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Despite having embraced modernity, Madeira – lying more than 400 miles off the African coast – retains an old-world charm.
Symbols of the past can be seen in the classic vehicles, many imported from Britain, that survive on the island.
Cars here have to work hard, however, because a rocky coastline fringed by bougainvillea, poinsettia and hibiscus soon gives way to vertiginous cliffs and towering peaks that take no prisoners.
Tunnels make for more rapid travel today, but the near-perpendicular roads remain – Rua da Barreira in Funchal is among the world’s steepest, reaching a staggering 45% gradient in places.
It’s worth the effort, though, because these routes criss-cross the island through lush landscapes with spectacular views.
As a consequence of being located far out in the Atlantic, shipping is expensive so when cars arrive, it’s often for a lifetime.
“We tend to take care of our cars as if they were members of the family,” says Eduardo Jesus, Regional Secretary for Tourism and Culture, who estimates that there are around 2000 classics on the island, many painstakingly restored.
“It doesn’t matter if the end value justifies the investment,” says Eduardo.
“The main objective is to bring back old glories, and our annual restoration contest pushes owners to do the best-possible job.”
Some classics are cosseted, only seeing the light for the many events held by the Classic Automobile Club, such as the Around Madeira Rally, Classic Car Revival and Madeira Flower Classic Auto-Parade.
Others are still to be seen in daily use, pounding the streets of ‘The Floating Garden in the Atlantic’.
Eduardo Bonal Silva: 1973 Ford Capri 3000GT
Eduardo runs a travel firm, but in his spare time enjoys driving his eight classics, including a 1974 Mini Clubman 1275GT, 1974 Datsun 1600 SSS, 1972 Mazda RX-2 and this Capri, finished in sharp Pepper Green with a black vinyl roof.
The throaty V6 turns heads and has enough power to easily cope with the island’s steep roads.
“The Capri was nicknamed the Mustang of Europe,” smiles Eduardo.
“This car was owned by a widow who hadn’t driven it for 15 years.
“It took me four years to convince her to sell it.
“Owning classic cars is an obsession for me. In fact, nearly all Madeirans are crazy about them.”
Tony Martins: 1965 MGB Roadster & 1960 MGA 1600 Coupé
In 1989, retired banker and president of Madeira’s Classic Automobile Club Tony shipped his MGB to Manchester for a full restoration.
A year later, he picked up the finished car and drove it down to Southampton where it was loaded on to a ship and transported back to Madeira.
There are some 36 MGBs and six BGTs on the island.
“Being an old car, it has none of the new technology – everything is mechanical.”
“So it’s easy to work on, and being British means spares are plentiful,” says Tony, whose car was used in rallies on Madeira and the Azores by its first owner.
Tony struggles to find any weaknesses in the car: “First gear isn’t synchronised, something that didn’t happen until 1967, so it’s a little tricky. But, overall, it’s comfortable and fantastic to drive.”
His other car, a blue MGA Coupé, was imported from Florida to the UK before Tony brought it out to Madeira.
Paulo & João Perneta: 1946 Austin Ten Saloon GSI & 1966 Singer Vogue
The Perneta family is rightly proud of its Austin Ten Saloon GSI.
“It was a prizewinner at Madeira’s first classic car competition in Machico in 1976,” enthuses son João.
“We love the smell of the tan leather seats,” adds brother Paulo.
“It’s so distinctive and very British. Winston Churchill, who regularly visited the island, always chose an Austin to ferry him around.”
Other classics in the family include the pristine Singer, which they bought 20 years ago, and a second Austin Ten.
Originally operating as a taxi, the 1935 Open Road Tourer was bought by Paulo and João’s grandfather.
“Because it’s an open-top, some regarded it as a poor-person’s car – they felt it wasn’t complete,” says Paulo.
“He loved the car but was sick of the constant jokes so parked it in the garage for years.
“It was only when my father started dating my mother that the car re-emerged and got a new lease of life.”
Gilberto Goçalves: 1966 Fiat 1500
Electrician Gilberto has loved Fiats ever since boyhood: “My neighbours owned various Fiat models, and I liked the styling and engine sound. I bought my first, an Uno, in 1989.”
“But I didn’t know what I was getting myself into because spares are scarce – which is why it took three years to rebuild.”
“It has never let me down and my wife and I adore the car – it’s comfortable, agile, powerful and easy to drive,” he continues.
Despite the Fiat gleaming in the Madeiran sun, Gilberto has plans to rebuild it a second time: “There is some rust, and the first time I was so keen to get it running that I rushed.
“Now, I know much more so want to do the job properly.”
João Ferdinando Ferreira: 1957 Fiat Nuova 500
He’s owned the 500 since 1979 and explains that the open roof was a feature of the Nuova from 1957-’60: “After that, the 500D was launched with a hardtop.”
Although João admits that the car isn’t quick, he’s keen to point out that the roll-back roof is a bonus and the Fiat drives well – even up steep mountain roads: “Parts aren’t a problem either, because I get them from mainland Portugal.”
Aires Andrade: 1960 Austin A55 Cambridge
There are just two Austin Cambridges on Madeira, and chauffeur Aires owns the only one that’s currently on the road.
Originally black, it came into his care in 1998 and he uses it regularly, often taking the family on outings around the island.
His wife and children adore the car – but they’re not the only ones.
“It’s so popular that the previous owner wants to buy it back because his family misses it,” laughs Aires, who says that the Cambridge offers a smooth ride.
“Mind you, I’ve now got grey hairs because all my life I’ve driven old cars that aren’t as comfortable as this!”
Aires has entered the Cambridge in several around-the-island events, a competition that covers around 320km, and has even secured victory.
“It’s a regularity rally so it’s about driving each stage of the course in a specified time at a specified average speed,” he explains.
“Winning was a proud moment for me.”
Mafalda Freitas: 1956 Hillman Minx
Marine biologist Mafalda is enamoured of her mint-green-and-white Minx, but admits you need strong arms to drive it.
“You must be in shape because the steering is so heavy,” she laughs.
“It’s just as good as going to the gym.”
The car belonged to her grandmother, who lived on the nearby sister island of Porto Santo: “When I was little, I’d visit with my family and she’d drive us to the beach.
“The bench seat was very useful because there were lots of us.”
The car was later abandoned in a scrapyard: “Then 15 years ago, my father visited the island, noticed the Hillman and bought it. The Minx was in a bad state so he restored it.”
Although it’s her father’s car – and thought to be the only example on the island – Mafalda enjoys driving it and has entered competitions such as the two-day Around Madeira Rally.
“Unfortunately, I can’t take part in any that require driving at a fixed speed because the speedo is broken!”
Joel Ramos: 1949 Austin A40 Devon & 1965 Fiat 850
Joel acquired his right-hand-drive Austin in 1976 from a British lady living in Madeira.
It’s one of two on the island, the other being a left-hooker and currently off the road.
“It has four gears, heavy steering and hydraulic brakes on the front only – it’s cables at the back,” explains Joel, a retired vehicle painter who also owns a Fiat 850 and a 600D.
“It’s not an easy car to drive here, mainly because it’s right-hand drive,” he adds.
Joel gives the A40 a spin once a month and on special occasions.
He also enjoys taking his family out for picnics, making use of the drop-down picnic basket attached to the bootlid: “It’s a fine car and a pleasure to own.”
Paulo Gomes: 1958 Peugeot 403
Working at the island’s Peugeot dealership has clearly had an effect on Paulo.
“I love Peugeots,” he says, “and not just because I’ve been with the brand for 39 years!”
Getting his hands on a 403, the first Peugeot to exceed one million sales, took some time.
Its previous owner popped into the dealership for a chat and Paulo asked to be given first refusal if ever he sold it; 15 years later, in 2001, he got his wish.
He then set about rebuilding the car, a project that took two years and involved sourcing parts from around the world, including floor mats from Argentina.
“It’s easy to drive and very comfortable,” says Paulo.
“The gearbox can be tricky because it’s not synchronised, and you have to crank-start it – not difficult, but you can hurt your wrist if you’re not careful.”
Paulo’s other Peugeot, a 1971 504 Coupé, gets more use, but he still loves getting out in the 403: “It handles the steep, windy roads well.”
Gerald Bretterbauer: 1948 Riley RMB, 1951 Riley RMC, 1950 & 1951 Riley RMD
“As you can tell, I’m a Riley enthusiast,” laughs Gerald, an Austrian painter who is now a Madeira resident.
“I bought the red 1950 RMD for €1000 in 2009 from a policeman in North Wales,” he recalls, “then drove it through Europe before crossing to Madeira.
“Apparently, it was the first Riley to be registered in Portugal.”
The Riley love affair remains as strong as ever: “They are well made and have good torque.”
“Their only weaknesses are that halfshafts often crack and the fan only works when the engine is running,” continues Gerald.
“So if the engine gets hot and you turn it off as soon as you stop, it can overheat.
“You have to keep the engine ticking over for a while to help cool it down.”
Gerald, who is currently restoring a 1951 RMD, says his favourite for long trips is the green 1948 RMB, bought in The Netherlands as his first classic car: “It’s the most reliable and has the back axle from an RMF.
“The manufacturer changed the halfshaft design for that model, thank goodness.”
Tito Noronha: 1958 Austin A40 Farina
Dentist Tito bought the A40 from his former French teacher, who had become a client at his practice.
After her husband died, the Austin was abandoned in her garden.
“She asked me to remove the car and was willing to give it to me for free, but I felt obliged to pay something.
“I used it daily for a few years before buying my first modern car for everyday use.”
Tito later sold the A40, a decision he quickly regretted: “I never forgot the car, and was able to buy it back 20 years later.
“One day I’ll rebuild the Austin – it has just 18,383 miles on the clock and is the only A40 here, as far as I know.”
Henrique Costa Neves: 1961 Morris Minor 1000
Originally light blue, Henrique’s Minor was resprayed its current coffee colour as part of the restoration project when the agricultural engineer bought the car.
It was first owned by a colleague in the island’s Forestry Department, and Henrique asked for first refusal if she ever decided to sell. That moment arrived in 1985.
“The gearbox worked well, but the rest of the car needed lots of attention,” recalls Henrique.
“It’s easy to drive and maintain, and my wife and I both enjoy driving the Morris at least once a week.
“Just like older people, classics need to keep moving or they seize up.”
Rui Freitas: 1965 Peugeot 404 Deluxe
Housing manager Rui’s 404 was brought over from France in 1966 when a Madeiran returned to his homeland.
But as the owner aged, the car was forgotten for a decade until Rui bought it in 2010.
“It took about eight years to rebuild,” he says. “Parts were obtained from L’Aventure Peugeot in France.
“Whereas it’s easy sourcing components for British and German cars, it’s more difficult with French models.”
Rui drives the 404 at least once a month: “Peugeots have such comfortable suspension, and it’s spacious and reliable – it’s easy to see why all the island’s taxis were once 403s and 404s.”
Images: Richard Webber
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