In the automotive world and in particularly in New Zealand, we have our fair share of artists. To be more precise, these artists can work sheetmetal into beautiful art forms as they restore, recreate or design their own automotive fantasy. Allow me to introduce Mike Roberts. A truly humble man, Mike just likes to do the best work he can but also with the most creative and individual flavour..
Back to that humble approach which Mike portrays, it may explain why he hasn’t been snaffled up by an international collector or fabrication shop, but maybe one day? Mike is one of the only guys I know who can dream and visualise the end result, sketch or provide his own working drawings to scale or full size, model it and then build it. Some people can do either aspect but only very few can do it all with an amazing high standard throughout the entire process.
Mike lists his dad as his greatest inspiration and as talented as Mike is with metal, his dad was equally as talented with wood and where Mike is into cars, his dad was into boats. “Dad liked to make things and have fun doing it”, remembers Mike. “He did a lot of pen, pencil or pastel sketches and also a lot of sculptures. “Dad could also draw fantastic portraits without you knowing. I remember one day we were waiting to be seated in a restaurant and dad drew portraits of the people at each table”, reflects Mike.
Mike recalls his parents taking him to a lot of hot rod shows as he was growing up and it was through an acquaintance of his mum where Mike learned of Gulf Motor bodies where he eventually got an apprenticeship. Specialising in coach-built and English cars, there weren’t many shops specialising in sheetmetal fabrication and body restoration like there is now. That was back in the early eighties when Mike met Terry Sims at Gulf. Terry went on to open his own business in East Tamaki called Terry’s Panel Works and Mike soon joined him, working on hot rods, drag cars, Ferraris and Cadillacs as well as other exotic vehicles.
“We were still learning along the way and Terry started to read about TIG welding being done overseas and took the plunge and bought one, and we started going to TIG welding”, remembers Mike. Working at Terry’s was an opportunity to try things which hadn’t been tried before and between hand forming alloy panels for rare Ferrari’s to doing race car tin work, roof chops to hammer file finishing, the talent and skill set grew as did Terry & Mike’s reputation as one of the “go-to” shops for quality work.
Mike then went on to work for himself in the Howick & Pakuranga area. His reputation led to complete rebuilds of Ferraris and Porsches as well as the Graeme McRae Massari race car from the fifties. Mike was in the middle of a restoration on a ’59 Impala around this time and he wanted to run the engine up. The ’59 was bought on a trip to the USA with Redvers Charles and the 348 big block looked like it could run. Mark Stokes suggested building a bucket so Mike drew a sketch of an individual car with influences from the Piaggi/Pavlovich street T and Kevan Sledge’s similar car in the USA.
Mike’s first real intro to rodding knocked people over, the T was basic but well engineered and if there was something Mike could do different he did – including the chequered paint and sack over the TIG welded gas tank. Never content with the finished project, Mike already began making plans for the next one and it had to be a lot different to the bucket. “I am always looking at ways to improve my work and design and never want to do the same thing over and over”, says Mike spoken like a true artist.
After three years Mike was made an offer he could not refuse. It was from Duncan Fox at Group 7 Sports Cars and Mike describes it as an incredible once in a lifetime opportunity. “It was an awesome opportunity to work with Duncan on some awesome and historically significant race cars and it was an amazing learning curve”, states Mike proudly. Restoring McLaren race cars and Formula 5000s became a form of archaeology which Duncan & Mike coined “carchaelogy” as they studied photos and details of these performance works of art. Seven years of employment at Group 7 definitely broadened Mike’s knowledge and skill level.
During this time he built his wife Dyan a car utilising the design and build techniques of the historic race cars blended with aircraft quality fabrication, Mike built the bare metal Gasser style Model A tudor. Mike then began the design and scale drawing process of a ’50 Buick sled with a nod to ZZ Top’s Cadzilla, with a more factory show car vibe. After the stint at Group 7 Sports Cars, Mike went on to work three days a week at Terry Bowden’s Terry’s Chassis Shoppe. The remaining two days of the working week would allow Mike to take it easy to look after his health and also give him an opportunity to pursue other projects.
Fast forward to today and Mike currently works from home, contracting to an aircraft company and has two car collectors who keep him busy. His next project was even more ground breaking, based on a ’28 Model A pickup. What is really neat is that it utilises some common trad hot rod parts but all masterfully put together in a way like you’ve never seen. This car was sent to the USA in 2014 where Mike & Dyan attended such events like the L.A. Roadster Show. It was fair to say it blew a lot of people away.
Back home on New Zealand soil, Mike and Dyan continue to enjoy their cars. No matter how busy he is, Mike is always thinking of the next project. Next up is a totally handcrafted Austin 7 Special, again like you’ve never seen. To conclude, a conversation with Mike is something that you’ll find truly inspiring and given time it will start to open up your own creativity. The world needs more guys like Mike Roberts.