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?
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
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
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.
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.
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!