Clothing a high-quality chassis in an appropriate bodystyle takes more than technical skill; it also demands a keen eye for an elegant curve. Gordon Cruickshank visits one of this country’s leading establishments of automotive aluminium Haute Couture.
Rebuilding coachwork doesn’t always bring the credit it deserves. In the Thirties you proudly put your own plate on your new body. Today the chances are your client
would prefer people to think they are looking at 50-year-old metal. So, although you’ve probably seen some of Rod Jolley’s work (for example the Donington Alfa Bimotore), you won’t find a maker’s plate to tell you so. Frustrating, you would think, for someone whose skills with sheet metal are a byword in the business.
But Rod Jolley isn’t too bothered. There’s a steady stream of clients waiting for him and his eight-man crew to create or rebuild beautiful bodies on exotic chassis. They will copy an existing car, turn a coupe into a drophead, or create a fresh design for a special with equal ease, and all done in the traditional manner — ash frames for pre-war cars, tubular frames for later designs.
It’s a small workshop, on an industrial estate outside Lymington, but it’s enough for the handful of high-quality cars which pass through here every year, from all over Europe and the USA. Outside the building as I pull up sits a stripped coupe; even without its nose the intersection of rear and side windows marks it as a Zagato design. It is a Fiat 8V, that rare and desirable foray into the Fifties supercar market. This is a nicely unspoilt example, a Mille Miglia car suffering from alloy corrosion around the edges, and Rod has been asked to replace as little of the original metal as he can get away with.
Stripped of paint, it’s easy to see the newer, shinier metal under the tail where Rod’s men have patched the curvaceous panelling. It would have been so much easier to make a whole new tail, but instead hours of shaping, matching and reshaping have blended the new to the old in a way which will be invisible when painted. “Sometimes we go to extreme lengths to retain original panels,” says Rod. “On one Maserati 300S we welded and filled 196 holes to retain the original scuttle panel.”
‘The substructure Zagato built is rough – the work of tradesmen on a deadline’
But the substructure which Zagato built 40 years ago is amazingly rough — carelessly folded, hammered and welded, the work of tradesmen with a deadline, not artists. It would never pass today, but as long as it’s sound, it stays. But this can bring problems when, as often happens on Italian cars, the original coachwork proves to be asymmetrical. “We get cars in with a two-inch difference side to side. We are quite happy to make any new panels to match, but some owners want the substructure remade to line everything up — especially if the car is going to Pebble Beach.”
By the workshop door the tall and imposing radiator and bonnet of an H6B Hispano-Suiza blend into the raw framing of a new drophead body. The ash limbs, lapjointed and glued, make up a beautifullycrafted cage, which will shortly be completely concealed by the body skin. Does this bother its builder, Jason Rangecroft? “Well, yes, it seems a shame. But at least I know it’s been properly done, and should last longer than the original.” Today’s timber is impregnated with preservative and might last for 40 years.
“Look at these,” Jason goes on, grinning. “This is what I get to work from.” He hands me a handful of scribbled sketches in biro with a few measurements. On the client’s instructions Rod went to Berlin to take details of another Hispano drophead, but there are no measured drawings, no careful blueprints. “It would cost thousands of pounds to work up full drawings, and in the end they would be harder to work from,” says Jolley. “So we start with basic measurements and work it up by eye.”
How Jason turns these rough lines into a substantial piece of cabinet-work is beyond me. Does he know what’s underneath if they are copying an existing body? “Not really — you just get to know how they would have done it, depending on whether it’s French or it’s English.”
From this skeleton of dimensions they draw and cut some full-size ply templates — perhaps a centre-line profile, the bulkheads, a wing — just to check they’re not straying; the rest is filled out by eye. All the openings, hinges, screen posts, and window winders have to be worked out at this stage; even swage lines are chiselled into the ash so the panel-men have a solid base to work on. The hood mechanism will be mocked up against the profile, while for the screen pillars Jason will make a wooden pattern and a local foundry will cast them in gunmetal.
However, one project will leave the timberwork on show — nearby is an R-type Bentley being turned into a “woodie” shooting brake, complete with gun locker, for a well-known racing car collector. The shape they have produced is as handsome as anything stemming from the period.
In the middle of the shop stand the huge C-shaped cast-iron frames of the wheels, the pair of curved rollers between which the raw alloy is repeatedly passed, swelling its curves until it begins to look like the tail of a 250F, the wing of a Birdcage, or the flank of an Auto Union (Jolley has bodied two of them.) Though the panels will be checked against templates, the final shape comes down to the eye of the man at the rollers.
‘Everyone here seems to have an eye for what looks right’
There is a noticeable difference between Jolley’s work and some I have come across. I have seen plenty of well-executed panel work which suffers from plainly wrong proportions, but here everyone seems to have an eye for what looks right. I presume this is led by the boss, who is anxious to know what I think of his innovation on the Lagonda LG45 Special they are building. It’ s a spare two-seater, with cowled nose, faired-in lamps and pointed tail.
“Instead of a separate heat shield we’ve swept the edge of the cockpit coaming out and down over the silencer.” Rod is both proud and anxious as he waits for a verdict; luckily it looks both elegant and ingenious to me.
“And here,” he continues, showing me the car’s slim nose, “we had to do something clever. The chassis was too wide, it made the nose look heavy when we covered it up. So we took it all off again and made it slimmer, but added a blister over the chassis rail.
You can hardly see it, can you?” He’s right: I don’t know how many extra hours that took, but now it looks right.
More cleverness: the headlamps are smaller than their Delahaye-style fairings, allowing air past to feed the carbs and cool the supercharger. The trunking for all this will be invisible, but it’s made to the same high standard as everything else. Solving the various little complications of this oneoff special has obviously clearly given Rod a lot of pleasure.
The downside of this level of care is the time it takes. “Look at this grille,” says Rod, pointing to the Lagonda again. Each rib has lightening holes drilled in it. “That’s about two and a half weeks’ work.” That’s why the firm only handles perhaps 12 can a year, plus smaller jobs like repairing race damage. (Don Orosco’s Scarab sportscar was a recent visitor after its Goodwood incident).
And that’s not a car a month; Rod estimates that the average project takes from six to nine months. “And we are expecting a Gangloff-bodied Bugatti 57 soon which I think might be here for 18 months.” I ask if the Lagonda is the owner’s design, or Rod’s. “The owner brought some photos and said he wanted this tail, that nose, these wings. We’ve blended them together into something that we like.” We watch as the undertray and tail are fitted; curvaceous as the design is, the sections are easy to remove. As a racer himself, Rod knows the value of this. For many years he has campaigned the Giron-Alvis, that long silver single-seater with which he often showed up the purebred racers. It’s currently in dock (having upped it to 4.3 litres and 400bhp, he finds it is breaking bearing caps), so, unless he’s enjoying his Prince Henry Vauxhall, Rod is more usually out in his T51 Cooper.
“It’s so reliable and easy to run. In practice at Monaco I took pole, and then had nothing to do to it, while there were dismantled can all around the paddock.” And he is no mean driver, as rows of faded laurel wreaths around the shop prove. Not bad for someone who does his own car preparation in the evenings after work. In fact Rod originally wanted to be a race mechanic, but his poor hearing prevented this and he went into metal fabrication instead.
‘He is no mean driver as rows of laurel wreaths around the shop prove’
This is the second restoration business he has established; the first, in the late Sixties, brought only stress. “It was too early. The value wasn’t in the cars.” The relevance of this hits home when he mentions costs. “A fancy coupe can soak up 1,40,000; something as complex as a Figoni & Falaschi design could cost 1,80-100 grand.” And that only gets you bare metal; can go elsewhere for trimming and painting. This is why only high-grade automobiles end up here.
But the bare metal you do get looks beautiful. And if you own, say, a Type 57 Bugatti, you want to be confident when you ask your bodyshop to clothe it as an Atlantic spider, a model never offered by Molsheim but which Jolley has created in the recent past.
There may be no identity plate on the car, but that’s not always necessary — sometimes the signature is in the metal.