Coachbuilders in the modern idiom
When Bill Wood and Les Pickett formed their first official working partnership as Wood and Pickett Ltd. in 1947, their first major order was to convert three large ambulances on Daimler limousine chassis into luxury display vehicles for the Motor Show.
Their premises at Becketts Yard, Willesden were nominally rented from Park Ward in return for priority on coachwork for that famous name. Today, after trials and tribulations that included a major fie in 1961, they are settling into premises at Victoria Road, South Ruslip, acquired in June last year.
Messrs. Wood and Pickett are still with their company, Les proudly showing off his craftsmanship with hides that are not quite what they used to be in size. Today management is in the hands of affable former Radford employee Eddie Collins. He joined the company in the 1965/66 winter as a salesman, but soon climbed to managing director as a new lifeline appeared for some practitioners of the coachbuilding trade in the sixties.
The mechanical saviour of this concern, and a helpful machine to many small motor businesses of the period, was the Mini. Cheap enough for many to own, everyone seemed to want their own interpretation of the Issigonis design. Those at the top naturally wanted to set themselves apart, so for nearly fifteen years now the Mini has provided an excellent source of revenue for Wood & Pickett. However, it would be wrong to imply that they were the only coachworks to make an impact in this field.
By 1966 the company had produced Minis for Hayley Mills, the first of their customers for such work. The former child film actress was followed by Laurence Harvey and an average of one customer a month for these carefully painted and trimmed Minis. In those days the luxury conversions cost about £1,000; today Wood and Pickett produce a seven page list of work and equipment they can supply for Leyland’s smallest car, so you could doubles, spend £10,000.
However, though I drive a typical W&P converted Mini and will return to the subject alter in this article, the point of vising the company today was to emphasise that the Mini business is not the company’s primary activity. In fact, since 1976 the most popular subject for W & P expertise has been the Range Rover, in which they have invested considerable time and money, producing everything from simple add-on-items to complete vehicles tailored to the tastes of overseas politicians. The latter apparently have need of Range Rovers that can pursue game or fight for the life of the occupants via armoury mounted on the roof and armoured cabs!
Some 65 per cent of this West London company’s business is now in the export market, much of it in Range Rovers carrying different frontal styling and superbly executed leather-trimmed passenger compartments. There are now 45 employees within premises that would be big enough to house a small production line the size of the one used to produce those Escort Mexicos and RS2000s in the days of Ford Advanced Vehicle Operations.
Diversification is a popular word amongst company chairmen seeking to distract their main business, but for W&P the word is an important clue to their future. Currently they have the Recaro seat concession in Britain and a wide range of accessories. These range from steering wheels to beautifully made cocktail cabinets with opulently polished and finished wooden exteriors.
The real interest lies in the workshops where the versatility and flexibility of the company is well displayed. In one area I found the Les Pickett and a selection of ides that matched not only the rainbow but quite a few frankly hideous shades that nature does not inflict on us. The staff nodded sagely and mutely agreed that customer taste often was eccentric, but they are in business to satisfy wealthy individual whims, not deny them.
The majority of W&P seat output will be trimmed in leather, but hey still sell a large number of cloth finished expensive seats (up to £410 each) through the Recaro range.
Not far away from the seat and trimming area lay an Alfasud, a Golf and a silver Mini in various states of completion. MD Collins is expected the Golf GTi to inherit the Mini mantle as a chic car for the rich and sees a lot of scope in replacing the traditionally stark German trim for the luxury British wood and leather finish. A German concern has become involved in the idea of selling a limited production run and the impetus to upgrade the Alfasud has come from the same country.
The silver Mini? That is part of a 50 car run based on either the 1275 GT or Clubman automatic. AT some £5,500 complete it is comparatively cheap by W&P standards and it really does not look too different at a casual glance to the recent Leyland run of be-spatted Minis. Doubtless most customers will soon alter that state of affairs.
Obviously there were a lot of Range Rovers on hand, even one six-wheeler, but I must admit I am not really enthused about these converted vehicles. I think the standard one is built to do a job with a well-balanced specification. Items like turbocharging and white leather trim seem rather excessive and beter suited to catalogue than actual use. W&P do the leather trim beautifully in the cabin. On the mechanical side even they seemed a little worried about turbo temperatures in hot climates at slow speeds. A different matter is the kind of tailor-made game/light armoured useful pick-up of great mobility and visual appeal. That obviously was built for more than posing!
The company still take in a number of vehicles for complete restoration work. The interesting selection at the time of my visit included a Rolls-Royce Corniche that had been used as a taxi in Haiti for a luxury hotel; Mercedes 300SL gullwing’ another Rolls, but dating from the thirties, and a Jaguar XK. Eddie Collins told us that they deliberately keep their restoration work at a low key, preferring to fill in workshop time with such activities, rather than try and run it as a main business. I should say that the restoration work undertaken is of body and trim, rather than mechanical.
On the way out of the works to drive one of the company’s Margrave converted Minis I noticed that Peter Sellers had shifted his affections from modified Mini to a luxury Autobianchi A112, the cheekly little Italian car making the perfect base for yet another twist to the individual small car theme.
The Mini I drove probably cost the customer another £6,000 on top of the 1275 GT’s purchase price. AS the W&P MD frankly told me, “we inform customers that, no matter how much they spend on a Mini, they will not get a soft riding, quiet car like a Jaguar.” At first the truth of that statement put me off a bit. You can still hear the gearbox whining and the car joggled over suburban bumps nearly as jauntily as its cheaper cousins.
After a few miles the irritation of the full-length fabric sunroof flapping wore off, to be replaced by an enjoyment of the open air roof position and the comfort of the seating. The smell of leather when you first get in is almost worth the extra money on its own, and the polished wooden dashboard, together with various detail changes, soon conspire you make you forget the car’s origins. I finished the run, over the kind of town going in which such a car is normally used, with a much clearer idea of why such modified Minis have proved popular.
I can also understand how customers, who very from celebrities like Linda McCartney to working housewives, enjoy shopping through the W&P list of changes they can make. Here they can balance the merits of everything from a £5 leather gear lever knob to the 31,395 Margrave interior in Connolly hide. Seats are tailored to the customer and equipped with electric seat rake adjustment, plus air cushions.
I also enjoyed a ride as passenger in a rather flashy Rover SD1 that they are working on: the potential for a better interior has only been partially realised by Leyland with the S derivative. I could only agree with Wood & Pickett’s management as to the potential from their viewpoint in a better finished Rover.
On such future projects depends the continuing employment of another generation of craftsmen in leather, wood, coachwork and paint. It is not the “good old days” of creating complete individual bodies upon a separate chassis, but it does show that, so long as man and motor cars exist, there will always be a demand for something exclusive, and somebody will always be prepared to pay the price for such work –J. W.