Preserving the Patina
Bare-metal rebuilds are the simple way to restore a car, but it takes knowledge and effort to retain the relevant history
It’s always the same: you go to a restoration shop to look at one car and spend hours browsing all the other fascinating hardware lying about. In this case the shop was Neil Twyman’s, the car an Alfa Romeo 8C 2300, and the distractions started right inside the door with a rare Repco V8 out of Jack Brabham’s 1966 title-winning BT20. Twyman has been wrapped up in historic racing for years, competing notably in his own Alfas — he won the Fox 8c Nichol Trophy in his 8C — and recently fielding some rapid Lotus Elites. There’s an almost finished replica of the Costin-modified Le Mans Elite here too, which Neil and his GT and historic racer son Joe aim to run this season.
Anyway, this 8C 2300: it’s rather special as despite its eight-decade life it has an apparent 12,604 miles on it along with an astonishing degree of patina. Removing a top coat dating back to the 1950s has revealed the original factory paint, and Twyman’s team are going to immense effort to uncover and retain this.
It’s buried deep in the three-decker North London warren that houses the operation, so first we have to pass a very crisp 289 Cobra Neil points out. “That’s what we’re good at — restoration without shine. We’ve kept the imperfections, the evidence of its life.” I inspect the smooth blue flanks of this best-looking of all the Cobras; damned if I can see any imperfections.
So, this Alfa — but first we must squeeze around a pontoon-bodied 250 Testa Rossa. “We made that,” says Neil. “It’s our third.” They start with “an engine and lots of enthusiasm”, fabricating everything from the chassis outwards. And, says Neil, “One raced at Goodwood. They’re that good.”
Still heading Alfa-wards, here’s something else of the same make to inspect: a Tipo B’s alloy innards, being rebuilt in ’11/2-seater’ form — for a man who already has a single-seater example.
Finally we hit target, a short-chassis example of Alfa’s beautifully engineered sports machine, carrying two-seater Touring bodywork with that evocative fin and shroud over the twin spares.
Tactfully preserved in its last ownership — an amazing 60 years from 1949 — virtually everything on the car appears to date back to a couple of weeks in 1933 when Touring’s artisans took a new chassis and some sheets of aluminium and turned them into a motoring gem. Paint expert Kevin Daly shows me his equivalent of an archaeological dig, as his careful sanding removes the Fifties paint to uncover Touring’s laquer. “We know it’s the first coat because below it is Alfa’s factory mauve-pink undercoat,” says Kevin. To reveal it he’s using very fine sandpapers and razor blades. Of course what appears is not a perfect layer, so there has to be a lot of careful colour matching and blending as well. This is the firm that did a similar job on the Prince Bernhard Alfa 2900B, revealing the German army numerals from its time as a commandeered staff car, and persuaded the owner to leave them visible. And if you’ve admired the Don Lee Special, the wonderfully ‘shabby-chic’ P3 Alfa at Goodwood, it was Twyman who stabilised its faded grandeur. “That’s our sort of restoration,” smiles Neil. They’re so keen to preserve Touring’s handiwork on the 2.3 that they’re delicately pushing paint under the edges of the leather door-edge trims. “They’ve never been off,” says Neil, “and if we took them off they’d never go back on as nicely.”
Neil waves an enthusiastic hand over the cockpit. “I’ve never seen period felt under the trim like this.” I comment on the worn seat leather and there are general smiles. “We made those. The existing ones were too far gone, but we’ve found a way of ageing and stretching leather to match what’s worth keeping, and we use period materials like horsehair so it ages properly. And look at these.” He holds up two battery covers, worn and scraped by the years. “One of them is new. Guess which.” Well, of course I can’t, or I wouldn’t be telling you the story. It’s impressive how they’ve managed to match both the finish and the flaws.
Kevin has been at this intensive work for several months now, when it would be far quicker and easier to strip and repaint. “We’re very lucky,” Neil tells me. “Owner Hugh Taylor is the ideal customer. He lets us do what we think is right.” Luckily Taylor has a rather fine Monza and a Tipo B to fill in the time until this is ready.
It’s been lucky in its choice of owners, chassis 2211094. Shipped to Sardinia in 1933, it was imported to the US by racer Frank Griswold in ’49 and taken over by David Uihlein the same year. He raced it a little in the Fifties, but being part of his impressive sporting collection it mostly had light road usage until his recent death and Taylor’s purchase.
Mechanically the car gives every sign of being equally unmolested. “I’m sure we’re the first people to open the gearbox,” Neil says. “There are split pins that have never been undone, and the brake drums have never been machined [a normal job after much usage].”
Because it’s been driven over the years the engine is complete and remarkably sound, needing little work. Despite their race breeding, these fabulous-sounding twin-cams are robust motors, and Neil says there’s no need for modern mods beyond a full-flow oil filter.
It may be a while before 094’s exhausts echo down the road, but when that happens those Touring fitters would almost certainly still recognise their handiwork of 80 years ago.
Oxford’s famous factory has been building cars for 100 years, becoming in the 1930s Europe’s most prolific plant
If you’re out Oxford way and you’ve admired a few ancient colleges, explored the Pitt-Rivers museum and tried a little punting, you could do worse than visit a factory. I’m speaking of what a century ago was the Morris plant at Cowley. Today it builds Minis (or, if sie sprechen BMW, MINIs), and at the end of March I foregathered there at a celebration marking 100 years to the day since the first Bullnose Oxford turned a wheel. Plant Director Frank Bachmann outlined the site’s history from 20 Cowleys a week to 900 Minis a day, with the impressive statistic that some half a million people have worked there over the decades. That peaked at 28,000 workers in the 1960s (today there aren’t any employees — all 3700 of them are ‘associates’), working over the years on 14 different makes until BMC/BL/Rover funnelled into BMW 19 years ago.
Next we toured a new exhibition in the site’s visitor centre showing how the plant has changed from hand-building to assembly lines to robots over the 11.5m cars it has built, majoring on the ingenuity of Alec Issigonis, the firm’s huge exports, and Morris’s ‘peoples’ cars’, the Minor, 1000 and Mini. Full-size cars and models cover the bloodline, with plenty of other exhibits including a model Tiger Moth — the plant built aircraft during the war. Worth a visit before your tour of the factory.
After this it seemed fitting to divert to nearby Nuffield Place, home of the man who created the Morris empire. Now cared for by the National Trust, it’s a remarkably modest home for a multi-millionaire, and retains not only decor and furniture but even belongings of Lord and Lady Nuffield, as the Morrises became. Nuffield gave away much of his enormous fortune, living a comparatively simple life in this pleasant but unpretentious home in the Chilterns, designed by a pupil of Lutyens, and driving around in a very low-key Morris 8. One telling detail — in Lord N’s bedroom one cupboard contains a complete workbench, so on a sleepless night he could tinker. And the curator showed us a slightly chilling exhibit — an iron lung, made at Cowley which Nuffield provided free to hospitals. That and the garage aren’t yet viewable by the public until the Trust finds more funds to restore the place. Just don’t overshoot the entrance, or you’ll end up in prison — HMP Huntercombe is bang next door.
Boddy collection comes to auction
A lifetime archive of motoring is up for sale in June as the contents of our Founder Editor’s library come on to the market
June’s busy calendar has a new high spot — the auction of Bill Boddy’s collection. Set for June 22, the assemblage of books, photos, brochures, programmes, passes, badges and memorabilia (plus WB’s cars) forms a record of the eight decades our Founder Editor spent in the motoring and racing world. Peter Card of Transport Collector Auctions says it amounts to some eight tonnes of material, not counting the cars — the Calthorpe, often mentioned in the mag by WB, two of his beloved Austin Sevens, his Sunbeam 16hp, a sports Morgan and the Leon-Bollee.
Sadly, piles of the magazines have suffered from damp and can’t be saved, but gems are surfacing from what WB called his “muddle rooms” — exotic brochures, thousands of unpublished photos of racing and motor history and rare copies of long-defunct publications. Most of the thousands of books are review copies sent to WB, some dating back to the 1930s, while Brooklands programmes annotated by WB are those from which he wrote his MS reports.
Peter Card says he’s sending out more catalogues for this sale than for any other sale he’s handled. It takes place in Reading; more details on www.tc-auctions.com
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