If one were to ask the average man in the street to draw up an identikit of a local fanatic classic car enthusiast and owner, one would gather not too few an image of a static, staid and stereotyped middle aged, menopausal male who, at the crossroads of life, wants to fulfill a childhood dream by acquiring that old car (or cars!) which brings back so much nostalgia and memories of past and lost youth. Long cherished visions of that first pedal car, or of a favourite four wheeler from the Lesney Matchbox Models of Yesteryear collection, would finally burst into lifesize - after all, it is said that the difference between men and boys is the shape and size of their toys!
However, not all old vehicles lovers fall into this mean mould, and nothing can be further from this skewed composite picture than Olivia Said. Young, full of zest and lust for life, yet very composed and feet firmly planted on the ground, Olivia says that she always had a fatal attraction for all sorts of cars. When in 1999 her father Joe (of the Jaguar classic car collection fame - but enough said on this subject, as Joe Said deserves an article in his own right!) acquired his first Jaguar, a 1958 XK150, she immediately got caught up in the family fever. "I remember that for a period, this vehicle and its restoration became the thought uppermost in our minds. We were buying related journals and magazines, searching the internet, looking for parts - I couldn't help being totally and deeply immersed in the classic car current and relishing it!"
Olivia was then a fourth year student at university, sweating over the economics course, with an eye on future active involvement in the family business, Mdina Glass. But her bubbling fascination with old cars was such, that when her father prodded her for ideas concerning a graduation present earmarked for the following year, they did not have to rack their brains for long over an appropriate and fitting choice! Subsequently they went to see a red 1966 MGB which came up on the market quite by chance. Although they liked what they saw, her father did not appear to be over enthusiastic, and failed to commit himself in front of her. They came, they saw, they left, with no agreement or arrangement whatsoever regarding a possible eventual purchase.
"I thought nothing of it anymore, because graduation was still a long way off, and life went on as usual, busy as I was with my studies", recounts a bemused Olivia. "It never crossed my mind again. Then a fortnight later, Dad came up to me and said, 'What shall we do, shall we go and get the MGB home?'. I was completely flabbergasted!"
The car was still in a relatively good condition, and there was many a day during her last year at university, when she would use it to commute. However, once Olivia finished her studies in June 2000, like the majority of diehard, genuine collectors once they get their hands on an old car of their own, she wanted a prime and proper restoration job to give the vehicle a sense of personal identity.
"The whole family chipped in to physically help out with the dismantling process, and we took the whole engine and parts carefully away from the body", recalls a smiling Olivia. But then her countenance changes when she remembers her embarkation on the usual lengthy, and sometimes heartbreaking, merry-go-round, knocking on the skilled specialists' doors. The first port of call was the panel beater, and this was relatively plain sailing. Very little rust was found, and only the floor panels and part of the right mudguard needed changing.
However stormier waters were encountered when she went to the sprayer. "I wanted a particular colour which was harnessed in that production year, 1966. One of the problems was that not all colours were utilised every year, so the choice was limited. I didn't want red; white was too similar to my father's Jaguar. So I opted for black", points out Olivia. "The waiting for the completion of the task was too lengthy, despite regular, persistent pleading".
With the help of a close relative who is a motor mechanic, the engine was reassembled and installed in place. All chrome parts - bumper, front grille, spoke wheels - were imported from England. "You can say that the car was completely rebuilt, but I left no stone unturned in my quest to acquire original parts. These included the dashboard, the hood, and a stereo sound system pertaining to that era", she states factually, with a glint of pride in her eyes.
The upholstery, which was also totally changed, provided the final difficult hurdle. "The guy took so much time to complete the task, and in the process, I felt that he overcharged me", complains an irate Olivia. "These people think that just because you don't use the old car as your everyday car, then there is no urgency in finishing the task!"
The gleaming black MGB, now restored to its pristine condition, was back on the road after a twelve month rehabilitation. Has she experienced any niggling problems with it over the past few years, I enquired when I met her recently at her office in Ta' Qali. She admits to the regular headaches classic car owners face from time to time - master cylinder, fuel pump, clutch - and these were seen to in the regular service and maintenance, but no radical surgery was ever required.
"One persistent problem was the battery, which used to fall flat very often. In those days cars were fitted with a dynamo; however since I did not drive it daily, lack of constant use led to dysfunction of the battery. But all that ended when an alternator was installed instead", says Olivia, who is also technically nimble.
She fully subscribes to the view that a classic car is there to be used and enjoyed. She drives the MGB frequently during the week in spring and summer, and restricts herself to weekend outings in autumn and winter. "It's great fun to drive this car - I can't see myself in a current convertible", Olivia discloses. "It's so light and fast, and I get a buzz as the vehicle picks up speed. On a nice day, friends phone me up to come out with me for a drive. With soothing music in the background and the positive humming of the engine, which sounds so different from that of a modern car, I feel completely relaxed!"
Olivia needs to chill out, as she has a demanding and high powered job - in charge of operations and product development at Mdina Glass, meaning that she is responsible for the twofold task of design and production of the enterprise, which employs forty people. Quite an onerous burden on the slim and slender shoulders of a twenty something young lady. But the soft and sensitive exterior belies a fire belly, tough interior, brimming with grit and determination.
"I have been exposed to the glass production process on the factory floor since the age of thirteen, when I used to spend up to ten hours a day working during the summer holidays", she explains nonchalantly. "I was the only girl working among the men, but it didn't bother me then, and it doesn't bother me now". There she started learning all the nitty gritty of the business. After graduating, she went into the management of the company.
Besides taking care of the production force, Olivia is also responsible for the design of new items, patterns, and colour schemes. A creative creature by nature, she goes overseas at intervals, mostly to Italy, to learn new techniques. She feels that creativity and innovation comes from inspiration. "I was eating in a restaurant overseas some time ago, when I saw a cheese grater being utilized as a lighting medium. On my return I developed what I saw into a candle holder", she cites as an example. A firm believer in team work, she consults and discusses with her staff prior to processing new ideas.
What are her leisure pursuits when she is free from her busy work schedule? She immediately replies that she gives priority to the MGB. Olivia is a keep fit fanatic too, working out regularly at home. Horse riding is also close to her heart, while entertaining, socializing, and traveling all help her keep a healthy balance in her hectic lifestyle.
She immediately became a member of the Old Motors Club once she acquired her old car. Olivia lists rallies and runs as her preferred OMC events. "I wish I could participate in more activities, but since many of them are organised on weekends, it is impossible for me to get involved as sometimes I also have to work on such days", she rues. The number of female OMC affiliates makes up only a minute percentage of the 300 members, and Olivia would like to see an increase in this group. She also suggests that the club works on initiatives to attract people from the younger age group.
What does she think of the current classic car scene locally? Olivia opines that on the whole, there has been marked improvement, with more interest, more awareness, and more owners of old vehicles. She feels that the British tradition of restoring and maintaining old cars as part of one's cultural heritage has been well and truly implanted successfully in the Maltese psyche. She sees projects like the Museum of Old Cars in St. Paul's Bay and the proposed National Old Motors Museum at Ta' Qali as encouraging steps forward.
Olivia complains bitterly about the bad state of the local roads. "As a regular service user, I feel that something has got to be done to improve them. I get so tired after driving the MGB around for one hour - it takes skill, dexterity and maneuvering to avoid the plethora of potholes! Moreover I feel I am causing damage to my car. Sometimes, after I inadvertently hit a rough patch, I stop with trepidation and check whether some part of the engine has come unloose, or has fallen on the road!"
The telephone is ringing again, and work continues to pile up on her cluttered desk. It is time for me to leave, but not before I ask her about her future plans. There is no dilly dally, and she immediately shoots the response - this woman knows exactly what she wants and has it all mapped out!
"Regarding my work, I want to go to the United States in the near future, to keep abreast of the latest developments in glass making. Many designers whom we used to visit in Italy have now set up shop in America, and the Americans, who consider glass work as an objet d'art, have welcomed them with open arms. A new period of artistic expectations is dawning over there".
As to old cars, Olivia looks out of the window and purrs dreamily: "I have a soft spot for typically German cars, especially Mercedes. My ambition is to own a 190 SL, in silver color, with a red interior". Classic car connoisseurs have described this 1950s model - derived from the legendary gullwing 300 SL - as utterly seductive, with its sheer charm, soft curves, luxurious interior, and generous chrome adorning it like jewelry. Actresses like Grace Kelly and Gina Lollobrigida were often seen behind its ivory coloured steering wheel. Given her solid, steely determination and will to forge ahead, I am sure that at some time in the future, Olivia Said would be gracing our sprawling, imperfect roads with this quintessential German sports car!