Ray Robertson and his 1923 Gray Coach. Photo by Tim Cuff.

Wheel Love: a 1923 Gray Coach


When farmers Donald and Marion Robertson bought their Gray Coach in 1923, they could never have imagined the extent to which it would enrich the lives of generations to come.

Initially, the Robertson family of seven would squeeze into the narrow four-seater to make the 21-mile trek off their farm Boggawalla on the West Coast to the nearest town of Ikamatua.

Over the years Donald put the vehicle to farm use, jacking up the wheels on blocks to drive a plough via a winch system, turning the vehicle into a truck by cutting the cab off, and using the roofing section as a shed for a water pump.

Wheel Love Grey historic INP

The Robertson family's Gray was used as a farm vehicle.

The Gray assisted with other Kiwi ingenuity on the farm with parts repurposed as needed, such as the metal luggage straps refashioned as handles for kitchen cabinets and a window replacing a broken pane in the farmhouse door.

It was only in 1972, when Donald passed away and the remains of the vehicle were gifted to grandson Ray Robertson – then 17 ­– that the extent to which the vehicle’s parts had been scattered became evident.

Most were rusted – including the chassis with the engine – and the timber of the body had started to rot, but Ray and his father and uncle decided to take on the restoration. They thought the project would take five years or so.

But they faced many challenges along the way, including making the wheel spokes. “It was quite a technical process,” Ray recalls. “We had an old wheelwright helping us. By the time I’d tracked down the ‘proper wood’ he’d told me to find, which was Southland Cherry Beech, and dried the log in a very specific way, it’d taken four years. When we eventually started to make the spokes, the old guy was going strong at 96 and he told us what to do and how to do it.”

The first wheel took 96 hours. They made all four and a spare.    

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The 1923 Gray undergoes its long restoration.

Ray’s toil continued after marriage and children. Eventually he managed to get the four-cylinder, 2.9 litre, three speed engine going. For the bodywork, he worked without coachbuilding gear like rollers and folding machines, instead shaping pieces of wood then bending sheets of metal around them to achieve the right shapes.

By 1996, with nearly 3,000 restoration hours under his belt and his father having passed away, Ray lost motivation and decided to take a break. 

Then, in February 2007, his eldest son Chê asked how long it would take to finish the job.

“I told him a couple of years,” says Ray. “Then he asked how long it would take if he helped me because he wanted to use the Gray for his wedding car. That was basically how he told me he was getting married!” With the wedding date set for January the following year, the pair worked in earnest to get the vehicle ready. “We worked so late on it every evening we even fell asleep underneath it one night,” says Ray.

Then, six months before the wedding, Ray had a motorbike accident that left him with a broken wrist and dislocated shoulder.

Instead of scuppering their plans, friends and family chipped in to help push the project on. By August Ray was spraying primer on the parts with both arms still in plaster, with his kids visiting each evening to sand the panels down. Others who heard about the restoration helped too, including vehicle collector Sir Len Southward who supplied the bonnet badge. The vehicle was finally finished and signed off as roadworthy just two days before the wedding. Ray proudly chauffeured the newlyweds on their special day.

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Ray Robertson with his beautifully restored 1923 Gray Coach today. Photo by Tim Cuff.

Ray was also thrilled to be able to drive the fully restored car to show his 87-year-old aunt at her nursing home. “When she reached in through the window and turned the lights on, tears rolled down her face. She said when she was three years old, her father would let her flick the switch to light them up. At that time, they only had kerosene lamps on the farm, so it was like magic to a child.”

In total, the entire restoration involved 4,200 hours over 36 years. Ray says he is very grateful to everyone who pitched in.  “There’re lots of people who’ve given me help and when I look back on it that's probably the thing that is most special about it all.”


Story by Fiona Terry or the Winter 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Fiona Terry is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to AA Directions Magazine.

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