A Five-Man Team In Hamburg Is Building Some Of The World’s Best Alfa Romeos
Interview by Laura Kukuk
Photography by Ted Gushue
Fernandes Oldtimertechnik, located in Hamburg, offers not only a display of beautiful Giulias, GTAs, and GTAms, but also some of the greatest restorations. You may not expect to find Alfas of this quality outside Italy, but combined with the amazingly familiar atmosphere, the eye for detail and doing things the right way makes this one of the most special places in the classic car world.
Last week I had the pleasure to spend some days in Hamburg, and sure enough used the opportunity to visit close friends of mine, the Fernandes family, and introduce Petrolicious’ Ted Gushue to this incredible workspace and family atmosphere. During these two days, we all had a blast playing around in the workshop, testing various cars, and talking about rally preparations.
Fernandes Oldtimertechnik was founded by Pedro Fernandes in 2001, though he’s been specializing in Alfa Romeos since the late-’80s. Pedro used to work for Alfa Romeo, where he gained his impressive knowledge of the marques early sports cars and their special need of attention. I met Pedro a few years back while examining and analyzing his work as a classic car expert. Although one might imagine that scrutinizing someone’s work doesn’t necessarily create the most comfortable situation, it turned out to be entirely unproblematic: after only a few closer looks at the car in question, it became clear that the work he and his team do is impeccable, just outstanding down to the last detail. Luckily, all of this eventually led to an amazing friendship among our like-minded families.
When you enter Pedro’s workshop, you can’t help think how tidy it is for a place where people are working on older cars. The impression you get is more like that of a showroom than a workshop; everything is so tidy and organized. It doesn’t take you very long, though, to realize that this is the key to the absolutely accurate restoration work being done in these rooms. The tidiness and meticulous organization of the workshop seems almost like a contradiction to the spirit of Alfa Romeo with all its Italian-ness and creative chaos, but it is a beautiful contradiction, and an interesting mix of German and Italian sensibilities.
Our stay last week gave me the chance to ask Pedro a few questions about himself and his work. Being the colorful character that he is, I’m sure our interview will put a smile on your face just as it left one on mine!
Laura Kukuk: Your father is Portuguese but immigrated to Germany in the ‘70s; Is it safe to assume that this move was driven by career ambitions?
Pedro Fernandes: My dad travelled from Lisbon to Hamburg in 1971, yes. Back then, he was working for Philips, specializing in X-ray and radar techniques for medical applications. Philips cooperated with the German company Röntgenmüller, which later merged with Philips, with my father becoming the technical manager of these departments.
LK: Back in 2007, you started incorporating your Portuguese roots into your restoration business. What makes it special to work with the people from your country of origin? Why do you make the effort of shipping the cars back and forth?
PF: We mainly cooperate with body workshops and specialists across Portugal, simply due to their incredibly sophisticated craftsmanship. The “official” German word for craftsmanship is handwerkskunst, which translates to “the art of work by hand” if you take every part of the word literally, and I agree, it is art in every possible sense to create the body of a car. The body plays a big role as it is the first thing a customer sees and admires when looking at it, therefore it needs to be spotless and correct to the era. We have managed to build up a team of specialists in every department, and together we try to achieve perfection in the restoration process without the “bling bling,” instead putting our focus on the originality.
LK: When did your passion for Alfas begin?
PF: That goes all the way back to my childhood. Ever since I was a schoolboy I’d admired a green 1600 Giulia Sprint GT Veloce on my daily drive to school. It sat day in, day out, at one of the corners in our neighborhood, and I still clearly remember daydreaming about driving it one day. It became my dream to own one of these beautiful vehicles in the future, to be able to sit in it and admire its beauty. Until today, this car is stuck in my head.
LK: When did you decide to start your own business and become more independent?
PF: My passion for technology and cars is rooted in my childhood, therefore I pursued a career in this direction. I always had the aspiration of developing and improving technology. During some of my previous roles I conducted the planning and organization of operating cycles and workflows and bringing the final product closer to perfection—one could definitely call me a perfectionist. The goal of my work to have a better-performing and longer-lasting product with fewer warranty issues. One of my mottos is: “Kein Stillstand sondern Fortschritt ist unser Antrieb,” which if you translate it, it means: “no stagnation, progress is our drive.” With today’s manufacturing technologies and our experience, we have the best basis to improve the classic car technology both technically and ecologically. To answer your question, around 25 years ago I realized my dream and opened my own workshop “Fernandes Oldtimertechnik” here in Hamburg.
LK: Since then you have gained an outstanding reputation in terms of Alfa Romeos, as well as Bentleys and other English manufacturers. Among all this though, it seems the Alfa Romeo GTA has claimed a special status within your work. Why the Alfa GTA?
PF: In 1965 Alfa Romeo started a new era with the Giulia Sprint GT by adding various lightweight elements such as the engine and gearbox housings, which were for the first time produced with magnesium alloy, and the outer body parts made from Peraluman 25, a special aluminum alloy solely created for Alfa’s purpose. The engine structure was changed from single to a dual ignition too, which all in all resulted in a mouth dropping weight reduction of 200kg and a power increase of 9bhp. Alfa Romeo named the car Giulia Sprint Gran Turismo Allegrita, which was shortened to read “GTA.” The concept was geared towards the racetrack, however the GTA ended up being mass produced. As a race car, the GTA 1600 engines were capable of up to 170 horse power, which was quite a tall figure for a naturally aspirated four-cylinder in the 1960s. This car simply fascinates me in every way: its history, design, and its technical aspects.
LK: Could you explain to those of us who don’t know—what are the main differences in the 105-series Alfa models?
PF: The 105er models were designed using a modular construction system, meaning that the 1300 model with the 1290cc motor only differentiates itself from the 1600 in the way of engine capacity and minor details of the interior and exterior such as the front grill, steering wheel, and seats.
LK: Which main differences between the GTAm and the GTA are worth pointing out? Knowing obviously the difference in their engine sizes and years of production.
PF: The GTAs, as previously described, consisted of an aluminum alloy body, and were produced between 1965 and 1972, as street and race cars (stradale and corsa versions). In reality, the GTAm was nothing more than a 1750 or 2000 GT Veloce, consisting of a steel body, and were produced by Autodelta between 1970 and 1971. Autodelta built just 40 racing GTAms, making them highly sought after in their niche.
LK: One day you started telling me about your trip to Siberia due to some difficulties during the Peking to Paris rally one of your customers was doing. Could you tell us the highlights of this adventure?
PF: One of our dearest clients participated with his 4.5-liter Bentley in the Peking to Paris rally in 2013. Previously, we had restored and prepared the car for such extreme conditions as the ones to be faced in the rally, and we were also asked to operate as support in case of any difficulties. Not only is this rally a challenge for the human, it is mainly so for the machine, with eight- to ten-hour drives on long stretches of gravel roads. While crossing the desert of Mongolia, with a constant speed of 80 km/h, our client overlooked a road block—which are huge stones—and damaged the brake system on the front left wheel. The perrot shaft was broken, which resulted in continuing the trip with only three working brake discs.
We were aware that the next stop, three days later, was going to be in Novosibirsk, Siberia, and this would be our next possible chance to fix the car. Three days is not much time if you consider that a visa is needed, one new perrot shaft (extremely hard to get for this car), finding a workshop which would be capable of lifting this rather heavy vehicle, and finding a flight to get myself there too. But of course, there is no such thing as impossible! I flew to Moscow, met a correspondent called Igor, and from there we both got on the next flight to Novosibirsk. There we met another helper, who would drive us to the workshops he had organized for the repair. I quickly decided to conduct the work in the shop which was essentially a tooling company with a mill, lathe, and everything, since that meant I would have a better opportunity to get the car back on track. Especially since continuous driving for another four days after the accident lead to a growing fear of unfixable problems.
While awaiting the car’s arrival, I inspected the garage and tooling company, met the owner Sergei and tried to plan ahead of possible upcoming challenges. We—meaning all of the assembled helpers and me—came up with a plan to get the car ready during the short layover.
Then in the evening before the arrival we went out for dinner and tried the local vodka called Sunshine, which helped us prepare, of course! Early in the morning, our clients arrived in the Bentley and we went to the garage to inspect the damage. Making quick time, we inspected the car, recorded the damages, and started working on the main fixtures that needed our attention.
Luckily enough, we’d chosen to conduct the work at the tooling company, meaning that we were able to use their CNC machines together with other tooling in order to recreate certain damaged parts, such as the engine mounts. While the others went to bed soon enough, I was happy to be able to work the whole night on the car in order to have it fixed by sunrise. After 20 hours, without being able to take a break, I was about to be finished, and all of that in time for the 8am start! The car was ready once more, and I was happy to see my clients depart with a big smile on their faces. It was incredible to prepare and support such a vehicle and witness its start and finish after such a challenging journey.
LK: Speaking of challenges, one of the most involved restorations you’ve conducted here in Hamburg is on the Iso Grifo you did, is that correct?
PF: I would say one of many, but most certainly a challenging one, as you don’t come across such a car very often. However, this vehicle is the perfect example in terms of how to improve technical aspects while maintaining its originality—these cars were not the most reliable when they left the factory and had various issues early on. The client was interested in such improvement, especially in regards to the body structure, and additionally he wanted to change the roof structure. We went ahead and designed and constructed a whole new “sunroof” which later on we produced accordingly. Not only does the new roof provide more safety standards, but it met the client’s wishes.
LK: Seeing as your sons are already working with you, what would you say it’s like to build a family business?
PF: To be able to share the automotive experience with your family is incredibly fun, but being able to share it through work experience I can only consider myself very lucky, and I enjoy it to the fullest. However, separating work and private life is sometimes challenging, especially with every member of the family working in the same business. We are trying to contribute to our private life in other ways such as art, sport, or travel, and then we can share our experiences amongst each other later—it is very important to create a work-life balance.
The most positive aspect about having my sons in my footsteps is that I have the possibility to hand my knowledge to the next generation, meaning it won’t get lost over time. Especially thinking towards to the future of the automotive industry, it is very important to pass this kind of knowledge on. The job description of our trade has changed completely over the years, and keeps changing still. Moreover, it is not taught anymore; you can’t do an apprenticeship in restoring cars today like you could in the past, so the knowledge and the experience will go missing eventually!
LK: You have always been interested in the latest technologies, especially those contributing to the originality and preservation of the automobile in new ways. One of the biggest changes for you was the introduction of 3D printing, is that correct?
PF: In our work, we have made it a point of ours to implement the latest technologies, and together with a befriending the companies who create them, we’ve been able to successfully implement the new processes and tools. As you mentioned, a big aspect of this was the introduction of 3D scanning and printing, which has dramatically changed our life of rebuilding and tooling spare parts for cars from all eras. We’ve also managed to improve the constitution of the metal alloys we use, all while preserving the design and look and purpose of the original parts, which leads to improvement and longer lasting parts without changing the appearance of the cars.
LK: Pulling back again, you mentioned that in addition to the Alfas, your area of expertise includes pre-war British cars. When did you become interested in those cars?
PF: Back in the ‘90s, when I was working for a British restoration garage, I fell in love with their way of engineering things, and have had a passion for these special cars ever since. Needless to say, I have broad knowledge of British vehicles, as well as other marques that our customers bring in. We aren’t solely an Alfa outfit after all.
LK: Which projects are currently on the agenda?
PF: The next season, 2018, is on the doorstep already it seems, and we have many cars needing to be prepared for various rallies and events next year. Furthermore, we are currently restoring from scratch a Blower Bentley, we have a GTA to rebuild, and just generally a lot to do for a team of just five people!