celebrating a sense of place

British engineer, William Hillman, was already a millionaire in 1907, having made a fortune producing bicycles, when he decided to switch to four wheels and began manufacturing motor cars. Teaming up with Breton-born, French engineer and race car driver, Louis Coatalen, they produced their first automobiles; the Hillman-Coatalen, in a 25 hp four-cylinder and a 40 hp six-cylinder model. In 1908, Coatalen drove one of the cars in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race, where he set the record for the fastest lap ever, before crashing and leaving the race. But the partnership between Hillman and Coatalen was short-lived. Coatalen would go on to greater fame as a designer and driver, while Hillman re-registered his company as the Hillman Motor Company in 1910, and manufactured his first successful selling car in 1913. Hillman died in 1921, and his company was eventually absorbed by the Rootes brothers, who then merged with Humber. Over time, Hillman’s evolved from large touring automobiles to smaller more economical cars that became a favorite for British families looking for an affordable motoring option.

In 1931, the Hillman Minx, a mid-sized family car, was introduced and was manufactured in several different versions until 1971. For a short time in the 1950s, Minxes were sold in the United States to thrifty American families looking for a car with better gas mileage. Advertised as an ideal car for town and country use, including “for work on farms or plantations – anywhere the going is hard,” the humble but sturdy Minx made its way into a number of American garages. Locally, one of those garages (or barns actually) belonged to James J. Casey, a 1937 graduate of Columbia University, who served as lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II, and was a founding partner of the law firm Casey, Lane and Mittendorf in New York City. Casey was also a member of the United Nations Administrative Tribunal from 1960 to 1963 and a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, as well as having served as a director of several corporations and clubs in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

In 1955, Casey bought a Hillman Minx Mark VIII Estate car, which was put to use on their farm in Peapack, NJ, and on the country roads of the Somerset Hills.

“It was just when I started to go to Far Hills Country Day School and this was the carpool car,” recalled Anne H.C. van den Bergh, daughter of James and Anne Gambrill Casey. “My mother would drive down the road with my Pyne cousins, and Walter and Georgie Terry, and we would all be piled in. It drove probably 15-years’ worth of children. So we all knew it. After we’d all gone wherever we went – high school and boarding school – my father would use it as a station car and he was always last minute. He would get to Peapack and the train would be pulling out of the station, so he would rev up the Hillman and he would drive as fast as he could to Far Hills… if he missed it there he would go on to Bernardsville, and so on. Everyone knew this car and they were used to see it flying… through the countryside.”

When the Casey’s Hillman got too old to chase trains, they put it to work on their property, which was once part of Anne’s great grandfather, C. Ledyard Blair’s, vast estate, “Blairsden.” Anne van den Bergh’s brother and sister, Richard and Edith, learned to drive a stick shift driving the Hillman, and her father employed it to inspect his tree farm.

“He used to go out and look at all his Christmas trees, because Dower Farm was his Christmas tree business. He started it and he loved it,” said Anne.

But the driving tours around the property weren’t without their own hazards.

“One day the car went half-way into a large sink hole up by what is now the Alpaca Farm (Bluebird Farm),”  Anne recalled. “So that was very exciting. It had to be pulled out.”

After nearly two decades of hard driving, the old Hillman was retired to the barn, where it sat rusting for almost another thirty years, until James Casey passed away in 2001, and the family turned the car over to Tom Rossiter. Tom found the car rusting under a layer of “chicken poop and straw” and brought it back to The Stable, where he’s been selling “thoroughbred motorcars” since 1973. Located on Main Street, in Gladstone, The Stable is a mecca for discerning car enthusiasts looking for classic sports and luxury vehicles, and Tom is renowned worldwide for his discriminating taste and expertise. Drive by his showroom on any given day and you’re liable to see anything from a gleaming black and silver/grey side-paneled 1937 Bentley, or 1951 Jaguar Coupe, to a fiery red, 2008 Ferrari Spider. Unfortunately, the Hillman, a rare classic in its own right, was in no shape for the showroom and was put in storage until the right customer came along. That customer was Mike Humphries, a British expat from Newcastle, who collects cars from his native country.

Mike began collecting British autos in 1980, when he purchased a 1974 Triumph Spitfire convertible and used it to commute to work in Linden.

“That was a bit hair-raising among the trucks on Rt. 1/9,” he admitted.

Humphries now lives in Maryland but was formerly from Randolph Township, NJ, where his son still resides (along with Mike’s 1974 Jensen Healey convertible). Mike is an old customer of Tom Rossiter’s and still has the first car he bought from Tom 31 years ago – a green 1971 Jensen Interceptor II. (One of ten cars he has bought from Tom over the years – as his wife recently reminded him). He was at The Stable three years ago and mentioned to Tom that his first car back in the U.K. was a Hillman Husky.

“I’ve got a Hillman in the barn,” Tom told him.

“The reason I got this one is the front part is exactly the same as my first car, when I was a student. It cost me 35 pounds. It was a Hillman, just shorter. It lasted a year, maybe two and it rusted away.”

The Casey’s Hillman was in even worse condition.

“Everything below the level of the doors was rusted out. There was no floor on the passenger side,” he told us.

But that didn’t prevent Mike, who happens to I have a PhD in Metallurgy and is a specialist in corrosion, from buying the old Hillman and bringing it back to Maryland to be restored.

“I bought it 3 years ago and my wife said ‘I would be dead before it was done!’” “That helped catalyze the guys that were working on it.”

While Mike did the electrical wiring himself, which he ordered from England. He worked with Hudson Auto Body in Maryland, to restore the chassis and install a newer 1974 Hillman engine.

“This was well planned,” said Mike. “We said originally that we would bring it back. The guys (at Hudson’s) looked at all the cars that Tom has and said ‘we have to do it to that standard’…the chrome cost a fortune… I have no count and no idea of the cost. I haven’t kept track of the cost. I’d be terrified. But you know, it has provided me with 3 years of entertainment and enjoyment. This is the 4th Hillman that I’ve owned. When I lived in England, I had 3 of them.”

Recently, Mike and the team from Hudson Auto Body, brought the Hillman back to New Jersey for a homecoming. It was the first outing for the restored Hillman, which Mike plans to show and drive locally. After visiting The Stable to show Tom the finished restoration, they returned to the James Casey’s farm in Gladstone, where his daughter Anne still resides.

“It sounds just the same as when my father owned it,” she said as the Hillman rolled up the drive.


The Hillman Comes Home

By C.G. Wolfe  Photos By Susan Pedersen