New Bodies for Old Cars

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When tyres of obsolete sizes are required for old cars it is customary to obtain them from the Dunlop Rubber Company Ltd. When an old car is discovered either without a body or with the bodywork in poor condition, it is expedient to have suitable coachwork made by I. Wilkinson and Son Ltd., of Derby. This concern came into being at the turn of the century, as blacksmiths, repairers and manufacturers of horse-drawn vehicles, and later as coachbuilders to the motor trade. Wilkinson’s became a Limited Company in 1930, the father and grandfather of the present Directors being founder members.

Since 1960, under the directorship of F. W. H. Gilbert and his son, this Company has had a good deal to do with the restoration and construction of coachwork for vintage, Edwardian and even veteran chassis. Its aim is to copy as accurately as possible, and build to original specification, new bodywork for old cars, and to restore damaged and decayed examples of such coachwork. The works in Stafford Street, off Derby’s Friar Gate, which formerly made a great deal of commercial vehicle bodies, today cater for “bread-and-butter” tinware and the aforesaid service for owners of historic cars. It employs about 30 people, about half of whom work at any one time on the old car projects, a flexible arrangement which enables the best use to be made of their talents, depending on the proportion of old/new work in hand. While the firm is perfectly prepared to restore any type of coachwork, it affixes its plate or hall-mark (appropriately in brass, nickel or chromium, according to the period concerned) only to bodywork it has wholly constructed, not to restored bodies, no matter how extensive the repairs. It is equipped to do construction, trimming, painting and equipping of coachwork entirely on the premises, apart from plating. Body frames are made of seasoned ash, by skilled coachbuilders, and panelled in aluminium or steel sheet. The timber used is bought fully seasoned and is then allowed to weather for a year or longer. The leather used for upholstery, which is made in button-type where appropriate, comes from Connolly or Bridge of Weir. Paint is obtained from a local firm, Joseph Mason’s, or occasionally from Dulux, unless the customer specifies another brand. Bodies of cars up to circa 1929 are brush painted, those for later cars sprayed. The procedure with an alloy-panelled body is to treat it first with etch primer, then with a coat of primer, followed by four coats of filler, after which the surface is suitably rubbed down, more tiller is applied if required, after which an undercoat goes on, followed by two coats of enamel and two of varnish.

It is interesting that very seldom do Wilkinson’s prepare scale detailed drawings of bodies they are about to construct. They are perfectly capable of producing a satisfactory result from a customer’s rough sketch or even from a photograph taken from a catalogue or magazine. When they are making exact replicas of original coachwork, as in the case of their bodies for buck’s-back 12/50 Alvis or 30/98 Vauxhall Velox tourer, measurements are taken, and templates made, from cars still in original condition. In other cases, bodies are made as nearly as possible to original form, by making use of what photographs and other data is available. Apart from bodywork made specially to customers’ requirements, a number of stock lines is being developed; these are not exact replicas of any original body but typify period coachwork and are constructed on the same coachbuilder’s principles. The best known stock exact replica, as it were, is the Wilkinson 12/50 Alvis duck’s-back body. This fits any 12/50 chassis, the scuttle-line being adaptable to tall and low radiator models. To date three of these bodies have been completed, and another three were being in process of manufacture in the works at the time of our visit. The three 12/50s with these bodies are those owned by Bell, Lee and McDonald. If possible, Wilkinson’s prefer to have the car in their works so that the body can be fitted to it but it is possible for bodies to be supplied for the owner to fit himself, and indeed bodies have been exported to America, California, Sweden and other countries. The 12/50 Alvis replica body complete for fitting, with wings, upholstery, hood, etc. costs in the region of £500. As far as can be ascertained these bodies are exactly to the original pattern, with the exception that slotted screws are used in their construction in place of the original square drive type. Even the hinge-mechanism for the cover over the seat in the tail is as on an original car, owned by F. W. Gilbert. Flat or vee screens are available according to period or owner’s preference.

Other standard lines include a Roi-des-Belges body suitable for Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce chassis, of which one has been built on a 1910 Silver Ghost and of which two more were being completed when we were at the works. Complete with trim, mudguards, hood, etc., these bodies come out in the region of £1,750. Another standard line, if this term can he applied to bodies made by hand by craftsmen employees, in very small numbers indeed, is a two-seater Edwardian roadster, based on the balloon-carrying Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost owned by the Hon. C. S. Rolls. We saw one of these being framed-up; it is a rather more simple body than the Roi-des-Belges type, which is practically all curves. Two more bodies made to Wilkinson’s design, as it were, rather than to individual requirements, are a tourer suitable for late Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and Phantom chassis, of between 1922 and 1927, these being in effect a combination of Barker, Hooper, and Wilkinson’s design, and another open touring body suitable for 20-h.p. Rolls-Royce chassis which are reasonable replicas of Barker bodies of this kind, being designed from actual measurements of an original body. The cost of the latter, would be in the region of £1,100, prices naturally being dependent on whether mudguards are required, and how much trim has to be done, etc. In some cases, for instance, the customer may have the front wings and bonnet intact but require back wings and running boards to be made when the body is constructed. In this case, a rough estimate for open bodywork would be in the region of £1,200 to £1,500 for a car of Rolls-Royce size.

The bulk of the coachbuilding undertaken for vintage users by Wilkinson’s, however, concerns one-off bodies. Since they have been in business, they have made all manner of bodies for a great variety of chassis. For example, there were the two Rolls-Royce Alpine Eagle bodies, for exporting to California and Sweden, being replicas of the coachwork fitted to these trials cars, copied from pictures but not to exactly original specification. Then, as purely one-offs, there was bodywork for a Progress Quad, that for a Clyde touring car, for a 1908 Star, restoration of the well-known Bugatti raced by Stubberfield and Wall, not forgetting repairs made to Bergel’s G.P. Bugatti after its accident at Rouen. Then there was the body on a Swallow Austin Seven saloon reconstructed for F. W. Gilbert’s wife to use as her shopping car, a body for that bare Rothwell chassis which has been mentioned previously in these pages, this body being constructed from a single catalogue illustration, bodies for two A.C Sociable three-wheelers, and for a Lanchester straight-eight, a replica Touring-of-Milan body for an Alfa-Romeo, which departed from the original in having a wooden instead of a steel frame for practical reasons, and the very handsome body on John Rowley’s 25-h.p. Edwardian Talbot, this sports skiff-type body having been built after Rowley had sent Wilkinson’s just a rough sketch drawn on a piece of graph paper. To continue from a long list, there is the splendid exact replica of a 30/98 Velox body for John Stanford’s 30/98 Vauxhall. this one having been copied from the original on H. P. Milling’s 30/98.

All this work is presided over by F. W. Gilbert, a great enthusiast who, as I have said, has his own 12/50 Alvis with original duck’s-back body, a Type 37 Bugatti which he races at V.S.C.C. Meetings, and who is now restoring the body of his own 3½-litre Park Ward Bentley saloon, which has light-alloy roof pillars.

Wilkinson’s work is by no means confined to motor vehicles; they restored the bodywork for Lord Scarsdale’s baby push-chair, this dating back to 1761 and thus being the oldest vehicle on which they have yet worked. They rebuild bodes for horse-drawn coaches, and have even restored a chair-sledge.

As I have said, bodies are constructed as closely as possible to original specification, the only exceptions that come to mind being the use of resin-bonded plywood for floors, as being more durable than nonbonded ply, and the use of high tensile bolts for mudguard brackets and the like. All this work is carried out in a panel shop, a body shop, two paint-spray shops, and what may be called an in-transit shop where cars are stored in between the various processes through which they have to pass. It must be emphasised that all the cars at Wilkinson’s were customers’ cars, and that they do not buy or sell cars in the ordinary course of business.

A tour of this coach-building works with F. W. Gilbert was really quite breath-taking, not only in respect of the beauty of the finished products, and the care taken in making them, but in the great variety of cars that were there for attention to existing coachwork or having new coachwork built on them. To mention all the many vehicles we saw, ranging from a Ferrari to a Morgan three-wheeler, is not possible in the space available. Pride of place goes, perhaps, to M. R. Neale’s 1912 London-Edinburgh Rolls-Royce, an absolutely immaculate and exceedingly elegant Edwardian sports-tourer, (this body being by Hamshaw’s of Leicester) which was in the paint shop having a scratch rectified it had incurred at Prescott following its coachwork restoration by Wilkinson’s. Beside it stood a two Daimler touring car with an exceedingly unusual body which could be wound up by handle to enable the chassis to be easily greased. This Daimler was glistening after having been brush-painted, and gold-lined on wings, springs, chassis, etc., with genuine gold-leaf. Neale’s Rolls-Royce, incidentally, had Dunlop wire wheels as elegant as the rest of the car, original even having the correct Dunlop R.A.F. transfers on the hubs. Also in the paint shop were a 1913 Sunbeam touring car in for repainting and re-trimming, and a 3-litre Vanden Plas Bentley which was likewise being titivated and fitted with a new hood, etc. After the London-Edinburgh Rolls-Royce, pride of place should probably go to John Oldham’s 1930 Phantom II Rolls-Royce, for which Wilkinson’s have just completed a new Victoria Coupé body to the owner’s own specification, work which has taken nearly 12 months to complete. This car formerly suffered a heavy caravan body—see Motor Sport, March 1968, page 175. Equally interesting, however, was a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost tourer of circa-1922, which has been serviced all its life by Rolls-Royce Ltd., and which was at Wilkinson’s for general body renovation, re-painting, etc. It has been in the hands of the same lady owners since new, the youngest of these ladies being 16 when her father purchased this car; she is still sharing it with her older sisters.

Other cars which we saw as we walked through the works were a Lancia Lambda tourer having correctly-formed front wings fitted, to replace the bogus ones with which it had at some time been endowed, a one-off V12 Lagonda streamlined saloon, the actual car which did 126 m.p.h. in the hour at Montlhéry just before the war, being faster than the Corniche Bentley which was in the news at that time, and which is having its body rebuilt by Wilkinson’s before Brian Morgan, its present owner, does one of his impeccable restorations on the mechanical parts of the car, and a 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Barker-bodied saloon, formerly owned by Lord Mountbatten, which has the extra high radiator and scuttle specified by His Lordship when he ordered the car and an arrangement whereby the n/s occasional seat folds down, together with the front passenger’s seat, to form a couch along that side of the car. This is being completely restored. Then there was one of the Wilkinson touring bodies aforementioned, in process of being built on a Rolls-Royce Phantom 1 chassis which had formerly carried a hearse body. Presumably the steering had been altered to C-rake at some time in the car’s history, as the A and B rake steering is not suitable with open bodywork.

These were only some of the interesting cars which were receiving new or restored coachwork. The aim is not to turn out cheap bodywork but coachwork to the highest possible standard, made in the traditional manner. Such work cannot be cheap, but it should last as long, if not longer, than the original coachwork. Those who derive sufficient pleasure from the older cars to make ordering of such coachwork worthwhile, and those who see in old cars a worthwhile investment providing an old car is restored to original order, should be thankful that craftsmen still exist at Wilkinson’s who can build bodies to these exacting requirements. If you have an historic chassis which you are restoring, your aim will be first to get it rolling, on new Dunlop tyres, and then to take it to a specialist so that suitable coachwork can be constructed on it. It is pleasing to know that at Wilkinson’s Derby premises such work is in the care of a father and son who are themselves vintage-car minded, and are, indeed, vintage-car enthusiasts. They deplore as much as we do bogus bodies intended to make modern chassis look like period pieces and stupid coachwork on old chassis. Even a rear petrol tank on a 12/50 Alvis duck’s-back is frowned upon, new scuttle tanks being supplied for their replicas of Alvis duck’s-back bodywork.

I left this little coachbuilding establishment feeling that Wilkinson’s offer a real service to those who are prepared to spend a proportionate amount of money on the coachwork of their vintage and Edwardian cars after getting the chassis into impeccable mechanical condition. I can think of few happier pursuits than locating for example an early Rolls-Royce or similar chassis, suffering, maybe, the indignity of having been turned into a hearse or farm-truck, or of its original body having been neglected to the point of almost total loss, and then allowing them to build on it a handsome, soundly-constructed, and traditional sporting-type body.—W. B.