The carefully curated vintage car collection will transform a small Highland village
They’re throwbacks to the good old days, and while they may have rattled and rattled over bumpy roads, providing a less than smooth ride for their passengers, at least they did it in style.
With names like Wolseley and Austin, and at the cutting edge – for their time – of engine design and technology, cars of the past evoke a golden age of motoring.
Now a dazzling collection of rare classic and vintage motor cars, thought to be worth six figures, are set to put a small village of Caithness on the map and become a lasting legacy in the honor of the man who loved them.
Edward Sutherland has died aged 87, after spending years running the family garage, J&G Sutherland, in Halkirk.
Throughout his life he spent his spare time researching old and rare engines, often salvaging them as battered hulls and lovingly restoring them to sparkling treasures which he displayed as a founding member of Caithness & SutherlandVintage and Classic Vehicle Club.
As he got older, he decided his vehicles were too special not to be shared with others on a more permanent basis.
He bought the old village school near his home in the small Caithness village of Halkirk, with a view to making it a showroom for his fine collection of a dozen classic and vintage cars.
But he died in 2019, before the plan could fully take shape.
Now his vision is about to come true: his dying wish that his precious vehicles benefit the small community of Caithness is within reach.
Its collection of classic and vintage cars, stored ‘in limbo’ due to the pandemic and while efforts were made to secure funding for the project by Halkirk Heritage & Vintage Motor Society, is now set to be moved to a new room exhibition next spring.
He is said to have been helped by a £100,000 donation from Mr Sutherland’s family for the establishment of the showroom, as well as village income from nearby wind turbines, which helped defray the costs renovation of the old school building.
Just off the busy NC500 tourist route, the showroom exhibits will no doubt act as a magnet for motoring enthusiasts who see the 500 mile journey – often in sports or classic cars – as a “bucket list” experience.
Once opened, Edward’s beloved vehicles will take pride of place in an exhibition that will eventually include vehicles on loan from members of the region’s remarkably vibrant classic car clubs.
Because, it turns out, Edward wasn’t the only North Scotsman obsessed with rescuing old cars and restoring them to their former greatness. Despite the remoteness, Scotland’s north coast regions of Caithness, Sutherland and even Orkney and Shetland, have a surprisingly lively quota of classic car collectors.
While most have “only” two or three vintage or classic models, others are said to have hidden collections of multiple vehicles including cars, vans, tractors and motorcycles, some incredibly rare, hidden away in garages. and worth small fortunes.
A classic and vintage car enthusiast said: ‘Two or three people in Caithness have an awful lot of cars worth a lot of money stored in big garages. A guy who stays on the north coast has 30 or 40 cars.
“Most people will have two or three cars. There has always been a vibrant automotive heritage here.
Chris Eyre, president of the Halkirk Heritage and Vintage Motor Society and owner of a sporty 1970 MG MGB GT, said the opening of the showroom – which has now become the property of the company – would help put the village on the tourist map.
“We hope people will come and see them,” he added. “It’s a part of Scotland that’s kind of forgotten, even though we’re only eight kilometers off the NC500 road.
“We are now moving full steam ahead to get there.”
It is understood talks regarding ownership of the collection, which includes rare classic and vintage models, are continuing between Mr Sutherland’s family and the Halkirk Heritage Group.
Les Bremner, vice-president of the Caithness & Sutherland Vintage and Classic Vehicle Club and owner of two Class MGs and a Triumph Stag Monarch, said Mr Sutherland wanted his cars on display in the village where he lived all his life.
“He bought the old school with the intention of making it a showroom and said the cars could be sold or not, but they should benefit the village.”
He added that there is a “natural interest” in the area for vintage and classic vehicles. “There have long been Army and RAF stations here with lots of collectors – there is a vibrant scene here and in Orkney and Shetland.
“Because we’re a bit far apart, people are more adaptable to doing their own repairs.
“Before, it took two or three weeks to get a part, so people used to adapt and make their own modifications.”
Edward and his late wife Jessie were regulars on the North Coast classic and vintage car scene, joining rallies and showing off the collection of gleaming motors.
Speaking in 2018 to The Wick Society to mark the centenary of the family garage business, J&G Sutherland, he told how he became addicted to restoring old vehicles, working there night shifts when he was done in the family garage.
At the time, he said his collection around 14 vehicles dating from the 1920s to the 1970s.
It included a 1939 Wolseley 25 HP Drop Head Coupe, of which only 18 remain worldwide. Premium versions of the vehicle have been valued between £70,000 and £100,000.
As well as its eye-catching looks, the vehicle has a special story: it was originally designed as a one-off gift for car boss Lord Nuffield, paid for by Wolseley labor who contributed a shilling each for its manufacture in 1937.
The vehicle was at the top of what the Nuffield factory could achieve at the time, with a 3.5-litre engine capable of 90mph.
A limited number of around 150 vehicles were later made, but most were exported to Australia and New Zealand.
The collection also included a 1929 Austin 16, a 1933 Wolseley Hornet and a 1947 Lea-Francis, the first model made by the firm after the end of World War II.
Mr Sutherland said it sat in poor condition at a local garage for years before buying it and restoring it.
Mr. Sutherland’s collection also included a 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite convertible, nicknamed “Bugeye” because of its protruding headlights. Most of the 147,000 produced have been exported and only 20 are believed to remain in the UK.
He also collected more modern vehicles; included in his collection was a classic Triumph Stag.
He said at the time that some of the vehicles were “in terrible shape when I got them”.
And, perhaps echoing the sentiments of many motorists today, he recounted how the design of today’s modern vehicles left him cold.
“I look under the hood of a car now and I know there’s no way I know how to maintain it,” he added.
“Before, the cars had an individual look. Now, if you don’t see the badge on a car, you hardly know what it is.