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Peter Nesbitt Spotlight
One Man's Journey Building "Art that Works"

Story by Nanette Malher
Classic car photos by D. Pierce Studio

The blackness of night glowed intermittently with what could have been taken for fireworks had it not been for the roar of radial engines and the foreboding whines of bombs falling from the sky. It was 1944. London was under attack by the unrelenting German Luftwaffe.

Within the chaos of the sirens, the smell of expelled gunpowder, and people running through the streets, a little boy was herded quickly into a concrete air-raid bunker with his mother and neighbors. He craned his neck up to get a glimpse of the fascinating dogfights in the air. His child's eye saw only the art of the machines in combat.

"The town I lived in was a garrison town," Peter Nesbitt of Matchless Transportation recalls with a thick Cockney accent. "I lived next to the biggest armory factory in the world at the time. They made all sorts of things: tanks, guns, shells. So the Germans would come over every night and try to bomb it. They must have gotten the geography wrong, because they kept missing it. There was a butcher shop across the street from where I lived. One night it got hit and the two houses behind it."

The Nesbitts were forced to move three times from their first home in Plumstead, a suburb of southeast London. In between the moves, Peter was sent off to Manchester to live with a foster family for a year for his own protection. "If you've ever seen the film 'No Time to Wave Goodbye,' that was my life," Peter said. "We were little kids and we all had a label on us at the train station — like little packages with our names and addresses — and people would come forward at each town and take us home."

Peter's family survived World War II, and like their working-class neighbors, they wasted no time rebuilding their lives. They settled back in Plumstead next to a motorcycle factory that had been fenced off to house top-secret, khaki-green WD (war department) motorcycles. Inside that factory, people were building the infamous Matchless Motorcycle.

"My mother worked at the arsenal during the war, and she was in the civil defense as well, driving a Red Cross ambulance," Peter said. "She got blown out of one of them because of an indirect hit at the arsenal. A blast came between two buildings and blew her and her co-worker right out of the ambulance. She bashed up her knees, but she recovered. After the war, she went to work for Matchless."

Matchless is one of the oldest brands, or marques, of British motorcycles, which were manufactured in Plumstead en masse starting in 1901. The company produced a variety of models from the two-strokes to 750 cc four-stroke twins. Peter's mother started on the assembly line in the late 1940s and eventually moved up to work in the offices to become a "voting officer."

"When they had new ideas, they'd run it by some of the staff, like a think tank, and my mother was an officer," Peter said. "A Matchless Motorcycle was a piece of art . . . even back then."

Peter's mother wasn't the only one involved with mechanical art. After serving in the RAF (Royal Air Force), Peter's father opened his own motorcycle shop called Southeastern Motorcycles and raced in the Brands Hatch racing circuit. Peter's brother, who was six years older, raced motorcycles on grass tracks.

"My father raced. My brother raced. My uncles raced. We all worked on engines. I sort of followed in their footsteps." Peter's parents divorced when he was 10 years old. He dropped out of school at age 14 and got a job as a van boy on a delivery truck to help his mother, who was struggling. In his spare time, he worked at his father's shop and began racing at age 16, but his mother had already lost one son to a motorcycle accident, so Peter traded two wheels for four at age 17 and began working on cars.

"Eventually I worked my way up to doing engines and transmissions," Peter said. "I built my way up. I learned the hard way. After working as a mechanic apprentice for a used car dealer for two years, I got into my own car business."

In 1967, Peter's mother passed away and he found no reason to stay in England. In 1970, he sold the successful Rover car dealership he had built and travelled to America in 1971 to join his brother on Long Island at his foreign car shop where he became the head mechanic and supervisor, working on the Rolls Royce, Bentley and older British cars.

"It wasn't really what I wanted to do after having a dealership, so I broke away and opened my own store about four miles down the road doing foreign-auto repair," Peter said.

Peter named his business "Matchless Auto Engines" after his admiration for Matchless Motorcycles. He was an artist when it came to restoring and maintaining foreign classic cars. The name "Matchless" and Peter's reputation as a high-end mechanic got around in the vintage car world, and his high-profile clientele increased. He began servicing cars for Geraldo Rivera, actor Peter Boyle and Jeff Scott from CBS. Peter also purchased Lamborghinis and Jensens for Foghat drummer Roger Earl and other rock stars.

His love of all things mechanical and the ease with which he understood how they worked, lured him to start "Matchless Machinery"in 1990, a business in which he built molding machines for everything from printer parts to medical supplies used by the military. He married his neighbor's daughter Diane Croteau in 1993. She was an art major, whom he had employed. The couple's love of great art — moving and non-moving — made them the perfect creative pair.

"Peter is the epitome of the word 'Matchless,' "Diane said. "He is the substance upon which a great reputation is built. He's like a crazy, mad scientist — a back-to-the-future dude — but always in a classy Englishman's ride."

In 1994, Peter and Diane made a visit to Tennessee to visit family members and fell in love with the state. They eventually purchased a piece of property with an airstrip. (Peter's fascination with mechanics hadn't held him to the ground. After years being what he calls a "professional flight student in England, Peter obtained a private pilot license in the U.S. in 1978.)

In 1999, they moved Matchless Machinery to Tennessee. After the events of 9-11 brought the business of plastic molding to a crawl, Peter and Diane decided to re-establish Peter's mechanical skills with Matchless Limousine. They began building a fleet of restored cars, and traditional limousines, running the business out of Cheatham County. In 2005, they moved the business to Nashville proper.

"Diane runs the whole show — the marketing, the booking, the daily running of the business — and she does such a fantastic job," Peter said. "I'm just in the background, restoring cars and keeping the cars running.

"I have a vision when I first think about restoring a car. If I think it will have the appeal to the clientele that we're aiming for, then I'll buy it and restore it. My cars are classic cars. They're not 100-point cars; they're working cars that are kept in pristine condition mechanically and body-wise, but the engine isn't polished like it would be if it were a show car, because they're used daily."

Matchless has 22 cars in the fleet, including the classics: three MkIX Jaguars (1958, 1960 and 1961); four Rolls Royces, including a black stretch; and a 1962 Bentley. Peter also considers his London Taxi a classic, because it so so different from American cars and people look twice when they see it on the road.

"The oldest car we have in the fleet now is a 1958 Jaguar MkIV," Peter said. "I grew up with that car. There aren't a lot of people here who can work on them. They're all original, that's the thing; they're all running on their original engines and transmissions."

Peter doesn't worry about purchasing hard-to-get car parts from England. He knows a lot of English dealers who will help him find the perfect dash panels made of veneered mahogany or cherry wood, custom headliners, or special pieces of chrome. And he always keeps one or two cars for spare parts.

Matchless Transportation's "art" is sought after for special events and film alike. One Jaguar MkIV was recently featured prominently in Carrie Underwood's music video "Mama's Song."Matchless has provided vehicles for many feature films and television shows, but Diane Nesbitt feels that nothing beats seeing the look on a new bride's face as she is escorted off in a Matchless dream. "I worry about the fingerprint smudges a guest may inadvertently get on the windows," she joked. "I always hope the photographer will Photoshop them out!"

As Peter Nesbitt slides into the driver's seat of his 1988, cream-colored Rolls, passers-by stop to gawk. You can see a child's twinkle in his eye — the fondness he holds for a well-built machine.

"My wife is an artist, a fantastic artist," he said. "She's into the art that hangs on the wall. That's great, but it doesn't move. You can't drive it and take it to your friend's house and show it off. You'd look a bit stupid carrying a piece of artwork around with you," Peter laughed. "Whereas we've got these cars. We both have admiration for our old cars, the mainstay of our business, really — the classics. Rolling art that works!"

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