Master craftsmen

Browse pages
Current page

1

Current page

2

Current page

3

Current page

4

Current page

5

Current page

6

Current page

7

Current page

8

Current page

9

Current page

10

Current page

11

Current page

12

Current page

13

Current page

14

Current page

15

Current page

16

Current page

17

Current page

18

Current page

19

Current page

20

Current page

21

Current page

22

Current page

23

Current page

24

Current page

25

Current page

26

Current page

27

Current page

28

Current page

29

Current page

30

Current page

31

Current page

32

Current page

33

Current page

34

Current page

35

Current page

36

Current page

37

Current page

38

Current page

39

Current page

40

Current page

41

Current page

42

Current page

43

Current page

44

Current page

45

Current page

46

Current page

47

Current page

48

Current page

49

Current page

50

Current page

51

Current page

52

Current page

53

Current page

54

Current page

55

Current page

56

Current page

57

Current page

58

Current page

59

Current page

60

Current page

61

Current page

62

Current page

63

Current page

64

Current page

65

Current page

66

Current page

67

Current page

68

Current page

69

Current page

70

Current page

71

Current page

72

Current page

73

Current page

74

Current page

75

Current page

76

Current page

77

Current page

78

Current page

79

Current page

80

Current page

81

Current page

82

Current page

83

Current page

84

Current page

85

Current page

86

Current page

87

Current page

88

Current page

89

Current page

90

Current page

91

Current page

92

Current page

93

Current page

94

Current page

95

Current page

96

Current page

97

Current page

98

Current page

99

Current page

100

Current page

101

Current page

102

Current page

103

Current page

104

Current page

105

Current page

106

Current page

107

Current page

108

Current page

109

Current page

110

Current page

111

Current page

112

Current page

113

Current page

114

Current page

115

Current page

116

Current page

117

Current page

118

Current page

119

Current page

120

Current page

121

Current page

122

Current page

123

Current page

124

Current page

125

Current page

126

Current page

127

Current page

128

Current page

129

Current page

130

Current page

131

Current page

132

Current page

133

Current page

134

Current page

135

Current page

136

Current page

137

Current page

138

Current page

139

Current page

140

Current page

141

Current page

142

Current page

143

Current page

144

Current page

145

Current page

146

Current page

147

Current page

148

Current page

149

Current page

150

Current page

151

Current page

152

Current page

153

Current page

154

Current page

155

Current page

156

Current page

157

Current page

158

Current page

159

Current page

160

Current page

161

Current page

162

Current page

163

Current page

164

Current page

165

Current page

166

Current page

167

Current page

168

Current page

169

Current page

170

Current page

171

Current page

172

Current page

173

Current page

174

Current page

175

Current page

176

Current page

177

Current page

178

Current page

179

Current page

180

This series has so far been uplifting – discovering traditional skills still being practised and passed on to a new generation of craftspeople. But I came away from Vintage Restorations with a profound sense of sadness. For 50 years John Marks has almost single-handedly refined his skills at refurbishing the instruments of classic cars, assembling a staggering reference library and suite of equipment, and yet as he contemplates retirement he says the operation has nowhere to go. “I’ve failed to find anyone to teach,” he says. “So we’re doomed.”

In terms of the national GDP this is trivial, but as John talks us through the resources, the knowledge and the intricate fettlings that mean he can repair and refurbish the chronometric rev counter on your Amilcar or print a new dial for your MG fascia, it seems a criminal waste. 

Once upon a time John worked as an architectural technician but liked fixing mechanical things, and when he mended a car clock a friend brought him, it led to a stream of requests and then a business. All these years on he’s an international expert, entirely self-taught, with customers world-wide.

He’s been halfway to retiring for years, but the requests for help with rare or complex instrumentation keep rolling in, and John keeps sitting down at his bench to solve their problems. It’s a crowded, tightly packed premises, this, an old bakery in a residential street in Tunbridge Wells, yet it’s plainly tidy and well organised. In one room are racked hundreds of manuals from the likes of Smiths Instruments and Lucas detailing the exact specification of dials for an HRG or Daimler Conquest. Next along, rows of order books. “We’re on book 88 now,” says John. “I don’t know how many instruments we’ve restored altogether, but I think we’ve done 60,000 temperature gauges.”

Upstairs, via a striking metal spiral stair (“People think it looks smart but it was the cheapest thing at the time…”) are endless shelves and drawers holding dials, glasses, pointers, bearings, tubing, all neatly boxed and labelled ‘MG P-type oil’, ‘Bugatti T57 0-8000rpm’ and ‘Auto Union C’. Yes, when Audi, via Crosthwaite & Gardiner, was constructing its Grand Prix replicas it was John it turned to for instruments. He also made dials for the Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion, that bizarre grounded car-aeroplane that C&G built up for Lord Foster. 

Although he can make any instrument from new, John is careful about originality: “If you send me an instrument for repair or restoration, that’s the one you’ll get back,” he says. “Barring any bits I need to replace, of course.” His spares supply is awesome – boxes of old dismantled speedos, milometers, gauges of all sorts, even supercharger pressure; oval, square, twin; from Smiths, Jaeger, Veglia and the rest. Especially precious are parts from chronometric instruments – the highest-quality mechanism that snicks the needle round in discrete jumps. No-one makes those today – but John can fix them. 

Down again to what was once a tiny Austin 7-sized garage but now holds glass cutting, moulding and bevelling equipment. Small as one speedometer is, it transpires that the processes that go into refurbishing it are many and complex – and John can handle all of them from dismantling, cleaning, and forming a new case through stamping out dial blanks, printing the figures, shaping pointers, to glazing, calibrating and testing the finished unit. He’s a one-man industry. He used to have employees but as they retired he’s been unable to replace them. John’s only support is once a week when Richard Roberts pitches in. “I’m 87 and I’ve been retired for 27 years,” says Richard, smiling. “I came as a temp 18 years ago and here I still am.”

“We had a lady who did one-off artwork with pen and compass and Letraset,” John continues, “but she retired. Now one-offs are hard; a local graphic firm does artwork on computer for me but you need to do 10-plus to be worth it.” Hence the boxes of spare dials which may not be needed for 20 years…

Such laments are frequent in John’s talk: “Chrome platers are disappearing, so are stove enamellers. The little engineering firms who used to do short runs for us have died or been absorbed; now firms want runs of thousands. Even glass has changed; it’s all float glass and slightly contaminated with tin. If it gets damp, acid etches a bloom on it.”

Yet John has so much specialised equipment here it’s surprising he needs anyone else. There are pad and screen printers for dial artwork, templates to let heated glass ‘slump’ to the correct convex shape, ultrasonic cleaners, revolution counter checkers, a water heater so when John has refilled a temperature gauge with alcohol he can calibrate the reading. There are machines to test pressure gauge read-outs, a thread maker for the knurled mounting nuts that locate instruments, a blue buzzing Vibrograf machine that checks clock accuracy, a huge magnetising device: “A lot of instruments use coils and magnets so with this I can saturate the magnets and then wind back to the correct level. That came from the Royal Engineers.”

Teacher with no pupils: John Marks would be happy to pass on his lifetime’s knowledge but has not found any takers

Over decades John has harvested useful materials whenever possible and there are stories behind much of it: “When a speedometer company shut down they were going to skip everything; we filled a van with parts for £100. There were tank speedometers in there we sold for £150. When Smiths Industries closed a factory I rescued a lot of spares, and in the 70s I bought a tea chest full of dials for barrage balloon winches. They were Rolls-Royce speedometers – the military always used top-grade stuff. They are perfect for C- and D-type Jaguars.”

Equipment like this would costs thousands in its time, yet John says he bought most of it for peanuts. The irony is that it’s now invaluable to his operation, but to whom else? Is there a collector or company who can see the value of this unique assemblage?

“I did have one asset stripper came to look, but they said ‘sorry, you’re prehistoric’,” John muses. There are a couple of other instrument restoration firms who could, and presumably will in time, utilise this material, but what about John’s 50 years of learning? Who else could find their way around this rich forest of material? John shrugs: “I’ve had a few young people here to train, but they don’t want to stay in this business. There’s no future.”

It’s a sad situation. Apart from cryogenically preserving John Marks for future downloading, it’s hard to see anyone absorbing a tenth of his knowledge before he finally locks the workshop door and gets some time to himself – interrupted no doubt by pleading phone calls from people restoring Isottas, Hispanos and Marendaz Specials…