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Restoring classic American car fulfils long-held dream

Flagstaff Team

On the road… Devonport photographer Veronique Cornille celebrated restoring a neglected 1960 Chevrolet with a South Island road trip on which strangers often approached her to talk about her car

A sparkling midnight-blue 1960 Chevrolet is a rare sight along Devonport’s waterfront and a lovingly restored Bel Air quickly attracts admirers.

As local photographer Veronique Cornille poses with the car for the Flagstaff, an American tourist lines up to request a photo of his own and, before long, the three of us are driving back to Victoria Rd.

The tourist, Crispin, says, “This is what I love about New Zealand.”

He is enthusiastic about the throaty sound of the engine, the pearl steering wheel, plush bench seats, vinyl ceiling embossed with stars, gleaming steel trims and features such as a petrol tank accessed from a hatch in the bumper.

Cornille has just returned from a month’s trip around the South Island, celebrating her car’s transformation and working on a book project.

“She makes me so radiantly happy – she’s a cruising car not a town car.”

Cornille hopes her story will encourage others to pursue their dreams.

When Cornille was a child growing up on a farm in Port Waikato in a Flemish family, her uncle went back to Belgium and returned with a wife and a magnificent car, she says.

“I didn’t know what it was called, but I do remember it was huge and majestic with bat wings. Ever since I have dreamed of owning one.”

For years, Cornille almost forgot her dream, until a couple of years ago, she was passing through Cambridge with a friend, when a group of classic cars arrived and stopped.

“We were standing in a group looking at a car, when, thinking out loud, I said, ‘I’ve always wanted a 59 Impala, but what happens when you break down?’

“A stranger replied, ‘They come from miles around to help you.’”

The man, Kevin, offered to mentor her through the process of purchasing one.

At that time, Cornille was overwhelmed with grief after her mother’s death and a new project offered an antidote to her sense of desolation.

Over the next 18 months, Cornille searched for a Chevrolet Impala, culminating, last year, in placing an advertisement in a motoring magazine, which a Waikato farmer responded to.

Kevin looked over the farmer’s car and declared, despite its neglected state, it had “good bones”.

The Chevrolet was full of rat poo, rodents had feasted on its wiring and rubber. The windscreen had a huge crack. There were wires hanging out of the dash, which had been painted black with big strokes and, when Cornille took the car for a drive and applied the brakes, she went into a spin.

Undaunted, Cornille embarked on coordinating an eight-month-long restoration project.

She wasn’t fazed, as she had been familiar with machinery as a child, growing up on a farm, and had an early job working for General Motors. She went on to do all sorts of jobs, including rousing, owning a kiwifruit orchard and running a New Zealand-made tourism shop in Nelson.

Cornille has been in Devonport for seven years – focussing on photography and, until early this year, car restoration.

This article originally appeared in the July 12 edition of The Devonport Flagstaff. Download PDF.