Neil Twyman was always destined to work with pre-war Alfa Romeos and classic racing cars. As he showed me around the workshop of the Regent Garage, a company he runs with his brother and son, I wondered how he had got to the position where if you own a pre-war Alfa Romeo or classic racing car Neil is the man you call first.
His grandfather started a garage business in Potters Bar just north of London in the 1920s and he grew up with the sound of milling machines from his father’s Bentley restoration workshop. He was still at school when he commandeered part of his father’s garage at home and his first project was rebuilding a dilapidated Morgan Three-Wheeler.
He attended Aldenham School, the same school where the 1960s film IF was filmed and when he left, he was channelled into a conventional career path and went to work at the London Stock exchange. “It was an exciting place to be but it just wasn’t for me.”
London’s financial world didn’t hold his interest for very long and in 1981 he started working for world renowned Alfa Romeo specialist and ex Doctor Who actor Paul Grist which ignited his passion for pre-war Alfa Romeos. It was whilst working on pre-war Alfa Romeos Neil started racing in Formula Ford 1600 and gained a reputation for meticulous race preparation.
“If you are in a beautifully prepared car other drivers come and ask you to work on their car, I wanted to be a Formula 1 champion but I wasn’t quite good enough, I was always more sympathetic to the car.”
In 1984 he struck out alone and started his own restoration business from a lock up garage. There’s nothing like starting at the top and his first job was an Alfa Romeo P3 followed by a Ferrari 330LMB. Business was going well and expanding so Neil moved to his current premises. “This was when the interest in historic racing was really taking off in the late 1980s and we couldn’t help but be busy and it’s gone on from there until Covid hit. We’ve been in the lucky position where we’ve never had to chase work. We have some really skilful people here including two brilliantly talented fathers who are teaching their sons. Because we are a small company, we can react to different situations quickly.”
I ask if their core business is restoration or running racing cars? “We’ve done both, I started from nothing, they were both my hobbies, I love racing and wanted to do it so I had to earn some money to buy the cars I wanted. I’ve been lucky to have an enjoyable working life to earn a living and to own some nice cars has been wonderful – sometimes I have to pinch myself.”
In the race workshop there is an incredible selection of cars and motor bikes. An AC Cobra, Lotus X1 and a Lotus 7 sit alongside a child’s Austin J40 pedal car and a long-range Desert Group Austin 7 – with coachwork by Mulliner, complete with Bren gun mount and sun compass, wearing “disrupter camouflage”.
There are currently four Alfa Romeo 8Cs under restoration in the workshop. A super rare 8C Coupé with Castagna coachwork is undergoing a complete restoration.
“We bought the original body and used as much as we could, we’ve made the wooden buck (a wooden frame to fashion the body shape) to support the new panels we are making. Then we’ll cut the new panels in and weld them in place. Someone told me that coach building is similar to dress making, you start with a flat piece of material and turn it into a three-dimensional shape. We use a combination of new and old techniques, we shape the alloy with an English wheel, the same tool Spitfire wings were made on. I’ve known the owner of this car since I had my first lock up, he’s been the most fantastic client and he’s very knowledgeable. He races and rallies. The brief for this car is to win a race, win a concourse and do the Mille Miglia. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people like this who know they won’t lose out financially as the finished car will be sensational.”
Neil explained that the people who work for him are like artists and the cars are like great paintings. “The guys who work on the cars must be content with the standard they work to. We are in a privileged position of people trusting our standards and honesty. The payback is a car that really stands out. We don’t waste a penny or a washer, it isn’t about excess, it’s about doing it right and doing it right isn’t easy.”
Rather like being in an art gallery where great masterpiece paintings are hung next to the Castagna Coupé is an 8C Le Mans four-seater which is being rebodied.
“We use experience and old photographs to make small changes to get it back to how it was when it was new. The changes we make aren’t huge, you can alter something by 5 mm here and 5 mm there, but the overall difference will be incredible.
Small changes can transform the look of a car. The Italians always had an eye for design.”
In another part of the workshop an 8C Monza Grand Prix car is being worked on and an 8C Spyder is about to be painted.
“We have an old-fashioned air-drying booth and use cellulose paint. We use the same methods and techniques that were used in the 1930s. Cellulose is so workable, sometimes we end up brushing stuff, you can get very nice results – as long as you put the hours in. Modern two pack paints are so good and quick to use but we are very traditional and always will be.” The finish is simply beautiful with a deep lustre which is completely different from a modern two pack paint.
The office is more like a gentleman’s club with the most amazing selection of automobilia. James Hunt and Barry Sheene crash helmets are displayed with parts of old Grand Prix cars and a selection of illustrations and a comprehensive library.
Neil is a very laid back and like most experts he makes everything look effortless and easy. It isn’t. His success has been built on hard work and attention to detail. This is as much a people business as it is a car business – and his clients know that he and all the people who work there are as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as they are and that is why Neil is the man you’ll call first.
Neil used the word lucky quite a lot in our conversation but as Graham Hill once said: “The harder I work the luckier I get.”
Published in January 2023 edition of Automotive Refinisher.