Soft spot for an 'ugly' Austin A-35

British car enthusiast Don Ensley once owned a post-war British Leyland double-decker bus; he is building an AC Cobra (289) replica, and he quickly admits he has a soft spot for his “ugly” 1957 Austin A-35.

Ensley, of Rochester Hills, Mich., has spent most of his adult life working on British cars – particularly those from the 1950s through the early 1980s. He opened his own repair shop, English Motors, in Utica back in 1979 and finally left the business in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
>> Browse a photo gallery of Don Ensley’s cars
“I started during an economic down turn and closed up in one,” says the owner of eight British cars.

Ensley has been working on the 1964  AC Cobra replica for over a decade, fabricating an aluminum bonnet or hood and doors for it using a cumbersome English wheel stationed in his garage. The frame of a seat for the Cobra is slowly taking shape there as well. Ensley works in the garage around the carefully covered British racing green 1952 Morgan he earlier restored. Using an industrial-strength 100-year-old Singer sewing machine, he created perfect green leather leather seats in the wood-framed left-hand drive sports car, claiming it wasn’t really so difficult.

The custom leather straps across the bonnet required the making of a tool to shape the ends of them. “I grew up in Bloomsburg, Pa. around British cars,” he says. “My father bought a 1951 Singer in order to save gas. He got it from a Buick dealer’s used-car lot . It was efficient – maybe the engine was a 1500 cc and the car had right-hand drive.”

The seed had been planted. Ensley’s older brother learned to drive on the four-speed Singer as did his sister. As the youngest, Don was last in line for lessons. Both Don and his brother had their eyes on the family Singer, each wanting to buy it. The senior Ensley solved the problem by selling it to someone outside the family. Ensley’s brother eventually bought an A-H 104, his sister bought a Triumph Spitfire and Don purchased a 1963  TVR. The Singer, he says, was destroyed in a flood.

Ensley says if blindfolded he could almost certainly tell a British car from the competition. “There’s a smell inside the car,” he says. “In older models it’s partly the horsehair used to stuff the seats and the smell of wet wood from the carpeting. “None are water-tight,” he says.

Convertible tops never fit perfectly and the engines always leaked oil. Windshield wipers were ineffective and heaters disappointed, he said.  After discharge from the Air Force in 1969, Ensley worked for a decade at a couple of dealership specializing in British cars and motorcycles. When he decided to launch English Motors, he worried about building a customer base and making a profit. Typically he was open only weekdays. But often enthusiasts wanted to stop by on Saturdays for advice, though not necessarily to bring him business.

Ensley emphasizes that his garage was for repairs, not restorations. He did see many owners whose cars came in baskets and boxes. “We didn’t do paint, but we could replace frames,” he says.

Working alongside a full-time mechanic and a young person in training, Ensley says, “We were busy all the time.” And the Leyland double-decker bus, with its moist horsehair seats? What seemed like a good idea at the time to Ensley never panned out. “I had thought of turning it into a motor home but realized it was to tall to go under some overpasses,” he says. And there was no place to store it. Ensley, like many collectors, keeps his cars, tightly wrapped and protected, in an unheated pole barn, waiting for warmer weather and the next touring season.

Even in the depths of a long winter, Ensley keeps busy in a cold garage, working alongside his stunning 1952 Morgan Plus 4, which was given to him in pieces. “Many body parts were missing or too far beyond repair,” he says. “The Morgan Car Company made me the new ‘bonnet,’ or hood, and also the doors, as they still had the patterns. Other body panels and parts of the wood frame I had to make. “I usually have three projects going on at the same time,” he says.