I shall be pleased to assist you with your question today.
The law of "Bailment" applies in this instance. This is where a third party (Bailee) holds property which belongs to another (the Bailor). This is usually in order to do something with the property, for example store it or carry out work on it. The normal scenario where we all engage in baliment is with dry cleaning for example.
A Bailor retains rights over their property unless they are specifically surrendered or where the terms and conditions of the agreement allow for it. Using the dry cleaning scenario, it is a fairly standard term (normally displayed on notices in the shops or on the rear of your ticket) that the shop, acting as Bailee, can dispose of your property if it have not been collected within 3 months.
As such you Father's estate would normally retain rights over the vehicle. The difficulty here is the significant passage of time involved. The other important issue to bear in mind is the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977.
The Act removed a lot of the complexity in respect of the operation of the law of bailment and goods which remained in the possession of the Bailee. The Act authorises the Bailee to sell goods transferred in the course of a business to satisfy sum owing where:
- The Bailor is in breach of an obligation to take possession of goods or give directions for their return;
- The Bailee cannot trace the Bailor;
- The Bailee can be expected to be discharged of any further obligations in respect of the goods.
As such, if there has been work carried out on the vehicle, for which no payment has been made - or if there are storage charges involved for which the owner of the vehicle can reasonably be expected to pay, then the Bailee is entitled to sell the vehicle in order to meet those costs. In those circumstances I should have thought that the vehicle may have been disposed of some time ago.
I cannot say exactly what agreement was reached by your Father and the restorer in 1979, and I suspect no-one can anymore, however the restorer would be entitled to seek payment for storage given that over 30 years has passed since the vehicle was left with them if they still have it. Taking that into account, the storage costs alone could be very significant and in making an approach for the vehicle now you may leave your Father's estate (and by extension your Mother) open to a claim for recovery of those charges which would exceed the value of the vehicle.
You must bear in mind that the vehicle may have been sold on under the powers provided by the Act to the restorer quite justifiably. One cannot say whether the agreement between them and your Father would have allowed the restorer to sell in the absence of payment, but if work was carried out and cost incurred then they would be entitled to sell the vehicle in any case in accordance with the Act.
As such I take the view that this property is now outside of your Father's estate and is very likely irrecoverable. If you do take steps to recover it, you may well expose the estate to a significant liability in terms of storage and as such you may decide that it is not worth pursuing. Were I in your position that is the view I would take.
I am sorry that this is probably not the news you were hoping for, but the significant passage of time here is a very significant hurdle to overcome for you and your Mother. I hope this answers your question. Please do not forget to rate so that I can close off your request.