Peterborough's XK Saviours

Author

C.R

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From scrap to concours

ANYBODY who has attempted to rebuild an interesting (for want of a better word Michael Bowler would have us use the description “classic”) car which has been out of production for more than ten years, unless it be something like an AC or Aston Martin, will have been frustrated by the difficulty of acquiring elusive parts. One of the largest breed of post-war car restorers seems to be those who devote themselves to the Jaguar XK series, amongst which I number myself the least successful, the result of a lack of time, facilities and money. In the last few years there has been a definite paucity of new XK spares, particularly bodywork items, for like most jaguars up to the X J series, and time will tell with those, although the early ones seem to be remaining uncharacteristically intact, the XKs were utter rot-boxes. However, they had the saving grace of a very substantial chassis, which the most avaricious rust worms find difficult to devour, other than the fairly-easily repaired rear sections behind the cross-tube above the fuel tank. It is a feature which makes a bodily-rotten XK potentially an excellent basis for reconstruction, given methods Of overcoming the aforementioned parts difficulties.

Thus it would be that to an XK Jaguar enthusiast the two modern factory units of Oldham and Crowther at 27-31, Ivatt Way, Westwood Industrial Estate, Peterborough, would be Mecca and Aladdin’s Cave rolled into one, l’here, on that pleasantly designed estate where Peterborough planners have interspersed bricks with grass, Martin Crowther and Miss Ruth Oldham have established an extraordinary and quite superb factory System for manufacturing parts for and rebuilding XKs: they have evolved what is tantamount to a production line where the most horrible rot-box is fed in to re-appear two to four months later as virtually a brand-new car. It is a service which has to be seen to be believed: the rescuing of what is literally a heap of rust, to transform it into a concOurs specimen XK. l’here are other people and factions, particularly some connected with the thriving XK Register of the Jaguar Drivers Club, of which membership is a recommended essential to any XK owner, who are currently offering duplicates of some of the rarer parts which rebuilders of XKs are likely to require, but to my knowledge not on such a comprehensive scale as Oldham and Crowther. They have made it possible for the creation of brand-new in most respects, yet original specification in every detail, XKs and their work is so good that customers are regularly recommended to them by Jaguar themselves.

Their body panel prices are obviously fairly high, for they are made in small quantities by hand, mostly from the original patterns obtained from Jaguar, so one must expect to pay substantially more for a panel than for the equivalent for a. modern tin-box. But compared with some of the prices which have been, and still are, being asked by entrepreneurs, of which some of the most successful belong to the XK Register, they are cheap. However, one must not criticise those entrepreneurs too much, for most of them have provided a necessary service of unearthing rare parts and putting them back into circulation, though it is Common knowledge that some a them wheel and deal between themselves, each trying to make a few quid or more on an article, with the result that by the time it reaches the hands of a desperately needy restorer the price has become grossly inflated. Ironically, I have occasionally seen original Jaguar parts advertised at these inflated prices, often having done the rounds of one of these selling rings, when Oldham and Crowther can supply a brand-new equivalent of at least equal quality for a fraction of the price!

Oldham and Crowther is a remarkable and obviously profitable business offering a service to XK owners unique in its completeness. The most extraordinary thing about the firm is that it is possible almost literally to order a brand-new XK from them, just as one might order a new current model car, and with a much shorter waiting list than for an X J saloon or a Triumph Stag, for example. They offer a service whereby they will obtain a rough old XK and rebuild it to the order of a customer, who might never see the original car and will certainly never get his hands dirty in the process of restoration. Once a car has been obtained as a basis for the rebuild, Martin Crowther and Ruth Oldham can give a customer an exact estimate for purchasing the completed “new” XK, though whether the result will be as good as, or better than new, depends on the size of the owner’s cheque-book. Whatever standards he requires, he can’t expect the job to be done on a shoe-string and must talk in terms of four figures for the restoration of the bodywork alone. It is a service which has recently brought orders for a “new” XK 150 from Saudi Arabia, a 120 drophead from Teheran, and various from the USA and other distant regions, although it is a sad thought that XKs are being funnelled out of Britain to overseas collectors.

The price really is up to the customer and what he can afford over a certain minimum level. One very wealthy steel manufacturer is reputed to be spending £5,500 on an XK 120 fixed-head which the firm is currently rebuilding down to the minutest detail, to what would appear to be ultimate perfection. the partners proclaim that this will be the best restoration they have ever achieved, simply because of the standards allowed by the financial open sesame offered by the customer. All the same they are slightly perplexed because the same customer intends them to rebuild an XK 120 roadster for his wife to an even inure advanced stage of perfection. They are wondering what they can do to make it more perfect than perfect!

In a way it is perhaps a good thing that XKs are so susceptible to rust, for otherwise they would not be the scarce classic collectors’ pieces which they have become. Alter all, there were over 12,000 XK I 2os built between their introduction 25 years ago last October and replacement by the 140 in 1954, a figure which if it remained would hardly warrant the high prices paid for 120s today. To be accurate, rust isn’t the only form of corrosion which affects XKs: the first 240 XK isos were built in aluminium on a mainly wooden frame before William Lyons men fully-productiouised the car with a steel body. Even then, boot, bonnet and doors remained aluminium on both 120 and later 140, but the 150 retained aluminium for its bonnet only which didn’t stop the bonnet of my 150 pushing in the steel fixed head roof a few years ago when it flew off the main catch and over the safety catch at yo mph on the Mi. That is a pretty common fault and 150 owners in particular would be wise to use a safety strap to prevent this very frightening and expensive occurrence happening to them. Pertaining to corrosion, these two professional Jaguar restorers have noticed that 75′, of the XKs which have survived to reach them for rebuilding had black coachwork originally, which makes them wonder whether pigment in the paint has acted as some sort of inhibitor.

Oldham and Crowther offer a range of tvell Over 5o bodywork parts for the complete XK range, but there are certain major items which have so far defeated even their manufacturing ability. Neither they nor anybody else produces new steel front and rear wings, nor the tonneau panel the steel panelling extending from the rear of the cockpit area and surrounding the boot aperture. Sometimes customers are lucky enough to find new wings, perhaps forgotten in the corner of a dealer’s store, otherwise Oldham and Crowther remetal the existing ones, building up a sort of steel jigsaw round the complex curves of the front wings and producing off-the-shelf repair kits for the curved bottoms of the sides of the front wings, extending either up to or above the opening side cockpit vents. By the time their skilled craftsmen have disposed of all the rotten sections, welded the new solid metal to old solid metal and leaded over the joints, there’s no telling the wings aren’t brand-new. They even include the beading round the edges. Incidentally, Jaguar were tremendously adept at the use of lead filler to smooth out joints and contours in XK bodywork, so Oldham and Crowther can claim to be (Mowing original practice. All this work, particularly on the front wings, takes a great deal of time, the replacement of a front headlamp pod on an existing wing, for example, taking anything up to 14 hours to perfect. Owners of XKs whose wings are solid rust, incapable of being saved, can take heart from efforts being made by this company to recommence production of these rare and vital items: apparently Jaguar arc searching for the wing moulds, which will be passed on to Oldham and Crowther if they materialise. If this happens it will mark a rebirth in XKs, particularly if Martin Oldham is successful in negotiations with a sheet metal pressing company to evolve methods of producing the tonneau panels. At that stage every single body part except bonnets and boot-lids will be available off the shelf: boot lids can be re-skinned where they tend to corrode at the bottom edge, while bonnets are susceptible to accident damage only and there seem to be a fair number of both these panels available from cars which have been scrapped. Also it is the law of Nature that XK door bottoms corrode away, whether they are Steel or aluminium, and to this end the company produces restoration kits, including the inner skin to sill level, the curved bottom contour and several inches up the flat side, to retrieve the complete door, whether it be steel or aluminium, which by sheet metalworkers standards is a fairly simple pressing compared with some of the other panels.

It would be wise to mention at this stage that there are numerous firms offering glasstibre panels to reproduce all these rare steel outer panels, but except for modsports purposes, or simply to keep an old friend on the road when money is lacking, this man-made material can be forgotten where XKs are concerned. Steel is essential if they are to be considered at all original and if they are to hold any value whatsoever.

Oldham and Crowther swelware goes far below the outer skin: they manufacture almost every sheet metal item contained within the jaguar design and I must admit, even as an XK owner, that I had not realised how many separate sheet steel items were contained. Any XK owner worried about the availability of parts would do well to write to this firm for a list of offered items. For him, like me, it might set his mind at rest. “The list is considerable, far too complex too detail here. l’o name but a few other panels for all XKs: spare wheel trays, inner rear wheel arches, fuel tanks (457.20 a time, plus VAT and 10% for increased steel costs, so try to preserve yours), floor pans, including in the case of the 140 and 150 the transmission tunnel and handbrake brackets, inner and outer sills, front inner wheel arches, and again in the case of the 140 and 150, the occasional seat area, including the differential housing cover, the second most expensive item on the list at just over £30.

Of course it would be possible to manufacture every item necessary to build a completely new XK, right down to the smallest electrical item, but the cost would be astronomical because component suppliers can only work on large quantities, such is the cost of initial tooling up. Sidelights for a 120 is one example: tooling costs would be OW and the minimum order for the first batch would have to be 1,000 at a cost of £1,200. And how do you sell 1,000 XK 1:20 sidelights? However, insome instances it is viable to have new components manufactured: there seems a good chance that front and rear XK 150 plastic badges might be produced, for the tooling costs are likely tobe a modest £70 or so.

The condition of some of the XKs retrieved front imminent graves has been appalling, sometimes amusing, like the one which had its boot section tied together with a dog lead. But none has been quite so bad as the 150 drophead registered WOG 1, illustrated here, which was in a diabolically advanced stage of corrosion. Before Oldham and Crowther came on the scene there would have been no hope for this heap, which was to bad as to be hardly fit for spares. Because it is so bad, when it leaves the factory in a few months time it will probably be the finest 150 they have produced, for the simple reason that its condition has meant replacing everything with new parts. The owner of this car had purchased the wreck for £100, after being advised that there would be little point in rebuilding his existing 150 dhc, worth £1,500, as the work would have to be almost as comprehensive; if it was to achieve perfection, as using a cheap wreck as a basis.

The initial investment in this case may have been rock bottom, but by the time it is complete, the bodywork alone will have cost 4 t, too and rebuilding the chassis, including suspension, engine, transmission and brakes, at least another thousand. On top of that the owner can expect to pay anything from £350 to £500 on retrimming to original standard.

However, it should not be assumed that every tattered wreck worth £100 or less can be turned into a gleaming beauty. Well, if the chassis is alright it can, but the problem of tracing complete wings and in this case tonneau panel, would have to be faced. This particular owner had been acquiring parts for some time, so WOG i will be endowed with new wings, a singularly special privilege, though the latest acquisition, a brand-new and pristine nearside front wing had to be paid for through the nose at £100.

Generally Ruth Oldham and Martin Crowther advise that customers should expect to pay £350 to £800 for any type of XK to form a suitable basis for a complete rebuild. But be warned: these buying prices depend on the completeness of the vehicle, particularly pertinent to XK 120s. Certainly it is worth paying more for a car which is complete with all the detail little fittings which would otherwise be difficult and expensive to acquire, in particular 120 bumpers, complete screens and grilles. Don’t worry necessarily about a few rust holes, for at least they give the truth to the car’s condition so long as the price is in proportion. What the potential XK restorer should beware of is that shining, immaculate car, which transpires after purchase at a high price to be 50 per cent filler. “Why pay £500 for the filler when for £300 you can buy the holes.” is a piece of typically pointed advice from Ruth Oldham. A gorgeous white XK 150 fhc sits in the factory as a monument to this advice. Beautifully chromed, right down to the wire-wheels shod with white-wall tyres, from a few yards it looks to be a splendid example of the breed, as its recent £1,500 purchase price might suggest, but close scrutiny of the bodywork reveals those lightly-scored, tell-tale patches of filler. It will cost the owner just as much for Oldham and Crowther to restore it as a rusty £350 example would have done.

It is quite impossible, to give a proper guideline as to what one should expect to pay for an XK, such can be the fluctuation in condition, originality and demand. Detail things like a Ctype head fitted on a 140 can make the car worth more, while model rarity value can bump up the price. For example, there were only soo 3.85-engined roadsters manufactured, of which a mere 50 were sold in Britain and at the last count I heard, which is a year or two ago now, there were only 15 known examples in Britain so prices are proportionate. In terms of performance combined with looks that is the most desirable XK of all, though most people would agree that the XK 120 roadster is the most desirable in terms of sheer beauty. XK 140 roadsters are equally as rare as 3.8S roadsters and while other models of 150 roadsters are not quite so rare, they too command higher prices than drophead and fixed heads.

One of the two factory units is given over largely to bodywork and the other to mechanical renovation. Suspension, engines, transmissions, steering and brakes are reconditioned there, either for the cars which are undergoing rebuild or for customers who are rebuilding their own. All .suspension parts a’re available, even rubber bushes and ball joints: front wishbone rubbers arc never likely to run out, for identical ones are fitted to Dennis lire engines and ERF lorries, but front anti-roll bar rubbers are becoming scarce and the firm is to have new ones manufactured, slightly altered in case they should infringe patents. In common with several other parts, ft-chit ball joints remain Obtainable because they are identical to those fitted to later models (off hand, Ruth believed that they continue to be used on the XI 12, but that should not be taken as gospel). However, should you visit your local dealer and ask him for these particular parts, he is unlikely to be able to help you, for apparently the old XK parts numbers were superseded when British Leyland computerised their spares system and it is impossible to translate the old part number shown in the XI: parts manual into the numbers shown against the same part, but applicable to a later model Jaguar, contained on the current micro-film parts lists.

The latest service to be offered by Oldham and Crowther is a complete trimming facility with the employment of a traditional perfectionist craftsman in the shape of Stan Halford. Stan has had his skills passed down through generations, right from his great grandfather, who was a Otaddler, and the meticulous care with which he was re-trimming a 120 roadster to original specification in original materials made his talent pretty obvious. Martin and Ruth take great delight in watching Stan produce mysterious little pieces of bone with which he smooths and shapes the leather into the right contours.

The Oldham and Crowther business developed from a hobby over many years, but the real birth of it can be traced back to the sad-looking modsports 120 roadster at the moment in the throes of a rebuild in the workshops. Martin and Ruth had known each other for a long period when one day Ruth appeared outside Wadhams in Southampton, where Martin was reception engineer, with a rather tatty XK 120 on the end of a tow rope. She had bought the car in Wales that day from an advertisement in a Pembrokeshire newspaper, bargaining the owner down from £45 to £40, and had made it to within 10 miles of Southampton on little more than three cylinders when the cracked cylinder head decided it had run far enough. Would Martin like to race it, she asked, and with a B-series head fitted, he did just that a short time later, winning his class the first time out at Lydden Hill and in his third race finishing second behind Warren Pearce’s E-type. With many modifications added progressively, Martin raced the XK until 1972, until pressure of establishing the new business forced him to retire from racing. Now the business is thriving with a staff of ten to enable him to have some spare time, he has decided to let somebody else do the driving, and John “Metal” Pearson will be taking up the cudgels with this car in place of his own 120 fhc in this year’s Spreckley Thoroughbred Championship. Firstly the XK has to be brought back to Jaguar Register specification, however.

Motor racing was the motivation for the business in another way too. One day he was testing an oval circuit midget racer on a farm, lost control and hit a pig-sty of all things. The result was numerous facial fractures which kept him out of racing on doctor’s orders for 6 months. During this latent period he and Ruth began to restore his own XK 140 fhc, in the course of which he made drawings of the sills and had a pair made up by Arch Motors of Huntingdon, a firm with many racing connections, where he was manager at the time. Ruth reflected that there must be a market for these items, wrote to the XK Register, the information was printed in the XK Bulletin and on the morning of publication they received eleven inquiries. The 140 was pushed into a corner and hasn’t moved since!

Martin resigned his job with Arch Motors and the two began to do XK panel work in an old barn near St. Neots belonging to Joe Bugner’s sparring partner, Simon Ince. They worked all hours to build up the business with the occasional help of a sheet metalworker, suffering the cold through the winter (the heater had to be tumed off every time any welding had to be done because the wiring was so flimsy) and grabbing a mere 7 hours off on Christmas Day. All their money went on buying equipment and by March this year they had sufficient business and equipment accumulated to enable them to take on the new factory in Peterborough. The second unit was acquired in August and business is continuing to boom. However, they have a problem in finding sufficient staff of the right experience and calibre: suitable applicants would be offered a Development Corporation house.

The attractive Ruth Oldham is far removed from the sort of big, butch woman one would be expect to be able to wield a spanner with the best of men. But the Jaguar-crazy Ruth can do just that: her very first car was a 3-litre Jaguar Mk IV, which she learned all about by pulling the engine to bits and putting it back together. Nowadays her collection of cars includes a concourse SS 1-litre and a 4.2-litre E-type, which she uses for chasing the length and breadth of the country searching for XKs and spares.

Other Jaguar parts which ought to have been mentioned are bronze bushed front suspension and upper radius arms for racing XKs and exhaust systems for all XKs, although downpipes for XK 120S are causing a slight problem. A handful of original ones are in stock and it is hoped to have new ones manufactured soon.

The whole emphasis of this article has been on Jaguar XKs, but for the very reason that they are so successful with this make, Oldham and Crowther are now able to diversify. To date other marques they have restored include two original Sunbeam Alpines (and I mean the real Alpines), an MGA, a couple of Austin-Healey BNIs and the Riley which was illustrated in the firm’s MO FOR SPORT advertisement last month. A huge pre-war Packard Straight-Eight has been acquired in stripped form and is to be rebuilt to concours condition. Additionally, the firm’s new spray booth enables them to do a first class job on any car, a service of which Peterborough firms are beginning to take advantage.

XKs may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but they are mine, and in common with the bulk of XK Register members, I’m sure, how I envy Martin Crowther and Ruth Oldham, surrounded by dozens of XKs, performing the job they love, making money while they are doing it and providing an invaluable service to customers who might otherwise have given up hope and resorted to a sledge hammer and scrap heap. At which point I grimace, have wielded sledge hammer against XK body more than once in the past, condemning once proud XKs to a sad ending when today Oldham and Crowther could have transformed the same cars into concours machinery. C. R.

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