The Day the Prime Minister Called

By Greg Nathan posted January 27, 2022

This is a story about three important values - excellence, service and integrity. It starts on a sleepy Saturday morning back in 1978 when the phone rang. My parents were still in bed. Mum picked up the receiver and recalls hearing a deep, cultured voice. "Good morning. Could I speak with Mr Victor Nathan please". She elbowed dad in the ribs and handed him the phone. "I think it's the Prime Minister - he wants to talk to you!"

We are a family of practical jokers, so dad mumbled "yeah yeah" and casually put the phone to his ear. But he quickly sat up when he realised it really was our then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, on the line. It turns out the Prime Minister was a car enthusiast, and wanted to talk with dad, an automotive engineer, about a 1960's Lancia Zagato Super Sports he had imported, and wanted restored. He said he had done his homework and specifically selected dad because of his reputation for excellence, service and integrity.

Later that day the two men met at dad's auto-repair shop in Melbourne to discuss how they would bring the banged up beauty back to pristine condition. The deal was that dad was to personally supervise the restoration, and that nobody was to know who the customer was. From then on, dad would regularly head into the business on the weekends to reveal the latest progress to his secret customer, which included hand restoring the panels, chrome plating every nut and bolt, and applying 25 coats of paint. Dad looked forward to those meetings with his new car buddy, who had told him, "When it's just you and me Vic, I'm Malcolm, but when others are around, I'm Mr Prime Minister".

Nine months later there was an official unveiling of the fully restored Lancia, where dad's team of tradesmen finally got to meet their secret customer. The press were there and an article appeared in the daily newspaper. Looking at this article now, I find it interesting that there is a large photo of our smiling Prime Minister with the shining car and the team who worked on the project, but no dad. I can only assume he deliberately chose not to be in that photo as he wanted his staff to get the recognition. I think that's pretty cool and a testament to what a great leader he was.

The reason I'm sharing this story is that dad was a superb role model for the values of excellence, service and integrity that have become so important to the work we do at FRI, and also to the work of my brother, who became a celebrated artisan woodworker. You could say it was dad's legacy. Not surprisingly the car also had its own legacy. One of my staff has found reference to the car in a 2015 obituary, reporting that it was Malcolm Fraser's signature car, was displayed for a time at the Australian National Car Museum, and was awarded the 2005 Lancia Factory Trophy for the Best Post War Restoration.

And while Malcolm Fraser, who was a towering figure, had a reputation of being aloof, dad always described him as humble, caring and friendly. Indeed, in later years, these humane leadership qualities emerged more publicly as Mr Fraser aggressively advocated for the care of refugees and the under privileged, and an abhorrence of racism in his leadership roles with various humanitarian organisations such as World Vision.

As we move back into gear for the year ahead, I genuinely believe that if we can keep these values of excellence, service and integrity alive, we will all be the better for it.

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