Napoleon said the British were a nation of shop keepers. I think what he probably meant was the British are a nation of entrepreneurs who start small businesses.
Will Tomkins fits this description perfectly. Like his father Will started life as a farmer but was always interested in mechanical things. When he was 10 his father bought him a dilapidated Austin 10 from a local scrap merchant for him to drive around the farm. When the gearbox failed his father said he would get him a second hand box but he would have to fit it himself and so started a life long fascination with mechanical things.
In 2000 he gave up farming and started a classic car restoration business called Project Heaven and I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the workshops which are in a WW1 aircraft hanger. The first thing to hit you is the intoxicating aroma of old cars and that everyone who works there looks happy.
One of the first major projects was building a replica of a Ferrari 250 GTO. After seeing an advert for a 250 body which needed extensive repairs Will bought a couple of worn out Ferrari 400s and built up a beautiful “tool room replica” which uses an engine and transaxle from a 575. He’s devised a custom built induction system which adds about 80 hp and that is without making any modifications to the engine.
There is always something rare and exotic in the workshop ranging from an Aston Martin DB5 convertible having body repairs to a special based on a La France fire engine with a Bentley body. Although they have a workshop full of traditional and modern computer controlled machinery Will explained the most important part of the company was the people who actually carry out the work.
” Once you have a right people you have to look after them, you have to make sure they’re happy”
Whilst I was being given a tour of the workshop I watched the artistry involved with mending an alloy wing of the DB5. Using an English wheel to shape the aluminium and French curves to check it was the right shape. I simply could not see where the new pieces had been let in and this is before it has been painted.
Don’t think the workshop only handles classics and racing cars, in another corner there is a Porsche 911 racer being converted to run on electric power. It will have more power, better weight distribution and a 350 mile range !
The same meticulous attention to detail is shown in the engine rebuilding room and the moment the huge Edwardian engine from the La France fire engine is being rebuilt alongside a racing E type straight six and a ford V6. There is a crank shaft with a set of weights clamped to it so I ask what the weights are for.
“With V engines you have to work out something called balance factors, it’s a compromise between all the different planes, we’ve worked it out, these are the weights you attach to know where to remove weight.”
There isn’t anything that can’t be done. Will is particularly proud of a machine used to set up distributors.
“Ferrari V12s from the ’50s and ’60’s and some Lamborghinis and Maseratis had two 6 cylinder distributors each with two sets of points the idea being each set of points opens half as frequently so at high revs there is more time for the coil to charge up, to set the dwell would be impossible without this machine”.
We move from the hangar to newer buildings where cars are painted and where Will makes his world famous Turrino wire wheels.
Turrino Wheels is the only company making light alloy wire wheels where every process is carried out under one roof and each wheel is hand made by true artisans. The wheels start as extruded tube which is cut to size, stretched, spun, machined and polished. The centre splines are cut on a Rudge Whitworth spline broach but they can also make peg drive and bolt on hubs. Each spoke is measured, bent, cut and threaded by hand. Every wheel is a work of art, perfectly balanced and a thing of beauty.
” Our wheels are on average 3 ½ kilos lighter than steel rimmed wheels and the lightness is all in the rim, there is something called the gyroscopic effect which means if you try and change direction with a spinning disc it wants to go in a different direction, because our wheels are so much lighter the cars turn in better”.
You have probably seen their wheels in action as Turrino supply many teams in historic racing – from 1920s Bugattis and Bentleys, through Grand Prix and Formula 1s to 1960s sports racing cars. They are also building the wheels for children’s half size Aston Martin and Ferraris and these are made in exactly the same way as the full size wheels. And if you are lucky enough to have an old Ferrari or Maserati with Borrani wire wheels they can service and repair those too.
Back in the office there are old photos of aeroplanes on the wall. Will’s father used to be a pilot and tucked away in the corner of a workshop is a Gloucester Gamecock biplane in pieces which one day Will hopes to get back in the air and looking around the workshops there is every chance that this will happen. Although Will is not trying to rule the world like Napoleon he has built a small empire of engineering excellence.
Published in July -August edition of Automotive Refinisher.