road but the Prefect keeps on trucking, thanks to TLC. Bud keeps meticulous service records. "It's not the same motor now. You only get 30,000 miles out of one before it needs an overhaul, and a valve grind every 20,000 to 25,000 miles. It's not like a modern car - you have to think about mileage all the time.

"I'm not really mechanical. If it's really technical I farm it out but when I joined the club I learned to do more. The club vice-president is a talented mechanic so he's done up the motor, painted the car and got the rust out - all that's thanks to him."

Bud greases it every 800km. "I've got the date of every grease since 1956 in this book; I can tell you exactly what I did and when."

The car's paint colour was called Washington Blue in America, and Ford Royal Blue in the UK when it sold there. The seats are the original leather, but the car's no longer standard. Bud replaced the old semaphore indicators with modern items in the 1960s, put brake lights and a reversing light on.

"When decimal came out I got a stick-on kp/h speedo face for a Morris Minor, so the speedo reads kp/h while the odometer's in miles."

He also added front seatbelts and fitted a third before his grandchild was allowed aboard.

Prefects were built with fabric roofs because metal was short post-war, but they leaked and were soon replaced with steel.

"The monsoon shields were aftermarket, and the 'eyebrows' I bought to make it look flasher, as a young lad does, plus a radio. It's six-volt and takes a long time to warm up - with an extra speaker behind the back seats, my version of stereophonic sound back then."

In the tiny cabin you face a plethora of switches. Turn the butterfly dial to crank the windscreen open - it's a hot day. Turn the key. Pull the organ-stop choke, then another to start it. The indicator's on the steering wheel and original and home-built switches control lights, etc.

It's a three-speed and requires a slow, steady hand through gear changes and a rapid lift of the clutch with a light foot on the accelerator. Steering is not power assisted and it doesn't help that modern traffic is impatient, one driver honking when I pull away from lights too slowly, then waving his fist as he shoots past.

Bud says he's shocked at modern drivers and so am I now. First gear is super-low, you're in third by 50km/h. It'll do 77 on the highway apparently, but at 70 feels surprisingly smooth, tackling most junctions in top gear with the breeze through windscreen and windows cooling us. At least, I'm cool - Bud may not be as I keep muffing the change down to first.

The Semadenis will join the club's biennial Easter tour to Wanganui, allowing two days for modest speeds, and breakdowns.

"We've been to the Chateau and round Taupo, been round the East Cape - we wouldn't dream of doing anything like that without support. We'll be going through the Whangamomonas Forgotten Highway in convoy and keeping each other in sight as there's no phone coverage. I remember going to Mercer once and there was a hell of a noise: the manifold had broken in half!"

The club offers advice and parts for sidevalve UK Fords from 1932-59. Thelma says owners now advertise on Trade Me instead of through the club, "and if the seller doesn't mention us the car drops off our radar. A lot of clubs are losing members that way."

Meanwhile, it can be found at if you, too, have Mum's old Prefect that needs fettling.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 27 May 2017 22:09:15 Processing Time: 913ms