How Facebook helped return a vintage car that went missing in Ballarat

Happy ending: John Woodmansey with his recently recovered 1975 HJ Statesman de ville. Photo: Paul Jeffers.
Happy ending: John Woodmansey with his recently recovered 1975 HJ Statesman de ville. Photo: Paul Jeffers.

When John Woodmansey was reunited with his 1975 HJ Statesman de ville this week, it had been a long and painful journey.

It all began in Ballarat around six months ago, when John paid someone to do a bit of panel beating work on his car.

"My very first car was a Statesman," he said. "When this one came along, I drove for eight hours to have a look."

The offer had come through Facebook, on one of the car groups John was a member of. The quote was an attractive one, around half the cost of the professionals in town.

So John decided to do it. He put his pride and joy with the 308 V8 engine on the back of a truck, a decision he would come to regret.

"Stupidly I believed him, I left the car there," he said.

For months, John was sending money through to the panel beater's bank account and in return he was sent pictures to show what work was being done.

Then, suddenly, the panel beater stopped answering John's messages and blocked him on Facebook. Something wasn't right. So John went over with some friends to get the car back.

The car was gone and so was the panel beater.

John Woodmansey after he realised his panel beater had stolen his beloved Statesman. Photo: Paul Jeffers

John Woodmansey after he realised his panel beater had stolen his beloved Statesman. Photo: Paul Jeffers

John contacted the police but they said they couldn't help because he dropped the car off himself. It was considered a civil matter.

But after a bit of pushing, they declared the car stolen. Meanwhile, John started spreading his story on Facebook car groups, the same places he found the panel beater.

With an unusual colour combination of silver with a blue roof, the car was easy to spot.

Tips started to flood in. The car had been seen in Horsham, it had been sold to someone in Maryborough, it was roaming the streets of Melbourne.

"They all ended up being false leads," he said.

Amazingly, the panel beater started to send messages back, taunting John with photos of the car and telling him that he was going to strip it for parts.

Family members of the panel beater who had seen John's quest were calling. Everyone in the classic car world was talking about it online.

Then things went quiet. John hadn't heard anything more from police and was beginning to think the Statesman was gone for good. He lodged a civil claim with VCAT but that wasn't much help while the panel beater was missing.

"I'd pretty much got to the point where I'd given up," he said.

Was his Statesman even in the same state?

Out of the blue, he got a call from a police officer to say the panel beater was in jail in Queensland and that his car was in Renmark, South Australia. Someone had bought it, unaware of its history.

"I didn't believe him at first because so many people said they had spotted the car," he said. "Even though it was police I was dubious it was true."

Another call from the police confirmed it was his Statesman. John was in high spirits, thinking his car was on the way home.

But all good stories have a twist in the tail and John's was no different. The insurance company was not playing ball and wanted him to bid for the car.

"That was a kick in the guts," he said.

But the squeaky wheel gets the oil and John made some more phone calls to push his case. Finally, he was told his car would be on a truck back home.

It finally arrived this week. He reckons the car had three, maybe four owners in the time they were apart.

He's pretty excited to get the Statesman back on the road in the next six months or so.

"It does look like it's copped a few dents, overall it's still in one piece," he said.