- Workshop at Bicester Heritage Centre

Is classic engineering a dying art?

Much has been made of the skills gap developing in the art of classic and vintage car restoration, so who will maintain our cars in the future?

1y ago

17.1K

I'll never forget sitting in my Beetle waiting for a certain breakdown service. When the young man arrived I told him I thought it was a problem with the points. "The What? What are points?" he asked me in all seriousness! A pretty basic job on a classic car but, while I know the theory, I never seem to get it quite right. Since the mechanic didn't have a clue what points were, even when I showed him, I was recovered home for the sake of a part costing £1.50. I had spares with me but lacked the skill to set them up right.

Pedro the Baja Bug having his throttle cable replaced in Bam, Iran

Pedro the Baja Bug having his throttle cable replaced in Bam, Iran

Following that incident I switched to electronic ignition because I have that option. The Beetle is the most common production car in the world, parts are in abundance but not so much the people to complete that work. More and more often I find the average neighbourhood garage clueless when it comes to classic cars, even taking the car for an MOT turns into a drama when the testers aren't familiar with the less stringent requirements for historic vehicles. There are 3 people I trust with my Beetle; Autofficina are old school engineers and great with classics but they're supercar specialists and, while they're friends who'll always help me if I'm in a bind, I'm not their usual clientele and don't like to bother them. Then there's Charlie but he's the other end of the country, so not exactly convenient. Finally there's Eric, a local chap who's run a small VW specialists for 30 years....but he's retiring and then where do I take Pedro?

Of course the Beetle is a relatively simple car mechanically, I can even figure some things out myself but what if you own something like this?

Rat Royce at Bicester Heritage

Rat Royce at Bicester Heritage

Honestly if I owned the Rat-Royce I think it would be awesome just to drive it around as it is, and the current owner does! What if you need new body panels fabricating though? What if parts are no longer available for your pride and joy? You'd need someone to machine a new part for you. What if your coachbuilt classic gets in a prang? There are specialists out there but most of them are as old as the cars they're working on. I've noticed this skills gap myself so I was curious when I bumped into my friend and fellow petrolhead, Jane Weitzmann, at Bicester Heritage Centre. Jane has a car collection pretty much anyone would be envious of. She's recently been appointed Honorary Vice President of the Association of Heritage Engineers who had asked her to bring a couple of cars to the Super Scramble event. Her Jaguar XJ220 and ISO Grifo were proudly displayed in front of the Heritage Skills Centre.

The Association of Heritage Engineers was formed last year to encouraging the sharing of skills and experience in heritage engineering. Given the falling numbers of women joining engineering professions I was particularly pleased to see not just Jane but Lady Judy McAlpine among the HVP's. Anyone can join the association from specialists to home mechanics and retired engineers who would like to share their skills. Members include; Brooklands, the VSCC , the Bugatti trust, Classic Motor Hub and the Heritage Skills Academy pictured above.

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The Heritage Skills Academy are well placed among the restoration and engineering workshops of Bicester Heritage Centre to offer training and apprenticeships in the fields of pre war and post war engineering. They offer a great opportunity to youngsters looking for a hands on alternative to university.

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With modern cars built on assembly lines with parts designed to be replaced rather than serviced it's not surprising that traditional skills are disappearing. It is however vitally important, if we are to preserve our motoring heritage, that this expertise is passed on to younger generations. I mean, who wouldn't want to spend their days in the company of machines like this Ferrari 250 Testarossa that I spotted in one of the Bicester Heritage workshops!

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Comments (28)

  • Issue is everything is diagnosed by a computer. I have even had customers come into our shop asking if we can repair their mower as they have asked their children who are car mechanics to have a look, but because they are reliant on the diagnostic systems they are well confused at diagnosing a 1 cylinder lawnmower engine.

    If you are wanting practice on a engine before repairing a classic car engine a lawnmower engine (preferably one with a all metal carburetor) is the best thing to play with first as it technically it's a 1 cylinder air cooled engine. It will give you the basic understanding of carburettors and ignition before you move on to a bigger engine.

      1 year ago
    • Good tip, I live on a boat though, so not much call for a mower. Pretty sure my dad has an electric flymo. We were just moaning today about how things are sealed units these days and not designed to be serviceable. Pretty sure my nutirbullet...

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        1 year ago
  • I saw the headline and immediately thought AOHE are here to save these skills, then I read the whole article 🙄 Great to see their efforts getting some publicity

      1 year ago
    • Thank Jane for that. Doing her job as HVP and spreading the word. 😊

        1 year ago
    • I consider myself lucky, my father is a (retired) engineer as was my grandfather. From the age of 14yrs old I began learning how to use a lathe and some basic fabrication/ welding. Saved a fortune over the years when tinkering with old minis...

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        1 year ago
  • I had to take my '54 F100 to 4 different alignment shops before I could find one that had old school equipment and the knowledge to use it. The radiator shops, winding shops (for alternators/generators and starters), upholstery shops and wrecking yards that used to be in every small town have all but gone now. It's an alarming thing.

      1 year ago
    • I had the same problem with wheel alignment on Pedro! What's alarming is, we aren't even speaking of rare vehicles here!

        1 year ago
    • come on, surely you can do alignment on a Beetle? It was designed before lasers and computers. It's just angles, all it takes is knowing the right number and doing a little tiny bit of geometry. My granddad used to do alignment with pieces of...

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        1 year ago
  • I would love to work on your beetle. I even own a dwell meter. The service charge might be a bit high though. 🙃 I might suggest a motorcycle tech. They’ll be more familiar with the old school tech.

      1 year ago
    • Yes, you're even further away than Charlie. My brother is an ex biker and always used to help me with my cars. He has problems with his hands these days though. I've tried to get him to teach me when things need doing but he gets frustrated when I...

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        1 year ago
    • I know the sore hands thing. Fighting arthritis myself. For me it’s still just pain. You are right, some core information is not being passed down. A good tech who has only seen modern things should still be able to reason his way thru...

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        1 year ago
  • There are still a few hero’s around. I truly enjoy working on something I’ve never seen before. Helping people is a great bonus.

      1 year ago

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