They say that if you live long enough you’ll come back into fashion second time around, and nowhere is that more true than in the world of hand-crafted excellence. Millennial hipsters may have rediscovered the art but hundreds of car specialists never forgot it. In this new series we meet the craftsmen who have been honing their engineering excellence into an art form for decades. This month we focus on the steering wheel specialist, Moto-Lita
Name Moto-Lita. Specialisation Maker of steering wheels. Established 1958. Founded by Simon Green. Number of employees 20. Premises Thruxton. www.moto-lita.co.uk
This is a proper workshop – machines whirring, tattooed blokes in vests, naked flames roaring. Surprising then that what emerges from this unprepossessing building is beautifully finished and carefully crafted, polished, stitched or varnished to perfection with skills of long years’ learning. This is where Moto-Lita makes steering wheels.
For 60 years a Moto-Lita wheel has been one of the quality accessories any enthusiast wanted on their MG, Aston or Jag. And throughout those decades Moto-Lita has made its wheels in the same way, using the same machinery and some of the same staff. It seems nothing changes, yet continuous demand means 5000 wheels leave here every year for restorations, car builds and upgrades to classic vehicles. Moto-Lita wheels were original equipment for Aston Martin DB4s and 5s, E-types, ACs and many others until airbags mostly shut down that avenue, although they are still fitted to new Morgans, Caterhams and Jaguar’s continuation XKSS and E-types.
Simon Green began it; working for Cooper and HWM where steering wheels were made in-house, he saw a market, shaped a wheel, sold two to Alfred Moss, father of Stirling, and suddenly found he was in business. The name? He just liked it. Demand increased, and in the ’70s he took over the Norton works on the edge of Thruxton circuit, moved in the same machines and carried on. Although technically retired now, he’s still often on the phone to the works where son Alex is now MD. (Simon’s also a keen pilot, hence sister firm Aviation Leathercraft which makes Irvine flying jackets, supplied to the Red Arrows.)
Marketing manager Chesca Ferguson guides us through the packed workshop, busily quiet with the occasional hiss and clang of machinery, to where the process starts.
Taking an aluminium disc from a towering stack, Rob McDonald slides it into a 50-ton press and punches out the ‘kidneys’ – the gaps between spokes – before a second press punches out the centre and spoke patterns – holes or slots, unchanged for years. Some of these raw wheels remain flat, some go to the disher – a towering machine of copper tubes, hydraulic rams and flickering flames.
“Simon built it 60 years ago – that panel’s off a WWII bomber and the ram is off a lorry,” says Rob, as flames roar, softening the disc before a hissing piston thumps shape into it.
Then it’s ace polisher Derek Robinson’s turn: he’s been part of the firm for 53 years. “I did retire once,” he smiles, “but I turned up again on Monday morning”. Holding a wheel disc in his hands he presses it against a rotary buffer to produce a deep shine. It looks effortless but it’s got to be hard holding thin metal against that spinning abrasive wheel.
Nearby, Mark Smith guides squares of beech, walnut, mahogany or laminate through a router, slicing out circles in different sizes for wood rims before dropping them onto the notcher, spinning them a few degrees at a time under a rotary cutter to bite the finger notches that are part of the sensation of driving a classic British car.
Wood and metal move – by hand, no robot trucks could manage these narrow aisles – to the shaping room, where Darren Sandilands glues the wood circles to front and back of each blank before Matt Pearson presses them together, then drills and rivets in brass or stainless to form a solid wheel. It’s one of Moto-Lita’s boasts that others weld spoke to rim where theirs are one strong sandwich. Darren shows me Cobra, GT40 and D-type blanks plus a recent innovation – a deep rim option. It feels so natural in the hands I wonder why more makes don’t do this.
Next, Darren deftly clamps the wheel in a lathe and sands it into circular perfection, rivets, wood and aluminium combined in one silky-smooth product. Forget CNC machining – this is fingertip engineering.
From here wood wheels are carried to Mick Edwards’ kingdom – the varnish room, even though bike leathers and helmet tell you that Mick’s preferred transport doesn’t need a steering wheel. Mixing colours by eye in a small jar, Mick stains each wheel to the specified finish in mere moments before it goes on a rack to dry for four days. Meanwhile he grabs one that’s ready, dips a stubby brush in a jar of varnish (“it’s my own mix”) and flicks the rim around depositing a shining, even coat on the wood. He’ll do three undercoats for each wheel, checking and sanding any imperfections before applying two top coats. “I go through a dozen brushes a month,” he reckons. He’s been at this for 38 years; that’s a lot of squirrel hair.
Barring checking, that’s wood rims done, so we turn to see the leather alternative.
This bit depends on Yogi Hoare, a big guy leaning over his bench among leathers and threads of all colours. Most people are happy with black but Moto-Lita will do whatever mix of finish, colour and thread you want, plus engraving or personalising to choice. After all, everything here is hand made.
Chopping a length of slotted rubber extrusion, Yogi glues the ends together, pops it around a rim and with rapid fingers glues foam round the spoke ‘spats’. Taking a rim cover, stamped complete with stitch holes by a vicious-looking ‘biscuit cutter’ from one of the hides hanging alongside, he folds the ends, having chamfered the leather so it doesn’t make a bump, and rapidly stitches them together on an ancient sewing machine. Old machines are better, he thinks. That’s the belief here: if it don’t break, don’t replace it…
Slipping the band over the rim (joint always at 7 o’clock so it’s not in your eye-line) Yogi begins hand stitching round the inside, stretching the hide tight to maintain a perfect firm tube. In no time another finished wheel slots on the rack. We shake our heads at the rapid skill, but Yogi shrugs. It’s just what they do here; but then he’s had over 30 years to instil that feel in his fingertips. We work out that he probably stitched the leather Moto-Lita I ordered for my old Jaguar 22 years back, and if it wears I could, like many customers, bring it here for complete refurbishment. He’ll probably still be here, but just in case of say, alien abduction, he’s training back-ups.
Wood and leather wheels alike go to Keith Moody for a final buff and minute perfection check, any flaws smoothed away with little hand-held buffers before reaching factory manager Steve Smith, masterminding both ends of the process – final clearance for despatch and plotting the week’s orders on a whiteboard so the guys know what to make. Specials are labelled not by barcode but by cardboard tags. About two-thirds of orders are for wood, says Steve, and between various finishes, colours and spoke patterns there are some 260 variations – or thousands if you include stitching choices. And that’s ignoring the centre bosses they machine for scores of different car fittings. Gearknobs too will soon be available, matched to your wheel.
Perfection is a matter of course for this proud little band, a beacon of traditional British craftsmanship that sees little need for change.