Historic shopfronts ‘selling nostalgia’ win big at national awards

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Antoni Neal, left, built the sets, designed by Alex Burnett, right, and painted by both Alex and special-effects artist Sparky Burnett. This replica Caltex is based off a historic petrol station from Tāhunanui.

BRADEN FASTIER / STUFF/Nelson Mail

Antoni Neal, left, built the sets, designed by Alex Burnett, right, and painted by both Alex and special-effects artist Sparky Burnett. This replica Caltex is based off a historic petrol station from Tāhunanui.

A three-person team has cleaned up at the national sign and display awards for their work at a classic car museum recreating retro shopfronts.

The Old Sign Studio team, Alex and Sparky Burnett and builder Antoni Neal, submitted two shopfronts to the annual NZ Sign & Display Awards, and both won awards – three gold, one silver.

Alex Burnett said the team had been working on the shopfronts for the Nelson Classic Car Museum since September, and he had been “fizzing” about the work since the start, when he had been told to “do what you want” with the displays.

“It’s like an absolute dream job, it’s not even like going to work,” he said.

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Each shopfront – facades which protrude only a few centimetres out from the wall – has been carefully researched to match cars from specific eras in history, from a 1930s car-yard through to shopfronts from the 40s and 50s.

BRADEN FASTIER / STUFF/Nelson Mail

Each shopfront – facades which protrude only a few centimetres out from the wall – has been carefully researched to match cars from specific eras in history, from a 1930s car-yard through to shopfronts from the 40s and 50s.

So far the team has completed a Lamborghini’s Fashion Store and the Lickety Split Milk Bar, which between the two of them won three gold awards for theming and traditional handcrafted and lettering signs, and one silver for traditional handcrafted and lettering signs.

Burnett said winning the awards was a big coup, considering they were up against “the big boys” of signwriting.

“It was two years of entries, because of Covid,” he said.

“We were up against all the big boys, hotels and themed restaurants, and we smashed them.”

Since the awards, they have also completed a replica Art Deco petrol station modelled off one that used to be in Tāhunanui and a vintage car-yard, and have started on a replica of a Four Square from Māpua – which will be complete with a replica retro phone booth and post-box outside.

The team will also be creating a movie theatre and pharmacy shopfront.

Each storefront is matched to a point in time, with cars matching that era nearby. Burnett said he was on “first-name basis” with every second-hand shop in Nelson.

This petrol station no longer exists in its original location in Tāhunanui, but a replica has been built at the Nelson Classic Car Museum.

supplied/Nelson Mail

This petrol station no longer exists in its original location in Tāhunanui, but a replica has been built at the Nelson Classic Car Museum.

“The amount of research has been quite intense to get the year of the cars to match the sets. The service station is an exact replica of the one that used to be in Tāhunanui … The Lamborghini set is 1940s and the cars match that, there’s a 1930s car yard that we’ve built, so we’ve put window prices in them of the actual prices that they were sold at, at the time.”

He said the realism of the sets owed much to Antony Neal’s skills as a builder, who he said could build anything, “he only has to see one photo – it’s amazing”. Neal had even recreated a replica petrol pump.

The finishing touches on the sets were done by Sparky, “probably one of the best special effects artists in the country”.

“All the pillars and things that look like steel – they’re not, that was all her.”

Each part of the displays were researched to match the era of the nearby cars – this fashion shop is a 1940s replica with appropriate fashion from the time.

BRADEN FASTIER / STUFF/Nelson Mail

Each part of the displays were researched to match the era of the nearby cars – this fashion shop is a 1940s replica with appropriate fashion from the time.

Burnett said with three golds and a silver under their belt he was confident to say that his team were “the best in the country” at what they do, and he hoped many people came to the museum to have a look, even if they didn’t have a special interest in classic cars.

“It’s not like a museum there, it’s like an art gallery,” he said.

“We’re not selling cars, we’re not selling petrol, we’re selling nostalgia. We want people to feel like they’re in the 1930s, the 50s, the 60s … Come and have a look at this museum, it’s an art gallery, and these cars are perfect.”

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