VIDEO: Car restoration legend reflects on his success

Source: Illawarra Mercury

You can see why the unions didn't like Howard Astill when he was living in Broken Hill, and why he ended up leaving.

He’s playing golf on a glorious Wednesday morning and posts a photo of the picturesque third hole of the Wollongong course.

There’s the green of the tee, the yellow of the sand, the blue of the ocean and the lighthouse behind.

‘‘Tuff job you got Howard lol,’’ comments one of his 2806 Facebook friends.

Astill is straight back: ‘‘Worked hard to get this lucky.’’

This is a man who freely admits to missing his children’s birthdays because a car restoration needed finishing.

Who used to travel on Christmas Day and set up a small, portable tree in their motel room so he could arrive at the Summernats car festival in Canberra in time.

Who would work 40 hours running a motel, come home at 7pm and then swap his collar and tie for overalls and work on street cars until 11pm.

Who would spend 12 hours a day in the shed on a Saturday and Sunday on street machines – Falcons, Mustangs, Fairlanes, Fairmonts. Always Fords.

Go to his house in Kanahooka in the NSW Illawarra, next to the cemetery, and you can see the rewards for his labours.

Next to the workshop where he has just completed restoring a 1976 Ford XB GT Coupe (now valued at $200,000), is the room where he holds his monthly, Friday night pizza nights.

In one corner is a fully-equipped bar with spirit dispensers shaped like petrol bowsers; a model tool cabinet from Snap-On; an illuminated Coke sign (he drinks two litres a day); model cars still in their boxes; a sign requesting guests to refrain from smoking.

In the centre of the room is a snooker table, each ball emblazoned with the Ford logo.

Crowded around the walls are magazine articles featuring Astill and his work.

Lining three sides of the room, on a custom-built shelf at head height, are more than 80 trophies he has won for his work.

He’s been Summernats Grand Champion three times and had the top judged car three times, each time with a different machine.

It soon becomes clear that the world is divided into two – those who have never heard of Howard Astill, and those who think he’s God.

‘‘I am not the normal car guy,’’ Astill says.

‘‘I am the past president of the chamber of commerce, past president of the golf club, past president of the convention centre, associated director of a motel chain.’’

Even when he first came to the Illawarra in 2006, where he knew no-one, it took only the short walk to the first tee at Port Kembla Golf Club for his fellow competitor to recognise his name.

‘‘You’re not the Howard Astill are you?’’ the golfer asked.

His cover was blown, but that was fine with the divine restorer of street Fords.

‘‘Of course I do get off on it a bit, you’d be a weird person if you didn’t,’’ Astill says.

‘‘It gets to the point where I can’t go to too many places where people don’t know of me.

‘‘But it was bloody hard work for 30 years that created the fame.’’

In the black and white of print, Astill may appear conceited, arrogant or even delusional, but that would be unfair.

In person, he comes over as a straight-shooter who describes the world as he sees it, without time for false modesty.

Although he pays tribute to his wife, Heather, (‘‘Behind every successful man is a worn-out woman’’), the drive for success comes from elsewhere.

His father died a couple of years ago from bowel cancer, but only after a car accident in which he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed, killing Astill’s mother, a passenger.

Until charges were eventually dropped after a year, his father was facing a charge of negligent driving occasioning death on top of the grief of losing his wife.

To say that it was a difficult time is clearly an understatement, but it was a time when Astill supported his father, reversing a relationship where the father had – literally – been the boss of the son in the family business.

‘‘As human beings we all need to have positive reinforcement,’’ Astill says.

‘‘It’s all very well to be a leader and to be good at what you do, but you have to look outside of yourself for motivation and direction.

‘‘When you get to my age now and your parents are both dead, there is no-one to have a chat to.

‘‘For all your life there is someone to give you guidance and then when they pass, there’s no-one there any more.

‘‘A lot of things I did in my life I know I did for my parents.’’

And he’s still looking for their support.

Only the other week, he was in Berry and saw a sign advertising a clairvoyant, so he went in and had his cards read.

He didn’t learn much, but he did learn that his father is fine with his son cruising around in his inherited 1991 four-door Cadillac.

(‘‘It’s a really nice car with electric everything, a bit like a boat and cruises down the road,’’ Astill says. ‘‘People like to see those sort of cars on the road.’’)

There have even been times when Astill has taken a photograph of a car project to a psychic, put it down on the table, and said: ‘‘Read that’’.

‘‘They see competition, they might say the car will be good,’’ Astill says.

‘‘If they tell you it’s not going to work, you just have to work harder.

‘‘That’s never happened though.’’

Then he reveals that, for the first time in his life, this driven man has no five-year plan, no immediate goals for his life.

His shop in Fairy Meadow that sells gifts for men is not going as well as expected – victim of both economic circumstances and slow development in the area.

For the first time in his life, he’s restoring cars for other people to pay the bills. He’s got a Fiat 500 ‘Bambino’ in the workshop, for a customer who wants to restore the car in memory of his wife.

‘‘I have no interest in Fiats – I am a Ford guy – but a car’s a car and if it needs repairing...’’

At the age of 55, he’s floating along, doing a 40-hour week, playing a couple of games of golf a week off a handicap of eight, wondering what life might have in store.

Politics is one possibility, on the right rather than the left.

Then he makes a startling admission:

‘‘I am always bored. That’s why I was always doing so much.

‘‘Now I have the Fiat in pieces and the next two months is boring because I know what I need to do.

‘‘It’s challenging, but it’s not fun.’’

Though he wouldn’t describe himself as a perfectionist, he does have a card on his desk to remind him that success is more important than perfection.

One thing, though is certain. Whatever life has in store for Howard Astill, he will work as hard as it takes to be the best. God can never rest.

‘‘I don’t see my life anywhere near over.’’ ‘‘I haven’t said this to anyone besides my wife, but I am still looking to do something and I don’t know what it is.

‘‘Maybe that’s why I get my cards read.’’

Astill relaxes in the games room and bar next to his workshop. Pictures: ROBERT PEET

Astill relaxes in the games room and bar next to his workshop. Pictures: ROBERT PEET

The latest project – a 1976 Ford XB GT Coupe valued at $200,000.

The latest project – a 1976 Ford XB GT Coupe valued at $200,000.


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