The Miracle of the Marmon
One of the joys of writing about classic cars, their restoration and history is often found in the characters that carry out these mammoth tasks. Joseph Camilleri is an amazing guy and with his son Alan they embarked on a task some thirty years ago that is not only inspiring but some would consider almost impossible. Firstly, a question for our readers, how many have ever seen a Marmon or even heard of such a machine? Not many, including me.
The Island of Malta is home to the Camilleri’s and whilst covering the Mdina GP I was lucky enough to spend the day at the prestigious Concours d’Elegance competition in the silent city of Mdina. I was drawn to the Marmon like a magnet; she is a big car with stylish lines of the 1920s, perfect for a gangster film set with plain clothes Police riding on the running boards ‘Tommy gun’ in hand. Firstly, almost embarrassed I had to ask Joseph what the car actually was and as he patiently told me the story I knew that out of 48 stunning cars on show she was the one for me.
The Marmon Motor Car Company first delved into motor vehicle production in 1902 in Indianapolis and produced vehicles until 1933. Renowned at the time for being a rather sporty and up market vehicle it was a Marmon based machine that won the 1911 Indianapolis 500 and was the first car with a rear view mirror. The company were pioneers in early car development using aluminium in their bodies and they even developed a V16 engine; unfortunately the stock market crash of 1929 followed by the Great Depression saw the company cease car manufacturing in 1933.
Our Marmon story begins in a Malta scrap yard named ‘Domcottra’ and as the faded image shows on top of a pile of twisted metal sits what was once a Marmon Model 68 from 1928. A well-known car restorer paid just 40 Maltese Lire to have the remains of the Marmon delivered to his workshops. His plan was to replace what was left of the body with a ‘special’ made up by a local panel shop. After a dispute between the parties the half completed machine was dumped outside the owners address minus the wheels and that’s where Joseph stepped in; a figure was agreed and the project began, it was 1981. The Marmon had arrived in Malta in 1933 and not much was known about the car or in fact the brand. Research and information would be something Joseph would spend 3 years working on to fulfil his dream and return the car to its former glory. The full restoration was documented and a video recording of every step was made from the very first days. Having seen this video I cannot possibly cover the restoration in its entirety, but I will try.
Even Joseph describes the car he pushed into his garage in the 80s as a wreck. A plan of action was followed and after joining the Marmon Club in the States in 1987 he acquired his first of many parts, the huge chrome edged radiator. The car was stripped to the chassis and in 1994 a huge crate arrived in Malta containing a Marmon Model 68 body that Joseph had purchased via the club. Mainly rust free panels included front and rear body sections, wings and doors; certainly not a complete car but a good start. The engine was removed from the chassis and with the body parts the shot blasters was the next port of call; only then Joseph could see what he had and what he faced.
The chassis was good, so an anti-corrosion coating was applied and the brakes were stripped, cleaned and painted, then refitted. The engine was stripped and rust in one of the eight cylinders had caused water to find its way into the sump so liners were fitted. Without any manuals or engine specs available Joseph rebuilt the engine with some guess work and a lot of engineering skill. Once complete it was painted along with the rebuilt gearbox and both went back into the chassis with prop-shaft and differential. November 4th 2000 a rolling chassis was started up outside the family home and with a wooden box as a seat the Marmon moved under its own power for the first time in decades.
Bolstered by his mechanical achievements the body of the Marmon was started in earnest. Rust at the base was cut out and new sheet metal welded in, dents and damage repaired; also the long front mudguards test fitted. The rear floor presented a major problem as it had more holes than a tea bag and with no plans or guides Joseph fabricated a new one by hand, he describes the task on the video as ‘most difficult to get right’.
2010 was dominated by the wood-work on the Marmon. Body frame, door frames, roof frames and beams were all found to be more or less rotten. Using the old parts as templates where he could Joseph replaced everything. The wooden roof beams were shaped with heat and patience and the front floor also wood was made from scratch. The detail and precision throughout this period had to be totally correct because it would certainly show up later if there were errors. The ornate interior lamps were missing so a fibre glass mould was made and the light units were cast in bronze. The curved steel front seat back-rest supported the new wooden seat frames Joseph constructed. The interior trim and door cards were made to measure and tested for fit, everything was then ready for the upholsterer to work his magic.
The fuel tank had several dents along its base so that was cut, repaired and re welded, once painted that too was fitted. Returning to the chassis the differential was refurbished along with the steering column and then the freshly painted front and rear axles were installed as final assembly began. Sagging rear springs were repaired and with the final parts of the running gear painted the chassis was wheeled out of the garage. With the help of many friends the body was then lifted out separately and bolted to the chassis in the street. Now a complete car the Marmon was towed to a nearby garage and on the 2nd January 2004 Joseph’s son Alan applied the first of 5 coats of black paint to the body. Allowing a few days to harden in the Mediterranean heat the paint was flatted and polished several times to achieve the high gloss glass like finish it still has today. All the chrome parts were brought back to perfection in England as this facility is not available in Malta. Once the window glass, headlights and chrome trims were fitted Alan set about the electrics and internal wiring, so by March 2004 the upholsterer would be able to finalise the interior trimming. Finally, the dash and the freshly painted 5 part bonnet, a real feature of the car, were fitted and polished.
On the 14th November 2004 a celebration test drive was taken, they were joined by a cavalcade of 50 cars from the Old Motors Club of Malta; an incredibly proud moment for Joseph, his wife Connie and son Alan. The straight eight 2.8 motor quietly wafted this magnificent car along as the knowledgeable enthusiasts applauded a fantastic achievement that had taken over two decades. Apart from the DVD Joseph also penned the story of the Marmon restoration in a book ‘A Marmon Reborn’ produced with the help of his daughter Rachel. In 2006 the Marmon served as the wedding car for Rachel’s big day. For me the image of the Marmon Model 68 alongside the Cathedral steps in Mdina is a picture that will live long in the memory, especially as I know what it took to get there.