Love of vintage vehicles is puzzling but it's also intense - just ask those with a piece of history in their garage.

In a life that has been rich in embarrassing moments, one stands out. Years ago, cycling through a carpark, I stopped to admire an immaculately restored Rover 90, just as the driver, resplendent in plaid jacket, cheesecutter and yellow bow tie, disembarked.

As we chatted about old cars - I was scarcely an aficionado but I once changed the clutch in an Austin A30; it took me about six weeks - I put my bicycle on its side stand so I could take a closer look.

It seemed to happen in slow motion: the bike slewed slightly, teetered and toppled against the car where the rounded tip of the handbrake lever left a perfect pea-sized indentation in the front passenger door.

In the silence that spread like an oil spill, I fancied I could hear my heart beat. "Yes," the man said at last, drawing out the word so it sounded like the final exhalation of a dying man. "She's a beautiful car all right."

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It goes without saying that I did not take my bicycle to the Galaxy of Cars at Western Springs Stadium on Sunday. And I took to heart the "Please do not touch" signs displayed among the exhibits.

Spread across the ring of grass bounded by the dirt-track, it was more like a sea than a galaxy, although there was stellar sparkle enough in the assembly, which was organised (almost strictly) along community-of-interest lines.

The Hillmans and Humbers got along like the close cousins they are; the Holdens and Fords kept a grudgingly respectful distance; Jowett Javelins relaxed in the shade near the main gate alongside their relatives the Bradfords, which I'm old enough to remember as bakers' vans.

These cars were household names for baby boomers, made in an age when British marques predominated on our roads. You could tell they were British cars, the old joke went, because if you opened the boot, you'd find a gang of spray-painters playing cards and drinking tea.

By the time we left school, some of them were getting old enough for us to afford (though time and care have made them expensive again now): we cut our teeth on Austins and Morris Minors and, if we were stupid enough, Vauxhall Vivas. This was an era when any import from Japan was dismissed as "Jap junk".

The owners were as fascinating as their vehicles: one man read the paper by his 55 Fairlane ("it's got a Thunderbird motor and a four-barrel carb"), which he bought nine months ago "for the wife".

He's been a mechanic since he left school but he bought a car already restored because she got cancer (as he put it, she "got the rust in"). "We didn't know how bad it was so we thought just do it. She's in remission now and the car drives like a dream."

Barry Roberts sits at the wheel of his 1908 single-cylinder 6hp 780cc Rover with a chassis of white ash and spokes of hickory. The essence of the original is there - the engine, the gearbox, the front axle, the wheel hubs, but he doesn't drive it much. "I've got another one, you see. It's a year later. It's a two-cylinder."

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An even older horseless carriage is a 1903 Oldsmobile with a "curved dash" that looks like a footrest. Only a steering lever (with a bicycle-style bell) spoils the illusion that this is a horse-drawn trap.

Behind the line of Model A Fords, I find a quintet of women chatting in the shade of a gazebo. They're quick to dismiss any preconceptions I have about being car widows, mourning a lifetime of watching dad's dinner go cold as he refuses to come inside.

"You won't find any of those here," one tells me. "The wives that come along here are committed to it. They love the camaraderie of it. The ones it leaves cold ... well, they're not here."

To someone whose 10-year-old Corolla will never make his heart beat fast, such passion is hard to understand. Mike Wild, of Patumahoe, who has brought along a 1930 Bedford hotrod in electric yellow spent five years rebuilding it. He wouldn't have a clue how many hours that was but there were "lots" of swear words.

"I've only done 3000 miles in it. The driving is not important. I love building them.

"I've done heaps of vehicles and I get bored with them once they're on the road. I want to move on to the next one."