"Restoration boom is over" says Oldham and Crowther

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Ten years ago this month Motor Sport published a lengthy feature article on Oldham & Crowther, a Peterborough company which was rapidly acquiring a fine reputation for restoring jaguar sports cars. This article, say Ruth Oldham and Martin Crowther, was instrumental in getting the classic car restoration business started, bringing a flood of business from enthusiasts who wanted their XKs restored to pristine condition. . .

The enthusiasts were followed by another breed, the investors, people who looked out for average condition Jaguars, bought them cheap, and had them smartened up to sell for a profit. Gradually the supply of XKs dried up and the more plentiful E-types became vogue-ish, but then the returns diminished. And now, a decade later, the boom is over; “fast buck” jobs by so-called restorers who ignored the mechanical elements, and the fact that the cars are not worth in the market place what has been spent on them, have combined to knock the bottom out of the serious restoration business.

“We started our business in 1972 because we love Jaguars, and our customers were people who felt the same way”, says Martin Crowther. “There were plenty of XK sports cars which were literally rotting away, and we wanted to restore them and keep them on the road”. Ruth Oldham takes up the story. “Other people got in on the act, offering restorations that were simply not up to scratch. The cars looked nice, but the people we are talking about had no mechanical knowledge at all, and some of the cars were absolute death traps, rotted away underneath”.

What finished the restoration business, so far as the respectable companies are concerned, is that the values of the concours finished cars are far below the actual cost of doing the work, and this simple economic fact has scared away the people who brought in the volume — the investors. It would for instance cost well over 20,000 to restore fully an average example Jaguar XK150, including VAT, “and the actual number of enthusiasts who can afford to have a restoration carried out is very limited, probably no more than the actual number of restorable cars available”.

During the 1970s Oldham & Crowther campaigned a fearsomely fast Jaguar XK120 which Crowther himself raced until he had a nasty accident at Brands Hatch in 1975, the programme then being entrusted to John Pearson and David Preece. The company also sponsored the Thoroughbred Championship in racing; yet, after winning the title outright in 1978, the partners gave up racing altogether to concentrate on building up the business.

When Pressed Steel’s assets at Linwood came under the hammer, Oldham & Crowther bought a 750 ton Hamilton double-action press, a machine that had pressed panels for many of Europe’s favourite cars, including the Volvo P1800, Rolls-Royce, BMW, Alfa Romeo and Talbot. This is one of five presses owned by the company, which regards itself today primarily as an engineering firm capable of making anything from a truck cab to a complete one-off prototype for a motor manufacturer.

Oldhams & Crowther still offer a complete range of Jaguar sports car bodies and panels, no fewer than 17 different models being offered from the XKI20 to the E-type. An XK150 shell, completely to the original specification, costs 0,000 in primer less only the aluminium bonnet, while a Series 1 E-type monocoque will cost just under £2,600 (and with modern rust-proofing techniques, this should last a lot longer than the original!).

Nearly three years ago they started the Oldham & Crowther Restorers’ Club which has turned out to be a great success, with over 1,000 members subscribing for a monthly bulletin packed with ideas for restorations. “We believe that the future of the classic car lies in people, enthusiasts, rebuilding their cars at home, or in a small local garage,” says Ruth Oldham. “In that way the overheads are likely to be low, and the owner can take a personal interest in the progress. We are, therefore, specialising now in supplying parts at reasonable, semi-massed produced prices, enabling them to undertake the work, and information about how to carry it out.”

The current boom in restoring Morris Minors is proving a breadwinner for Oldham & Crowther, who supply a complete range of chassis and body parts including a van and a pickup chassis which will accept parts from a Minor which is beyond reclaim. They’re also looking at other popular cars for which there would be a ready market for chassis panels, the list including Sprites, Midgets, MGBs, even Porsche 911s perhaps.

A spin-off from the Morris Minor parts business is the production of a low-cost sports car which will accept Minor or Marina mechanical components. Martin Crowther has designed a sturdy box-frame steel chassis and an alloy body, unusual in this age of plastic, and hopes to sell the kit — less drivetrain — for around E1,000. Taking a mechanically sound “donor” car, the young enthusiast with little experience could assemble this car in a weekend.

The 750 Motor Club is to run a low-cost formula this year for production-based kit cars, and the Oldham & Crowther creation will be entered in this series by the Peterborough firm.

From grass roots to international level? Martin Crowther surprised us by mentioning, just in passing, that the company is actively seeking substantial sponsorship to run a Jaguar XJ-S in the European Touring Cars Championship, and could be represented at both ends of the racing spectrum in 1984. “Much as we enjoyed ourselves in Thoroughbred racing, we look to the future at international level, and would like our name to be better known in Europe,” says Crowther. With his background of making XK120s go fatter than Lofty England would ever have thought possible, and knowing that his fertile brain has already produced some ideas for the XJ-S, the possibilities of this project should not be underestimated . . . though, first, a major sponsor has to be secured. — M. L.C.