Master craftsmen: RS Panels

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You couldn’t say ‘RS Panels’ is a famous name; it’s one of those monikers you often see mentioned in restoration stories without knowing much more about it. Yet quite quietly the Nuneaton outfit has been central to some very well-known enterprises. Inside a capacious workshop I meet father and son Bob and James Smith, the ‘Ss’ in RS. Bob of course is the ‘R’ who started it more than 50 years ago, and he still hasn’t stopped.


The Essentials

Name RS Panels. Specialisation Alloy bodies and components, and classic car restoration. Established 1964. Founded by Robert SmithNumber of employees 13. Premises Nuneaton. www.rspanels.co.uk


This is a firm of two halves, although you wouldn’t know it; Andrew’s and Bob’s sections are technically separate, although it’s easier to talk of RS Panels collectively. Bob explains in his rich Midlands accent that in 1964 after learning his craft he began a business mending damaged cars, and that expanded rapidly. To handle classics, always his intention, he later opened RS Panels SVV – Sportscar, Veteran, Vintage – which also burgeoned.

“XK Jaguars were beginning to be restored, so I made jigs for wings, and soon we were doing a lot of Aston work – DB3Ss, and 63PH, one of the three lightweight Zagatos.” Several Lister-Jaguars came here to become Knobblys too – they wouldn’t dare do that nowadays…

Soon manufacturers started to call. RS made prototype panels for the XJ40, including building XJ6 mules for the new running gear, and worked on Discovery prototypes, cementing a Jaguar Land Rover link that continues today. By now RS had restored Ferrari SWBs and a GTO, including crafting GTO shells for conversions, and was making all the Lynx C and D-types which led on to restoring original cars, too. “We’ve worked on 23 of the 53 Cs built,” says James proudly, “including all three lightweight cars. And three of the six works alloy 120s. And the Ferrari Breadvan.” Later on it transpires that Neil Corner sent his Grand Prix Mercedes W154 here after its racing crunch. “That was unbelievable,” enthuses James. “Engineering at its peak!”

The famous cars that have passed through the firm’s hands are legion, but here they don’t do much trumpet-blowing.

All this demanded new premises, so Bob sold his 365GTC and long-nose Lynx and in 1982 built the present building, fronted by a smart showroom where a flat-floor E-type, a  3½-litre SS saloon and a drophead XK150S gleam under the lights.

“A big part of our work is Lightweight Es,” says Bob (right). “I decided in 1987 it would be a good idea to get into them, so I had tooling made for all the parts for a Lightweight – suspension forgings, uprights, wheels and the complete alloy monococque. We built well into double figures back then – far more than the factory did. It’s given us tremendous turnover, and led to supplying and restoring real cars.”

“That’s a real one Dad’s leaning on!” chips in James. I’d never have known that this stripped metal frame was one of the sacred dozen original Lightweights, which Bob is currently restoring.

All this led to two high-profile projects to which RS is crucial, but rarely acknowledged. They construct all the Eagle E-type bodies, those gorgeous specials that look even slinkier than Malcolm Sayer’s vision, and they’re also central to Jaguar’s own run of new Lightweights. James explains: “We built Car Zero and they scanned that to build the six new shells. But we supplied all the outer panels – bonnets, doors, boot, seats, tanks, pedals, and Dad supplied wheels and suspensions. In fact, we assembled complete corners for them!”

There’s nothing unusual in this: major manufacturers often turn to specialists for small-run and prototype work. Abbey Panels of Coventry shaped the original XK120s and all the Cs and Ds, as well as prototypes for dozens of other marques. RS is following a fine tradition.

That run is now finished. Meanwhile in Bob’s fiefdom there’s the Lightweight E (I don’t know which – it’s confidential), a buck for GTO Ferrari bodies (“We’ve built five,” says Bob), and the fastback form of a Jaguar SS1 Airline coupé which Andy (a 34-year RS veteran) is preparing for painting, the rakish body promising more than the side-valve Standard engine would deliver. They weren’t fast, but this was the start of Jaguar’s ethos of superb style. Behind, peeking from under covers, are the tail lights of a 1956 Ferrari 500 TR sports racer, newly finished. Not what you expect on a Nuneaton industrial estate…

After lunch in a super-cool meeting room whose glossy fittings and orange chairs are a shock after a workshop tour, we pass into James’s section, where E-type bonnets stand. “Those are the alloy Eagle ones,” says panelmaker Sean Nicklin. “They’re made of 10 separate pieces and deseamed.” Standard bonnets are pressed on tooling Bob rescued from a closing Abbey Panels works. “I tried to buy the original GT40 jigs too,” he says, “but they’d been scrapped the week before.”

There’s another new Lightweight shell here too, on which apprentice Jake Willis is fitting a sill section with a careful eye. He used to be a joiner, so hand shaping comes naturally. Around us is hefty machinery: a surface plate and adjustable jig rescued from Browns Lane, bench presses, the vast spidery arms of a massive spot welder. “Every spot weld and rivet on a Lightweight is identically placed to the original,” says James, adding that they’ve now built around 50 alloy shells. And a copy of the Lindner/Nocker streamliner.

In contrast to the heavy equipment, one wall sports rows of wooden patterns to create panels for dozens of different cars; they will be wheeled or hand-beaten with mallets on traditional sandbags by Sean or Paul Winters, who’s been here for 40 years. “I give a watch when someone passes 25 years,” says Bob. “I’ve given out six now, so I must be doing something right.”

No doubt James will carry this on. He took over SVV 12 years back after many years learning the trade with his dad on the shop floor. Now he manages 13 people “and I think we’ve got the best team we’ve ever had”. Including Tony Horton, who was brought in years ago to work on Colin Crabbe’s Cuban XKSSs and is still here, trimming a door skin.

There are young faces too, so the handcraft of stretching and cajoling flat sheets of metal into the sinuous forms of a D-type or a 1950s Ferrari are being passed on. We watch as Sean folds return edges into an E-type door skin, marvelling at the smooth movement needed to make the perfect edge, and again as Tony demonstrates how the whirling rounded English wheel bellies sheet aluminium alloy into swelling curves. It’s a kind of magic.

On trestles a turquoise XK120 is having its first-ever teardown in over 60 years in a single ownership to replace the ash frame, and it’s not proving simple. Sean, while drilling out door hinge bolts, explains that these were built using BSF bolts and now to retain originality they have to machine their own BSF hardware. That’s dedication.

“What’s this then?” James is uncovering the remains of – something. It’s what’s left of E1A, the first E prototype, a lumpy cross between D and E with clear lineage of the Le Mans racer’s construction. It was chopped up and scrapped, but rescued from 8ft down a pile of wrecked metal. Even for RS it’s too far gone, but since E2A has recently been restored James plans to construct ‘an E1A’ with some of its components. That seems an acceptable plugging of a historical gap in the story of a marque which has been bound up with this small firm of Midlands craftsmen since it began.

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